A look at what to pack in your surf bag as we transition out of spring and striped bass settle into summer patterns.
I receive a lot of questions about what to throw in a given scenario in the surf. I’ve written about it before, but I find that I am pretty simple when it comes to packing my surf bag, regardless of the date on the calendar, and in general I do not target schoolie striped bass. I guess you could compare my surf fishing mentality to that of a large striped bass feeding habits: if I am going to put the effort into figure out where to fish, burn gas to drive there, expend energy to walk to the spot, forgo several hours of sleep and so on, I want the payout to be maximized in the most simple form. This all plays into which plugs I do and do not pack on a given night.
Heading into June I pretty much know how and where I am going to fish for the next three months. Sure there will be small variances based on specific bait movements, weather patterns and word of developing bites that come in from my network of anglers, but for the most part I can tell you right now as I write this, I know where I’ll spend most of my time. With fish arriving in the region and settling into their summer pattern I move from spring migration intercept spots like points adjacent to tidal rivers and estuaries to places where big fish can regularly take advantage of calorically-high meals in the heat of summer.
Early spring where I fish means the arrival of river herring and American shad, both providing large meals for hungry post-spawn bass following many miles of travel up the coast. Both of these fish will still be present in June in ever-decreasing numbers, and some of both species may be found dropping out to sea. Add into this feast the first appearance of adult bunker and you’ve got quite the feeding opportunity. All three of these fish are what I loosely refer to as “silver baitfish.” This is in no way to be confused with the fall run of “white bait,” as that’s a totally different scenario altogether. Instead, these long, slender, silver-ish fish species look quite similar in the water even though they are found in rather different areas. Early in the transition timeframe I keep my presentations similar as it’s difficult to know which one might be present on a given tide. This means I fish a lot of Finish swimmers like the Red Fin and different needlefish in the 8- to 10-inch range early on.
As you’ve likely seen me write 1,000 times before, the needlefish is not just used when skinny bait like sand eels is present! Sure a needlefish can be made to look like a sand eel, but it is also a dead-ringer for deep-bodied food sources. To support this theory take any needlefish plug and hold it up over your head, looking at it from the belly, with the sky behind it. The silhouette looks pretty darn close to that of the aforementioned fish. It really surprises me just how many surf fishermen fail to make this comparison. Now you’ve been told (again) so you’re out of excuses going forward.
As bunker (hopefully) begin filling into my spots, I add glide baits like a Fatty or Loki into rotation and often remove the Finish swimmers from my bag. Glide baits have a very bunker-like swim and have produced extremely well for me when very small, isolated pods of bunker are present. If bunker are seen as single fish speeding around the night surf, then all the better as the erratic motion of a glide bait very closely replicates a bunker’s movement in this scenario. Glide baits do produce when there is a lot of bunker present, too, but they act much differently when there is safety in numbers, and I generally opt for other lures, first.
As to my removal of the Finish swimmers, I do this to weed out the small fish. Now don’t get me wrong, big bass will strike a 7-inch Red Fin, but I have found that as small fish increase in density they jump all over these plugs. I may pack one from time to time if the bite has gone slow and I feel the need to put a bend in my rod, but in a season where I can somewhat stay on the bigger fish I find I use Red Fins much less in the summer.
Metal lips have also become a staple in my bag in recent years, but not only the traditional surface Danny. The Danny is a solid plug and something I do pack when fishing shallow water spots of less than 6 or 8 feet deep, but it doesn’t fit the bill in a lot of locations. As the season wears on those bunker are joined by many inshore species including scup, blackfish, fluke, sea robin, black sea bass and so-on. A lot of surf fishermen overlook or forget about these as prey items, but I feel they provide a good amount of the consistent food for resident summer fish. The problem is often in replicating them with a lure as they are generally found within a few feet of the bottom. I have had so-so success with jigs, and needlefish can do it, too, but I knew there had to be a better solution.
When my fishing partner and Rhode Island Field Editor John Hanecak began making plugs, he initially just made needlefish but quickly started to produce spot-specific metal-lip swimmers. These plugs were made with certain places we fish in mind and some are designed to dive deep, much deeper than most other metal-lip plugs on the market. A couple models are weighted so that they actually come into contact with the bottom in 10 to 15 feet of water or more. While I noted that things like a needlefish or jig can be worked deep like this, the deep-diving metal lip has an advantage in its buoyancy. John first pointed this out to me, but it’s something the freshwater guys have known for a long time; predators often strike a lure when it comes in contact with an obstruction and then pauses for a moment. With a heavily-weighted metal lip that is designed so that it rises ever-so-slowly when stopped, you can accomplish this very thing. I really like this technique when working across a strong current and I can dead-stick the lure; when it bumps a rock I let the lure pause for a moment before cranking it and if a bass was using the structure as a current break it will most surely strike!
The final lure that you’ll find in my bag is one that’s in there from day one until the last trip of the season, and that is a darter. Most nights it will be a Super Strike but at certain spots I also throw some giants like the Magnum Choopy and Mike’s Beast Head Banger. Both of these darters weigh right around 5 ounces and they replicate those earlier-mentioned and overlooked large food items. The reason that I only break them out at select spots is that much like the deep-diving metal-lip swimmers, they get down deep and cannot be used everywhere I fish.
If you have been paying attention so far, then you probably notice that I have left color references out of the discussion, and that was not done by accident or to hide my secret color choices. Color, to me, is generally overthought. Given the choice I could get away with nothing more than white, black and yellow as my primary color patterns. Most nights I pack one of each lure mentioned above in these three colors and I cycle through them as conditions and the fish dictate. Sure I have some yellow needlefish with gold back and black dots that have produced banner nights for me, but when I swapped out a straight yellow needle in the midst of those big bites I did equally well.
There is one last thing I will leave you with here today, and that is to cycle through your plugs regardless of what you carry. I regularly change plugs in the middle of a good bite, more so than I do when I am getting skunked. My reasoning here is to see if what I am throwing can be improved upon in any way. What I mean here is let’s say you did rather well on a yellow darter one night. Well, do you know for a fact that you would not have done better had you thrown solid black? Maybe the yellow darter did ‘just well enough’ to stand out and get the attention of some fish, but perhaps that black darter would have stood out even better and caught the attention of the biggest bass in the school. My one regret from several big fish blitzes I have been involved in over the years is that at the time I became too quickly married to just one plug. Sure nine times out of 10 there will be no difference made with the change, but it’s that tenth result that I want to avoid.