Why Fish A Needlefish – Dennis Zambrotta
Why Fish A Needlefish – Dennis Zambrotta
There are many, many different varieties of plugs that surfcasters use when chasing striped bass. Top water baits, minnow swimmers, metal lips, darters, etc. They all have their time and place when applied in the right location during the right conditions. Most plugs have a seductive “wiggle” that catches bass almost as well as they catch fishermen. For many years on the beach if a plug didn’t “swim well” it didn’t sell well. That theory applied to much of the striper coast until the emergence of the “Needlefish Plug.”
The needlefish type plug has been around since the late 1950s (Boone), but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that they started to become popular along the northeast coast from New Jersey to Cape Cod. It was during this time period that surfcasters began to use three different brands of needlefish plugs. These initial needlefish plugs produced by Boone, Classic and Linesider, can best be described as a straight painted piece of wood that came through the water like a “pencil with hooks.” Because of this “lack of a wiggle” they initially turned off many casters at the time (including me). But at the same time some surf casters “in the know” were quietly racking up incredible scores of striped bass on them, especially when sand eels were the prevalent forage and conditions dictated using the needlefish plug.
These early needlefish, although very effective, also had some major problems. They were poorly constructed by most of today’s plug building standards. They all used a screw-eye construction to attach treble hooks. These screw-eyes proved no match for the heavy bass that were prevalent on the beach at the time. Large bass, when hooked, pulled the screw-eyes right out of the wooden needlefish. Many anglers, including some of my friends, lost the bass of their dreams to these early models.
As word began to spread along the beach about needlefish plugs and their effectiveness other plug makers got involved in the game. One such person was master plug builder Donny Musso of Long Island, owner of Super Strike Lures. Donny got wind of the needlefish through a friend that fished the Nantucket surf. Donny’s friend implored him to make a “beefier” needlefish that could stand up to the bass. In 1983 Donny designed a unique wooden needlefish that was tapered on both ends. He built it using a “wire-thru” construction. Some of the barrel swivels Donny used on the initial models failed on the big bass but Donny quickly modified the swivels using a larger and stronger size. These improved models were put to the ultimate test on the cow bass that swam in Cape Cod and Block (Needlefish) Island waters. They passed with flying colors and produced phenomenal numbers of bass without failing. Donny Musso deserves full credit as the builder who “revolutionized” the Needlefish plug. His wood needlefish design was then converted to a plastic model in 1984 with no loss of effectiveness.
As needlefish popularity began to “snowball” other plug makers jumped into its path. Al Gagliarduci introduced his wooden version called the Gags Needlefish in 1984. The Gags Needlefish came with a thru-wire construction which allowed the thru-wire to rotate within the plug thus giving anglers one more weapon to counteract the treble hook straightening leverage that big bass often used when hooked. After overcoming an initial “peeling paint” problem the Gags Needlefish became one of the hottest plugs on Block Island.
By the fall of 1984 needlefish plugs were the hottest plug on the coast. They were a hot commodity and tackle store shelves were quickly emptied of any that were delivered. In 1984 Gibbs came out with a screw-eye model needlefish which was well received but still had the problem screw-eyes. It only took Gibbs one season to come out with an improved thru-wire model which was in full production by 1986. So by 1986 you had thru-wire needlefish plugs being turned out by Super Strike, Gags, Gibbs, and Spofford Lures of Martha’s Vineyard. All were quality products and many surf casters owe the fish of their dreams to these plugs.
There is no longer a shortage of needlefish in today’s plug market. Just about every plug maker makes a version of the needlefish. They vary in shape and size, come in wood or plastic, and have various applications for just about every set of conditions a surf caster may encounter. Along with the original four improved needlefish (Super Strike, Gibbs, Spofford, and the recently re-introduced Gags), you have Habs, Afterhours, Salty Bugger, Stetzko, and a myriad of others. In fact there are so many different needlefish an angler would be hard pressed to find room for all of them in his surf bag. So how would one decide which needlefish to purchase? Trial and error will cost you more than a few bucks, especially when you take various color patterns into consideration. I’ve been asked to try and help the novice caster make a decision. First off – I’ve been fishing needlefish plugs since the early 1980s when they became the rage of the coast so I have a great deal of experience. There are ALWAYS a few needlefish in my surf bag. I have fished almost every brand of needlefish plug since there inception in a multitude of conditions. Most needlefish plugs are “sinkers” for lack of a better word, they sink when they hit the water but glide toward the surface upon retrieve. On or close to the surface is how “most” casters fish them. Some needles come to the surface by barely turning the reel handle (such as the Gibbs and Gag’s). Other needles (such as the Musso Super Strike and Habs) will work mid-level water depths or close to the bottom depending on whether the caster lets it sink and how fast it’s retrieved. So far I’ve only used one needlefish that was a true “floater” and it is a homemade plug built by a friend of mine. I’m sure there are other floaters because just about every basement plug maker builds needlefish nowadays. So a needlefish can basically be called a surface skimmer that can at times be effectively fished in deeper water.
What I’ve learned:
Needlefish are very versatile plugs and it would be a mistake to set “hard and fast” rules on how to fish them. Just as in any type of surf fishing there are so many variables involved that may affect your decision on which needlefish to use. They include water depth, water clarity, current, surf conditions, time of year, type of bait present, wind speed and direction, etc. How I use needlefish on the Cape doesn’t necessarily work when I’m casting on Block Island. What works when the wind is screaming onshore may not work in flat water (or maybe it will). So, I have my “preferred” methods of using needlefish for every location I fish, depending on the conditions. But I always tell those who will listen to my general rules that bass don’t read – so be flexible in your methods. For example – I don’t know how many times I’ve heard casters say they won’t cast a needlefish because there are no sand eels around – big mistake. Needlefish plugs can be extremely effective even when there isn’t a sand eel on the beach for miles. They can work when the forage is squid, bunker, silversides, whatever. A big key when using needlefish plugs is confidence. Once you get over the fact that a needlefish plug doesn’t need to do a lot in the water (as in “wiggle”) you will gain confidence. Fish it high or low, night or day, light or dark pattern, they all work when the time is right and it’s up to the caster to figure that out. Another key is being versatile – being versatile and adapting to changing environments on the beach while casting needlefish will allow you to uncover the mysteries of the plug. After all, isn’t learning the most satisfying part of surf casting? It is for me.
So, which needlefish do I use and when?
The best needle for use in flat or calm surf. Retrieve it very slowly, don’t worry it stays right on top creating a V-wake that bass home in on. The Gibbs is the closest model to a floater.
Colors: Solid Black, Fluorescent Lime Green
Musso Super Strike Needlefish:
Retrieve slow to moderately fast, skipping on occasion, even at night. I’m convinced this needlefish creates a unique sound when retrieved and because of this it often takes fish when other needles won’t. Can be effective in all conditions and because of its plastic construction (which is less buoyant) it often shines in very rough water. Can be very effective in rips. If you can’t seem to catch on a Super Strike Needle try fishing it fast and skip it across the surface on occasion. I also use the Super Strike needle in conditions when most would use a popper.
Colors: Neon Pink, Neon Green, Solid Black, and Black/Purple
The best casting needlefish, it will reach that offshore bar that other needles won’t. It works great in rough or calm conditions. A most versatile plug and all sizes and patterns can be effective.
Colors: Chartreuse, Fluorescent Green, Pink, and Black
Good all around needlefish. I’m still experimenting with the new models made last season (2005) and I’m just as impressed with them as the older models from the 1980s. The large 9 inch model in Copper was the most consistent producer for me in 2005.
Tony Stetzko Needlfish:
I fish many other needlefish brands and they all catch at certain times. I personally witnessed the effectiveness of the large size Stetzko Pink Needle in the hands of its creator. I went through my bag of needles trying to duplicate his success – the closest I came was with the Gag’s 9″ Copper Needle – but Tony still smoked me that particular night with his own creation.
Was it the type of needlefish or the fisherman using it? Nothing wrong with being humbled by Tony Stetzko, I’m just one of many in that club. Just remember, success is relative and everyone has their own opinions based on their experiences. Others may tell you different and it would behoove any surf caster to pay attention to other opinions. You now have some of my general rules for using various needlefish plugs and all that I mentioned have a great track record for taking trophy stripers from the beach. But as I stated before: striped bass don’t read my general rules. So always be flexible when casting the beach.