By Dave Anderson
Let me start by saying that there is absolutely no way I can cover this subject in one post, I’m going to have to break this down into several parts—I could see it going as many as 10 individual parts, but we’ll see. Just to stay on trend with what we’ve been discussing recently, I am going to focus on deep presentations with plugs.
When I look at the blackfish footage in last week’s video I always come away with the same pointed thoughts in my mind; I see how tight they are to the bottom and how subtle their movements are (unless they’re moving frantically). I feel it’s important to stress the point that blackfish are only one of these ‘bottom species’ that double as reliable baitfish, and pretty much all of them stay tight to the bottom and tight to structure: scup, fluke, sea bass, choggies, kingfish, pollock—and I forgot to mention lobsters in my last post. Lobsters conjure—at least for me—images of the rich surfcasters of the 1800’s tossing lobster tails into the Cuttyhunk suds. And I have found numerous lobsters in the guts of the bass I have kept over the years. These crustaceans are active at night and absolutely are a favorite target of big striped bass.
Ok, hopefully I’ve made this infinitely clear: a deep presentation is a natural presentation in the boulder-strewn stretches of the Northeast coast that most of us fish. So that’s the first point: get comfortable with fishing deep. One of the best sentences I’ve ever read about fishing deep was written by my friend and elite surfcaster John Hanecak, it’s simple but so true: “You can’t be afraid to lose plugs, if you’re afraid you’re going to lose it, then you’re not going to fish it where you’re most likely to catch a big bass.” That’s paraphrased, but the point should be well taken. Which brings me to another quote from a YouTube video posted by swimbait pro Mike Gilbert, you think losing your $50 to $75 metal lip hurts, these guys are fishing baits that cost as much as $500! Mike takes a very pragmatic approach to it, he says, “Consider it gone. Once you cast it out there, you have to think of it as if you’ve already lost that bait.” Plugs are tools, and by the nature of what we do, they must be considered disposable. This is why I have backups of everything I like and why I build many multiples of the plugs I make for my personal stash. When they inevitably leave me, I have another to take its place.
So how do you know when you’re fishing deep enough? When you start banging into the bottom and hanging up periodically, you’re there. I currently only use metal lips and needles when I’m trying to dredge the bottom. And I am fully aware of the fact that there other ways to get this done, but shads, leadheads and bucktails don’t fit into the way I do it. I like to play on the buoyancy of the plug to keep my presentation natural.
Referring again to the underwater footage, notice how fluid their motions are and how often they really aren’t moving much at all. I can’t do that with a bucktail, I don’t doubt that someone out there can, but I can’t. I can do that with metal lip, especially one that’s weighted enough to slow its rise during a pause. I can also do this with a heavy needlefish, particularly those that are made to sink level. A properly made level-sink needle will not rapidly ascend through the water column like a conventionally made (tail-weighted) needle. It’s the riding angle of the plug that dictates it’s track, if the needle rides head above the tail, it will climb, if it stays level it will remain—more or less—at the depth you sink it to (until the line angle steepens to the point that it has to ride toward the surface).
Presenting these plugs is all about getting them to depth and then maintaining that depth while feeling your way through the retrieve. I’ll begin with the metal lip. Let’s assume that we’re fishing in 10 feet of water with a good sweep running from left to right. I’m going to cast out to about my 10 o’clock and put four or five hard cranks on the reel to get the plug down fast. Now I have a tight zone in which I can work the plug properly before the sweep begins to affect the action of the plug and its ability to stay deep—let’s say that’s from about the 10:30 position to the 1:30 position. When I have the plug down, I focus on a steady, subtle rhythm, I don’t want the plug to swim hard or to wobble out of control. Everything I do is dictated by what I feel and what I’m feeling is directly linked to the how the current is affecting the plug. My reactions are all made to maintain that slow, thumping rhythm. But with some mental footage of bottom species swimming in my head, I will also allow the current to move the plug while I stop cranking and lower the tip to cease the wobble and swing a stationary target through the tide. If I’m doing it right, I will bump bottom here and there and that’s another time when I’ll pause the plug, allowing it to swing and float over the obstacle before resuming the retrieve. To me, this method closely resembles what I see in those videos. Am I overthinking this? I really don’t know. But it helps me stay alert and confident, so regardless of its necessity underwater, it has a positive effect on me and therefore it has a positive effect on my fishing.
With the needle the basics are very much the same, except I often find that I have to make a few ‘test casts’ to find the perfect cast placement so that I can get it down in time to fish in that slice of bottom where the current works in our favor. A perfect cast would have the needle hitting the bottom at about the 11 o’clock position. Once again, the retrieve is completely based on feel and I make several casts every night where something seems to go wrong, the plug never gets all the way down or—for some reason—swings harder and I never really connect. But, on that same plane, when it does work properly the feeling is 100% different. I can feel the weight of the plug and how the current is playing off of it. I keep my rod tip high and when I feel like I’ve lifted it too far from the bottom, I drop the tip sharply, allowing a loop of slack in the line which the weight of the needle quickly takes up, sinking it back down a few feet. Here again, the goal is to tick bottom once in a while, keeping the plug in the lower 2- to 3-feet of the water column, swinging right through the strike zone. The hits are THUNDEROUS using either method.
All of this working with and working off of the current and all this talk about feel and reacting to how the plug is reacting to the current are why I made that video about “The Water Environment”. These places of increased water movement and abundance of life are the places where your presentation matters the most and the harder you work to complete your picture of what makes these spots so special, the better you’ll be at finding fish and presenting a plug to them. All of this stuff is important, you can’t fly the plane if you don’t know how to take off and land.
This series is about trying to catch a 50-pounder, but it’s all pertinent information that’s relevant to catching quality stripers from the surf. Understanding the relationship between a reliable source of food, water movement and how that water movement changes your presentation will take you a long way if you take the time to learn this and implement it in your own fishing.
I originally wanted to make this into a video, but the more I talked to the camera, the more I realized there was potential for a much more in depth video that would require a lot more 'in the field' footage, look for that sometime over the summer.
By Dave Anderson
Standing at the edge of the stream, full dark, fogged in. I heard the approaching sloshing footsteps of my fishing partner’s boots treading the marsh, no rods… still March. He stopped a few feet away and we listened. The wind came up from the northwest, driving the cool fog down the neck of my jacket, I hunched over and leaned away from the wind, I listened harder. The tiny freshwater brook ran through a series of riffles, humming a consistent pitch—babbling a constant rhythm. Then we heard what we were listening for; the splashy bursts of herring tails beating hard against the current, preparing to run the shallow riffle ahead. It’s a sound that’s as indicative of the spring season as Christmas carols are to the holidays; at least for me. This shallow run is imprinted on the instinctive DNA of every herring born in this waterway; I know this because the fish only run at night here; they’re too vulnerable in daylight and they know this. It makes this stream unique.
I’d heard it hundreds of times before, but this time the sounds of those herring powering upstream, sparked an epiphany—well, let’s call it a potential epiphany. The beats of those tails and the fish’s unwavering devotion to completing their spawning tasks sent my mind into a silent dialogue about instinctual drive, predatory behavior and the way we all typically fish a herring run.
These herring are born in the pond, then spend a good portion of their lives offshore in vast schools, their instincts call them back to the stream to spawn. Impressive doesn’t even begin to describe that drive to procreate. If there was a way to translate these instincts into human thought, it would probably be something more intense than anything we have felt. This, it occurred to me, should weigh heavily in how we fish a herring run.
When we are fishing near the mouth of a run, those herring are in the home stretch, after hundreds of miles and a whole year or more at sea, being pestered by untold numbers of predatory fish, diving birds, nets, seals… they run riffles and climb fish ladders, they surge through flood waters and leap obstacles and here we are throwing a lazy Danny plug. In a rush of inspired thought—admittedly augmented by the sudden exercising of the fishing part of my brain—I saw the light on fishing the runs.
I have always been one to fish away from the run itself, favoring a deep cut or prominent obstacle in the shoreline nearby, my reasoning was that predator fish could use these things as an ambush and they also forced the herring, which often run in very shallow water, to swim over or around an area that made them vulnerable to predation. It worked, but it never worked great. Then I thought back to a full moon night in early May, standing at the mouth of a run, making a few obligatory casts before moving to one of my more classic locales. I heard bass blowing up on herring—I clipped on a Danny—nothing, as usual. One of my casts was fouled with weed and I burned the plug in, about 8 feet off the tip a fish blew up on the skittering Danny, but missed. I tied on a 2-ounce Pencil Popper and worked it wildly in the waning current sent seaward by the herring stream. I hooked up on my first cast with a smallish bass, right around keeper size. I had a couple other hits, but passed it off as a full moon anomaly.
My herring run epiphany has since told me otherwise. The instincts of a spawning fish put that task above all other things and when they’re nearing the sanctuary of their natal stream, you can bet that they are going to run that predatory gauntlet hard and fast. Every cautious swirl I’d ever had while fishing near a run flashed across the screen in my mind’s eye. I always chalked it up to there simply being too much bait, but I have seen the light. Now I feel that it’s more likely that the bass were confused by atypical behavior. In a lifetime of hunting herring in the runs every spring, a slow, lazy herring just didn’t seem right. And so, they followed, but ultimately ignored it. In all aspects of my plug fishing I have long felt that mimicking the attitude of the bait was a key to success, somehow I had missed the boat here.
As we prepare to enter the herring season—in some places it’s already begun—my focus for this exciting time of year is going to be on plugs I can fish fast. Tops on my list will be the Sebile Magic Swimmer. Instead of trying to mimic some battered herring on its last leg, I’m going to be trying to channel that instinctual drive to climb the stream and get it on. Casting that swimmer out there and burning it in, throwing a big wake and daring any bass in the area to pass up on the chance to take it down. I think it’s going to work.
What do you think?
By Dave Anderson
August 2017 came with the some of the best fishing... probably ever, in the Cape Cod Canal. An abundance of bait and bass presented anglers with the perfect storm that evolved into an endurance test. It also presented me with a very unique opportunity in that I was able to capture a wolfpack of stripers working an eddy and their reaction to pencil popper that included a fully committed strike. We hope you will enjoy the video and learn something from it; I know I certainly did.
By Dave Anderson
Most striper fishermen have heard of Danny Pichney, it’s his name that is attached to the timeless wooden swimmer known as the Danny Plug. Metal lip swimmers had been popular with striper fishermen since Creek Chub introduced their Pikie swimmer in 1921; several manufacturers followed suit through the 1940s and 50s, many striper anglers would argue that Danny perfected the surface swimmer with his line of Danny Plugs sometime during the 1970s. Danny passed away in 1988 at the age of 66.
Back when I was working as the editor of The Fisherman Magazine (New England Edition) I received an email that said it came from Dan Pichney. Knowing the Danny was no longer with us, my immediate reaction was that one of my ‘friends’ was trying to dupe me with a bogus email account and when I clicked on it I was ready for a laugh. But when the text popped up on the screen there was no elaborate hoax, no silly photo or ‘gotcha,’ instead I was drawn in by a thank you note of sorts from Danny Pichney’s son, Dan. To this day, it stands among the most thoughtful notes I have ever received, and I will never forget it. Dan said that someone had given him a copy of one of my articles detailing how to build a replica Danny swimmer along with some of the history behind the plug. He said he wanted to thank me for helping to keep his father’s legacy alive. After trading emails for a few days, Dan invited me to his home on Long Island to see some of the plugs his dad left behind. As a student of the plug making trade, an avid surfcaster and devoted follower of surfcasting history, I jumped at the chance.
I arrived on a still and overcast day in early May at a small house that looked like the idyllic 1960’s home. The exterior was immaculate, fresh paint, a manicured lawn, flowers bursting from the perimeter… it felt like family, like home. Dan greeted me in the yard and brought me inside where we sat at the dining room table. Dan disappeared into the basement and emerged with two boxes of history. When he set them on the table I found myself looking into the mind of one of the most respected plug makers in the history of striped bass fishing. There was a small armload of packaged plugs, a few projects in progress, some papers with plans and notes scrawled on them and lots of unfinished plugs. But the things that really grabbed my attention were what appeared to be some of Danny’s master copies, plugs made to spec for duplication and gauging the placement of hardware, lip angles, length of line tie. I held those old plus in my hands as my mind descended through the past to a time before my birth. I have always felt an intrinsic connection to history when I can hold it in my hand, touch it—it’s a rush, something that blossoms from an otherwise inaccessible corner of my brain. It feels like all the atoms in the universe align for a split second and my mind can see through time. Holding these plugs, that were essentially tools for duplication, lit that same fire. Danny Pichney had long been a bit of hero of mine, and these were made for a purpose, written on by his hand, used to replicate thousands of others made and sold.
Dan had never gotten into plug making like his father and he wasn’t sure what a lot of the plugs were or what they did in the water. Our conversation transformed into an equal passage of knowledge—Dan was giving me unknown history and I was filling in the blanks on the names of the plugs, their approximate value and how they swam, etc. It was a very enjoyable day to say the least. I think I was there for more than three hours—and I could have sat for three more—but I had a ferry to catch and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. I thanked Dan for his time and hospitality and told him that I had a boat reservation.
As we stood to shake hands, Dan was not putting things back into their boxes he was just standing there, looking over the legacy of his father sprawled out across the table. He looked up and asked if there was anything on the table that I’d like to have. Talk about fighting with the Devil on your shoulder! Of course there were things on that table that I’d like to have! But the Angel won and I told him that I didn’t feel comfortable taking anything from the small collection of things left behind from his father’s passion.
Dan was adamant that I pick not one, but a few lures to take home, saying something like, “I wouldn’t even know what these things are.” I chose a 2-ounce Darter in herring color because it exemplified what a Pichney plug should look like and I chose a green mackerel Diving Danny because I thought the color was really cool. He urged me to pick one more.
There was a small plastic tub containing these very small lures that I had never seen anywhere before. I asked Dan if he knew anything about them and he said that he believed his father had made them for himself. “He used them from the piers in the city to catch small stripers in the springtime,” Dan told me. He said he didn’t think his father had ever sold them. There were less than a dozen of them in the tub painted in two color patterns—one was silver with black stripes drawn onto it and the others were the classic Pichney green/silver. There were only two of the silver ones so I asked if it was okay if I took one of the green ones, he nodded. Dan then picked up a few unfinished bodies and handed them to me—I think he thought I would finish them and fish them, but I still have them.
I have never gotten the pier plug wet, but I think it might be one of the earliest attempts at creating a paddle-tail shad. The body is heavily weighted and, as you can see in the pic, the line tie is on top of the head. A small aluminum blade is attached to the tail with a split ring and a single #1 treble hangs from the belly. My guess is that the plug sinks and the tail flaps side-to-side on the retrieve. One of these days I might have to make one just to see what it does.
This little ‘no name’ Pichney plug stands as one of my most prized possessions. Several ‘high-line’ plug collectors have tried to get me to give them Dan’s email or phone number, I refused. Those boxes of striper fishing history will come out when Dan and his family are ready. I just couldn’t let the wolves in.
This was a truly special day for me and one that I would never have experienced if I hadn’t taken the chances to work as a writer and editor. I don’t love writing about myself in this way, but hearing that my little article on the Danny swimmer reached the Pichney Family and that they were happy with it, made all of the research and agonizing over sentence rhythm and comma placement worth it. And I have never forgotten that. Thank you Dan.
By Dave Anderson
When I think of the fall run, I think of panic. It’s hard to describe the feeling—in some ways, I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this. Unlike the summer, when I’m content to miss a few nights or mornings, even several in a row if the conditions suck—the fall rushes in with a sudden sense of urgency and the constant nag of being late. Late for something that may not even be happening. And I don’t do much to help the situation… in my mind I feel certain that at least five locations are going off—and inevitably, I find out that I was right about at least one, the fact that I was “right” only serves to compound the urgency. My everyday responsibilities begin to feel like royal pains in the ass, writing deadlines and other work-related promises live in the pit of my stomach, while my fishing brain fights to turn my head away from what has to be done in favor of doing what it knows I want to do.
This battle is easily won. I have become a master at rationalizing fishing trips. I am also a master at making myself believe that I can complete an impossible amount of work—tomorrow. I know this about myself and yet, I still do it.
I was out just last night and the fishing was good. Too good. I know these fish were at least in migration mode—they very well may have migrated already. I probably could have had them for a week. But I held my fire. I don’t like big surf, and the surf was big last week—I fished freshwater. I know a lot of people love a good heave, but punishing waves have rarely been good to me and nearly all of my big fish have come from calm to moderate seas. But in this case, I know I missed out. (Or at least I believe I did.)
These fish were on a pile of bait. I know because of the way they were taking the plug—many of the fish were choking on it. I also know because of the speed they were relating to, they wanted it fast and wild. Rapid retrieves with a lot of tip action were swimming my glidebait in a wild, jittery to-and-fro; the hits were thunderous and final.
Even in this early stage of the fall run, more than one third of September is already behind us. To some it might seem like we have all the time in the world, but I feel like I’m trying to suck spilled water out of desert sand. Yes, I know there are many pushes of bass to come. Moons and winds and rains and tides will trigger movements of baitfish as the many migrations ebb, flow and collide. But the fall is not a hopeful season. It’s not like the spring when the fish are welcomed like a long parade. The days of the fall run peel off the calendar like the minutes leading up to a root canal. The end of the fall run is the end of the year. The end of daylight savings, the end of flip-flops and the end of manageable heating bills.
Some might think I’m being melodramatic for effect. But the romance of the fall run cannot exist with complacency. The fish are moving constantly, bites flare up like forest fires but move like the same. The urgency is just as much about having a constant pulse of what’s happening as it is about slowing the race. The urgency needs to be real. Mine physically hurts, while taxing my heart with unnecessary—and totally invented—stress. But it drives me to fish and removes none of the joy. I actually like these feelings… how sick is that?