Surf: Bait or Lures? - The Fisherman

Surf: Bait or Lures?

The keys are to first, know whether or not fish are around, and second are they feeding up or scrounging along the bottom.

Just as some anglers have favorite lures they use almost exclusively, regardless of circumstances, so too do some anglers fish exclusively with either bait or artificial lures. Although some believe there is only one right way to fish—lures or bait—I don’t agree. I’ve always believed there is a time and a place for all approaches. Within this philosophy I do not fish with bait when conditions either favor lures or are likely to be more productive, simply because fishing with lures is a much more active process. Likewise, if lure fishing is poor, I will switch to bait in hopes of improving the catch. It’s nice to be committed to something, but it’s also good to be flexible.

This is a spoiler alert because I’m about to go into another of my illustrative true stories. Although the bluefish population was huge in the 1980s, there were times when catching them was difficult. The fish were present, but not chasing. I know this is contrary to what some people believe about blues, but it is true that sometimes they hang out but do not feed actively. One case in point involved a stretch of beach on Long Island’s South Shore where a bar extended out about three-quarters of a mile. The tip tended to be productive using lures during active weather days, but poor on bluebird days, even on moon tides. Early during the first fall run, some regulars including me, John Fritz, and George Wade, were picking very slowly on 8- to 14-pound blues. A slow pick had been the norm for a week or so, and I began to think about how I could catch more of them because 1000 casts for one fish was a very poor ratio. I made a few bait rigs, picked up some fresh mackerel, and had them in a cooler in my truck. Finally, as the tide was ending and no one was getting a hit, I switched to bait. I had a bluefish on before the very first cast settled. After that, we fished chunks of bunker or mackerel whenever the fish were snitty. This illustrated that when the fish are present but won’t chase a lure, then bait fishing is the way to go.

The opposite is also true. The last big mullet run in my area occurred in the 1990s, and combined with improving stocks of stripers, the fishing on poppers was terrific. One day huge schools of mullet moved along the beach on the ebb tide. We picked up a school at the east end and leap-frogged west until we couldn’t go any further. Then we headed east to repeat the process. Each time we leap-frogged we passed guys bait fishing, and they were unsuccessful. At one point some of us stopped and suggested a switch to poppers, but these guys were very committed and never switched, even after an offer to loan them plugs. Their stubbornness left them fishless. The conditions almost screamed at us to use surface lures. They included lots of mullet just under the surface, stripers of mixed sizes slightly below them looking up, and an active flow of fish and bait to the west. It was not likely that a single fish ever saw a chunk resting on the bottom.

Between these extremes are examples that may not be as obvious, but can be analyzed by an observant angler. For example, one can catch fish with bait at night in calm water when fish feast on abundant sand eels. However, small hard plastic swimmers and light lead-heads with soft plastics are often more successful and interesting. Also, in some Aprils, fishing sandworms in the ocean in the traditional manner could catch more school stripers compared to artificial lures.

A surf rat can improve his/her catch by reading the conditions and adjusting from lures to bait or vice versa. The keys are to first, know whether or not fish are around, and second are they feeding up or scrounging along the bottom.



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