The needlefish is a deadly and versatile weapon in the surf, you just need to know which one to throw and when.
There are two plug types that I pack in my surf bag pretty much regardless of location, conditions or time of the season, and they are the darter and the needlefish. I find both plugs to be versatile, in general cast quite well, and most importantly, they produce. I have also caught many large striped bass on both plug styles over the years, so my confidence in them likely plays into the fact that I throw them quite frequently. While you can’t will a fish to strike, fishing a lure in which the caster has complete confidence somehow always seems to find its mark.
Now to simply say “I fish needlefish plugs” is like saying “I drive a truck” in that there are so many versions and styles that simply stating this fact does little to help. Needlefish are made in a wide variety of configurations including floating, sinking, fast-sink, slow-sink, tail sink, level sink and so-on. Further, a needlefish that produces best at ‘Spot A’ may very well be a total dud at ‘Spot B.’ But for me it’s that wide range that makes the needlefish such a deadly and versatile weapon in the surf, you just need to know which one to throw and when.
The needlefish has an air of mystique about it in that it’s such a simple lure and can be insanely productive but it’s also equally challenging to figure out for the novice needler. I have told the story before, but I feel it warrants repeating. There was a time when the needlefish was little more than a decoy plug which I’d pack in my bag to clip onto my leader for the walk back to my truck, carrying a big bass over my shoulder. Knowing what I know now, I wish I’d given it even a few passing casts on those nights when I hammered bass and bluefish on other lures. Sure I did well with what I was using, but I’m sure I could have improved my catch score even further had I known how to properly employ a needle.
Like any new plug, the time to start fishing the needlefish for the first time is not when you’re on a tough bite. Don’t pack one in your bag and relinquish it to nights when there doesn’t seem to be a bass in the sea. Instead, either cycle the needlefish in and out of rotation on every-other plug change, or fish nothing but the needle on nights when a week-old chunk of sun-bleached bunker could get you a 40.
Another tip in mastering the needlefish is to spend some time with them by day and observe how they react in the water. Doing this while fishing is fine, but I’d actually recommend you NOT test them while fishing if you’ve never fished a needlefish before (or if you have but have yet to figure them out.) Instead, find an isolated area where you have a pretty good view of the water and your lure. For me there is a small bridge over a little tidal creek by my house with good access on both the incoming and outgoing current, and it has become my go-to plug testing spot. Bring your needle of choice (or better yet, several different needles) and pack different hooks and tail flags as well as a pair of split ring pliers. Now when you start casting—not fishing—give the plug little more than a lob so that you can see how it swims. Make note of retrieve speed, water current, your height above the water and any other variables that you can. Start tweaking the plug by changing the hooks to different sizes, swapping out the tail hook for a dressed flag, change the flag dressing, and change the wire gauge on the flags. As you go along, write down your findings and note how the changes made the plug act differently. It seems like a lot, I know, but in the long run it will pay off. I have done this type of testing on all my plugs—from Red Fins to darters to pencils to glide baits to soft plastics—and I now can list off the top of my head how a plug will swim with different rigging configurations in different water conditions. In a lot of situations I rely more on the plug being rigged for the specifics of that spot than I do the color—I feel the unique rigging and resulting swim can be that influential in your eventual success or failings.
In issue number 11 of 2019, I wrote the column, Swimming With Needlefish. In that column I talked of how I feel that a good needlefish is one that swims, and this prompted several emails from readers who felt otherwise. Not to discount their opinions, and not to say that my word is the final one, but I repeatedly saw one flaw in their argument in that they all said their needlefish both caught exceptionally well and didn’t swim when dragged in the water at their feet. They felt that the “pencil with hooks” comparison I referenced in the column, as originally penned by the late Tim Coleman, was more than sufficient to dupe a striped bass. What I feel they failed to witness is that the lifeless pencil they observed at their feet looks quite different 50 feet from shore with forces like waves, current and retrieve acting on the hunk of wood or plastic. I myself didn’t make this observation until I began to take my plug testing a step further than outlined above, and it was another step in my evolving confidence in the needlefish plug. Back when I was fishing Narragansett, Rhode Island quite regularly, my fishing partner, John Lee, got me into free diving. We would scout our spots both from above and below the water’s surface, and on certain days we’d alternate casting plugs and swimming alongside them to see the lure from a fish’s perspective. I quickly found that how a needlefish swims on a short lead is far different from how it does at the end of a cast. And the same is said for retrieve speed, depth, cadence and so-on. That rather lifeless pencil evolves into an appealing meal when observed where and how a striped bass sees it.
Not Just Sand Eels!
I have said this before, but for those of you who missed my musings, needlefish are not just to be used when long, slender baitfish like sand eels and silversides are present in the surf! Sure they put bass on the beach when this is the case, and a 1.75-ounce Super Strike Super N’ Fish is tough to beat when cow bass are feasting on big sand eels, but my number 1, go-to lure when adult bunker are the primary food source is a large needlefish like 2.5- or 3.5-ounce JLH Wadd. The swim, size and profile of a large needlefish, when observed from an attacking perspective (below and to the side), coupled with the results over many years of fishing them in this manner, has shown for me that big striped bass will readily eat a large needlefish plug when bunker are the primary food source.
I also think that a needlefish plug simply presents a large, easy meal for a striped bass. I have done well on the 2-ounce Hab’s needlefish fished in deep water near the bottom when no bunker or sand eels are known to be present. In this water the primary food source, as evidenced by the bass I kept, was scup. What is kind of interesting is that a solid black or charcoal needlefish produced the best results, so again maybe the needlefish represents nothing more than food to a striped bass. In this scenario I would cast the needlefish as far as I could and begin a countdown to let it sink near the bottom. When I reached a certain number I’d begin a slow retrieve. If I hit or dragged bottom then I’d cut the sink by several seconds on the next cast or speed up the retrieve slightly, and if I didn’t hit bottom or get a hit then I’d add more to the count—just be sure to keep in mind how long the countdown was for the next cast, there is nothing worse than finally getting the cast right only to get caught up in the excitement of the moment and have to start back at square 1 on the following cast.