My first introduction to the needlefish plug likely came back in the 1980s when the late Tim Coleman wrote an article titled, “The Pencil With Hooks.” (It also appears in the first installment of Bass From The Beach.) In the article, Tim described his first encounter with a needlefish, presumably out on Block Island, “The object in George’s hand looked for all the world like a pencil with three hooks… The ‘pencil’ came through the surf without any action whatsoever, but it was the exact duplicate of the seven inch sand eels the bass were gobbling prior to leaving.” He went on to say, “The way the thing comes through the water may not inspire much confidence at first, but please take my word, they do catch fish.” This description of the needlefish plug is quite common by many anglers and authors alike, but I do not feel that it is completely accurate.
When the needlefish saw its second coming in the late 1990s to early 2000s (Its initial rise to stardom occurred in the 1980s.) I was slow to jump on the bandwagon. This was not because I had some sort of prejudice against the plug, instead I blindly bought into the idea that it didn’t have any action and only caught when sand eels were the primary forage. With sand eels rarely being seen where I fished, I assumed its popularity was a fad and nothing more. I would even go so far as to pack a single needlefish in my bag every night and clip it to my leader for the walk in and out of any spot. By doing this, if I was to be seen coming or going then the assumption would be made as to needlefish being what I was using to catch fish, and I could keep my true success a secret.
I didn’t really start to accept the needlefish’s fish-catching potential until I became friends with John Haberek, and even then I was still a bit hesitant about using it unless I knew there were actively-feeding fish in front of me as I still believed it to have little inherent action. That all changed when I began fishing with John Lee in Narragansett, Rhode Island. John and I would fish all night and then kill time in the day free diving, exploring our spots and testing plugs among other things. One of us would stand on shore and cast a lure out into the surf while the other, wearing a diving mask and fins, would swim along and observe how the plugs reacted to their environment. When that first cast with a Hab’s needlefish was made, and I saw how different the plug acted at the end of the cast versus simply dragging it at my feet in the wash, I let out a gasp and inhaled a large mouthful of sea water! This instilled a high level of confidence in the lure, which both John and I converted into some exceptional catches along the deep, rocky water of Narragansett.
From that day forward I have been a big fan of needlefish plugs, but only the ones that do in fact swim as opposed to any “pencils with hooks.” Unfortunately there are more plug builders these days who don’t believe a needlefish should swim and they just slap some fancy paint and hooks on a wooden dowel and charge exuberant prices for their work. Suffice to say if you can’t get that needlefish plug you just bought to swim, you might have been duped.