An iconic lure that should have a permanent spot in every surfcaster’s plug bag.
Besides the bucktail, the one lure that never leaves my bag, and I mean it when I say never, is a darter. Whether it’s a wooden Gibbs, plastic Super Strike or, most recently, a Sporting Wood Mini Darter, this lure has accounted for many of my most memorable surf fishing trips, from quantity to quality. When you understand how to use a darter, it becomes simple and you will never wonder if you’re actually doing it right, again.
Again this spring, the darter proved itself as a staple in my bag on more than one outing. I arrived at the first location on my itinerary and was greeted by a good friend. Of course, I asked how the bite was and he replied that he picked a few teen-sized stripers. I didn’t ask what he was using at the time but after about an hour of fishing, several schoolies later for me and several more teen-sized fish for him, I had to swallow my pride and ask what the heck he was using. He responded, “Larry’s small darter in blurple.” My first move was to switch over to a blurple plug. The swap yielded the same results for me—schoolie stripers, while my friend continued to catch quality fish. This is just one of the many examples where a darter produced better quality stripers than other plugs.
A couple of years back, another fishing friend of mine and I were fishing at a location where we typically use bottle plugs. I would always ask others who fished the spot with me why nobody ever used darters and they would always give me with the same response: that they never worked. I couldn’t accept this without trying it for myself so on one particular night when the bottle plug wasn’t getting it done, I clipped on a darter and fired it into the darkness. A couple of cranks tightened up the line and after the plug started to swing down-tide, I got thumped. The fish wasn’t huge but it was a fish on a night when nothing else was working. After unhooking the fish, I repeated the process and the same thing happened again, and again, and again after that… you get the idea. Since then, the darter has proven itself to be a repeat producer in this spot. I’m convinced my friends who doubted them never actually tried them before in that place. That trip proved a darter could produce a pile of stripers of all sizes when nothing else could.
It sometimes shocks me how many anglers don’t know how to work a darter or claim that they’re ‘hard to use’. If you ask me, the darter is actually relatively simple and rhythmic once you get the hang of it. Having a little bit of current always helps the darter do its thing. It’s all in the name—they dart side to side. Cast the lure uptide and reel in the slack. Once the line is tight, keep it tight by turning the handle as it swings in the current. The retrieve speed is determined by a few factors—current speed, wind direction, and water depth. Faster current and higher wind speed may call for a faster retrieve to get the lure to work. Shallower depths might require a slower retrieve so that the plug doesn’t dig too deep and bounce along the bottom.
Darter scenarios are so varied that it’s more important to know what a properly-worked darter feels like, that’s the part that can’t be taught. The conditions may change how you achieve that feel, but once you gain the experience, there’s no mistaking it. The best way I can describe it is that you’ll know your darter is working correctly when you feel the rod rolling, subtly, back and forth, when you cup your hand on the foregrip of your rod. Once I get this rhythm down, I’ll sometimes impart a faster crank every once in a while to get the lure to dart harder, which may convince a weary striper following the lure to commit.
Darters come in many different shapes, sizes and materials (wood and plastic). The fun of it all is going out and learning their differences and how each one will react and fish in different situations. The design of a darter has been around longer than most of us have been alive. It was a proven winner for the pioneers of surfcasting and it still holds a place as a must-have tool for the casters of today.