23 Oct Plugs and Basic Strategies for the Novice Surfcaster – Aubrey Theall
Plugs and Basic Strategies for the Novice Surfcaster
My first forays into plug fishing were not immediately successful, not at all. In fact, I sincerely hope you’ll find quicker success than I did! I got to the point where I wondered if I’d ever catch a fish on a plug and even deliberated giving up after many fruitless trips but I’m a reasonably persistent guy and also there are worse things than being out on the beach even when you’re not catching anything. I woke up early for sunrise after sunrise with nothing to show my wife when I returned home and eventually even she began to give me grief over the lack of production. In fact, I can still remember the first keeper striper I brought home like it was yesterday, I was so proud. Grilled bas never tasted so good! I usually release almost all of my stripers, but that one sure wasn’t getting let go! I’ve now gotten to the point where I can scratch up a fish most places if you turn me loose for a tide or two.
So my first recommendation is to work up a good helping of patience. Plug fishing is harder than bait fishing. Under the right circumstances the plug fisherman will out fish a guy soaking bait 10-1 but when it comes to just putting a fish on the beach, bait is probably going to win out most trips. Every plug fishing trip is a learning experience though, and if you put in the time you will eventually catch. Keep a log of your efforts and you’ll eventually begin to see patterns. Certain spots tend to produce under certain sets of circumstances. Sometimes its time of day, wind direction or tide that triggers the bite at a given location. Often its a combination of several conditions and these may change at different times of the season at the same spot. There are no blanket statements that apply here- study your spots and eventually you’ll get somewhat proficient at predicting when fish will show. For this reason I’d recommend limiting the number of spots you fish initially. Try to focus in on some known spots that produce and learn them well. Once you get the feel for catching on certain plugs then branch out.
My next recommendation about plugs is to get a plug bag. You’re not going to want to walk the beaches with a tackle box (unless you’re in a location where you can drive the beaches and then bring whatever you like). A plug bag keeps your hands free, keeps you more mobile and allows you to carry many other essentials including your pliers (you will want pliers to disgorge hooks, particularly when dealing with treble hooks and bluefish), spare leaders, flashlights, etc. Always pack plenty of extra leaders. I tend to forget them, or ruin a bunch and wind up short more often then I’d care to admit. I usually put them in little zip lock bags but I think a leader wallet is probably a better solution if I ever get around to getting one. Also carry two flashlights. They have a nasty habit of dying or getting lost at the worst possible time.
You don’t necessarily have to go buy a bag full of the hottest wooden plugs, although my wife, fishing pals and the guys at Saltwater Edge can attest that I have bins full. Many of my most productive lures are among the most basic, the easiest to use and in many cases are the cheapest. My aim here to to run through a selection of very productive basic plugs and how and where you might like to fish them. My intent is not to cover anywhere near all of the plug options and I’ve actually left out some very productive ones. Again this is geared more toward the person getting started so I’m trying to single out the easiest to use plugs and the plugs that consistently work for me under a broad range of conditions. Your mileage may vary.
I’m going to start with a basic selection of lures that are primarily used by day and then cover a handful that I use more by night but that produce anytime. Most of my daytime outings are actually the beginning or the end of a night time outing. That brings me to my next piece of advice which is to focus on low light periods and the night if you want to increase your chances of a tight line. The exception is during the fall when your prospects for daytime fishing improve. Nothing gets me more juiced up in the fall than a nor’easter that is starting around a time that I can fish (usually weekends). I like to try and get out on the front end of these storms, right before they start and even into the beginning of the nasty weather. I fish a lot of east facing shore and once the storm gets going the water gets murky and the weed gets heavy which usually puts the fishing down. If you want to fish during the middle or latter stages of the storm then seek out inlets or back bay areas where the water quality will be a bit better. You can also position yourself in a more favorable wind direction by working these areas. Generally I prefer to work a wind in my face or at my back and not to have it coming hard from the left or the right. I’ve caught fish on days like this but its challenging to cast and to stay in touch with your lure in heavy cross winds as they’ll put a huge bow in your line and cause the lure to skim across the top of the water and ruin its action.
One plug I almost always have in my daytime bag is the Line Stretcher Surface Tension lure. Its effectively a hunk of plastic with eyes and a single hook but its actually very clever in its design. It has a channel molded vertically into the lure that causes it to plane to the surface very quickly when its retrieved and that allows you to retrieve it more slowly than other “rabbit” style plugs like the Roberts Ranger or Spofford’s Ballistic Missile (which are fine plugs in their own right- the Ranger in particular has a huge following on Martha’s Vineyard). Like all rabbit style plugs, the lure is tail weighted for for long casting. It imitates a frantically fleeing bait fish or squid very, very nicely. There’s almost no way to fish this lure wrong. My most productive color has been white with red stripe, followed by white with silver stripe. There are many other colors, though, and do experiment. I’ve found the chartreuse color is much more visible in dirty water or heavy surf. I think a lot of folks view the rabbit type plugs as strictly a bluefish plug but I can assure you that’s not the case, particularly with the Surface Tension. Slow the retrieve down and work the plug with a little rod tip action and you’ll find that it can achieve an action similar to either a spook type lure or a pencil popper. I’ve had bass take this plug when nothing else was working and no one else on the beach was catching. For some reason it sometimes works pretty well for me when the fish get picky on small bait. All of the sizes work well, but I like the 2oz best. The 3oz comes out on really windy days or when the bait is large (try the 3oz worked slowly with little bursts of speed around schools of bunker, hold on to your rod with both hands and thank me later). I can remember several times when fish were blitzing on small bait and people were about ready to throw their rods into the water out of frustration where I used one of these plugs to land a fish or two. One early fall blitz at the mouth of the Merrimack River is particularly vivid in my mind. I can’t say that these plugs are always the solution but I find they catch more often than not and are very easy to use. They’re also an excellent fish finder along with metal lures as they cover a lot of water. Many times I’ve used one and gotten a swipe or tail slap that prompted me to more intensively work an area with a variety of plugs until I figured out the most productive formula. Here’s a picture of a nice blue landed by my brother Mike on a Surface Tension plug in a fall nor’easter at Plum Island:
Another very productive daytime lure that I consider a “must have” is the Rebel Jumpin’ Minnow. The guys at the Saltwater Edge got me turned on to this plug, which is really a freshwater largemouth bass plug. You will want to upgrade the hooks to 1/0 size 4x strength VMC hooks as the factory hooks will bend if you look at them funny. The split rings that come with the plug seem to hold up and I’ve found you don’t want to “upgrade” to the Wolverine triple split rings that i like on most larger plugs as the added weight of both the heavier hooks and the heavier split ring seems to affect the action of the plug negatively. This plug is lightweight (under 1oz) and I find its easiest to work with a lighter tackle setup. The correct technique will get the lure alternately walking left then right and back again. I find holding the rod out to your side is most conducive to this, although with a very light tackle setup I point the rod at the plug and work the tip up and down which really gets it dancing. There are a lot of other spook style plugs out there that work along the same concept including many larger ones that work well on heavier tackle and I like them but this one is one of the easiest to use and most effective. It will clean up schoolies all year long including the early spring ones but don’t let that fact fool you, this plug will catch big fish too! It is a good lure to use when fish are on sand eels, the smaller profile and frantic action seems to interest them. Its also a plug that I find will raise fish under the sun on a quiet day when nothing else will. I caught bass on a bluebird day last November in Newport when most fish had bailed for winter and there was no visible sign of fish at all.
The Jumpin’ Minnow is not through wired and its made of plastic so consider that when setting your drag. Larger/heavier spook style plugs that I like include the Tattoo Sea Dog and Sea Pup, the Lordship Lures Agitator and the spooks made by Stripersniper Lures. These all are generally not plugs for really high surf or heavy winds as they become difficult to work properly.
Anyone who looks in my surf bag can pretty plainly see that I love metal lures! I’ll carry no less than 6 on a day trip and sometimes as many as a dozen. I find some fisherman also overlook them or toss them only to the blues, but metal lures can imitate the vast majority of bait found along the striper coast, they generally cast well even in windy or stormy conditions (when you should be fishing, if you’re fishing by day) and many will hold well in rough water. A small handful of tins will allow you to work the whole water column. I’m not going to try and break down the whole world of tins here although I may come back and write another treatise on them some other time because I like them so much. I will, though, cover a handful of my staples. My all around favorite is probably the Pt. Jude Nautilus. This lure imitates medium to larger bait and swims shallow on a slow retrieve with a nice wiggle thanks to its deep keel. It also casts like a missile and holds well in rough water. The 3.5oz model is a go-to in a nor’easter and the 2.5oz model gets the call in more moderate conditions. Again this lure will catch the small stripers and blues all the way up to the big girls. My little brother landed a monster blue on one of these last fall at Sachuest Point that pushed 20lbs and gave him quite a fight! Another keeled tin that I’m partial to is the Pt. Jude Butterfish. Its a shorter profile that’s more like a butterfish or peanut bunker. Its definitely a lure to when you see any sign of peanut bunker in the area. It also rides shallow on a slower retrieve and casts well. I remember landing tons of schoolies on this lure last year on Veteran’s Day at sunset at the Charlestown Breachway and have caught some larger fish on it too. With the keeled tins a slow to medium retrieve usually does the trick. Sometimes I’ve had the fish respond to a faster topwater retrieve where you “burn” the lure across the top as well. Other times I’ve dredged a sandy bottom with a crawlingly slow retrieve and hooked up.
For the middle part of the water column I get away from the keeled tins and look to lures like the Pt. Jude Sea Scallop and the larger Kastmasters or Hopkins lures. These run a little deeper and put out a lot of flash. I think they are also good imitators of larger baits like mackerel or herring. Again a slow to medium speed retrieve usually does the trick, depending on how deep the fish are holding and what’s on the menu that day. I’ve used the Sea Scallop in the past to pull bass out from under a topwater bluefish blitz on multiple occasions. Cast to the edge of the blitz and let the lure sink to the bottom before starting your retrieve.
For the deeper part of the water or in rougher water or heavy currents (which will cause your lures to swim higher in the water column generally) I look to metals like the Pt. Jude Po-Jee or the A-OK T-Hex. These lures imitate any number of thinner baits like sand eels, spearing or silversides. Because they sink a bit faster I find a little faster retrieve is usually necessary, however, I like to retrieve it as slowly as the water will allow. Depending on what the makeup of the bottom is and how deep the water is these lures may not be a viable option. The T-Hex is another stormy weather favorite as it holds and gets down in high surf. For shallower water or over a snaggy bottom I like some of the Charlie Graves tins as they still make their lures from real block tin which doesn’t have as fast of a sink rate as the lead alloy or plated brass lures. They also make a variety of shapes and sizes, experiment and you’ll find what works in your area. One last metal technique I’ll discuss is that when sand eels are in the area, don’t be afraid to drag a sandy bottom with any long thin metal lure like the Po-Jee or Pt. Jude Sand Eel. There’s no retrieving the lure too slow when you do this. Pausing the lure and twitching it in the sand is an effective imitation of sand eels, which burrow into the sand to hide.
The last plug I’ll recommend for the beginner’s arsenal is a popping plug of some sort, I’m partial to the “polaris” type. Gibbs and Superstrike (sinking) are probably the most popular. The 2 3/8oz Superstrike is a staple plug in most surf fishermen’s bags. Other productive poppers are the old school blue/white Atom (2oz) or the Stillwater Smack-It, which has its own legion of fans. Poppers usually aren’t the first lure I’ll reach for by day but they do catch under the right circumstances and the Gibbs and particularly the Superstrike sinker cast well. There isn’t really a wrong way to fish them other than too fast. You can give them short rapid pops almost continuously or fish them more slowly with pauses and less frequent pops. The fish will let you know what they want. I always do have a popper or two in the bag by day.
I’ll round the daytime bag out with a pencil popper and a metal lip swimming plug or two but I’d advise someone starting out in plug fishing to focus in on a small handful of simple plugs and learn to fish them well. Spend a little time and a few dollars in your local tackle shop and they’ll clue you in on another plug or two that work well in your area.
When night falls my tactics change a bit. The fishing gets better in general but I generally work some different lures. Again I’m focusing in on just a handful of lures that I find both productive and easy to use. It just so happens that all of the next few are versatile and also work by day, evidence of how good they are.
Among the swimming plugs at night I like the loaded Cotton Cordell Red Fin. There are plenty of articles out there on how to load a Red Fin and they cover it well, its not something I need to re-hash here but suffice it to say that its easy and these plugs produce. A straight slow to medium speed retrieve usually is a winner and there are a number of good colors with bone white being my favorite but sometimes hard to find (Saltwater Edge has them from time to time) and chrome blue or black and smokey joe also being good colors. I like these in light to medium surf and in light to moderate winds. Swap out the hooks to like sized 4x VMC’s if they don’t come with them already (some do). This is another plug that isn’t through wired so don’t lock down your drag or you might pull a hook out (although I never have). There are any number of other similar but different plastic swimming plugs that also produce like Bombers, Yo-Zuri Crystal and Mag Minnows, Mambo Minnows and more but I’d start with the Red Fin and spread out from there. On the recommendation of Steve McKenna in his most recent fishing forecast for the Saltwater Edge I’m going to try those Hand Carved Lures, which are a variation on the same theme. I don’t doubt they will produce and I love to use handcrafted wooden plugs. One of the great things about surfcasting is the tradition and history and handmade wooden plugs are a part of that. There is also a huge universe of other wooden swimming plugs both surface and subsurface, however, that’s an article for another time and likely another author.
The next lure I’ll cover are swim shads. These are the paddletail lures made by several lure companies (Storm, Tsunami, Calcutta, Panther Martin) that have a lead head and hook molded in . I think they’re kind of a cousin to the bucktail jig and they really catch. In fact, if there was only one lure I could send a beginning surfcaster out with this would be it. This is a lure you really can’t fish wrong. Find a fish spot and reel it in at varying speeds until the fish let you know what they like. Anything short of skidding it across the top has worked at different times. The only flaw these lures have is that bluefish love to bite their tails off and more often than not manage to avoid hooking themselves in the process. So if the blues are around you may have to put them away or carry a large supply. I generally like the 7 inch models although in spring I’ll go down to the 5 and 6 inchers. The 9 inch model is a producer but is too heavy for all but the heaviest spinning tackle. I know these lures work great but they are so effective I almost view them as cheating. I usually only pull them when nothing else is working for that reason. Here’s a fat striper my brother Mike took on Martha’s Vineyard recently on a 7 inch shad, when nothing else was working:
One of my other favorites (along with tons other folks) is the Slug-Go although there are a number other brands that are variants on the concept (Hogy or Ronz being other good ones that come to mind). There are a lot of different ways to fish these lures successfully, in particular I like them rigged in Steve McKenna fashion (you’ll find out how to rig and fish them on the Saltwater Edge site, or you can buy them pre-rigged and add the nail weights), texas rigged on an offset worm hook as a topwater bait (fished like a popper or pencil popper, I like this by day) or fished on a lead jighead in deeper or fast moving water. My personal favorite is the latter and the basic technique is use the right weight jighead to just get to the bottom without hanging up, again something that I think is kind of a cousin to fishing with bucktails. Cast up tide in moving water and let the lure work its way down the bottom, strikes will come as it swings down tide. I like black ones at night and this can be a very productive approach under the right circumstances. One night this fall on Martha’s Vineyard I really cleaned up on these:
I hope these two articles will help get shorten the learning curve a little for someone interested in getting going in plug fishing. If you’d like to read more (and I suggest you do), check out a few of my favorite surfcasting how-to reads including Zeno Hromin’s books The Art of Surfcasting With Lures and TheHunt for Big Stripers, DJ Muller’s books Surfcasters Guide to the Striper Coast and Striper Strategies or any of Frank Daignault’s books but especially Striper Surf and The Trophy Striper.
My last suggestion is that if you really want to shorten your learning curve, hire an experienced surfcasting guide to take you out. I’ve done this a few times and every single time I’ve walked away a better fisherman that when I started, armed with new tactics and new insight on the fish. You’ll pay something on the order of a few hundred dollars to fish a tide but if you value your time (and I do), its well worth it. Speak with your local tackle shop (or the local tackle shop in the destination where you’d like to fish) and they should be able to point you in the right direction.