by Rich Troxler
A lot has been written about the importance of plug presentation and the role it plays in getting fish to commit to your offering. But like most things you read, until you see the results first hand, it remains just so many words on a page. I am a big believer that presentation plays a very important part in catching fish, more so than some of the other common factors such as slight variations of color or shape. There is a lot of evidence that would seem to support this conclusion and I know that I am definitely not alone in my belief.
My initial realizations of just how important presentation can be came not in the surf, but from my early days back in the 70’s, when I was jigging bluefish from boats. What we were actually doing is squidding, but as it is commonly referred to as jigging, that’s what I’ll call it.
When I first starting going out and jigging bluefish, the Captain would blow the whistle and yell “OK, get’em down, they’re thick as fleas, c’mon crank those reels!” and we would all drop to the bottom and start cranking like mad, rod tips flailing all over the place, and some would hook up and others wouldn’t. Early on, I was frequently one of those having trouble hooking up, while others would catch one after another, several on a drift. Now these are bluefish mind you, and who can’t catch a bluefish, right?? LOL.
So I started watching those that would catch consistently and the first thing I noticed is that their whole method was far more controlled and precise than the rest of our collective flailing. Their rod tips were pointed toward the water and didn’t move, they operated their reels smoothly and systematically, and they stuck to working the bottom instead of cranking halfway up before dropping back down. So I started showing up early in an effort to gain rail position near some of the regulars, so I could get a better look at what they were doing. Over time, I became a regular myself LOL.
The significance of this experience is that it was proof positive that presentation is very important, even with a fish as easy to catch as bluefish. In scientific terms, it was as close to a controlled experiment as you can get in fishing. We were all over the same body of fish, we were all using the same type and weight jig, many of us were using close to the same rods, reels and line, and we were all fishing the same conditions. So something had to make a difference why a few out-fished the rest by a wide margin. And that something was presentation.
A few of the things I learned during those years about jigging bluefish are that they don’t like an erratic jig, but generally like one that wobbled in a smooth rhythmic straight line. I learned that even bluefish can be picky at times, particularly on an east wind. Sometimes a burn off the bottom and then a pause will get them to hit it on the flutter. Other times, they will only hit on the drop, so those of us fishing conventional would mop up, while the spinning guys would just get bit off.
And if you were looking for the pool, a slow retrieve, or drag retrieve, might bag a big tiderunner weak, while the pop and flutter method might induce a bass to hit your jig. There are other little tweaks and variations, but basically who cares about boat techniques for bluefish LOL. My point is that presentation was, and still is, all important in the catching of any fish, including the much maligned, but almost always willing to cooperate, bluefish.
So since my early days, and the lessons learned from catching the bass’ slightly retarded second cousin, the bluefish, I’ve tried to pay attention to the presentation of any bait I fish. Those early days also made me far more apt to think outside the box and experiment with my presentations, with excellent results in many cases. Over time, I’ve come to certain conclusions about the way bass feed and have tried to tailor my presentations accordingly.
For starters, nature has endowed the bass with a very successful survival strategy, in that they feed on a wide variety of prey items, and tend not to expend undue energy in the process. By default, they tend to focus on the weak, injured, old, infirm, overwhelmed, easy, or just plain stupid prey item, and when you present a profile to a bass, you want to be representing one of the above.
We already know that bass possess very highly attuned sensory organs that can pick up electromagnetic fields, all kinds of sound and vibration, odor molecules in the parts per million, excellent night vision (of some sort), etc, so tailoring your presentations accordingly can make all the difference between success and failure. Some of this falls to simple common sense, like don’t stick your hands in gasoline before baiting up with clam, or the commonly accepted adage that the freshest bunker catches the most fish.
But when fishing plugs, there seem to be only a few common rules of thumb, such as bass like everything low and slow, particularly at night. Another is the light color for light night, dark for dark rule. There are those who suggest fishing poppers slowly, match the hatch, dawn and dusk being the magic times, maybe a few others, but other than those, fishermen are pretty much left up to their own devices to figure out what works under what conditions, and what doesn’t.
So here are a few of my observations, variations, and presentation oddities that have yielded excellent results for me, time and time again, and are presented in no particular order.
I love needlefish plugs. For a basically do-nothing plug, they catch a ton of fish. The prevailing wisdom on fishing them, at least from what I’ve heard, is to fish them slow, and then go slower. While this may work under certain conditions and with certain models of needlefish, it is not the only presentation that works for this class of plug.
There are two types of needlefish, those that float and those that don’t, and how you fish each is very different. Let’s take the floater first. In my somewhat limited collection of plugs, I have several floating needlefish ranging from all black to blue/white, and they all tend to be of longer size than my sinking models. My presentation of all of them is to imitate an actual Needlefish that is actively feeding on the surface and is unaware of what lurks below.
This is a typical food chain event, the type of pattern I key on and speak frequently of. It’s a bay / harbor type pattern that sees small bait piled up on flats or channels, dimpling the surface, and needlefish actively feeding on the small bait. If you have ever watched needlefish feed under the lights at night, you will notice that they don’t just swim along in a slow steady manner. They tend to float with the current, and then dash out at a prey item, and then stop again. They make a very distinctive wake when they do so, that is easily visible in calm waters, even at night. So why would you want to retrieve a large floating needlefish plug with a slow steady retrieve?
If the tide I’m fishing is moving right to left, I cast slightly up tide, point my rod tip at the landing point, take in the slack, wait a second or two, and then lift my rod tip up just enough to make the plug move toward me a couple feet. I don’t jerk the rod, I simply try to replicate the movement and wake of an actual needlefish. Then I drop my rod tip, take in the slack slowly, and repeat the process. As the plug passes me and goes down tide, I repeat the up and down motion of my rod until the plug gets too close to shore. Then I reel it in SLOWLY, just to cover all the bases LOL.
Sinking needlefish are a different animal all together for me. When it comes to sinking needles, I only fish one manufacturer, and that would be Super Strike. I don’t get paid for endorsements (wish I did) so you can take it to the bank (even if I can’t) that I’m not selling anything here. The reason I use SS needles is simply because they are consistent, I know how to fish them, and they catch fish. I do wish they would dump the Mustad hooks they ship with and go with the next size up VMC’s, but maybe that’s just me.
What I prefer about the SS needles is that they sink at a consistent rate (which is pretty quick) and they plane, or rise up, in an equally consistent manner. The reason this is useful is that it makes this plug fishable at a wide variety of depths, depending on the size/weight pf the plug you fish. I use basically the bottom three sizes they make, starting 5 ¼”. Each one has it’s own sink rate and each one will plane, or rise, at a different retrieve speed.
The reason this is useful is that any of their needles can be fished in a “countdown” manner. The fresh water tournament bass guys on ESPN Saturday mornings do this all the time with their plugs. Wherever your structure is that you are trying to fish, this plug will sink at a consistent rate, so casting and then counting until you hit bottom will tell you what you need to know in order to put this plug in the bass’ strike zone. The smallest size 5 ¼” is one of my go-to plugs in early spring when the primary forage is small and slender, like sand eels and spearing, so the name “needlefish” is a little misleading in this application.
Shake that thang!
I love Bomber plugs, specifically the classic Long-A and A-salt models. I believe they have changed their model number nomenclature recently, so let’s just say the common models of Bomber, and even include the Magnum in the mix. The Long-A and A-salt bombers are some of my favorite bay plugs. I don’t use them on the open beach unless conditions permit (offshore breeze, low surf), they cast like crap, and need major modifications, but under the right conditions, they are capable of catching a lot of fish.
The main thing I love about them are the rattles. I can’t say for sure, but something about the rattles seem to trigger absolutely vicious strikes from bass, and I’m sure it has something to do with some sensory information the bass receives, that we know nothing about. All I know is that it certainly seems to make a difference, and once again, I am not alone in my observations.
The main thing I do with these plugs, that is different than most everybody else, is that I shake the tip of my rod during my retrieve, hardly noticeable, just a tremor of the hand holding the rod. With braided line, this tremor travels down the line to the plug and most probably causes those rattles to dance all over the inside of the plug chamber. The amount I do this varies with the retrieve, which varies with the conditions. The only other guy I know that does this is Bill Wetzel, a well-known guide in my area, although we hold our rods differently.
During the day, with a yellow or chicken scratch bomber, I will use a moderate to fast retrieve with a slight tremor. Just want to get those clicking sounds out there. On new moon nights, with fish busting periodically on the surface, I’ll be retrieving so slow that the plug is almost floating on the surface, while imparting a higher level of tremor to the rod, to really get that plug twitching and clicking. I’ve seen damaged bait many times during the day swimming around in circles, spazzing and shuttering as it tries to swim, and this is what I try to imitate. Conversely, by dropping your rod tip to the water, the long-A and A-salt bombers can get quite deep, deeper than most are inclined to fish them.
My own personal oddity
One thing I do, that is definitely different from what most do is that I position my rod butt under my arm and not in my groin (except when fighting fish). This is most likely a left over vestige of my sweet-water youth, and early conventional boat fishing days, where rods are typically not held up vertical. It has drawn many a chuckle, and I’m not looking for converts, but it does offer several advantages. One advantage is that it easily allows me to drop my rod tip to the water when retrieving. This has two purposes.
The first is that it allows many plugs to swim deeper in the water column than most people fish them. This opens up a whole new set of presentations for many plugs, such as bombers and various bottle plugs. The second advantage is that in many instances, dropping my rod tip allows me to take wind out of the equation, by placing most of the line under water. Removing the bow that wind causes allows you to feel everything your plug is doing, so you won’t miss as many strikes on a windy night. Again, this advantage is mostly a bay, canal, harbor thing but still offers some advantages on the open beach.
Here’s an interesting one that finds application in certain high current areas. I actually came across this during my many years of fishing atop bridges, while working structure on the down tide sides of the bridge. I then adapted it and started using it when fishing inlets and certain bay channels where the channel edges provided the proper conditions. The best benefits of the dropback method are attained through the use of conventional gear, but are not limited to it.
We all take it as common knowledge that bass can’t lay off anything that is struggling with current. And what exactly does a baitfish do when it is struggling with current. It tries like hell to swim back the way it came, which means facing into the current, but progressing backward. Any set of conditions that you come across, that allow you to present a profile facing into the current, but moving backward, should be investigated. It is amazing how often this simple adjustment can make in getting bass to pound your profile. Here are a couple of applications.
When throwing leadheads from an inlet jetty, let's say tide running left to right, the simple version is to cast up tide, let it sink, tick the bottom as it passes your position and continue to maintain contact as it arcs towards the jetty wall. This is where my age shows, because all the jetty jockeys now use VS 300’s, and they do just fine with them. But when using conventional gear, as your leadhead passes you and begins it’s arc toward the jetty wall, you can freespool the reel until the leadhead ticks the bottom, thumb the spool to bring it off the bottom for a second, and then freespool again. This keeps it traveling in a straight line down the inlet, not arcing toward the wall. If you get whacked, clamp down on the spool with your thumb, set the hook, and game on. Screw up the sequence, hello bird’s nest, and goodbye fish, been there and done that LOL. If you are fishing late at night and without company, this technique can allow you to cover so much more productive territory, all the while presenting your profile in a manner likely to produce a strike.
For those fishing spinning gear, there are scenarios that this will work, and at times, work when nothing else will. My above topic on Needlefish is one where this might work. When fishing a floating needlefish, if light conditions permit your visual tracking of your plug, then open your bail as the needle passes you, then flip it closed, lift the rod tip, wait a second, and open the bail and let the plug drift with the tide again before repeating. Be prepared to palm the spool in the case of a hit.
If you are fishing a swimming plug from a bar that allows you to walk with the current, or a beach trough with a mild sweep, try walking your plug backward, so that it is facing into the current, but moving backward at the speed you walk. I’ve been successful on the beach with this so many times, I call it reverse trolling. In absence of a specific piece of structure, this is a great approach covering territory. If the trough is a quarter mile long, you start at the up-current end, and work your way down. When the plug gets washed ashore, walk down a bit, cast perpendicular, let the plug swing and start again.
How fast is fast, and is it too slow?
The common axiom for fishing plugs for bass is, fish them slow, especially at night. While this might be true much of the time, a few adjustments might put you into many more fish. For the record and under most conditions, bass have little problem picking up your profile, nor running it down if it suits them. There are the extremes to consider, such as brown tides, murky storm waters, and the blackest of new moon nights, but let’s consider those the exception and not the rule.
Many people I know fish plugs too slow for bass. They have it ingrained in their heads that every plug has to be presented slowly. And on the occasions they catch bass, it only enforces a belief that I feel costs many fishermen a lot of bass. I know I’m going out on a limb here, but if nothing else, experiment with the speed of your retrieve on your swimming plugs, as many plugs, like bottle plugs, don't respond well when reeled too slowly.
Yes, there are many times when a twitching, teasing, bottom bumping slow roll will produce, but there are many more times where an increase in the retrieve speed will prompt a bass into making a commitment to your plug, where a slower retrieve will produce a follow, or a “nose” bump (the infamous “light” hit or tap). Do not be afraid of experimenting with the speed of your retrieves.
The guys in Montauk rip 2 oz (or larger depending on conditions) bucktails over the tops of rocks and catch many fish. Reel slower, and you catch a rock. I’ve ripped bucktails through shallow sand troughs during the day, and received smashing hits for my efforts. In calm ocean conditions, day or night, unless it’s black as the ace of spades, I’ll reel my bottle plugs faster than most, and make those suckers vibrate. And the venerable SS needlefish, the fish it slow and then slower plug, well if there is any light at all, I go faster, and on a moon lit night, I go even faster.
Live eels vs. dead ones
I fish eels a lot. To me, they are like any other plug, except they do all the work. They are not useful in all conditions, but are well worth the effort of learning how to fish them if quantity and quality matter to you. My one bone of contention is the proclamation that dead eels will out-fish live ones. I’ve heard some very reputable fishermen make this claim, and I am sorry, I just can’t buy into it.
When rigging an eel, much time and effort is spent getting a dead eel to swim upright, and with an attractive wiggle. So explain to me how a dead, non-rigged eel, rolling over in an unnatural circular motion at every twitch, is going to out-fish a live one?? The explanation I hear for this, is that somehow a bass knows that the eel has been used to catch a previous bass, or something, it’s so weird, I can’t even keep it in my head.
Simply put, I have fished thousands of eels in my lifetime, and I have never seen evidence one that a dead one catches better than a live one. And it makes no sense to believe so. Can a dead one catch a bass, absolutely. That’s why I keep the dead ones in a separate bucket, just in case I run out of livies. Do they catch better than live ones, no way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thrown eels over a hole holding tons of bass, hooked two on an eel, whereby it croaks. Throw it 10 more times, out of stubbornness (read laziness LOL) with nothing to show. Finally give up and put on a livie, and bang, next cast, fish on. Just consider this. With a bass’ highly attuned senses, what gives off the vibe of an eel in trouble, a dead one, or a live one.
Here’s my exit
OK, I understand that all this may sound like I’m just talking out of my ass, but I assure you that every instance, of every technique I’ve offered here, has been proven again and again, in side-by-side situations, with many people I’ve fished with through the years. And once again, this is not meant as a “my way or the highway” diatribe, as that is exactly what it is NOT meant to be. It is simply meant to challenge many of the generally held perceptions involved in catching bass, and illustrate how experimenting and staying open to new possibilities can up your score in the long run. Sometimes a little adjustment in your presentation can make a world of difference in your catch rate.
As always, I consider fishing from the surf as a life-long learning experience. It never stops. It is one of the fine things we have left, in a world that has sold out to instant gratification, me-first, and content on demand. So please feel free to offer your own experiences and viewpoints, and I will thank you in advance for your contributions.
Fall will be here soon, and the 24/7 madness will begin anew.