Demystifying the most misunderstood plug in the surfcaster’s arsenal.
The needlefish is the knuckleball of surfcasting. MLB player Richie Hebner once said of Phil Neikro’s knuckler, “Hitting that thing is like trying to eat soup with a fork!” In my early days of surfcasting I wasn’t able to hook up on a needle because I couldn’t bring myself to stick with it! One night I went out with only needlefish and after two hours of nothing, while my friend was bailing 20- to 30-inch fish on swimmers, I stuck one fish, but it was a good one at 28 pounds and considerably larger than anything my friend had connected with… and so the courtship began.
As I became more in tune with plugging and began to develop my own profile of what I might need to be successful in the surf, the needle again emerged as a weapon that could cover so many situations. The possibilities of size, weight and balance are virtually endless with these little sticks with hooks, which makes them incredibly versatile. But there’s more to the needle, than just their adaptability.
I believe that the very thing that makes them so hard to gain confidence in, is the same thing that makes them so effective. Big striped bass have shown a clear and longstanding love for these plugs. What’s different about them than everything else you throw? They have very little built in action or none at all. The surfcaster’s eye likes to see action, we perceive that as natural, but when you compare any swimming plug to an actual baitfish, it becomes clear right away, that natural motions, are better described as a lack of movement. This is not to say that swimming plugs, pencil poppers and darters aren’t effective, they just may not be effective when a needlefish is.
Needles have a known and accepted trophy producing pedigree, countless 40s, 50s and 60s have been taken on needles throughout the last 40 years. I believe it’s their lack of movement that draws interest from these wary old bass. They may not associate the rhythmic drumming of a bottle plug with food, they may have even learned to associate it with danger. A needlefish does nothing more than glide through the water. Their action is so subtle that the hooks don’t even bang against the body. Through the magical senses of their lateral line, a bass is capable of locating a needlefish simply by the fact that it displaces water and this is exactly what a striper hunting at night is searching for. Watch any baitfish, they don’t wiggle and wobble incessantly, they move with just the subtlest curling of a fin.
Needlefish can be made to mimic anything from a large silverside, to an adult sand eel to a full-grown Atlantic herring. They can be made to float or sink. They can be balanced to ride to the surface where they will throw a subtle wake, or to sink fast and stay deep. The goal is always the same, the plug should ride in the tide with little or no action. Subtlety should be the goal and casters should resist the urge to add any ‘improvements’ to the retrieve. Some casters like to jerk and pop their needles, I do not, daylight observation has shown me that this doesn’t look alive.
Variation may come in the form of weight or balance, but if you ask me, the most important needlefish variable is size. I carry needles between 5-1/2 and 10 inches—nearly every night that I fish the surf. I carry these because my experience has shown that when fish are acting finicky, it’s usually because they are keyed in on size. So having the option to downsize or upsize helps me cover the spread of baitfish possibilities. For colors, I keep it simple—black, white and bright (I may add a two-tone color on full moon nights as well).
If you’ve been trying to gain confidence in these action-less plugs, perhaps you will have to do what I did. Go out on a night when you know there are fish around and bring only needles. Take it from me, it only takes one fish to completely swing your confidence in the right direction. Why use a needlefish? Well, because they are natural and because they catch big fish.