Make sure your fall plug bag is complete.
Have you ever been on the beach in the middle of autumn, working a pencil popper or swimmer to the point of physical exhaustion, or perhaps mental frustration? Everything looks right, all the right players and factors are accounted for, yet, your plug cannot garner so much as a passing glance from a single fish?
Then then you see someone just down the way with their rod bent over, full arc, again and again….and again. This is a common feeling that accompanies the adventures of surfcasting. It is a fact that not all lures are created equal, no matter the price tag attached. Sometimes, you need to temper your ambitions, slow it down, and get back to the basics.
To most, the fall run is their favorite time of year; when umbrella-toting tourists have been replaced by wader-clad locals. Thousands of booted feet, leaving endless prints in the sand, as they attempt to engage in combat with striped bass as they make their pilgrimage southward to their wintering grounds.
However, the one thing that is not as reliable as a biomass of bass migrating south each fall, is what kind of bait will fill the surf to tempt the bass into casting range of an army of waiting anglers. Dialing in a new technique this fall, that is a seasoned anglers’ traditional way of fishing, might be just enough for you to land a cow of your own.
Elephants Eat Peanuts
Before discussing my favorite lure for the fall run, I have to set the scene – enter the peanut bunker. A lot of handmade lures are birthed from lead, wood, and plastics to imitate the peanut bunker because of how desirable they are for stripers, and perhaps the anglers themselves. Many an angler’s favorite bait, the juvenile to the bait-fisherman’s chunkable friend, when the peanut bunker begin to make their move, chaos is soon to follow.
You’ll know when they’re on the move, as the shoreline becomes caked with little beady, frantic eyes, so thick you could walk across them to the tip of the jetties. Striper candy, the surf predators love to feed on these and the feeding frenzy can create blitzes so appealing to the eye that it’ll send an army of fishermen to the shore ready to catch shoulder-to-shoulder amongst their friends. Blitzes like these are a sight to see; anglers lined up along the shoreline as stripers blow up in the water around them. Some anglers are in awe; they just have to stand and watch as this is happening around them, it truly is an amazing sight to see at your feet.
While standing shoulder-to-shoulder, the surfcaster looks over to see a buddy throwing a topwater pencil, while he is getting a big ole goose egg in hookups. Connecting the context clues and the power of observation, the angler decides to dig into the plug bag and throw something else. Something that I always carry in my bag is a classic bucktail. When they aren’t hitting on topwater, sometimes a lure that drops into the bottom of spastic schools of peanuts, which can change your luck completely during a trip.
Bucktails have been an “ol’ reliable” lure for many anglers including myself; in fact, some of my biggest stripers have tasted the temptation of a hand-tied bucktail. In many ways, the bucktail can be a lifesaver; in fact, in World War II, the Upperman Bucktail was a part of the Navy’s pilot survival kit to allow for the catching fish off of the crashed pilot’s survival raft. A simple leadhead with bucktail and feathers creates the perfect bait fish imitator. Bucktails can come in many different styles, from different lead jigheads, powder coat, thread, bucktail, and feather colors, the angler can have a whole rainbow in their plug bag of bucktails.
Usually, a 1-1/2-ounce bucktail can be found in my bag, the one I reach for is the classic JennX bucktail of my design made by S&S Bucktails (now known as S&S Jig). The JennX is a red head, with white thread and white bucktail, additional hackle of flash and red feathers ties it all together. I like to add an extra bit of flare to the back of my bucktail to make it irresistible; a white JK Bait fluke belly or OtterTail also are deadly combinations. Any bucktail can do the trick as they match the bait in the water with their profile and can cover the water column more efficiently.
Creating Art & Its Reward
The art of jig making can enable the old hat angler to make flashy, creative lures. Tying your own bucktails is a fun experience especially in the dull winter months when the season is closed. When I used to tie my own bucktails, I liked the assembly part more than the pouring lead part, as there was less risk. Pouring molten lead into your molds and letting it take its shape into your jig was the birth of your bucktail. Before reheating the leadhead and painting it, I would think to myself “I wonder what you’re going to catch.” A lure as versatile as a bucktail, you never know what you’re going to catch.
Once the jighead was painted and cured, the tying began. Like Doctor Frankenstein in his lab, I would tie some wild looking creations. I used a lot of my background in art to influence color theory which resulted in some unique looking bucktails. From American flag bucktails to the JennX prototype, the artistic development from creating your own lures is a fun experience. Similar to building your own custom rods, the reward factor an angler can feel when catching a nice fish on their hand-tied bucktail is uplifting. Witnessed in the “Manasquan Heavy Hitters Blitz” last fall, the excitement I had accompanied with a big smile on my face was present throughout the entire afternoon from catching countless stripers on my JennX bucktail, exclusively found at Grumpys Tackle in Seaside Park.
There are many pros in comparison to fishing a bucktail as opposed to different lures such as a metal, pencil popper, or minnow. Bucktails only carry a single hook to their feathered, weighted body. Bucktails can truly be a secret weapon for surfcasting, the list of benefits is the length of an over-slot striper for sure. Bucktails can cover the water column more efficiently, giving the angler a wider range to reach more fish based on where they are hunting.
Different retrieval speeds can catch the eye of even the most lethargic of fish, triggering reaction bites from those larger, more stubborn fish. There have been nights for me where this has worked best. After multiple casts trying to get the fish in the current and only getting tail smacked, I dropped my bucktail down and let it drop down a ledge out of current. Four casts in a row, I fought and brought up four healthy stripers all over 20 pounds, vexing the bridge trolls that lurked there. Compared to a pencil popper, bucktail jigging is like an art form. A bucktailing angler is able to be creative and work the jig differently from a plug, the angler can deliver their own personal touch, something one can find and use to get the upper hand against others just casting and retrieving the same way.
Another important component of fishing the bucktail, especially in and around any blitz scenario (which hopefully we’ll see again later this fall at the Jersey Shore) is the big “C” as in conservation. Striped bass has been in the headlines a lot in recent years, especially given the most recent regulatory moves to ensure the rebuilding deadline of this iconic species. There are a number of ways that we can fish smarter to ensure a fishier future, especially in terms of properly prepping our tackle. Using the single hook is one main factor that has a lot of benefits to both the angler and the fish. If it’s not fishing a bucktail, a plug that has treble hooks on it can be swapped out for a single hook. Trebles can create a mess for the angler and the fish, the excessive hooks can get in the way and further damage the fish as it rolls and wrestles with the plug that has hooked it.
Imagine this messy scenario; you’re fishing at night and hook into a nice striper using a plug that has two sets of trebles on it; it might take 5 to 10 minutes to remove the hooks from the fish, with one treble in the mouth and the other in the gill plate. It can be a recipe for disaster for the fish with air time and damage from the removal of six hooks stuck in it, but especially when one of those trebles under cover of dark end up deep in your palm.
Easy hook removal and a faster release are both extremely important factors for the conservation of striped bass. Fishing a bucktail with the single hook can cut down the frustration and fish-out-of-water time significantly by reducing the number of hooks stuck in the fish while avoiding personal harm.
Again, just another benefit of surfcasting with bucktails!