Choose The Right Plug

Eliminate the Guesswork: A Methodical Approach to Plug Selection

plug bag

When you are trying to figure out what the fish want on any particular night, how do you choose which lure to use at any given moment?

If your answer is something like, “I just randomly switch until I find something that works,” you will benefit from a more careful approach to lure selection. While I admit that having a surf bag stuffed with a huge variety of plugs can be overwhelming at times, removing as much randomness from each cast you make is critical for surf-angling success—particularly when searching for big fish. Understanding and having confidence in your plugs comes first, but taking a thoughtful and methodical approach to determine which will be most effective at any given moment is a close second.

Make Big Changes First

When determining which lure is going to be the most effective during an outing, try large changes in profile, action, and where the plug swims in the water column.

A common mistake is making only subtle changes when swapping lures. An angler who switches from a Daiwa Salt Pro Minnow to a Bomber Long-A to a Mambo Minnow to a Mag Darter is likely missing out on a substantial number of fish because these lures are all so similar. Instead, when zeroing in on which plug to use, think about trying to make dramatic switches between plug classifications.

Choose The Right Plug chart

I prefer going from one lure category to the next, giving each a good chunk of time in the water, until I start getting into fish. For example, I might make a switch from a plastic minnow plug (like those listed above) to a metal-lipped Danny plug, and then to an 8-inch needlefish. This covers a broad range of plug types and covers a variety of profiles, actions, and depths. Once you start getting hits, you can start making smaller changes.

If I’ve been cycling through the above-mentioned plugs and finally get hit on a needlefish, I try another thin-profile lure, such as a skinny soft plastic. If, ultimately, the needle is the only thing that works, changing up other factors like the size or color can add the last little bit of detail that results in more or larger fish landed.

When to Change Plugs

When to switch between plugs depends on several factors. If I have yet to catch a fish but believe there are large ones in the area, I am more persistent and stay with one plug longer. Often, it takes time to discover the best presentation for the conditions—and I don’t want to miss fish because I’m constantly swapping lures. On most nights, I generally stick with a plug for at least 10 minutes. However, if it’s a spot that I know almost always fishes a particular way or with a particular plug, I might change every 20 to 30 minutes. On the flip side, if I’m catching schoolies, I change plugs more frequently, trying to cull out the bigger fish. I might change plugs every couple of casts, particularly if the fish seem to be hitting just about everything.

Regardless of the action—whether dreadfully slow or furiously intense—I have a couple of baseline plugs I come back to over and over throughout the night. Even if I’m into fish, I keep “checking-in” with a few tried-and-true trophy plugs or lures I know will tell me a lot about the mood of the fish.

NorthBar Montauk Darter striper
Switching to a NorthBar Montauk Darter resulted in this striper for the author.

At one location, a Lunker City Slug-Go is almost always the most effective lure for all sizes of fish. Therefore, while I might try swimmers, darters, and needles, I keep coming back to the Slug-Go. This allows me to determine whether the fish simply haven’t arrived in the spot yet or if I am missing an opportunity by fishing a different lure. Knowing the “check-in” lures for your particular spot, time of year, or style of fishing is important.

No matter how hot one specific lure is, I still make at least a couple of significant changes, which eliminates the possibility of missing out on something even more productive. On nights when I’m into multiple 20- and 30-pound fish, I still force myself to test several different profiles and presentations for five to 10 casts. It can be difficult to find the discipline to do this when the action is fierce, but I’ve caught big fish by switching it up. Don’t cheat yourself, either. While you don’t have to spend 15 minutes experimenting, a single cast won’t tell you much either.

I never hammer away at the water with the same plug for hours on end. Even if I’ve caught thousands of fish with a particular lure, I still think it pays to change it up every once in a while so I treat every night like a blank slate. I don’t show up during every tide and repeat the same tactics; instead, I take the time to reassess the situation and keep changing up my plug selection. Conditions and fish behavior are in constant flux, so being stagnant in plug choice is a mistake.

Simplify Color Changes

It is also a mistake to fill a plug bag with 10 versions of the same plug in a rainbow of colors. Having assorted colors of the same lure will yield much less information than several different styles of plugs. Fish can be extremely selective about colors, but that’s been rare in my experience.

To ensure I have a wide array of plug types, I typically carry only two colors of each—a light color (like yellow over white) and a dark color (like “blurple”). During a full moon, I might drop the dark color and carry a brighter color such as chartreuse. During dark, new moon nights, I might bring an additional dark color.

Only after I’m into a consistent bite with a plug and really feel like I’m locked into the spot, do I start changing up color, and those changes are dramatic. For example, switching from bone to blurple to mackerel to parrot are big changes that are give me a lot more information than switching from bone to white to yellow.

bass on bucktail
The same guidelines for switching lures are effective during the day and at night.

A Night in the Surf

Suppose I am fishing at night on a point with a good current sweep and water depth from 6 to 12 feet. The wind isn’t strong, but it’s in my face. There is no visible bait, but there are a variety of likely candidates – everything from spearing to large black sea bass.

My presentation includes one of three options: letting my plug swing with the water movement, casting directly up-current and reeling it back to me relatively quickly, or casting it at an angle down-current and slowly retrieving it back. In previous seasons, I’ve had luck fishing everything from bucktails to plastic minnow plugs to giant surface-swimming metal lips. So, where do I begin?

First, I start with something on the larger side and swing it with the current. I believe this is the most natural presentation on most nights throughout the season, so I might start with a big glidebait. These wide-bodied plugs fish the middle of the water column and work well sweeping with the current.

If the glidebait does not produce after approximately 10 minutes, it’s time to switch. I don’t reach for another wide-bodied, mid-column, swing-with-the-current plug; instead, I reach for something quite different. There are many options, but I often choose a darter—likely a Super Strike Zig Zag—to work against the current. I cast it out at an angle down-current, and then slowly work it back. A darter plug has a skinnier profile and different action than a glidebait.

If that doesn’t work, I try a change in water depth, using a subsurface metal-lip lure and try to get it down. It is still a big profile, but instead of swimming at 5 feet like the darter, I can get it down to 10 feet. Compared with both previous lures, it puts out much more vibration and aggressive action.

At this point, though I’ve only made three changes, I have covered both large- and moderate-sized profiles, subtle and dynamic action, mid- and deep-water columns, and presentations that swim with and against the current. That is a huge amount of information from just three lures.

If I am still fishless, I try something worked with the current, probably a mid-size needlefish, which also provides a very different profile. Since I can fish it a variety of ways, I try working it with the current and on the swing.

If this proves ineffective, I select a lure with more inherent action (like a Redfin) that I know will draw a strike from almost any fish, just to see if there are fish of any size around.

Original Pikie striped bass
This striper fell for ol’ Original Pikie.

With just these five lures, I’ve covered a huge swath of likely scenarios, and if there are fish in the area, I should be getting an idea of what is going to work best. If I haven’t gotten a hit at this point, I usually start the process over until I either start catching or decide it is time to move to a new spot.

But, suppose I start getting hits with the Super Strike Darter, and I land a couple fish into the teens. After trying a couple other plugs, with no results, I go back to the darter and begin catching again., which tells me a lot. I am working the darter against the current, it has a mid-sized profile, a subtle action, and is swimming mid-water column.

I rarely stop the selection process with the first few fish. If I catch only one or two fish, if the bite slows down, if I continue to catch small fish, or I have reason to believe I could be doing better, I continue switching it up. Yet, now that I have some indication of what is working, I stay with the same classification, which in this case is a darter.

I would likely try a big Mike’s Custom Beast darter because I can swim it at approximately the same depth and it has a similar action but a much larger profile. As I narrow down what the fish want, my plug changes become smaller.

If the big darter isn’t working, I go back to the Super Strike just to make sure the fish are still there. If I start catching again, I may give one or two other darters with very similar profiles a try (depending on what I have with me), but my experimentation will start to slow down. For example, I will probably give a NorthBar Montauk darter a go. It is similar to the Super Strike, but it is a little wider and I can work it correctly at both deeper and shallower depths (depending on retrieve). In essence, this means I’m delivering a very similar profile and action to different levels of the water column.

If this also results in no hits, I go back to the Super Strike yet again. I might start to finesse the presentation now to see if adding a little speed or slowing it down is more productive. I also start playing with twitches, sweeps, or stops. Sometimes, these make a substantial difference; other times, it does absolutely nothing.

Finally, now that I am confident the Super Strike darter is the go-to plug, and I’m locked in on this particular night, I might start to change colors. However, there is a huge caveat here. When changing colors, you’re also changing plugs. Not even every Super Strike darter is exactly the same (although being plastic, they are typically very consistent) and wood plugs often have subtle to significant differences in action, even if they’re made the same way by the same builder. For this reason, I am often reluctant to play around with color once I’m into a bite on a specific plug. On a night like this one, the yellow over white is probably just going to stay on, with only a couple test casts with blurple.

As the night progresses, I might throw a couple other profiles just for good measure, and work these for a handful of casts even if the darter is getting clobbered. Still, I pay attention and try to keep myself from getting stuck on the darter if it suddenly stops working. The point is, while I enjoy the action, I am still keeping my eyes open and paying attention to any changes that might require a swap in my lure.

Zeroing in on the right lure can be much more complicated than relying on what worked last time or randomly switching between lures. As with everything in fishing, taking a methodical approach to how you choose your plug in the surf can be the difference between nailing a 40-pounder or going home with a handful of schoolies.

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