Go To The Homepage


Poppers and darters and tins, oh my! There are so many choices available to surfcasters when bait, bass and blues start running. What's in your surf bag?
By Toby Lapinski
Tags: surf
While most of the oversized striped bass landed in the surf are caught at night, there are times when the daylight hours can produce.

When I arrive at a beach and scan the surf line, one of the first things I do is decide if I need to adjust my lure selection. I ask myself, “What plugs will work best under these conditions?”, “Is the surf big?”, “Is the water dirty?”, “Is there bait present? If so, what is it and how do I mimic it?” And so on. These pieces of the puzzle slowly come together to form a well-stocked plug bag that should cover the conditions of the day and hopefully result in a few hook-ups.

Long gone are the days where I jammed lures into every available space of my surf bag, resulting in an overly-heavy and cumbersome bag. It became increasingly more difficult to remove a single plug without two or three other plugs in tow, hooks crossed in a frustrating mess. Somewhere along my evolution as a surfcaster I realized that my success would increase if I set out with fewer options in my bag, each of which I would fish thoroughly and with purpose. Rather than carrying a lure of each size and color I now carry a limited selection that I know should work under the variables in front of me. This has, in part, resulted in better success overall for me.

I begin with a popper or two going into the bag. I generally pack a large, 2- or 3-ounce Guppy pencil popper, a Super Strike little-neck popper (the new heavy version has taken top-honors this season) or a bone-colored spook.

When conditions allow for it I opt for the largest spook possible. Don Giumelli of Afterhours Custom Plugs makes a spook of about 9 inches that weighs in around 5 ounces. This is not a standard lure in his line up so be sure to jump at the chance to purchase a couple if you get word that he has spun off a limited run once again. While it takes a specialized stick to throw such a plug, the rewards are well worth it!

By day my bag remains relatively uniform throughout the season and only changes if the surf is big or winds are screaming on a given outing. The pencil popper and little-neck popper see the most use by me as far as topwater options and will raise both striped bass and bluefish under most any conditions. The Super Strike little-neck is not fished like a standard popper with the straight pop-pop-pop retrieve. Instead I swim the popper on the surface with a small pop now and then. This results in action similar to that of a metal-lip swimmer and the pop assists in calling in the fish. A pencil popper is a good choice just about any time of the day and can be fished under a variety of conditions.

A selection of topwater lures that frequently see time in the author's plug bag (from left to right): a "heavy" Super Strike little neck popper, a Shimano Orca, an Afterhours giant spook and a Guppy Jobo junior pencil popper.

Second only to the excitement of taking a fish on topwater, the visual excitement of the strike of a fish taking a metal-lip surface swimmer is certain to set your heart racing. For metal-lips I opt for, once again, the largest my rod can handle on a given outing. I am a firm believer in the “big lure = big fish” theory and in the back of my mind I feel better throwing an oversized swimmer. This is not to say a large fish will not take a small lure, or conversely that a small fish will attempt to feast on an oversized lure, but the odds are in my favor with this mindset and the results are there to prove it. I will say that generally your numbers go down when using this approach but the fish hooked are most likely better-than-average specimens.

A Beachmaster Danny (left), a Big Water giant deep diver (middle) and a Big Water surface giant (right) round out the author's daytime, metal-lip swimmer arsenal. Solid black plugs can be effective bay day when the water is dirty but are often reserved for night use only by many surfcasters.

For large metal-lips the old stand-by Atom 40 remains a top-producer year in and year out, but the large pikes by Gary Soldati of Big Water Lures have secured a spot in my bag over the last couple of seasons. The 4-ounce surface “giants” look just like a bunker, scup or other large-bodied baitfish wallowing on the surface. If I happen to be fishing around deep water I add in a medium or deep diver, weighing-in at 4.5 and 5.5 ounces respectively, as they dive down as deep as 8 to 10 feet. If I really want to toss a huge hunk of wood I opt for the Big Water Troller, a massive metal-lip of 10 inches in length and weighing between 7 and 8 ounces. Again, light rods need not apply here!

The smallest metal-lip to see regular rotation in my surf bag is the standard 7-inch Danny plug. Originally designed by Danny Pichney, this wide-bodied lure accounts for good catches of striped bass year in and year out by surfcasters up and down the coast. I mostly throw Dannys produced by Gibbs and Beachmaster, but I do have a few garage builders that have taken fish. As long as the lure stays on top and wags its tail seductively, you should be in good shape.

While topwater and metal-lips take up most of the slots inside my three-tube surf bag and see the lion’s share of the casts, I will at times throw a few other select lures under certain conditions.

It is tough to beat a basic bucktail with either pork rind or rubber curly tail at any time in the surf. Depending on the wind and surf conditions I pack at least a pair of bucktails in weights ranging from ¾ to 3 ounces. Bucktails mimic a wide variety of baitfish and the single hook makes for easy removal when fishing in blitz conditions.

When dealing with a stiff onshore wind, or if fish are seen working a long distance off the shore, a tin is my go-to choice. They cast well and look just like silversides, peanut bunker and other small silvery baitfish so often seen in the surf. If sandeels are present, a tube tail on the trailing hook is a good choice.

Certain conditions and variables encountered day to day lead the author to adjust his final plug selections before setting out into the surf. At times he may add in a darter needlefish, bottle darter or bucktail jig.

While I primarily throw needlefish after dark, they do have their place by day. A floating or slow sinking needlefish, like those made by Gibbs, can be used in place of a pencil popper in a pinch if you are trying to conserve space inside your plug bag. This same needlefish can be retrieved painstakingly slow so that is creeps along the surface, poking its nose out of the water every so often. This is a dynamite technique to fool a cow bass at first light. When faced with a screaming wind in your face, a loaded Super Strike needlefish is often one of the few lures that can still be fished effectively.

Lastly, at times I will drop a bottle plug, bottle darter or standard darter into rotation. I usually opt for such plugs when the surf is churned up a bit or the wind is blowing as they will hold true and cast well.

For the most part I only fish three color patterns: solid black, solid light (white, bone, yellow) and contrast (dark back over light belly). This holds true day and night. On dark nights or daytime with dirty water, I go with black. Bright nights or daytime I opt for the light-colored plugs. The contract colors see use both day and night. Again, referring back to my initial statement about not packing a plug in every color and size, this basic approach to color selection serves me well.

Anthony Orlando battles a 30-pound striped bass that he duped with a simple white pencil popper a short time after sunrise along the banks of the Cape Cod Canal while bass hammered tinker mackerel all around him.

There are times when anglers get stuck in a must-have color mode or feel there is no chance of catching unless a certain color is used. For instance, peek inside the bags of anglers that frequent the Cape Cod Canal and I bet the vast majority of the lures will be of some sort of mackerel pattern. This makes sense as mackerel have been the dominant bait the last few years, so why not try to match the hatch? The same can be said when bunker (yellow/white), herring (blue/white) or snapper bluefish (blue/yellow/white) are present.
However, to make you sit back and scratch your head for a moment I present you with the color pattern that resulted in my largest plug-caught striped bass of 2012 which was taken in July in the Canal: rainbow trout. Apparently no one ever told that 40-pounder that she was supposed to be feeding on mackerel!