Topwater Tins: What’s A Surface Iron? - The Fisherman

Topwater Tins: What’s A Surface Iron?

The author displays the first proof of surface iron success, a solid striped bass that couldn’t ignore the seductive wobble of this west coast staple.

A west coast transplant that has inshore applications in the Northeast.

“I want to think heaven is something like this”, I chuckled to my Dad after releasing another mid-30 inch striper. I paused to bask in the moment, it was a sublime warm November day on Long Island Sound, bright blue skies, flat calm water, terns hovering above the rip, and bass feeding on peanut bunker all around the boat. For the last hour we had double headers every drift casting bucktails. With such a good bite going I figured it was a good time to experiment with new baits while the fish were cooperating. I rummaged through my bag and settled on the surface iron that I had carried all year without making more than a few ‘test swims’.

As a brief introduction, a surface iron is a light swimming jig, made of aluminum, that is worked near the surface with an erratic wide side to side kicking action. Surface irons are a staple in southern California where they are used for yellowtail, tuna, barracuda, bonito and calico bass. They are most strongly associated with the robust sportfishing boat (party boat) scene. Historically, they are thrown on 8- to 10-foot conventional rods to maximize casting distance, which is particularly important from a large boat with limited mobility. Having spent time on New England party boats, the notion of anglers overhand casting with 10-foot rods on a party boat is mind boggling.

I bought my first surface iron as somewhat of a joke; my best friend and I are both curious about the West Coast fishing scene, but often joke about stereotypical “surfer bros” fishing with methods foreign to crusty New Englanders. In keeping with SoCal tradition, I tied the jig onto an 8-foot conventional rod and looked forward to recounting how the bass were “stoked” to eat the iron. I swung the rod in a long unpracticed arc and sent the iron hurtling toward the school of feeding bass; line flared off the reel threating to backlash until I abruptly stopped the impending rats with a heavy thumb. As the jig splashed down, my eyes bounced back and forth from the white jig swimming just below the surface and my spool; I was doing my best to guide the incoming line back and forth on to the spool and not let it pile up on one side. When I looked back to the jig, I noticed the mirage of a swirl behind it, a few more cranks another swirl, then dorsal spines of a bass, a few more cranks and the jig stopped dead in its tracks. The long limber rod doubled over as I came tight, and the fight was on. The fight on the light conventional rod was enjoyable, the long rod bent in a smooth arc absorbing head shakes, and the powerful gearing allowed me to finish the fish off quickly.

Fishing with surface irons for the first time got me out of my comfort zone but was undeniably fun and effective. I was eager to learn more about these jigs, the more I read the more familiar everything felt. I found that surface iron fishing had a rich history and devoted following that was reminiscent of the Northeastern culture of wooden plugs in surf fishing. What started as an inside joke, turned into a genuine interest and a new favorite way to fish.

A selection of surface irons that worked well in the Northeast.

Surface Iron Anatomy

Surface irons are anywhere from 4- to 8-inches long and weigh from 1.5 to 3.5 ounces. The first time I held a surface iron I was struck by how light it felt for a metal jig. What the jigs lack in mass due to the lightweight aluminum, they make up for with a large profile. The jigs are narrow on each end and widest in the middle, one side of the jig is rounded, and the other is flat. One of the distinctive features of west coast jigs are the large, welded rings used as a line tie and to attach a hook. The rings are welded together after passing through holes drilled in the body of the metal jig. The large ring lets the jig swing freely and enhances its action. The rings also give off a distinctive jangling sound as they clank off the jig body. The paint schemes on most irons are exceptionally modest and consist of single color or a white core with accent colors along the edge.

History & Production

The roots of the surface iron can be traced back to Japanese whale bone jigs. An inspection of the traditional whale bone jigs reveals a lot of similarities in shape to modern irons. Bone jigs featured single or double hooks secured to the bone with a screw and twisted wire. The unique shape of the jigs and the low density of the whale bone gave these jigs an enticing swimming action near the surface.  These jigs were commonly used by commercial albacore fishermen and were coveted by recreational anglers.

As a lure making material whale bone presents some challenges, it is difficult to procure, requires hand shaping, and lacks the durability of a metal jig. By the 1950’s there were several small jig makers that began producing surface irons out of cast aluminum; the light weight of aluminum mimicked the low density of the bone jigs and was much easier to produce. The Putter Jig produced by Jim Putter is considered to be one of the first jigs to be cast out of aluminum.  The aluminum for the jigs consisted of everything  from melted down soda cans to scrap metal from the numerous aerospace and aluminum manufacturing companies operating in southern California. Several jig makers had ties to aerospace or machining companies; as evidenced by jig names like Sputnick, Starman, or Nike which was named for the missile defense system developed during the height of the Cold War.

Surface irons were produced via sand casting, pouring molten metal into a cavity of compressed sand or die casting with steel molds. The variability of metal casting quality, particularly with sand cast jigs resulted in a big range of swimming action between individual jigs. The jigs that swam great were treasured, saved for high leverage fishing situations, and fished long after the paint chipped off. The duds that didn’t swim right were accepted as a cost of doing business. This variability in quality resulted in intense inspection of jigs hoping to pick out traits of a good swimmer. Jigs were inspected for the unevenness of the hips, the size and location of the ring holes, or the angle of the nose.  I’m not sure if such variability in quality is endearing or mildly abusive to paying customers, but it is part of the fabric of surface iron culture. In recent years, jig companies, Z-Bar and Duran, have started CNC machining irons out of solid block aluminum which produces an extremely consistent product and solves the issues with hunting for a jig that swims right.

The appropriately named,, is a place to buy and sell surface irons but also catalogs the array of surface iron manufacturers, jig styles, and history.  One of the jig histories stood out and reminded me of the quirky history of surf fishing plugs. The Candybar line of jigs earned their namesake in 1952 when the first batch of them were sold on sportfish boats out of a candy box. The Candybar was one of the first irons produced and inspired the design of many others.

The roots of these lightweight jigs can be traced back to the bone jigs handmade by commercial albacore fishermen in the early/mid-1900s.

Gearing Up

Purchasing surface irons it can be a daunting task, it’s hard to know where to start; the jig names aren’t intuitive, all the jigs look similar, and most manufacturers also make heavy jigs that look very similar to the surface irons. Tady is by far the most widely distributed brand of surface irons; the Tady C, 45, and 4/0 are a good options to start with. While not technically a surface iron, since it is made heavier metals, the Tady TLC is a compact swimming jig that was extremely effective when bass were keyed in on peanut bunker last year. Salas produces the 7x and J-Pot surface irons. Other common brands of irons include JRI, Duran, Z-Bar, and SIC.

Surface iron rods are traditionally long conventionals with soft, flexible tips to help propel the light jigs long distances. Traditional iron rods were made of fiberglass, with Harnells being popular. While the long fiberglass rods were good for casting distance, there was a big trade off in fish fighting power when dealing with hard fighting yellowtail. Modern surface iron rods – produced by United Composites, Calstar, Seeker (among others) – consist of fiberglass and graphite blends or straight graphite and offer a lot more pulling power.

Star drag reels with low gear ratios are preferred for iron fishing. If the irons are retrieved too quickly it can impact the swimming action and cause them to ride up on the surface. Newell reels are favored by fishermen using traditional tackle. The Shimano Trinidad and Torium, Penn Fathom, and Accurate Tern are all smooth casting reels with good drags used for iron fishing.

Bluefish will also happily chase down and smash surface irons.

The Method

Irons work great in situations when bass or bluefish are feeding on baitfish near the surface, particularly in open water, when fish aren’t relating to structure but are focused on bait. It doesn’t need to be an all-out blitz for them to be effective, when fish are scattered but actively feeding, irons are a great way to cover water and find the fish.

After the cast I allow the iron to sink for a few seconds, this allows the jig to cover a portion of the water column as it rides up toward the surface on the retrieve. The rod tip should be pointed down toward the water when reeling the jig in, this helps prevent the jig from riding up on the surface. This is particularly important when fishing from the elevated platform of large party boat; the long rods typically used with surface irons in California allow the angler to keep the line closer to water on the retrieve.

The ideal retrieve speed will vary from one iron to another, and can be figured out by test swimming the jigs and observing the action. The surface iron should swim with a side-to-side ‘kicking’ action that’s akin to an elongated and smooth walk the dog. The jigs are swinging from the front ring, and have a wider swimming action than a metal lip plug that kicks back and forth from a point in the center of the plug. The best irons have a little bit of erratic action that may include a little bit of side to side roll or a subtle change in the kick that triggers fish to bite.

The size of the iron I throw will depend on the size of the bait and the mood of the fish. When fish are really aggressive or feeding on large baitfish I will select a full-sized jig which might be 7 inches or larger since they are easier to cast and see. When fish are keyed in on smaller baitfish I will scale down to the 4- to 5-inch range. With the huge schools of peanut bunker that were present last year, I found the Tady TLC to be extremely effective. While it may not be a ‘true’ surface iron since it’s made from denser metal, this compact 3.5-inch iron was an extremely effective peanut bunker imitation. A good general approach is to start with a large iron and scale back to smaller sizes if necessary.

It’s easy to become obsessed with the method and jarring strikes of fishing surface irons in Northeast waters.

Cultural Crossover

At first glance it’s not easy to understand why surface irons have such a devoted following in southern California; they are unremarkable in appearance, fished with cumbersome tackle, can be hard to swim, and just fishing one requires eschewing the fresh live bait that is provided on every sport boat. I imagine surface iron devotees may be equally perplexed by surf fishermen’s fervor the nuanced varieties of needlefish that appear indistinguishable to the untrained eye. Both are very regional styles of fishing, whose practitioners have an appreciation for the history of the sport and an obsession with their respective lures. I came to appreciate surface iron culture when I viewed it through my New England surf fishing lens.

Every plug name carries a story, whether it is a Danny, Donny, or Wadd needle, learning these stories only deepens the appreciation for the plugs and the sport. Fluency in the regional culture of stories, eccentric plug names, and surf fishing spots fosters a sense of kinship and enriches the fishing experience. With its odd jig names, rich history, and cultish following the culture of surface iron fishing will feel very familiar to northeastern plug fishermen. Whether you are looking for a fun new way to target bass and bluefish or learn more about an interesting corner of the fishing universe, surface irons certainly have a place in the northeast.



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