Pictured above: Even the same type of plug, made by different manufacturers, can vary greatly in profile.
The strike was subtle: a slight double-bump just a few cranks into the retrieve. Instinctively, I set the hook and felt the weight of a teen-sized striper. As the fish beat a path parallel to the shore, small baitfish scattered in all directions across the shallow flat. The adult bunker that had been keeping the linesiders around for more than a week were nowhere to be seen.
I noticed the menhaden had vanished soon after I arrived on the late-night tide. Still, I began prospecting by slowly cranking a 7-inch black Bomber since it was already tied on and had been the hot ticket just two nights before. After 20 minutes of plugging, I had nothing to show for my efforts.
Like a quarterback advancing though his progressions, I moved down to something a little smaller. A 5 ¾-inch Sebile Magic Swimmer in white over pink seemed like the perfect choice, but it scored only two hesitant bumps. Turning to face the shore, I shone my light against the sod bank and spied a swarm of spearing jockeying in the current as they pushed past a gentle point. I needed to go not only smaller but slimmer, so I reached for a 5 ½-inch Heddon Hellcat—an old favorite and the last one in my bag. For the next hour, it was “fish on” until the smallish treble hooks were so crushed I could no longer make them stick.
MORE THAN LENGTH
Many anglers recognize the need to change color and length when trying to match the predominant baitfish on the scene, but few realize that matching a bait’s width can be every bit as important. On this night, for example, there was only a quarter-inch difference in length between the Sebile and the Hellcat, but the latter was considerably more slender. In shallow, quiet waters where gamefish can get a good read of your offerings, something as simple as the thickness of a lure is often the deciding factor.
Simply put, profile is one of the most important aspects of lure selection. It matters a lot with stripers, and even more so with weakfish, but I’ve seen it work with blues and even juvenile pollock feeding tight to rock walls as I was heading up along the New Hampshire and Maine coastlines. It’s always a consideration for me when choosing swimming plugs, but it’s vital with almost any kind of lure if you plan to fish quiet waters. Bucktails, soft plastics and even tins come in various widths, shapes and styles; tying one on that best matches the bait present in all respects is a key to better scores.
Generally speaking, the shallower you fish, the more important profile becomes. This is especially true in back-bay waters, where a tiny difference in the width of your lure can have a huge impact on your overall success rate. Compare a Hellcat and a Redfin, for example. At relatively equal lengths, the Hellcat is a little skinnier and the Redfin is little thicker. Either can be the hot item on a given night depending on whether you have sand eels or spearing as the dominant bait. If tinker mackerel are around, however, something wider, like a Bomber or a Sebile Magic Swimmer, might be a better choice.
ALWAYS A TRADE-OFF
Naturally, there are constraints as to how thin a profile you can toss. Thinner lures are often lighter lures, which equates to shorter casts and, often, less ability to dig deep, so choosing the best profile can be an exercise in trade-offs. Sometimes, too, you might need to step down to lighter gear to get the necessary casting distance and lure performance, so the question sometimes becomes, “How small are you prepared to go?”
There are times I’ll drop down to a 10-pound-test freshwater bass spinning outfit when working protected flats or rock-edged coves. Generally, I prefer monofilament lines for shallow water plugging because the sinking nature of braided lines sometimes gets me a little deeper than I want to go. Given a choice, 12- to 15-pound mono is my preference for back bay and harbor action.
There can be a trade-off, too, between profile and depth—and not just with plugs. A more slender bucktail, for example, will generally sink faster than a rounded style tied with a lot of hair.
For bottom species like fluke and sea bass, going slender is a means of getting down fast with smaller sizes and less weight. Sometimes, I’ll trim the hair off the back of a bucktail until it’s flush with the bend of my hook—or simply trim some out some hair from the middle—to speed up the sink rate when targeting fluke or one of my latest bucktail favorites, dinner-plate-sized scup.
For bass and weakfish, on the other hand, bucktails with a little more surface area are good choices because it takes them slightly longer to settle through the water column and they tend to ride a little higher above the bottom. Matching the hatch is the way to go whenever possible, but size and profile have to work within the limitations of the necessary presentation, water depth, current speed and distance you need to cast. Still, you shouldn’t use a 10-inch sand eel pattern if the fish are on 4-inch spearing.
STRIKE A MATCH
As a rule for fishing anywhere, but especially in back bays, tidal rivers, small coves and harbor mouths, I start by trying to match the hatch as closely as possible—but I will deviate from that game plan as conditions dictate. For small, thin-profile baitfish, like rain bait or sand eels, I might go as small as a 4-inch Crystal Minnow, 1/2-ounce bucktail, small Deadly Dick, Ava 007, Ava 17 or 3/4-ounce Hopkins No=Eql. If I need to go even smaller, a simple 4-inch Berkley Swimming Mullet impaled on a 3/8-ounce Got-Cha jighead often works wonders—especially on school bass in fast-moving tidal rivers and creeks.
For larger sand eels and spearing, something a little longer but still slender is my general preference. This is where the Hellcat shines, but you can also score well with a Cotton Cordell Redfin or Rapala Saltwater X-Rap in the 5½- to 6-inch size. Slim-sided bucktails also work well for matching these baits, especially in channel waters or if casting into the wind where a little extra weight and less surface area can help you reach prime target water – think ¾- to 1 ¼-ounce size sporting a 4- or 5-inch fork- or split-tail Fat Cow jig strip or Otter Tail straight thin tail. For tins, step up to an AVA 27 or 47; both have narrow profiles and cast a mile.
This is also where soft-plastics really come into focus, with the 4- to 7-inch Bass Assassin, Slug-Go, Panther Martin Big Fin, and Fin-S-Fish among my favorite go-to options if twitching or a painfully slow sub-surface retrieve seems in order. Any of these can be worked on a jighead in deeper water or simply twitched, unweighted, just below the surface when probing the shallows or shadow lines around docks and sea walls. If used with a jighead, white seems to be a color that works both day and night, although there are times when pink outshines anything else in my bag.
GO BIG WITH BUNKER
Speaking of bunker, the reemergence of vast numbers of peanuts and adults in our waters over the past few years has led to some spectacular fishing. When bass, blues and weakfish are lurking around the peanuts in daylight hours, it’s hard to beat 4-inch Tsunami Swim Shads or Storm Wild Eye Swim Shads in the 3-, 4- and 5-inch sizes. These offer the perfect profile in terms of length, width and height. When plugging around adult bunker after dark, the larger Daiwa SP Minnow, Bomber Magnum Long A and Sebile jointed Magic Swimmer in the 6- to 7-inch sizes comprise my favorites list. Each of these is a little beefier in the shoulders – especially the SP Minnow – and I think that wider profile at the head turns the eyes of bigger fish some nights. These larger choices also produce well when tinker mackerel are in good supply.
Moving out into harbor mouths, river mouths and ocean waters, I’m sure that profile continues to matter, especially if sand eels or large spearing are on the scene. In these areas, however, I think there is more leeway in selection since larger baitfish are the rule though most of the warmer months. Still, there are nights, even in the roughest of waters, when stripers can be quite particular. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a simple needlefish outproduce everything else in my surf bag when sand eels are around.
Bay anchovies pouring out of inlet waters is another instance when smaller is clearly better when working the ocean surf. Several falls ago, I watched an angler hammer away at bass to 15 pounds in broad daylight while I worked my tail off for a couple of schoolies. The surf darkened with rain bait rolling down the coast that were getting pinned tight against the beach by an armada of waiting bass that never broke the surface.
Thinking I was going to fish big water that day, I’d brought only my heavy gear. Luckily, I managed to dig out an old Ava 27 from under the passenger seat. That lure saved the day, but the guy with that tiny bucktail still pulled about 20 fish to my seven or eight. That night, I made up a box of “small stuff” for just such emergencies and put it next to the spare tire in the trunk of my car. It’s a move that’s paid for itself several times over.
TONS OF GREAT CHOICES
When it comes to stocking up on your own profile favorites, your choices will likely vary somewhat from mine. There are so many great lures on the market these days that there are plenty of options when it comes to finding a few lures that produce well, can take beatings, and feel comfortably familiar at the end of the line. Still, the basic rules of matching the hatch always apply. Match the length, overall shape, color and, just as importantly, the width of local fodder. The closer you can get, the better the odds of a productive outing.
But, what if you can’t get the lure and presentation to balance out perfectly? Get it as close as possible and add a feather teaser, small soft-plastic jerkbait or Red Gill about 20 inches up the leader. Even if neither exactly duplicates the dominant bait, the sight of a larger lure chasing a smaller one adds an element of competitiveness that few predators seem able to ignore – profiles be damned.