There are times when properly presenting a plug is exactly what the fish are looking for, so it is best you be prepared.
As much as I love tossing topwater plugs to stripers and blues and revel in the explosive surface strikes they are capable of generating, they fill only a very small niche in the arsenal of any caster who plies the Striper Coast. If you prefer targeting the surf with artificials, and plugs in particular, it would behoove you to have a varied selection lures in your bag that can meet the very diverse fishing situations you are likely to encounter during your tours in the surf. I say that with reservations because it is very easy to overdo it when confronted with a tackle shop wall full of plugs crying out to be added to your arsenal. Fishing is very much about having confidence and that is especially true when it comes to the lures you are using. Better to limit your selection, learn where and how to best fish a particular plug effectively, and build your confidence in that lure. Also, there are easier to use and less expensive lures than plugs that do catch fish. Bucktails and soft plastics provide a wider margin of error and a gentler learning curve for most casters, but there are times when properly presenting a plug is exactly what the fish are looking for, so it is best you be prepared.
The use of darters in the surf is well rooted in Montauk, where it would be almost impossible to find a caster working the nighttime surf with at least several darters in their bag. The reality is they are effective up and down the length of the Striper Coast, and I have used them effectively throughout New England, including Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, the Rhode Island Coast and Block Island. They have produced fish for me in the bays, inlets and open beaches of Long Island, as well as at Montauk, and some of Jersey’s more savvy casters have racked up impressive scores on these plugs along the Jersey Shore. They certainly deserve a place in your plug bag, regardless of where you ply your trade.
The general belief is that you need good current or moving water for these plugs to be effective, but that is not necessarily always the case. Ideally, this tool was made for swinging through rips or moving water, which accelerates the side to side swimming action of the darter. When the plug is working “right” you will feel it vibrating as its lip and sloped front resist the current.
Most casters opt to cast slightly upcurrent, usually at about 11:00 and then let the plug swing into position where it will develop the desired action. Once the plug lands, a short, sharp sweep of the rod will help dig the plug in. In situations where there is not a lineup of casters to interfere with, I prefer to angle my cast slightly down current between 12 and 1:00. This has the plug working effectively at the maximum distance of my cast. There is no waiting and losing distance that comes with casting the plug up current. If there are other casters nearby and it is necessary to angle your casts up current, allow the plug to drift, and hold off on retrieving it until it reaches the 12:00 position.
The rate of retrieve will vary according to the current and the position of the plug in the rip or current. At some point during the retrieve, you will likely be able to stop your retrieve entirely and allow the plug to work against the current. The harder the plug is working, the slower you can retrieve it.
Now, despite all of the references to getting the plug “working” properly in currents and rips, I can also tell you that I have caught many stripers on darters along open sand beaches with minimal water movement. There are situations along the open beach where you will find water moving parallel to the shoreline, or where there are openings in an outer bar creating an outward movement of water as a slough or bowl empties, and in these cases, much of what we discussed above still holds true.
However, I have caught plenty of stripers along beaches with no water movement in situations where most casters would never think of tossing a darter. It is situations like this that lead me to preach there are no absolutes when it comes to fishing and there are exceptions to every rule. Most of these cases involved the presence of large baitfish like bunker or small weakfish. And while you would think that a faster retrieve would be needed to get the darter to swim in still water, most times it was a slow retrieve that produced the best results.
There are many custom-made darters on the market and some work very well but can be difficult to find on a regular basis. On the other hand, Super Strike and Gibbs, stalwarts in the surf plug market, and more recently, Yo-Zuri’s Mag Darters and Ocean Born’s Flying Darter, are readily available in most tackle shops and all catch fish. Don and Steve Musso of Super Strike produce a full size plastic darter that you can count on swimming properly right out of the package and you don’t have to worry about the lip being damaged or destroyed by banging into rocks. It is by far the most popular choice among the surf crowd and for good reason, but the smaller of the two Mag Darters is a favorite of many casters when working quiet and calmer waters. The Gibbs Darter has been around longer than most of you reading this and continues to be an effective plug, though it does suffer from the deficiencies of wood construction such as inconsistency and being susceptible to damage. Still, I always have a couple of these plugs in my arsenal for those rare occasions when wood might outfish plastic.
Never has there been more of an injustice done to a plug than when one well-known New England outdoor scribe described the bottle plug as nothing but a means to transport a teaser to where the fish were feeding, and considered it useless as a fish-catching tool. The bottle plug actually refers to the Gibbs Casting Swimmer, the Super Strike Little Neck Swimmer, and others like the Flying Swimplug produced by Band of Anglers under the Ocean Born label, but the design has been referred to as the bottle plug by generations of casters. Newcomers to the surf scene often confuse the bottle plug with Polaris type poppers because the design of the Polaris can more accurately be described as bottle shaped than the casting swimmers.
No plug holds better in a rough surf or strong sweep than the bottle, and the 3-ounce Gibbs has accounted for more than its share of trophy stripers over the years, including at least two over 60 pounds that I am aware of as both bottomed out my 60-pound scale. One was the 64 pounder from under the Montauk Lighthouse on Thankgiving Eve by Mark Malenovsky. It fell to a 3-ounce yellow Gibb’s Casting Swimmer, aka bottle plug. The other, a 65 pounder by a gentleman whose name I have long since forgotten, came from that magical run on Block Island in 1984.
When no other plug is fishable in a heavy surf, this plug retains the ability to continue working effectively, its large built-in lip digging in and holding solid in big water conditions. Before fishing it, remove the belly hook and replace the head and tail hooks with 4/0 trebles or a single 5/0 treble on the head. In the case of trebles with all plugs, crush the barbs. You will get better penetration on hook set, quicker and easier releases and it could save you a trip to the hospital.
If I had to pack just one bottle in our bag, it would probably be the smaller medium size model since it will still hold in the moderately rough water conditions you’re likely to encounter more often, it is easier to load and cast, and it will still appeal to big fish. Super Strike’s Little Neck Swimmer falls into this same category, but swims slightly deeper than the wood Gibbs model. This limits its effectiveness in shallower areas, but on the plus side, it will also hold in bigger water than the medium Gibbs. The Super Strike Little Neck Swimmer is available in a rattle model. Having always preferred a more natural presentation, I shied away from the rattles until two seasons ago. Last fall, the rattling bottle took virtually all of my bottle-caught fish, so it’s safe to say I’m a believer.
The bottle darter is a cross breed that some feel delivers the best of both plug designs. If you want to compromise one of your darters for a bottle darter, I would not blame you. They are an effective tool that combines the qualities of both lures into one, but their availability is somewhat limited. Larry Welcome of North Bar Lures produces a popular bottle darter in plastic that has proven to be an effective fish catcher, although some wood models can still be found on tackle shop walls. Recently, he produced a smaller 6-inch version that is quickly gaining popularity with the casting crowd.
Working the bottle plug is very similar to the darter, applying a sharp sweep at the start of the retrieve to dig the plug in. Considered a tool for moving water, it is also effective in still water conditions thanks to the exaggerated lip design, which creates an easy swimming motion during the retrieve.
As I noted earlier, having confidence in the lure you are fishing is probably the single most important factor when it comes to ensuring success with that lure, and if there is one plug that seems to require more confidence that most others, it is the humble needlefish. Its simplistic, thin profile design, lack of any noticeable swimming action and its effectiveness with a very basic retrieve makes it just as effective in the hands of a novice as a seasoned regular.
I’m always amazed at the number of casters I run into who do not include needlefish in their weaponry. Some of the plug’s most ardent believers are veterans of the 1980s when Block Island yielded an untold number of jumbo stripers, an overwhelming percentage of them on needlefish plugs.
Since then, smaller numbers of casters have developed a taste for these plugs, with many under the impression that in order for them to be effective, you need to have sand eels as the dominant baitfish. In fact, nothing can be further from the truth. They are absolutely the plug to turn to when sand eels, especially large sand eels dominate the bait scene, but they are also effective when bass are feeding on a host of other larger profile baitfish, including herring, bunker, mackerel, large spearing and mullet. In addition, it just so happens that needlefish, the species, are a favorite in the diet of stripers.
There are literally dozens of styles of needlefish out there – some out of production, and others easy to find on tackle shop walls. Some float, some sink, some ride high in the water column, and others run deep. The real key to success when fishing these plugs lies in selecting the right plug to match the fishing conditions on any given day or night. I say day or night because while many consider the needlefish a nighttime lure, there are times when they can be effective in daylight. I have to admit however that my level of confidence when fishing these plugs is sky high at night compared to lukewarm in daylight, the crack of dawn being an exception.
There are many excellent custom needlefish out here, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s look at the plastic Super Strike and the wood Gibbs as examples of what to use under what conditions. Both of these manufacturers were at the forefront of the needlefish boom and were the most often used plugs during the Block Island years.
In a calm surf with little wind, and especially in boulder-studded areas, a high riding, floating wood needlefish is the first choice. A slow to moderately slow retrieve will cause these plugs to run on the surface, leaving a trailing wake that I believe adds even more appeal to the lure. Many of the sinking models will also come to the surface over the course of the retrieve – some sooner than others.
When there is a good surf running, strong currents or a heavy sweep, a heavy, sinking needlefish is required to hold in the turbulence and avoid being swept uselessly along in the moving water. As with fishing any lure, maintaining contact and a feel for the lure is vitally important, so you need to eliminate having a big bow or belly in your line during the retrieve.
In the not too distant past, weighting your needlefish plug with water or steel shot was required when fishing under the conditions described above. To Super Strike’s credit, Don and Steve Musso, well aware of the need to have various models fit a variety of unique fishing situations, now include three weights for their different size needlefish plugs. Green eyes indicate the lightest of the models, black is the original standard weighted plug, and red eyes identify the extra heavy models. It is possible to cover all of the bases with these various models but there are still times when a wood plug might put you at an advantage on calm, quiet nights.
Over the years, I have tried numerous types of retrieves with these plugs and always come to the same conclusion – a moderately slow retrieve works best the majority of the time. However – there have been those times when incorporating a change of direction into my retrieve, or using a side to side whipping action that caused the plug to splash on the surface were effective when the standard retrieve was not, but those instances remain too few and far between to shake my confidence in the moderately slow approach. If you are among the non-believers out there, give the plug a chance and be prepared to join its loyal crowd of worshipers.
Color is always a topic of discussion when it comes to plugs and one in which there are no winners. Whether you chose to believe that color makes a difference or not is your personal choice. Either way, I would really avoid going crazy with color selection though I do have my favorites. Yellow is a must for nighttime work, various shades of blue for those times when blueback herring or mullet roam the surfline, and blurple for those dark nights around the new moon. Start with a couple of light and a couple of dark colored patterns and you should have most based covered. And for the record, based on my own experiences in 60 years of fishing the surf, I’m a believer that all other things being equal, there are absolutely times when color can make a difference.