Issue: October 2008

October is a mighty busy month outdoors on the Chesapeake. We really shouldn't have to hold down "day jobs" during these beautiful fall days.

One of my favorite October pastimes is fishing shallow water for rockfish and speckled trout. From a skiff, a kayak, a canoe, or even in a pair of waders, we try to tease and fool these beautiful fish at close range as they feed heavily to fatten up before winter.

One of the most exciting ways to chase them is casting plugs with spinning and bait-casting tackle. Over the past 10 years, lure manufacturers have tweaked old favorites and developed new ones for use in 10 feet of water or less. Three especially effective categories of these lures are spitters (poppers), spooks ("walk-the-dog" plugs that dart back and forth) and suspenders (plugs with near-neutral specific gravity that stay put in the water column when paused in retrieve, just waiting to be eaten). Working them properly is good fun, and they catch fish, often with spectacular, visible strikes.

Popping plugs with squared-off, concave faces have been standard lures for freshwater bass for at least a century. The surface disturbance they make definitely attracts predatory fish. The boom in surf-casting for rockfish in New England after World War II brought poppers to salt water. Fifty years ago, Bob Pond of South Attleboro, Mass., developed his molded plastic Atom Popper, which quickly became a standard not only there but here on the Chesapeake. Rockfish, bluefish and specks loved it, whether it was cast into schools of surface-feeders under birds or to eddies, points, rocks and undercut marsh banks along shore.

Several features of the original Atom endure today. Each plug carries two sets of treble hooks, with a bucktail on the tail hook, and a lead slug molded into the tail of the plug to make it cast well in wind. It sinks slowly at rest, but with practice an angler can learn to work it slowly but continuously on the surface as well as make it skip quickly like a fleeing baitfish. The Atom's most important feature, though, remains a concave face angled toward the bottom, so that it "spits" a spray of water forward when twitched, instead of making the "blurp" sound of a standard popper.

While Atoms are still available, they have given way here to a couple of regionally made lures, Smack-it poppers by Stillwater Lures of Lititz, Pa., and Mega-Eyes made by Lonely Angler of Silver Spring, Md., and one from a national manufacturer, Storm Lures' Rattlin' Chug Bug. All come in several sizes with the most popular on the Bay ranging from 3/8-ounce to 3/4-ounce. All have slanted faces and, instead of fixed lead slugs, steel internal rattles that slide to the rear during a cast to help propel the lure, then click back and forth on the retrieve to make fish-attracting sounds. Most Chug Bugs have short, flashy Mylar skirts on the tail hooks, and the Stillwater Smack-it's tail hook sports long hackle feathers, like the well proven freshwater Rebel Pop-R.

This list of plugs is by no means exclusive. There are many other spitting/popping lures on the market. If you're beginning to fish them, it is more important to pick a couple of models known to catch fish in your area and learn how to fool fish with them. Working spitters effectively means spending time learning the various actions you can draw out of them. Using a rod with a tip stiff enough to make the lure respond crisply, experiment with different rod angles and retrieve speeds. Twitch the plug on both tight and slightly slack line. In general, a higher rod angle will produce good spits, while a lower tip elicits blurps.

The long, trailing feathers on a Smack-it tend to keep it running straight. It can move fast, like a baitfish skipping over the surface, but if you stop it, it will float still, with the feathers waving gently. A retrieve that combines these actions can be deadly, attracting a quick reaction strike from an actively feeding fish or a reflex strike from a following fish that suddenly encounters the stopped lure and its seductively fluttering tail feathers. The Chug Bug, with its short tail, and the Mega Eye, with none, will also work well when retrieved straight and fast, but a twitching retrieve with just a couple of inches of slack line at the tip will make these lures "walk the dog" side to side.

Casting to breaking rockfish means trying to attract attention to the plug in the midst of a large number of real baitfish so imparting continuous spitting and stop-and-go action are both worth trying. The same holds true when you're working one of these plugs through a light line on a bridge or dock at night. On the other hand, casting to a specific spot, like an eddy, a tide rip over a bar, a pocket in a grass bed, a point or the tip of an oyster reef can call for a teasing retrieve that pulls action out of the plug without moving it far.

While spitters have been standard lures for working shallow water for years, they can also bring fish up to the surface in water as deep as 10 feet. If you're casting to a point with a hole beside it, try working a spitter over the hole as a "search bait." If a fish rolls on it but misses, stop the lure, wait, and twitch it. That action may provoke a solid strike. Even if it doesn't, at least you know the fish is there and you can try a deeper-running lure.

In the end, learning to work a spitter is nearly as much fun as catching fish with it. The greater the retrieve repertoire you develop, the more effective you will be with these plugs.

James Heddon developed one of the first wooden lures for freshwater bass in the 19th century, then went on to form a large tackle company that was an industry leader for much of the 20th century. Several Heddon lures survive today as part of the complex of brands. In 1922, Heddon introduced a cigar-shaped plug called the Zaragossa Spook that "walked the dog" in a left-right-left-right, back-and-forth herringbone pattern when jerked and retrieved rhythmically on a slightly slack line. Its translucent plastic version (the Zara Spook) became a standard freshwater bass lure, especially in Florida. In the 1980s, some speckled trout/redfish anglers in Texas began throwing it on the Gulf coast, along with the Rebel Jumpin' Minnow (now also a brand). The Zara Spook, known generically as a "spook," eventually became a standard lure throughout the speck/redfish world.

Other companies have since developed spooks. They have become easier to manipulate and most now carry rattles. Spooks have come lately to the Chesapeake, but they work here just as well as they have everywhere else. Veteran Honga River light-tackle guide Mike Murphy has been helping his clients catch rockfish and specks on Jumpin' Minnows for at least 15 years, though they are not always easy to find in stores. Two good standards to begin experimenting with are the Heddon Zara Spooks in various sizes and colors and the Mirrolure Top Dog series.

Look at one of these plugs floating in the water and you'll notice that it floats diagonally tail-down, with a buoyant forebody. This attitude is what makes it turn left-and-right when twitched. It is generally easier to learn to walk these plugs with the rod tip pointed down, though it is also possible to walk them with tip up. Learn to work them at various speeds. Though they come in a wide variety of finishes, a red head/white body is one of the traditional choices, probably because it offers good contrast from below, especially early and late in the day. Designed to be worked continuously, spooks make great search baits.

The Waker from Mann's Bait Company is a new plug on the Chesapeake horizon that has potential in a slightly different retrieve pattern. This short, fat plug with a square plastic lip will not run deeper than 3 inches no matter how fast an angler retrieves it. It swims across the surface, wiggling back-and-forth, making a distinctive wake on the surface. It's easy to learn to work--just cast and reel--and it works at both slow and fast speeds. It, too, should make a good search bait.

Frequently a fish will follow a lure for a distance without striking. In shallow, clear water, this can be an exciting experience for an angler, offering the opportunity to tease the fish into striking. For years, speckled trout specialists on the Chesapeake and in waters to the south have used Mirrolure twitch baits. With neutral specific gravity, these lures suspend in the water column during pauses in the retrieve. Although they have no built-in action, they respond to subtle twitches of the rod tip. Stopping the retrieve suddenly on a following fish places the plug in its face, lying motionless or hovering helplessly in place. This sudden change in action can often trigger a hard strike.

Today Mirrolure offers several of these lures that imitate native Chesapeake baitfish, especially young "peanut" menhaden, silversides, bay anchovies and mullet. They include the Catch 5 and Mirrodine (peanut menhaden and mullet), Catch 2000 and Catch Jr. (silversides), and Mirrominnow (bay anchovy). All catch fish here. The Catch 5, Catch 2000 and Catch Jr. have especially interesting actions, including walk-the-dog motion below the surface and a tendency to lie over on the side and flash when twitched, just as young menhaden often do when schooling.

Another plug that walks the dog well below the surface is the new Rapala X-Rap Subwalk. With stabilizer fins astern and a feathered tail hook, it moves sinuously underwater but suspends with subtle action when stopped. A relative is the original X-Rap, which comes in several sizes. Its plastic lip makes the X-Rap cut hard from side to side when cranked with the reel, but the lure suspends when stopped suddenly. Rockfish and specks love it, but I have also been amazed to find that the 3 1/8-inch, 1/4-ounce model also catches very large white perch on a reel-pause-reel-pause retrieve. Like their rockfish cousins, these perch invariably hit on the pause.

Practical Considerations
With spitters, spooks and suspenders, always wait till you feel the weight of a fish before striking. Predators frequently slap these plugs first to stun them. A rod with a firm tip makes working spitters and spooks easier, but it shouldn't be so stiff that it rips the hooks away before a fish can take them. Use a softer action with suspenders. Braided line provides good sensitivity, but because all of these plugs throw some slack when worked properly it has more of a tendency to come onto the reel in loose loops than monofilament does. With either line, though, make every 10th cast or so a long one into open water and wind the line back under tension to pack it on the reel. To allow the lure maximum freedom to move around, attach it to your line or leader with a loop knot or a rounded Duolock snap.

Finally, make sure your plug's treble hooks are sharp, but modify them to minimize damage to fish. Here's how: Turn the belly hook so two tines face forward, then clip off the back one. Turn the tail hook so two tines face up, then clip off the downward-facing one. Then crimp the barbs on the resulting double hooks. These changes make releasing fish easier and protect your hands while retaining the plug's hooking ability.

Spitters, spooks and suspenders--learn how to use them and you'll be smiling a lot this fall!