By Dave Anderson
It’s funny how plugging for striped bass has so many moods. There are times when you have to work a spook savagely or burn a Magic Swimmer across the surface or gently guide a darter through the tail end of a rip or bore yourself to death with the slowest fucking retrieve possible while the analytical side of your brain slaps away the hand of the ADD side. It’s a mistake to banish any of these plugging attitudes in the pursuit of a giant bass. It’s a mistake to fall victim to conventional wisdom.
Think about the big bass profile that has been polished by the hands of so many surfcasting writers over the years. We have been told that trophy stripers are lethargic. That they are lazy. That they are unwilling to chase their food. That they are opportunistic feeders that clean up the scraps after their smaller cousins ravage a school of baitfish. That they stage up and wait for their prey to come to them. I could go on, but I won’t. A lot of this is total BS. Giant stripers are badass, apex predators that are built to rush their prey in the most inhospitable conditions the inshore waters of the Atlantic have to offer. They will ABSOLUTLEY chase down prey and they have no problem competing with smaller fish—they only have to want to. A 50-pounder will crash a bunker on the surface, she will attack any blackfish that will fit in her giant maw, she will blast schools of herring in two feet of water and she’ll patiently shadow schools of mackerel waiting for one of them to make a mistake. She will also pick half a bunker off the bottom, flush a lobster out of the rocks, sip sand eels off the surface and charge through a pounding surf to pounce on schools of mullet.
Don’t think for a millisecond that the 50-pounder we’re looking for is some old lady doing macramé and arguing over hands of canasta. These fish are at the top of their game, they have grown to this immense size against all odds and their life experience has sharpened their instincts to a razor’s edge.
This is why it is so important to do more than just cycle through a lineup of your tried and true, favorite plugs. It is every bit as important to change up your presentation to decipher the mood of the bite. Please take note of the fact that I said mood of the bite and not the fish. I’m implying that you’re tuning in to the attitude of all the fish in the immediate area, the way they are hunting and taking their prey. Hard, explosive hits tell me that the bite is competitive and I will fish my plugs fast and erratic, preying on the nature of a competitive feeding scenario. Swirls and bumps tell me that either the fish are not really turned on or that they are cautious, following for long distances, unconvinced, inspecting closely. This also makes me believe that there are not big numbers of fish or baitfish in the area. I like to switch to lures that are subtle in action and sound—needles or darters—because they force the fish to focus on the size and profile of the lure and takes action (pretty much) out of the equation. If that doesn’t work, I might resort to the live eel.
I guess my point is knowing how to use a plug is only a small part of plugging, it’s knowing how decipher the right type of presentation that can put you out in front of the pack. It’s an aspect of fishing that draws from your creativity and your experience and relies on your ability to observe and react to cues. No matter how ‘good’ you get at this, you will be repeatedly challenged, you will catch sometimes and be shown the door sometimes too. It’s your receptiveness to learning and your willingness to make changes to what you thought you already knew that will lead you into that Zen plugging place. When the fish speak and you listen—well, then you’re well on your way.