The Deadly Dozen
November 18, 2019
Make sure you have these proven coastal fish-catchers in your tackle bag! By Tom Richardson; Photos by Sharon Bartholomew
If you were limited to 12 saltwater lures, which ones would you choose? Over the years, the following selection has remained consistently effective for taking New England’s major inshore game fish, from stripers to albies. They imitate a wide range of forage species and allow you to cover the entire water column, from top to bottom. In short, you can’t go wrong with this winning team!
In the crowded world of soft-plastic lures, the Lunker City Slug-Go remains a top contender. This versatile fish-fooler will take almost any species of Northeast game fish, including tuna, stripers, sea bass and scup.
The Slug-Go comes in a variety of sizes, and will match virtually any type of baitfish, including large herring, mackerel and sand eels. Pearl, bubble gum, olive and blue/white are tops for daytime fishing, while black is the go-to choice at night.
The lure is effective when rigged on a leadhead jig to get it deep or increase casting distance. Hopping it over the bottom in a rip is a good way to score with fluke and stripers, or you can cast and retrieve a lightly weighted “Slug” around rock piles, pilings and other structure. Another favorite way to fish them is “Texas-style” on a worm hook. This weedless method is great for tempting stripers, bonito and false albacore, and is ideal when floating weeds pose a problem.
When targeting stripers, use a six- to nine-inch Slug-Go, twitched slowly on or just below the surface with long pauses. For albies, go with a four-inch model in pearl, olive or bubble gum, and retrieve it slowly through the school of breaking fish.
Cordell Pencil Popper
The pencil popper remains one of the best topwater lures. The teardrop-shaped lure will tempt everything from striped bass to tuna with its bobbling, wobbling surface action, while models with internal rattles (eg, Cordell Pencil Popper and Tsunami Talking Popper) add fish-attracting sound and increase casting distance.
This lure really excels in the spring, when squid invade the inshore waters of New England. Many pros remove the lure’s belly hook to reduce foul-hooking, and also crush the hook barbs to make releasing fish easier. Another modification is to replace the rear treble with a single Siwash hook. And to increase casting distance, some anglers drill a hole in the belly of the popper and add BBs.
Lures don’t get much more basic than this chrome-plated chunk of metal. One key to its effectiveness is that it imitates a variety of baitfish, from squid to herring. The lure’s flat, reflective sides catch the light and draw the attention of predators, which are also attracted to its erratic action. You can find diamond jigs in different sizes and adorned with everything from bucktail to rubber tubes. While the latter work well in certain situations, such as when sand eels are prevalent, a plain jig rigged with a single hook usually does the job nicely.
Half- to one-ounce diamonds work well in situations where peanut bunker, silversides, juvenile herring and butterfish are on the menu and the depth is less than 20 feet. Medium jigs in the two- to four-ounce range are great for targeting fluke and sea bass in moderate depths (20 to 40 feet) and current, while jigs of six to eight ounces do a good job of imitating larger squid, bunker and herring in deeper water and heavy current.
Fishing a diamond jig is pretty straightforward. You can cast and retrieve them parallel to the surface when fish are feeding in the upper part of the water column, or you can drop them straight to the bottom and jig them vertically. For fluke, sea bass and other bottom fish, simply hop the jig over the bottom using short, sharp six-inch lifts of the rod tip. Make sure the lure taps bottom on every drop by letting out more line as you drift along.
When jigging for striped bass in a deep rip, free-spool the jig to the bottom, engage the reel and take five to ten quick cranks of the reel, then free-spool the jig back to the bottom again. Be sure to keep your thumb on the spool as the jig flutters downward, as many fish will hit it on the drop. If you feel a tap or a hesitation of the jig’s descent, clamp your thumb down on the reel spool and lift sharply.
The venerable parachute jig has probably produced more stripers than any other type of lure fished on wire line. At first glance, it doesn’t look like any kind of baitfish a predator would be interested in, until you consider how it performs underwater.
Unlike most other lures fished on wire, the parachute should be jigged for best results. This makes the “reverse” skirt flare and pulse as the jig darts through the water, imitating a squid. The best way to achieve this action is to hold the rod upside-down, with the tip pointed at the water, and use a short, sharp, sweeping motion, like using a broom.
White, pink and chartreuse parachutes are particularly effective in areas where menhaden, herring, shad and squid are present, while darker patterns (black, red and purple) work well over rocky reefs inhabited by scup, sea bass, cunner and the like. Another great thing about parachutes is that they can be trolled very deep—up to 40 feet— without additional weight.
A final note on fishing parachutes: Always add a long strip of pork rind to the hook, and make sure the lure is fished just above bottom. If you don’t tap bottom every so often, you aren’t fishing deep enough.
Rebel Jumpin’ Minnow
If you live for the thrill of watching fish fish attack a topwater plug, you’ll want want to have a Jumpin’ Minnow in your tackle box. This oldie-but-goodie is a killer on striped bass and bluefish in the Northeast. When fished correctly, it exhibits a lazy, side-to-side swimming action that stripers find irresistible.
The 3 ½-inch lure comes in many colors and patterns, but the pearl version is tops, especially early in the season when squid are common.
The Jumpin’ Minnow is best fished on relatively light gear—
8- to 12-pound test is ideal. Use a wind-on leader system and a 20- to- 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.
SPRO Bucktail jig
Bucktail jigs have been around since the first caveman invented the artificial lure, but the SPRO version is a cut above the rest. This well-made jig features sharp, strong saltwater hooks and a chip-resistant finish that withstands abuse from rocks and teeth. The realistic head shape, patterns and prismatic eyes also set it apart from traditional bucktails.
The SPRO bucktail is deadly on fluke and sea bass, but it helps to add a small strip of squid or scented soft-plastic bait to the hook. Hop the lure over the bottom while drifting, making it imitate a squid or baitfish.
Small SPRO jigs work great in shallow water and light current, while three- and four-ounce versions can handle deep water and strong currents. Carry them in different sizes.
If you fish for stripers anywhere in the Northeast, you’ll want to have a tube lure in your arsenal. This long, plastic lure probably imitates an eel (although the stripers aren’t sayin’), and is best trolled on leadcore or wire line, and is an outstanding lure for taking bass during daylight hours, when the fish are holding deep.
Here are several keys to fishing tubes effectively:
Place a live seaworm on the hook. The scent of the worm apparently convinces the bass to strike after first being drawn to the swimming action of the lure.
Troll the lure as slowly as possible; between one and three knots is ideal.
Troll the lure through areas with good current flow and a boulder-strewn bottom in 10 to 15 feet of water.
Trolling outfits usually consist of a six-foot boat rod and a conventional reel filled with either wire or leadcore line. The latter is easier to use and works well in depths of 15 feet or less. Use a six-foot fluorocarbon leader of 50-pound-test to connect the leadcore to the lure.
The most popular tube color is dark red, although fluorescent green, pink, and black all take fish on certain days. Try the brighter colors in low-light situations and darker colors on sunny days.
When it comes to early-season lures, this one’s a keeper! The Bomber 16A Heavy Duty (HD) Long A, in the “Mother of Pearl” pattern, does a great job of imitating herring and squid, both of which invade the shallow coastal waters of New England in May.
The lure can be cast or trolled, which is useful for prospecting large areas for schools of bass and bluefish. Also, it swims fairly shallow, which allows it to be fished over structure in ten feet of water or less, where many game fish hang out in the spring. While the lure comes factory-rigged with three trebles, many anglers remove the belly hook to limit foul-hooking.
The soft-plastic swim Shad, like those made by Tsunami and Storm, is another excellent inshore lure. Top colors include pearl, bunker and chartreuse. The lure’s effectiveness is boosted by its realistic profile and swimming action, courtesy of its paddle tail. Plus, the big, prismatic eyes and black spot behind the gills on some models provide an appealing target for many predators.
This lure is a go-to choice of many anglers when schools of “fresh” stripers are moving through the bays and sounds in May and early June, feeding on squid and herring. It’s particularly useful when a school of bass suddenly sounds, as it gets down quickly to where the fish and bait are holding, keeping you in the game while others wait for the fish to surface again. It’s a good reason to keep one rod rigged with a shad and another with a topwater plug, shallow swimmer or soft-plastic bait.
The Swim Shad can be cast out and retrieved slowly, but also works well when jigged vertically through the water column or just above the bottom.
The lure also takes fish in coastal rivers when migrating herring are making their way upstream or dropping back to the ocean after spawning. In this case, retrieve the lure slowly past rocks and pilings, through deep holes and along channel edges for the best results.
Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow
The Crystal Minnow is effective for targeting stripers in shallow to moderate depths. It features prominent prismatic eyes, as well as a tight swimming action and highly reflective sides, and is rigged with strong, sharp saltwater hooks.
Perhaps the most versatile size is the 5 ¼-inch, five-ounce version, which matches silversides, mackerel and herring. The floating model will dart and dive to three feet or so then float to the surface, allowing it to be fished in shallow areas where the bass are likely to hold after they first arrive in the bays. This lure is very effective on bonito and king mackerel.
When small, wide-bodied baitfish are on the menu, it’s hard to top this trusty standby. Small KastMasters are very effective on stripers, blues, false albacore and bonito in the fall, when young-of-the-year herring are dropping out of the coastal rivers. However, larger versions can also be jigged just above the bottom for black sea bass and fluke.
Another advantage of the KastMaster is that it can be fished at different levels of the water column depending on where the fish are holding. Sometimes simply letting it free-fall to the bottom can be the key to hooking stubborn fish. Carry it in several sizes to match the size of the prevailing forage.
Creek Chub Striper Strike
When it comes to kicking up a surface commotion, you’ll want to have at least one of these classic plugs ready for action. The Creek Chub Striper Strike has been around for many years, but it remains deadly on stripers and bluefish in a variety of situations.
The sinking, cup-faced popper is a dream to cast and should be retrieved with short, sharp jerks of the rod tip to make the lure throw water. A slow retrieve with pauses between pops is generally considered the most effective technique for stripers, but don’t be afraid to mix things up.
Smaller versions of the Striper Strike are best in calm coves and estuaries, while the larger, heavier lures are terrific in turbulent surf and rips.