Tuck these two plugs in your surf bag when targeting stripers in moving water.
The steady bite on bucktail jigs and soft-plastic baits that my fishing partner, On The Water editor Kevin Blinkoff, and I had been enjoying had slowed down to a trickle as the ebb tide passed its halfway mark. The receding water had barely exposed a large rock about 10 yards in front of us, and that would be our perch for the remainder of the tide. After a few more casts with jigs went unanswered, we climbed off our rocks and tiptoed through the chest-deep water to the large, flat boulder. There was enough standing room to accommodate both of us, as long as I was willing to duck every time Kevin launched his lure.
Before making a first cast from the new platform, it was time to make a change. If the pattern we had been fishing for the past few nights was holding true, the school of fish had moved farther from shore and a bit downcurrent of the point we were fishing – a tailor-made scenario for casting a darter or a bottle plug.
The water was pulling hard, right to left, but not so hard as to prevent a darter from working effectively, so I clipped a black Super Strike Zig Zag onto my line. Kevin, looking to get a little more casting distance, switched to a black Super Strike Little Neck Swimmer, a bottle plug, and sent his first cast out at 11 o’clock, in relation to the rock we were standing on. I followed suit with my darter, giving the rod a sharp tug after the lure landed to get it to dig into the current. I began turning the reel handle as slowly as I could while maintaining a tight line. The moving current would be enough to make the plug work. Before I’d completed half a revolution, I heard Kevin’s drag slip as he leaned into a good fish. When my swinging darter neared the 10 o’clock position, I had a take as well, and within five minutes of climbing onto the rock, Kevin and I were tight to a pair of 15-pound bass.
When I began casting lures for stripers from the surf, darters and bottle plugs came highly recommended by some of the elder statesmen of the South Jersey surf. When I went to buy a bottle plug from my local tackle shop, my first impression was that something had gone horribly wrong in the production process. The lure had an unsightly bottle-neck and a deeply notched bill, and I couldn’t imagine any fish being fooled into eating such a funny-looking hunk of wood. I reluctantly pried open my wallet anyway, and took home a lure I was certain would never catch a fish.
My introduction to the darter was quite different. The first darter I ever laid eyes on was hanging from the maw of a 35-pound striper that a lucky surfcaster had snared just a few yards away from me under the Montauk Lighthouse. I sped to, what was at the time Freddie’s Tackle Shop, and I couldn’t get the money out fast enough for one of those odd-looking lures.
Though I’ve lumped these plugs together, I don’t mean to suggest that they are interchangeable lures. There is some overlap when it comes to productive conditions for both plugs, but there are also conditions that call specifically for a darter and conditions that call exclusively for a bottle plug.
Bottle plugs, with their deeply curved bill, are designed to handle heavy currents and big surf. The shape of the bottle plug also lends itself to greater casting distance, giving the angler more reach if the fish are far from shore.
The action on a bottle plug is a tight wobble that can be felt through the rod blank during the retrieve. To achieve the desired action, a bottle plug needs either a very fast retrieve, usually too fast to interest a striper, or a retrieve against, or at least across, a current.
As a result, I most often use bottle plugs in areas with reliably strong currents, such as inlets, river mouths, and in rips that form around points. Rarely will I clip one on, or even carry them in my bag, when casting from an open beach – the exception being when a stiff onshore wind has built up the surf and made casting and working other lures difficult. On stormy days when other offerings are getting tossed about by the waves, bottle plugs will dig deep and hold their position in the swell, often dangling right in front of the nose of a large hungry bass taking advantage of the rough conditions to feed.
Darters, on the other hand, regularly accompany me on my trips to the open beach, because a darter can be fished effectively in less current than the bottle plug. I also use the darter in the same inlets and river mouths where I use the bottle plugs. In a moderate to strong current, darters are excellent, but if the water is really honking, some darters will roll over on the retrieve.
Darters have a less aggressive action than bottle plugs. Instead of a tight wobble, they lazily “slide” from side to side during the retrieve, sometimes meandering as far as three feet to each side. Many anglers believe this action is more natural than other lures, and therefore think darters draw strikes from larger, more finicky bass. You will not feel a darter “working” as you do a bottle plug, but rest assured, as long as you’re maintaining contact with the lure throughout the retrieve, the darter is doing its job. Though a darter won’t cast quite as far as a bottle plug, it will still fly farther than just about any metal-lipped swimmer or plastic minnow-style plug on the market.
There are several companies and lure builders that make good darters and bottle plugs. Each manufacturer’s lures differ slightly, making them better suited for certain locations and conditions. My favorite all-around models of both the darter and the bottle plug are made by Super Strike. These lures are made from plastic, which virtually eliminates the odds of buying a dud that doesn’t swim correctly. Plus, both the Super Strike darter and bottle plug cast extremely well.
Tattoo’s Tackle makes a good darter, and I have caught fish with the Gibbs version too. L.I. Fish In VT darters are excellent lures. They are a bit shorter and fatter than the Super Strike darters, and come in three sizes, 1¾, 2½ and 3½ ounces, giving anglers some options when it comes to the size they want to throw. The LI Fish In VT darters seem to dig a bit deeper, and their wider profile allows them to hold in a heavier current without rolling, which can be an issue with slimmer models.
There are fewer bottle plugs on the market. Beyond the Little Neck Swimmer from Super Strike, there is the Gibbs Casting Swimmer and the wooden Northbar Bottle Plug. The wide-bodied Northbar bottle digs deep and makes for another excellent lure when big bass are on big baits in a strong current.
Northbar also makes a wooden and a plastic “Bottledarter,” a hybrid of the two lures. This lure has the tight wobble of a bottle plug, but it still wanders a bit from side to side during the retrieve like a darter, giving it a unique action that can be very effective for stripers.
Color is always a matter of personal preference, but yellow, black and white are good starting points for these plugs. I will stray from these colors when faced with certain conditions. In turbulent, wind-blown surf, a color called “parrot,” which is a tropical combination of green and yellow, is an excellent color for bottle plugs because it will stand out and get the attention of bass in dirty water. The presence of specific baitfish also influences color selection. The action of a darter so closely resembles that of a squid that pink or amber darters can be excellent choices in the spring, when stripers are feeding on spawning squid.
On my next cast, I had a bump within the first few turns of the handle, but somehow the fish missed the hooks. Once again, Kevin hooked up. His fish appeared to be a little better than the previous one, and as it ran with the current to our left, I fired another cast with the darter. I had another hit on the second turn of the handle, and another miss. By the time I brought the darter in for another cast, Kevin was lipping a 22-pound striper. I stopped fishing for a minute to snap a few pictures and watch the fish swim off in the dark water.
For the third time in as many casts, a fish struck in the first couple cranks of the reel, but this time I connected with a bass of just under 10 pounds. As I fought that fish, Kevin missed two hits in one cast before finally hooking a fish. I released my fish and listened to the drag screaming as Kevin’s bass, apparently a good one, moved off with the current. It was clear that the main body of bass, and the bigger ones, were just a hair outside of my darter’s casting range but well within that of Kevin’s bottle plug.
The early advice I’d received on working bottle plugs and darters may have been a bit of an oversimplification, but not by much. A straight, slow retrieve with these plugs does seem to work best, but the key to really catching fish with darters and bottles is to get the plug to “work,” while barely retrieving it at all.
This may be difficult to comprehend, but try to picture a school of baitfish hanging in the current. When I fished the bridges in New Jersey, I would often lean over the rails and watch schools of bunker or hickory shad as they held their position under the bridge lights in the moving water. The fish would glide to one side or another – much like a darter – but rarely lose ground against the current. As the bunker or shad were preoccupied with staging in the current, they were vulnerable targets for the stripers that would rocket up from below and inhale the large baitfish.
With most lures, fishing them against the current creates an unnatural presentation, but bottle plugs and darters are designed to be fished this way to represent larger baitfish. When fishing an area with the current running right to left, for example, I’ll cast the lure at the 11 o’clock position and reel just fast enough to keep the line tight, letting the current do most of the work.
On an open beach, the pull generated from a building wave will be plenty to cause your darter or bottle to work. When casting these lures from the beach, I will stop reeling entirely when the lure becomes caught in the swell, letting it hang behind the curling wave, where many open-beach stripers do their hunting.
I’ll frequently deviate from the straight cast-and-reel retrieve as well. Every third or fourth crank of the reel handle, I will give the rod a sharp, short jerk. With darters, this motion forces a quick change of direction, and with bottles, the lure will dart forward. Often, my strikes on these lures come immediately after this added action, which I assume is because the bass following the lure thinks it is trying to flee.
One of my favorite ways to fish these plugs is to cast them at the mouth of an inlet where I can position myself so that the current is running almost directly away from me. In these cases, I’ll feed line into the current before starting my retrieve, effectively lengthening my cast and allowing me to get to fish that would otherwise be well out of my range. No lure is better suited for this technique than a bottle plug or a darter.
I made another cast toward 11 o’clock, but this time, instead of coming tight on the lure as soon as it landed, I let the line pour off my Van Staal spinning reel as the current carried the lure to water I had not yet fished with my darter. After 30 yards of line left the spool, I put the line under the manual pickup and started my retrieve. By this time, Kevin had just turned his fish and was steadily moving it toward the rock. I turned the handle as slowly as I could, but when Kevin clicked on his headlight, revealing his fish as a gorgeous 30-pounder, the anticipation of another big bass striking my lure made it difficult to maintain the slow retrieve. It didn’t take long before a fish struck my plug, and from the deep headshakes, I could tell it was my best of the night.
Kevin’s fish, spooked by the sudden flash of his headlamp, tore off again with renewed strength, and the two of us engaged in an awkward dance of trying to keep our lines from tangling as we fought to subdue two large striped bass.
The fish Kevin was fighting turned toward the shore, behind us, keeping his line away from mine, but unfortunately, not away from the jagged boulders that dotted the surface between the shoreline and the rock on which we were perched. My fish stayed straight downcurrent, and I was gaining ground slowly but surely.
Kevin steered his bass away from the minefield of boulders and brought it within reach right around the time I was clamping my BogaGrip on the bottom lip of my 24-pound striper. I released my fish and pulled out the camera to document Kevin’s catch, which would pull the scale on the BogaGrip past the 30-pound mark before its release.
We continued to catch fish on bottle plugs and darters until the tide slowed down and the first signs of sunrise appeared on the horizon. As much I enjoy throwing these plugs at night, I’ve never had much success on them in the daytime, so we hopped off the rock and walked back to our trucks, discussing where to have breakfast before heading to our respective homes to catch up on sleep.