Chaz made a perfect cast, placing his plug right next to the dock piling on the up-current side. A sharp twitch of his rod top caused the Rapala to dive a couple of feet below the surface and dart seductively. On the third pause, the lure just stopped and a nice snook broke the surface, furious at the hook stuck in its lower jaw. The fish then made a mad dash under the dock, leaping again ten feet on the other side. I knew we would be fortunate to put our hands on this one! But, due in equal parts to angler skill and good luck, we passed the rod between the piling and came out still hooked up and in open water. Several minutes and a half-dozen head shakes later, the 28” snook came alongside, posed for a quick picture, and was released back into the water to contemplate its recent adventure. Two hours of early morning plug casting resulted in this snook along with another small one, a pair of 18” speckled trout, several jack crevelle, and a half-dozen ladyfish.
I love fishing. I REALLY love plug fishing! The reason? They are very productive on a wide variety of species and are a blast to fish. Casting is half the fun, making accurate casts under mangrove trees or near docks is very satisfying and challenging. Bites range from subtle takes to downright ferocious strikes. Plugs come in many colors and sizes, but can be broken down into two categories, surface or topwater plugs and subsurface baits.
Topwater plugs come in two styles, poppers and “walk the dog” baits. Poppers are very easy to fish and are quite effective. The Skitter-Pop and Chug-Bug are two popular lures. These are floating baits that have a concave face. The technique is simple; cast it out, let it settle for a moment, then twitch the rod tip sharply causing the face of the plug to dig into the water and make a loud “pop”. The famous Zara Spook is the best known example of a “walk-the-dog” lure, but Raplala Skitterwalks and MirrOlure Top Dogs are also locally popular. The retrieve is a bit more difficult to master. After being cast out, the rod tip is held down near the surface and a rhythmic twitching retrieve causes the lure to dance back and forth on the surface.
One common mistake anglers make is working the baits too quickly and aggressively. This is particularly true on a very calm day. Slow, subtle action will generally draw more strikes. Another mistake often made is striking took soon. The sight of a large predator blowing up on a topwater plug is very exciting, often resulting in a reflex strike that pulls the lure out of the fish’s mouth. Instead, wait until the weight of the fish is felt and set the hook in a smooth, sideways manner. This is safer, too.
While a topwater strike can be spectacular, more fish are caught on sub-surface baits. Most of these lures float on the surface and dive down when retrieved. Primarily, the lip on the lure determines the depth that the plug will run, however line size and speed are also other factors. Most lure manufacturers will have the pertinent information on the box. Rapala X-Raps are my personal favorites. They are available in a wide variety of colors and sizes. Generally speaking, lures that dive down two to five feet are the most effective in our local waters. Match the size of the plug to the available forage. Olive is my favorite all around color, but gold/black and chartreuse work great in stained water and pearl and silver are very effective in clear water. Suspending plugs such as the venerable MirrOlure can be deadly, particularly on speckled trout. They sink slowly and are worked back in a twitch and pause retrieve. That “pause”, where the bait just suspends, seemingly helpless, really triggers strikes.
Plugs are also versatile, just about every gamefish that inhabits the Suncoast will devour them. In addition to casting to structure for snook, redfish, jacks, and other species, plugs are deadly when fished over the grass flats. Last week I had a pair of eleven year old boys score on a mess of Spanish mackerel using an olive size (08) X-Rap. They cast into the thick bait schools near Big Pass and burned the baits back as fast as they could turn the reel handle. Needless to say, the strikes were explosive! Plugs also catch a lot of speckled trout, often times fooling larger than average sized fish. Topwater baits are an excellent choice for fishing very shallow water. They allow anglers to fool redfish, trout, and snook without hanging up in the grass.
Trolling and casting plugs in the inshore Gulf of Mexico is an extremely effective technique in the spring and again in the fall when pelagic species move through. A large Yozuri 3D will produce some very nice king mackerel and large Spanish mackerel. Look for birds and bait schools on the surface and troll around the edges. The inshore reefs off of Lido Key are very reliable spots to try, too.
Sight casting to “breaking” fish is terrific sport. Spanish mackerel and false albacore (bonita, little tunny) will often be seen tearing up schools of helpless baitfish on the surface. Ease into position and cast into the fish or troll around the edge of them and be prepared to hear your drag scream!