Ask veteran saltwater anglers to pick one lure type they can’t live without and most will probably respond “bucktail jigs,” with “soft plastics” finishing a close second. While both of those choices are among my favorites for much of the year, I do deviate from that during the fall months. With tons of bait in the water, aggressive bluefish mixed in with everything from stripers to sea bass, and little need to play the finesse card most days, it’s “tins” that I can’t part with during October and November.
Simple slabs of lead or tin generally coated with chrome for a bright, nearly indestructible finish, this genre of lures can be used to separate a tremendous number of predator fish species from their comfortable lairs. From tuna, stripers, false albacore, bonito and blues to bottom feeders like black sea bass, scup, cod and even fluke, tins are invaluable once the fall migration gets under way.
Tins come in a tremendously wide variety of shapes, weights and sizes. Some are long and slender while others are shorter and more rounded. A few, including the Deadly Dick, are exceptionally narrow and lightweight, but hammered spoons like the Hopkins Shorty and No=Eql are wide and flat. Charlie Graves lures, by contrast, offer several shapes that actually have a keel.
“There really is a lot to choose from when it comes to tins,” says Long Island surf guide Bill Wetzel. “I like the standard diamond jig for cutting through the surf and getting down to the bottom. A Kastmaster or Hopkins lets you work closer to the surface to get up over the rocks in boulder fields and around jetties. To make your tin ride over rocks in sticky areas, simply bend the hook eye up. That will help it glide a little higher in the water column.”
Tins come in sizes and weights that can match any size baitfish that happen to be swimming around. “Take an AVA diamond jig with a green tube,” Wetzel said, “and you can perfectly match sand eels. Kastmasters do a great job of imitating peanut bunker and snappers.”
Indeed, by choosing the specifics of your tin wisely it’s possible to match just about any predominate bait, cast as far as necessary under breezy conditions, and get quickly down to the bottom whether you’re casting into the surf, targeting cod, or jigging stripers.
Up until about a decade or so ago, just about all tins came in one color—silver. These days, a gold finish is another option. I don’t think that the gold really helps match the color of our predominant baitfish since most are actually silver, green or bluish in tone. What it does, however, is offer a slightly duller flash. In bright, clear water, silver still reigns supreme, but when the water is murky or discolored, I go for the gold. I’ll also use gold tins under heavily clouded skies because that softer flash matches up better with what I’m seeing as baitfish roll in the current.
Tins of all types are easy to work. From boats, they are most often used for vertical jigging; the angler simply drops the lure to the bottom, engages the reel and cranks up 8 to 10 turns before repeating the procedure. From the surf, tins can be cast as far out as possible and reeled in quickly to entice bluefish, stripers and false albacore.
If the fish are aggressive, you’ll have little problem connecting with these two basic approaches, but Ralph Votta of Charlie Graves Lures makes no bones about his speed preference.
“Sure, a fast retrieve will work under specific conditions and is usually necessary for tempting false albacore and bonito, but the bigger predators hit hardest when you slow things down,” explains Votta. “Make a cast, allow the lure to settle to the bottom on a slack line so you can better judge the water depth, and then gently pick it up and begin a steady retrieve. Keep the rod at a 45-degree angle to the water, and don’t jerk or twitch while reeling because a straight retrieve usually works best.”
The slow, straight retrieve is especially productive with Votta’s Charlie Graves selections because the keels on those lures cause them to dart or swing alternately left or right, and bringing them in at a snail’s pace exaggerates that action.
“The biggest stripers prefer to hug the bottom. Thus, a slow and steady retrieve keeps your lure in the lunker zone. “These jigs automatically sweep back and forth. They zig and they zag. All you have to do is reel them slowly enough so they barely kiss the bottom now and then. The stripers and blues will take care of the rest.”
“We put diamond jigs and a variety of tin styles to work here throughout the season,” says Capt. Mike Wasserman of the Capt. Lou Fishing Fleet in Freeport, New York. “You’d be amazed what they catch—especially in the fall. Sure, we get bluefish and stripers, but also sea bass, cod, tuna and the occasional false albacore. A few years back, we even caught a Spanish mackerel!”
Like Votta, Wasserman extolls the versatility of these basic lures, but he has additional reasons to put them to work. “Not only do tins and diamond jigs match up well to various baits, they can imitate baitfish movements perfectly. If the bass and blues are on sand eels, for instance, the fluttering motion as the lure sinks to the bottom really brings the strikes. Once it gets down, you can snap it to life, popping it off the bottom to look like a startled baitfish exploding from the sand. That almost dares predator species to give it a smack.”
Wasserman especially likes diamond jigs and Crippled Herring for codfish, noting that they get down past dogfish in a hurry, which is something bait can never do. Also, since these lures can be worked at any depth, you can use them to easily reach the cod but also probe mid-depths around wrecks for powerful and tasty pollock.
“One thing I’d like see more customers figure out is how to work them ahead of the drift,” Wasserman continues. “By flipping a diamond jig down-tide or downwind so the boat drifts toward it, the jig can be made to flutter unhindered to the bottom. That loose fluttering action really helps let all that flash and natural motion do its magic. The guys who master the timing and feel of this approach usually out-catch everyone else.”
Capt. Mike Barnett of the Freeport, New York charter boat, Codfather, is one of the best skippers I know when it comes to making tins come alive. Most of the time he sticks with the standard diamond jig but like most veteran tin men, he has specific preferences even in this narrow definition.
“For stripers,” says Barnett, “I really like the hammered finishes. They seem to reflect more light under the water. It’s a different prism, I guess, but I’ve noticed over the past few years that they really give me an edge with the bass. For bluefish, I don’t know that the finish really matters, but stripers do seem to care. I like AVA 47s, 67s and 87s based on current strength and water depth. If we find the fish shallow or in very soft currents, however, I’ll even drop down to an AVA 27.”
For bluefish, Barnett usually “squids,” a technique where the lure is dropped to the bottom and reeled up as fast as possible. With this approach, there’s almost no need to set the hook. When you feel a blue latch on, just keep reeling and add a little emphasis. For bass, however, Barnett works slowly, deliberately jigging the lure up and down, allowing it to flutter toward the bottom. A feeling of “extra slackness” usually indicates a strike, to which Barnett responds with a solid hookset.
“I’ll jig for cod the same way I jig for bass,” explains Barnett. “Keep the lure close to the bottom while jigging it up and letting it flutter unhindered as it falls on a slack line. If you don’t feel any weight, set the hook.”
Barnett also targets tuna with jigs each fall. For this, he’ll work the lure similarly to the way he uses it for bass or cod, but often at mid-depths.
“I really like the Vike jig for tuna,” says Barnett. “I think the curve of this lure gives special appeal on the drop. I like the ones with a hammered finish and I replace the standard hooks with a stronger 7/0 siwash hook. Of course, there’s not much of a hookset with tuna. When you feel the line go completely slack, the fish has it. Reel tight, and it’s off to the races.”
NOW’S THE TIME
Most tin lures will work across the seasons, but they shine brightest in fall. So, go ahead and toss some poppers, jig bucktails, work soft plastics and soak bait. They all work fine on most days. When the going gets tough, however, or you are just aching to stick the next bass, bluefish, tuna, weakfish or false albacore that swims along, you’ll know what to do.
Having an assortment of tins on hand is one of the best ways to ensure success, but as with any other lure, those willing to experiment, improvise and adjust to ever-changing variables generally reap the greatest rewards.