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.