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There are no absolutes in the fishing game, especially when it comes to surf fishing.

By Fred Golofaro  |  December 3, 2019
Technically called a casting swimmer, most serious surfcasters refer to it as a bottle plug.

The fishing game is full of variables, and surf fishing seems especially susceptible to misconceptions and confusion. It is also a discipline which allows for a wide range of discrepancies when it comes to the right and wrong way of doing things. Much of what we learn, and subsequently believe to be gospel is, or should be, based on our own personal experiences. If you fish the surf long, or hard, you will quickly come to realize that there are no absolutes when it comes to culling gamefish from the suds, or in any other type of fishing for that matter.

And so that’s why I get a little crazy when I hear speakers at seminars, or read articles and books claiming that you must do something this way or that. Two words that immediately raise suspicion when I see or hear them, and which I’ve made a conscious effort to eliminate from my vocabulary, are “never” and “always.” Those words just don’t hold true when it comes to fishing, or much else in life. And so, while these “misconceptions” will have little effect on the global economy, they still bug me.

One that I come across with increasing frequency has to do with fishing bucktails. If I hear or read one more time that you should not fish an unadorned bucktail, I’m going to pull out what hair I have left. One night on the Bayville Bridge way back during my pre-teen years, a legendary and very successful bridge fisherman, Ed Sens, lectured me that you fish plain bucktails in the spring when small bait was most prevalent, and add pork rind later in the season. His words left an impression because a week earlier, I had watched him land three stripers over 25 pounds from the same span. I came to learn later in my angling career that he was part of Al Reinfelder’s circle of bridge fishing sharpies. In Al’s classic book, Bait tail Fishing, he describes Ed as a master bridge fisherman.

Years later, while guiding light tackle charters during the hey days of the 70s weakfish run, I fished small white, unadorned bucktails almost exclusively, and regularly outfished anglers in neighboring boats tossing dressed bucktails and the infamous Salty Dogs. It was simple – the small bucktail was a better match to the grass and sand shrimp the weaks were gorging themselves on at the time.

Updating to this century and several years back, we enjoyed a fine fall run of stripers that was fueled by an abundance of peanut bunker. One afternoon, with fish and bait spread the length of Gin Beach and Shagwong Point in Montauk, I beached four bass in the 20-pound class, along with many smaller fish. Fish were being caught on rubber shads and bucktails dressed with pork rind, but for most casters, it was at best a steady pick, while I was into fish on nearly every cast. And, I saw only one other fish landed along the stretch I was fishing that even approached the 20-pound mark. The puffy, naked bucktail was a very good match for the bait that day. Did fishing it naked make the difference? Maybe or maybe not, but it sure didn’t hurt my results.

Ditto on several occasions when white bait clouded the south side of Montauk and the bass were playing fussy. Small, white, naked bucktails didn’t knock their socks off, but they did allow me to hook up with more frequency than other casters. Again, matching the hatch was likely the key to the small jig’s effectiveness.

I’ve continued to catch many bass on plain bucktails, particularly those made by John Paduano (premiumbucktails.com), from beach and boat. John annually lands hundreds of stripers on his unadorned jigs which are patterned after our most common baitfish. Will there be times when a strip of pork rind or a rubber twister tail will make a bucktail more effective? Absolutely, and that’s why I always have a jar of Fat Cow, pork rind, or Otter Tails in my bag. But please don’t ever tell me that my bucktail needs to be dressed to be effective.

Continuing down my list, we come to the topic of metal lip swimmers. I have read, heard it preached and overheard conversations on the beach that would have you believe that metal lip swimmers are ineffective in flat or calm surf conditions.

At Robert Moses one morning this fall, I heard a self-proclaimed “expert” informing a newbie that the metal lip swimmer hanging from his rod was the wrong plug for the calm surf conditions that prevailed that day. When he moved down the beach I couldn’t help but tell the novice caster that he had received some bad advice, and that I have caught many stripers on metal lips under just those conditions. The fact of the matter is that I have caught more stripers over 30 pounds on metal lips worked on the surface in flat, calm water than I have toes and fingers, as well as a handful topping the 40-pound mark. They’ve come from the backsides of Fire Island, Jones and Shinnecock inlets, the Sore Thumb, the West End Two Jetty at Jones Beach, Peconic Bay, and the open beach at Gilgo, Smith Point and Hampton Bays. Montauk’s south side, North Bar and Stepping Stones have also served up big bass on metal lips to me under flat water conditions.

As I noted last week, our knowledge and beliefs are the product of our own experiences, and based on those experiences, I can say with a great amount of confidence that you can indeed catch bass, and quality bass at that, on metal lips in calm water. While we could write a book on fishing metal lips, we’ll end it here and save the other stuff for another day, but I think the point has been made.

And while we are on the subject of plugs, it is a long held belief that popping plugs are a lure designated for daytime use. I’ve always hedged my comments on the subject by using the phrase “primarily for daytime use,” but the fact is that poppers can be a very effective nighttime option when retrieved slowly along, or near the surface. Longtime surfman and veteran of many beach access wars, Bill Miller Sr., regularly pulled big stripers after dark on Atom Striper Swipers. I was alongside him on the old Cedar Bar on more than one occasion when he beached 30-plus pound bass on these plugs under the cover of darkness.

The current hot nighttime popper is the Super Strike Little Neck (2-3/8 ounce) which provides better casting distance than most of the traditional nighttime plugs, and swims much like a metal lip when retrieved at a slow pace.

Continuing on the plug theme, can we once and for all define a bottle plug? So many casters out there, including some with considerable time on the beach, improperly refer to Polaris-type poppers as bottle plugs. It is understandable given that the shape of these plugs (Gibb’s Polaris, Super Strike Little Neck) more closely resemble the shape of the old style coke bottles than do plugs of the Gibb’s Casting Swimmer design, which any seasoned surfcaster knows to refer to as a bottle plug. Along with Gibb’s and Super Strike, there are a host of wood plug makers out there who turn out bottle plugs of similar design. These are the same plugs that have accounted for some of the Striper Surf’s more notable stripers over the years, including Mark Malenovsky’s 64 pounder from under the Montauk Lighthouse on Thanksgiving Eve in 1992, and the 65 pounder caught at Ballards on Block Island in November of 1984 by a Rhode Island caster waiting to catch the ferry back to the mainland. And, 3-ounce Gibbs bottle plugs have accounted for a number of 30 to 50-pound stripers over the years at Montauk in big water conditions. Hopefully, this clears up the bottle plug mystery once and for all.