Surf: Eels vs. Plugs - The Fisherman

Surf: Eels vs. Plugs

Is there a clear winner in this age-old debate?

Ten years ago I made a conscious decision to transition away from using eels. This is not to say that I completely stopped using them, but I found that I was having a lot more fun plugging because of the mental engagement that comes with having to consider plug choices and staying ‘in tune’ with what they are doing at the end of the line. Plus, there is an undeniable sweetness that comes with every ‘big’ fish that I catch on a plug, a feeling that I played a bigger role in my success than I might have if I were simply lobbing a live eel out there and waiting for a big bass to sniff it out. Did I really have more control over my success? That’s an answer I may never know.

But I can provide examples. Simple ones like the night I caught a 36-pounder on one of the first Flat-Glide needles I ever made along with a bunch of teen fish. Then the bite died, I swam in, grabbed my eel bag and landed a 41-pounder on my first cast with an eel. Was that fish there the whole time or was it just a matter of timing? I will never know.

Here’s a good one. It was 2018 I think, my buddy Dave and I hit up one of our favorite June spots, we brought eels, but both elected to start with plugs. We cast darters, needles and metal lips for over an hour I landed a 16-pounder and we had a few other hits. I was going to try a different rock when Dave told me he was switching to eels. I turned on my heel, grabbed my eel bag and went right back to my rock. I rummaged through my snakes for the smallest one because my confidence was low, I casted that little eel into the quickening tide and felt the line drifting to the right, then an immediate impact. I set the hook and the surface burst open with the sounds of a big fish rolling. Dave said in his usual matter-of-fact tone, “that sounds like a good one.” That fish was 43 pounds and my next fish was 41. It’s hard to argue with those results.

BUT, there are times when plugs are just the better choice. Jump ahead to 2019, it was early July and my buddy Keith and I were on a good bite. He was using eels, I was using deep-diving metal lips. This hit went on for several days, we were fishing a deep drop-off, casting into 15 feet of water. The surf was rough for the first couple nights and the swells were pushing around the end of the rock we were fishing, the wind and the tide were moving in the same direction building a stronger current which made for some tough conditions with the groundswell. With the metal lip I could keep the plug at depth and let the current push it sideways as it neared the rock, this is where I was getting most of my fish and I had a lot of them. It was a mix of sizes from 30 inches to 35 pounds but it was clear that the plugs were out-fishing eels by a large margin. The last night of the bite was flat-calm, and I went in confidently chucking my plug. Keith crushed me with the eels, including a 44-pounder, the largest fish of the week.

As I drove home that night, feeling a little defeated, I put the pieces together in my head. In that rough water, I was able to keep the plug down in the strike zone and control where it was in the water column. Plus that rough water made it much more chaotic beneath the surface, the fish were holding near the rock taking advantage of the augmented tide and pounding waves but were also were easier to fool on plugs because they didn’t have time to give it a second look. The eels were being swept above the strike zone and Keith was not able to present to the fish consistently. But when the surf laid down, the current was not being affected by the wind and waves. Keith was able to keep his eels down. The fish were much more timid that night, and Keith’s big fish picked a nearly dead eel up off the bottom. I should have picked up on that vibe early in the tide, but I was riding that high from my prior nights of plenty.

So, who wins the debate here? Is plugging a noble and purer cause? Or are we somehow more legit if we follow the deep-rooted traditions of eeling the surf? If you want to know what I really think, I think you’re selling yourself short if you don’t do both because on those nights when the conditions tell you plugs are not the answer you’ll be going home with only the satisfaction that you knew you were wasting your time.

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