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You can walk the length of a local fishing pier in the fall and pass many rows of bottom-fishermen. First, there will be a few guys drowning minnows for flounder, and then gobs of spot anglers bunched up in hordes hoping for a run of fall yellow-bellies. These are generally calm people. Eventually, however, as you reach the deep end of the pier you may find a diverse pod of frenzied guys and girls casting and re-casting small plugs out into the water, lures that look for all the world like thin pencils with colored heads and three dangerous treble hooks attached to them.
Meet the pluggers. And yes, they do catch fish.
While fall is known for its pier runs of spot, it’s not as well known that September marks the time when our favorite predatory inshore game fish suddenly become very vulnerable to folks casting lures. Throughout the heat of the summer live bait has ruled, as the inshore water temperatures made sluggish fish harder to entice. As the water cools, however, and fall storms swirl the water, schools of bait run up and down the coast in big numbers.
These and other factors combine to get the internal engines in bluefish, speckled trout and Spanish mackerel buzzing. To put it simply, there are times when these fish become so aggressive they’ll strike at anything in the water. At other times, they are simply more susceptible to being fooled. Those fishing live or cut bait will catch plenty, but fall is a special time for artificial purists who love to try to match wits with their wily targets, particularly those who like to fish plugs.
For those on the pier, casting lures most often comes down to pencil plugs. These weighty little lures cast amazingly far for their size and are worked back to the pier, usually with the rod slung beneath the planks, in whips, jerks, fits and starts. The targets of these pluggers are blues and Spanish, both of whom strike such lures with furious anger, since the darting lures look like the small baitfish upon which they feed. Blues like a fast retrieve, while Spanish move even quicker and sometimes cannot be outrun even by the greenest rookie.
There was a time when pencil-plugs were sold in one or two brands and only a few colors and sizes. Now there is a huge selection of them at most tackle shops and piers. All of them work, although the Gotcha model is still the most-casted, and the redheaded, white-bodied version is the most used. Blues love the redheaded pencil plugs, while bodies of gleaming silver and gold make the Spanish come alive.
Whether you want to use a leader for your pencil plug is a matter of debate. Leaders protect from cutoffs caused by these toothy fish, but they will cut down on bites. Many folks use short black-wire leaders, while other anglers, like me, opt for a short length of heavy monofilament line, which is less visible to the fish. Sometimes, when Spanish mackerel are present but in a shy mood, you might have to go with no leader at all and risk losing a lure.
The beloved Gotcha-styles are one of two traditional plug bodies on our coast. The other is the MirrOlure style, a type of plug that looks a little more familiar to largemouth bass fishermen. Big and thick plugs, MirrOlures have long been a lure of choice for speckled trout fishermen, rarely seen on a pier but of great value from a small boat while chasing large specks. Once MirrOlures predominated the saltwater plug market, but with the popularity of trout and redfish (redfish hit plugs as well) and inshore tournaments, the market for saltwater plugs exploded years ago and hasn’t slowed. There are all kinds of saltwater plugs now, many invented by experienced saltwater anglers and many by folks who are more accustomed to going after those freshwater bass. Still, for me nothing beats a MirrOlure, a brand long marketed by L&S Lures out of Florida, when fishing for fall specks.
Trout and redfish anglers like to use plugs inshore because of the size of fish that hits them. It is true that autumn is indeed a prime time for those hoping to fill the cooler and chasing trout and reds with various jigs on which they impale their favorite plastic or synthetic bodies. Plugs, however, will catch larger fish on average. Big trout view plugs as big baitfish, which are their primary diet, as opposed to smaller trout, which feed mainly on shrimp, which is just what the jigs and synthetic bodies imitate best.
The retrieve a freshwater bass angler uses is too fast for saltwater trout. In most cases, you want to find a speed that keeps the lure off the bottom and in the middle of the water column, but doesn’t outrun the fish. Many people use a pull-and-pause method, throwing a twitch or two in there, now and then. When the fish are really hitting, you can speed up your retrieve or sometimes just reel the thing back to you any old way.
A big advantage of plug fishing is that it is the easiest and quickest way to fish, so if you don’t get a hit in the first 15 minutes at a new spot, you can just haul anchor and go very efficiently and be fishing a new spot as soon as you arrive. It’s also one of the most fun ways to fish. Like blues and Spanish mackerel on a pier, big trout and redfish strike a plug with bad intentions that will get your heart pumping.
Other plugs work in different times and places. Some saltwater anglers keep a selection of topwater plugs, and when they happen upon the right scenario can have great fun actually watching these various predators crash their lures. No matter what, I’ve always said a 3- pound speck outfights a 5-pound largemouth bass any day.
Unfortunately, fishing plugs is not always such great fun. Those folks on the pier, for instance, can get tired quickly. That’s why it’s always good to have a kid or two around. Kids love fishing plugs, do it tirelessly and are great fun to watch if you are resting on a bench spot fishing while waiting to see if the blues or Spanish mackerel are actually going to show.
JEFFREY WEEKS is a fishing columnist for the Beacon. Reach him at email@example.com.