Plugs Can Work Magic Along Mangrove Shorelines
There are many methods used to catch fish in shallow water. Finding and cast-netting bait is an acquired skill, as is using bait effectively. Jig fishing requires patience and an acquired feel, and accounts for a lot of fish. Reading the wakes and disturbances on an open flat is a thrill all its own, and fly fishing is a virtual art form practiced by an accomplished minority. But among longtime backwater anglers down Florida way, one method of angling has long separated the men from the boys: Casting hrad-bodied “plugs” along mangrove shorelines. This tactic is almost as old as the sport itself, and the state’s rich angling history is replete with accounts of anglers plying virgin waters, tossing broomstick plugs tied to bulky reels along shorelines teeming with big snook, redfish and tarpon.
Today, a host of fancy lures, customized rods and streamlined bait-casting reels with multiple ball bearings offer the angler a myriad of options, but one constant remains: the dexterity and accuracy required to throw plugs bristling with treble hooks among the maze of mangrove branches and roots where fish hide. It’s a skill only acquired through persistence, patience and a deep-rooted love for the sport. And in my opinion, it is – and always will be – the classic way to catch fish in the backwaters.
Where to plug-fish
Backwater gamefish can be caught year round, depending on weather cycles. The colder it gets, the further they tend to push into the backcountry. Most plug fishermen prefer the bottom stage of the tide, with water on its way up. From this tidal stage all the way up to an hour or two before high tide, anglers can flick their offerings under overhanging mangrove branches and back into the alleys and troughs where fish cruise and root out bait. On the high stage of the tide, these nooks and crannies are often inaccessible given that the water level rises to the level of the lowest branches – or even covers them. Fishing tends to improve as the water rises (especially in warmer weather), as fish hiding out in the depths to wait out the low tide gradually move up into the protection – and bait-holding surroundings – of the natural structure.
When to plug-fish
As with all angling methods that employ artificial baits, plug fishing is best practiced during the early morning and early evening hours. Cooler temperatures and longer shadows generally result in more aggressive, less edgy fish. Some experienced plug fishermen simply refuse to throw a lure once the sun gets up and the temperature warms, saying if they’re starting to sweat and feel uncomfortable, the fish are, too. It’s not entirely accurate but, like most advice that falls from the mouths of older anglers, it proves true more often than not.
A number of lures will catch fish along shorelines, including soft-baits, jigs and other soft-bodied options. But true plug-fishing is defined by the use of hard-bodied sinking, swimming and top-water lures. Though a large number of such plugs will catch fish, several lures are always present in my tackle box: a number of plugs manufactured by the L&S Bait Company (also known as MirroLure), and a handful of cylinder-shaped top-water lures. Specifically, I like the MirroLure 52M, 7M, MirroMinnow and Mirrodine and the Zara Spook, jr. These plugs cover the backwater bases, either sinking slowly to a preferred depth or gliding noisily atop the surface. All mimic any number of baitfish that are high on the menu of most backwater gamefish, including small mullet, thread herring and pilchards. Each requires a distinctly different retrieve to work effectively, from a flicking, stuttering action just under the water’s surface to the rhythmic, gliding “walk-the-dog” topwater technique. When used correctly, all are maddening to backwater predators like snook, redfish and seatrout.
The best rods for backwater casting are stout, six-and-a-half to seven foot rods. I prefer a 6’6″ (or even shorter) rod when using a baitcaster, and a 6’6” to 7’ rod when using a spinning reel. A stiff, responsive tip and strong blank are very important, as fish that hit plugs next to structure will do their best to perform an immediate about-face and re-enter the maze of roots and branches. A stiff rod is your best weapon in trying to persuade them otherwise. Bait-casting reels offer a distinct advantage to the backwater angler, though learning to use one well requires time and patience. Bait-casting reels allow anglers to exert smooth pressure on the line with their thumb as it flows off the reel, so they can exert more precise control over the flight, speed and placement of the lure. Seasoned bait-casters can perform modern day miracles once they get in a rhythm, laying plugs into some impossibly small openings. Spinning reels, however, are just fine for the job. In fact, I know a few anglers who can cast spinning tackle with incredible accuracy. Remember, though: there is no substitute for practice. Learning to cast plugs well is equivalent to hitting a golf ball or shooting a basketball. The more time you put into it, the better you’ll get – and the more fish you’ll catch. As for line, it’s comes down to personal preference. Lighter line allows for greater accuracy, but you’ll pay the price if a big fish wallops your plug. Line in the 10-12 lb. class is ideal, though if you find an area with a lot of big fish willing to hit plugs, you should switch to an outfit with 14 to 17 lb. test…right after you call me with directions to the spot ;-). I’m a big fan of the braided line, which has little line memory, stays soft and supple and allows for greater casting distance. And, (cue broken record) a three-foot section of 20–30 lb. leader line is an absolute necessity. It will save you many a lure, and will help you land fish you’d swear were lost forever.
Tips on technique
The best quality a backwater caster can possess is fearlessness. Now, aggression won’t do you much good if you’re an inaccurate caster, but assuming you’ve mastered your tackle to the point that you can place fairly accurate casts, it’s time to take some chances. (If you’re struggling to gain the required accuracy, take the hooks off an old plug and practice casting in your backyard, ignoring the catcalls of the neighbors). Casting backwater structure is literally a game of inches. Fish can push surprisingly way back into the mangroves, and the further back you can get your lure, the better your odds of a hook-up. Getting a lure “into their living room” can be accomplished in several ways. Some casters prefer to “lob” their lures, letting them fall between spaces in the overhanging branches, while others prefer to fling their lures in an almost straight line at the target. Finally, more accomplished anglers have perfected a skipping technique which allows them to reach previously inaccessible spots. My advice: practice all three – you’ll encounter situations that require each skill.
Naturally, catching fish along shorelines requires either firm ground that is wader-friendly, or a boat. If you can find shorelines surrounded by good, hard ground, wade fishing can be especially productive. Stay a ways off the structure, and move as slowly and quietly as possible. If you’ll be fishing out of a boat, again: remain well off the shore (as far as it’s possible to place accurate casts). Work the shoreline ahead of the boat rather than perpendicular to it, and mind your partner on your back-cast. As far as propulsion goes, you have two options: poling or using a trolling motor. If you fish with a buddy often, poling is a great option. It’s very quiet, gives the guy on the platform a great vantage point for sighting fish, and leaves your casting deck uncluttered. However, if you’ll be casting miles of shoreline or fishing alone quite often, there is no substitute for a bow-mounted trolling motor. Set it on a slow speed, keep your distance and start peppering likely looking spots. If you raise a fish, slow down and cast each nook and cranny – gamefish tend to gather among specific sections, so work any place where you see or catch a fish more carefully.
So there you have it: the tackle and techniques required to catch fish with plugs along backwater shorelines. Follow this advice, put in your time, and you’ll soon be under the spell that has captivated generations of like-minded anglers.
Good luck on the water.
Tips for Getting Plugs Back Out Of Trees
If you fish shorelines, your lures – especially plugs – are going to end up in the branches. “Squirrel fishing” is an inevitable part of backwater bombing. But here are four tricks that will save you time while tempering the inconvenience of snagged lures:
When your plug flies into structure and ends up swinging loosely from a branch, don’t sweat it. Gently raise and lower your rod tip so that the lure swings back and forth slowly, then – as the lure reaches the full extent of its swing toward you – raise your rod tip quickly. When executed correctly, your lure will flip high into the air, over the branch and back into the water. And you’re back in business.
When your line is wrapped loosely among several branches, try this trick: raise your rod tip slowly until you see the lure hanging down. Then, very gently wiggle and raise your rod tip, softly “hopping” your lure up between the branches. Do not apply a lot of pressure – if you pull too hard, odds are that a hook will become embedded in a branch or leaf. A light touch is the key to success here. Once you’ve gotten your lure out of the maze of branches, you may need to use the “flip” or “rip” technique to get it over or out of the last obstacle.
The “muy macho” version of the three techniques, the “rip” is reserved for a seemingly lost cause. When your lure seems securely stuck in the branches, try raising your rod tip high, then – in a quick, powerful motion – jerk the tip of your rod sharply backward. The idea is to rip the hook out of the structure by force. A word of caution: always rip away and slightly down from your body, and once the lure comes free, turn in the opposite direction quickly. A lure coming out of a tree can move at frightening speed—I’ve seen whistling hooks sink deep into the skin of surprised anglers. Try this technique once or twice when you get hung up. If the lure won’t come dislodged, move toward the shore and take it out by hand…which beats wearing a plug for the rest of the trip.