The wooden metal-lip swimming plug burst onto the striped bass fishing scene in the late 1940s and quickly became a go-to lure in the surfcaster’s arsenal. Since that time, however, the metal-lip plug has waxed and waned in popularity as big baitfish populations have cycled and other effective hard- and soft-plastic lures were introduced. But in the last 10 years, the popularity of these plugs has once again exploded, and they are now a staple, or should be, in just about every surfcaster’s plug bag.
With metal lips being so popular, I was surprised to discover how much confusion there is over these lures. Last spring, I did a seminar on fishing metal lips, and of the 125 attendees, most had fairly basic questions concerning the different types of metal lips and where to fish them. At the tackle shop where I work, Quaker Lane Bait and Tackle, I routinely field similar questions about the many different kinds of metal-lip swimmers. Hopefully I can clarify some of this plug puzzlement.
There are three distinct types of wooden metal-lip swimmers – the surface swimmer, the subsurface swimmer and the deep swimmer. All of these types are similar in that they are made of buoyant wood, have lead weight added for balance and have a bent metal lip affixed to the nose. This combination of wood, lead and metal allows the creation to swim like a wounded or crippled baitfish. Many of the plugs intended for heavy-duty saltwater use will have a steel wire running through the body from which the hooks are hung. This provides a stronger connection to a fish than hooks hung from screw-in eyes.
The Danny Plug
The surface swimmer is a very productive lure for striped bass. When most surf fishermen are asked about wooden metal-lip plugs they will inevitably mention the “Danny” plug. The Danny is the quintessential surface swimmer. It was developed in the 1950s by master plug builder and striper fisherman, Danny Pichney, who constructed masterpieces in the basement of his Queens, New York home. He designed the Danny plug as well as other types of wooden lures. He made the Danny in three sizes, but the the mid-sized, 6-inch, 2 ¼-ounce model was the most popular and has been the most copied by modern plug builders. This is why most fishermen call all metal-lip swimmers “Danny” plugs, even though it is just a small portion of this type of lure.
Almost every wooden plug maker today makes some form of a Danny surface swimmer. I was first introduced to the Danny swimmer in the late ‘70s when some friends and I would put an order together and call Danny in New York. Within a few months, I would get a call, usually in the winter time, hop in my car and travel to my friend’s home. Other friends would already be there, and Pat would dole out our plug orders. It was something to look forward to during a long New England winter without surf fishing. His plugs came in sealed, clear plastic bags with no labels. We would eventually put the plugs to good use, and I recall that my first good bass came on one of Danny’s surface-swimming creations.
Since that 15-pounder, I always carry at least one Danny in my bag. I love to fish it during low-light periods, dusk and dawn, or after dark. The tantalizing side-to-side, rolling action of the Danny is irresistible to striped bass. A good Danny will stay on the surface throughout the retrieve. If it doesn’t, then it won’t work on striped bass, and you might as well take the hooks off and use it as a paperweight. Watching a large striper hit a surface Danny as daylight is fading is a fishing experience that needs to be experienced by everyone that picks up a surf rod. Danny plugs can also be very productive during the daylight, especially during the late spring and the fall. I’ve seen bass come from deep water to hit a properly fished Danny. One sunny morning while boat fishing in Quicks Hole in the Elizabeth Islands, I was casting a Danny plug when the captain told me to get ready, as he was marking fish on the bottom about 22 feet below. On about my third cast, I was working a “blue cloud” Danny back to the boat when a 30-pound fish swirled at it then swallowed the plug just as it approached the bow.
When I use any type of surface swimmer during daylight hours, I give it the “seagull test.” That’s when you cast out your metal-lip surface swimmer and see if it attracts flying seabirds. Believe me, if it looks real to a gull, it’s going to catch bass. On many occasions, I had to pull a metal-lip surface swimmer away from a diving bird.
Another reason to always carry a Danny plug is that it will often tell you if there are fish in the area you are fishing. Sometimes, bass will just swirl behind a Danny plug without eating it. Even if they don’t hit the plug, at least you will know that they are there and might hit something else in your bag.
Danny plugs in all white, blue marble, yellow, yellow with red head, parrot, mackerel and “blurple” (black over purple) all have their day (and night). Keep trying colors until you find one that works. Though the 6-inch, 2¼-ounce Danny is by far the most popular, don’t count out the other sizes. I actually prefer the smallest Danny, a 4½-inch, 1½-ounce plug. It will catch when most other lures won’t. It is my plug of choice during the day, but Danny plugs in that size are hard to come by, and ones that swim well are even rarer. There are a few builders out there today who occasionally make batches of this size Danny plug, including Beachmaster and Tattoo lures. The 2¼-ounce is made by a many more builders, but I especially like the ones made by Beachmaster, RM Smith and Gary Hull (though Gary’s plugs have become collectible items since his passing in 2008).
I never used the 7-inch, 3¼-ounce Danny much as my tackle was not suited for lures rated more than 2½ ounces. On the few occasions I’ve used it, it has worked well. This lure works best after dark when adult bunker, mackerel, herring or other large baitfish are around. I also like to use the Danny, in all sizes, when there is white water. In fact, any wooden metal-lip swimmer works better when there is white water. Let me reiterate: white water plus metal-lip plug equals stripers!
White-water conditions are so productive because the turbulent water obscures the plug, making it appear even more realistic to bass searching for disoriented baitfish. That’s why it’s important for striper fishermen to keep an eye on the weather. Wind causes waves and waves cause white water around the shoreline, providing excellent hunting conditions for striped bass. (Just be careful fishing during storms, as large surf can be dangerous.) At the same time, don’t fret if it’s flat calm. I would still throw a Danny or some other surface swimmer in calm conditions, particularly at night.
The Danny surface swimmer is a wonderful plug, but it does have some limitations. As indicated, the Danny is strictly a surface swimmer. It has no business going subsurface, and if yours does, it’s a dud, it’s not “tuned” correctly, or you are reeling way too fast. Occasionally, a new Danny out of the package must be tuned or adjusted slightly so it swims on the surface. To do that, use pliers to bend the line tie of the lure down toward the bend of the lip. Do not bend or touch the lip. By changing the position of the line tie, the Danny will stay on the surface. If, after you tune the lure, the Danny still does not swim on the surface, then it shouldn’t be used. Believe me, a Danny-type plug will not be effective swimming at any other level. Moreover, I wouldn’t use a Danny-style plug in current such as you’d find in an inlet, breachway or river mouth, where a Danny plug will wiggle wildly and look unnatural to the bass. That is the only time I leave them at home to make room in my surf bag for subsurface swimmers.
A variation of the Danny plug is the jointed Danny. This style is also called a “jointed eely” by some plug builders. It is a segmented surface-swimming metal-lip plug. It is usually a little longer than a regular Danny. The jointed Danny was also made by Dan Pichney back in the ‘70s. I used it back then with excellent results, and I’ll still use it anywhere I would use a regular Danny. Often I find that it actually works better. It has great action that passes the seagull test with flying colors. When bass won’t hit or are only swirling at a regular Danny, I’ll clip on a jointed Danny and hold on. Two builders who are currently making the jointed Danny/eely are RM Smith and Beachmaster lures.
Another type of surface swimmer is the Pikie-style metal lip. This lure has a different shape than a Danny plug and is able to run subsurface as well as on top. The Pikie metal lip is often called the “West Coast” plug because its plug type has been perfected by plug builders out in California.
A good Pikie will sway from side to side and have some roll. On a slow, steady retrieve, a well-designed Pikie will stay just on the surface of the water with its nose digging down and its butt wagging like a puppy’s tail. On a faster retrieve, the Pikie will dig under the surface and swim throughout the retrieve. Unlike with the Danny swimmer, if you want the Pikies to swim a little deeper, you can gently bend the metal lip upward with your thumb. This will cause the plug to swim deeper and with a tighter wiggle. It will also swim better in current after this tuning. You can also bend the line tie up. That will bring the plug even deeper. And, like the Danny, bending the line tie down will bring the plug to the surface. All of this makes the Pikie a very versatile fish catcher. You can cover a fair portion of the water column with a true Pikie.
Pikies cast better than Danny swimmers and work better in moving water. Pikies from Big Water Lures, Jigman, Fixter, Winch and Eurojett will catch stripers. Generally, I like Pikies in the 2- to 3-ounce range, but it is not unusual to see Pikies in the 5- to 6-ounce size. I like Pikies in similar colors as the Danny – all white or pearl, all black, blurple, school bus (black back/yellow belly), green mackerel and white with a red head. Pikes work well at night and low-light periods. I have caught with them during daylight hours, but white water and overcast conditions are usually a prerequisite. For me, Pikies are strictly a nighttime plug.
The next surface-swimming metal-lip plug is the Surfster. After the Danny, the Surfster is my all-time favorite surface plug. The Surfster is a lot like the Danny, but it is more oval in shape, and traditionally has a cupped lip that lies flat across the face of the lure. Surfsters swim on the surface, or creating a wake throughout the retrieve. If your Surfster doesn’t do that, then I think it’s time to put it on the shelf and try another. The swimming action of a Surfster is a little different from the other surface metal lips; the best way I can explain it is to compare it to the old freshwater Jitterbug. A good Surfster looks just like that popular sweetwater classic, rocking side to side when reeled through the water. This action drives stripers nuts.
Usually you can leave the lip and the line tie alone on a Surfster. If the plug is not swimming on the surface, you can try bending the line tie down, but I’ve found that Surfsters don’t react as well to tuning the line tie as the Danny or the Pikie.
Surfsters run around 1- to 2½-ounces and work well in all the shades I’ve previously mentioned. I have a Surfster in chartreuse made by Gary Hull that usually out-fishes everything in my bag when I am fishing water that calls for surface swimmers. The Surfster plug is not nearly as popular as the Danny and is sometimes hard to find on the shelves or walls of tackle shops. Some plugs may be found on eBay or online Buy-Sell-Trade forums. If you can find one (or two) made by Gary2 or Troublemaker, buy them because they will catch a bunch of bass for you. Unfortunately, neither is made anymore. Lemire’s Plugworks, Big Fish Bait Co. and Bob Hahn all make Surfsters, as do a few smaller builders like Jigman and Surf Asylum.
Subsurface swimmers are similar to surface-swimming metal lips in construction, but they are specifically made to swim from just underneath the surface to about 2 to 3 feet down. They may look a lot like surface swimmers, but they are weighted differently and/or have a different lip – usually larger – which forces them to dive below the surface of the water. A good subsurface metal lip will wobble and roll a bit, similar to the Danny, and will swim “true” in current – it will swim on a straight line and maintain a constant, rhythmic wobble throughout the retrieve. Current is usually the best test for subsurface swimmers. If a metal lip can’t hold its action and line in a moderate to strong rip than it probably won’t catch stripers.
It seems like all plug makers produce subsurface metal-lip swimmers. Your average subsurface metal lip is about 2 ounces and 5½ inches in length. Plug makers usually offer them in a variety of sizes ranging from ½- to 3½-ounce. For colors, once again, I stick to the striper favorites: white, black, blurple, yellow, yellow-and-white, green mackerel, parrot, green-and-white and blue-and-white. I have always caught with subsurface metal lips from Beachmaster, RM Smith, Gary Hull, Fixter, Big Water Lures, Big Don, Hab’s, Jnski, Lordship, Afterhours and Greeenpoint. Subsurface swimmers will catch stripers in almost every condition, but I have found that they really don’t work all that well in daylight conditions. They are basically a low-light or nighttime artificial. I do the absolute best with these metal lips while fishing inlets. A little white water thrown in, and they will work even better.
Fishing subsurface metal lips along rocky shorelines or sandy beaches does not produce as well as you might expect. In these areas, a surface-swimming metal lip seems to be much more productive. The only exception I’ve found is a line of subsurface swimmers made by plug builder Kevin Gledhill of Greenpoint Tackle Company. Greenpoint swimmers don’t look like the run-of-the-mill wooden metal-lip swimmer. They closely resemble a plastic Bomber, Rebel or Redfin.
These plugs worked at times when stripers turned up their noses at generic surface and subsurface swimmers. I’ve run into this during the summer months when big bait was gone from the area I was fishing and the only available baitfish were small sand eels and spearing (silversides). The stripers refused all of my offerings save the slim-bodied Greenpoints. I think it more closely “matched the hatch” as they say.
The deep-swimming metal lip is the Rodney Dangerfield of plugs – it gets no respect! Actually, most surf fishermen don’t really know anything about them. Most of the time when you mention a deep swimmer to a surf guy, he’ll tell you that it’s a trolling plug. This is not true. The deep-swimmimng metal lip is just a subsurface swimmer that has been modified by the addition lead weight inserts, the placement of the line tie, adjustments to the lip, or all three.
The deep swimmer is not made by many plug makers, which limits its availability to surf fishermen. It was originally developed to reach the deeper confines of a shoreline, inlet or jetty. The most popular deep-swimming metal lip was made back in the ‘50s by our old friend Danny Pichney. Danny made a super deep swimmer called a Conrad. He made it in three sizes, like his Danny. The Conrad sort of looks like a short, stubby Danny, but it weighs more, has a larger metal lip, and will swim to depths that only a leadhead bucktail jig can reach. The Conrad, and other deep swimmers, really come in handy when you want to put something with a larger profile than a bucktail near the bottom. They will also work effectively in deep inlets.
For me, the deep swimmer works the best in inlets. You can hug the bottom with it in the fastest current, which is where the bass will be. They will hide behind a rock or in a hole waiting for something to get flushed by with the current. The surf guy can get a deep swimmer down to a hiding bass by casting it up-current a bit and then slowly reeling down to the plug. After you feel the plug, start reeling slowly until the plug reaches the end of the moving water and pops out. Many times hits will come just before the plug reaches the edge of the rip.
I’ve also done very well with Conrads and other deep-swimming metal lips around jetties, where water can be pretty deep. You can cast parallel or perpendicular to the breakwater, then reel the deep swimmer right up to the rod tip as striped bass will often hit your metal lip as it is reaches the rock jetty. Several plug makers make deep swimmers. Beachmaster makes a plug which closely mimics the Pichney original. They also make a slope-head Conrad, which is basically the same as a standard Conrad but swims a bit shallower. Beachmaster turns out two other deep-running metal lips called the Cowboy and the Cowboy junior. All four deep swimmers are great plugs for pulling bass out of the deep holes and are a must for a surf fisherman’s arsenal. Unfortunately, Beachmaster only turns out these plugs occasionally, but they can be found on the internet.
Greenpoint Tackle makes deep swimmers too, and they are easier to find and buy. They are cool-looking plugs which resemble a fatter, wooden version of a Redfin or Bomber. Surf Asylum makes a Conrad that is occasionally available, Tattoo Tackle and JnSki plugs make deep swimmers too, and Gary Soldati of Big Water Lures makes a deep-running Pikie. I’d have to admit that yellow is my color of choice in this particular style of metal lip. Interestingly enough, I’ve only ever caught fish on deep-running metal lips at night.
There you go! Hopefully now you have a better grasp on the three different metal-lip styles that will cover the entire water column and how to fish them. This season, pack along a few of these plugs and start fishing them with confidence.