Editor’s Note: Jimmy Fee is the editor of On The Water magazine and a die-hard surfcaster of the highest caliber. He chases big bass from the rocky North Shore of Massachusetts to the beaches of southern New Jersey.
Trying to narrow down hundreds of striper surf lures to the top 25 is like trying to name the 25 best rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time. The list changes based on countless variables, like time, place, atmosphere, and most of all, personal preference. Just as there are no definitive best rock ‘n’ roll songs, the lures here largely reflect my opinion as a devoted surfcaster and will surely be debated. But consider some factors used in the selection process.
In picking this list, I didn’t just look at which baits generally catch the most fish, or which have caught some of my biggest bass. That wouldn’t even begin to narrow it down. Surfcasting for stripers is steeped in history and tradition, and filled with stories (legends even) about these fish and the men who chase them. A proper listing of the best-ever lures needs a nod to that history and must give deference to the lures that “changed the game,” the lures with origin stories that are shared often among surfcasters as they wait out the slack tide, and the lures that tempted not just large, but legendary striped bass.
Naturally, I had to include some newcomers, too. Technology has played its part in producing lures that after just a few years on tackle shop shelves have proven themselves invaluable to surfcasters. Whether you like the old-school classics or the new-school favorites, having these lures in your surf bag will up your chances at striper glory.
Creek Chub Pikie
The Creek Chub Lure Company designed the Pikie in the 1920s. Like many early surfcasting plugs, this one was originally intended to catch muskies and pike. It didn't take long for surfcasters to realize that super-sized versions of this metal-lip swimmer turned big striper heads, too. In 1950, Creek Chub produced the Striper Pikie, a heavy-duty adaptation of the original lure. Today, surfcasters who subscribe to the big-bait, big-fish theory still throw Pikies, and striped bass still attack them.
Even though Creek Chub no longer makes the Pikie (with the exception of a small jointed version), several custom builders have replicated and sell this plug. Pikie specialist Gary Soldati of Bigwater Lures, builds Pikies exclusively, offering them in various styles and custom colors.
Bomber Long A
The Bomber Long A, introduced in the mid-1970s, was a popular walleye trolling plug before catching on in the saltwater world. Its low price and high productivity both then and now has made it one of the all-time favorites among striper fishermen. The trick to fishing them night or day is reeling just fast enough to get the diving lip digging. Don’t overdo the retrieve.
As a young surfcaster with striped bass on the brain and a bankroll that reflected my desire to fish rather than work during the summer months, the Bomber Long A gave me an effective bait and affordable way to stock my tackle box. Many anglers mistakenly think of the Bomber as great for casting to small and mid-size fish, but not trophies. Rhode Island surfcaster Nick Gibbs was among them until a 58-pound striper ate his black Bomber on Nov. 5, 2012.
Photo courtesy of Nick Gibbs
The Boone Needlefish was designed in Florida in the 1950s as a sea trout lure, and though it doesn’t see much use today, when Northeast surfcasters discovered this unique plug in the 1970s, it was a game-changer.
While most plugs have some sort of built-in action, needlefish do almost nothing. They come through the water straight, like a stick, but it's this lack of action that makes needlefish so effective with big stripers. Lures with frantic actions send out lots of vibrations through the water, but the needlefish does the opposite. The minimal water disturbance created by a needlefish plug on a slow, steady retrieve is a closer match to slender baitfish like sand eels and silversides.
The Boone Needles left a lot to be desired. Perhaps the most notable flaw was that the screw-eye hook hangers regularly ripped out under the strain of heavy stripers. But despite their shortcomings, the Boone Needles inspired the development of countless future generations of needlefish, which many surfcasters still consider to be the best plug style for big bass.
Gibbs Pencil Popper
No discussion of striper plugs would be complete without a nod to master plug builder Stan Gibbs. Gibbs tested many of his plugs in his home waters of the Cape Cod Canal, where striped bass have a habit of feeding directly in the middle of the 700-foot-wide expanse. The need for long-distance casting inspired the design of the Gibbs Pencil Popper, an elongated, tail-weighted surface lure that draws savage strikes.
"Popper" is a bit of a misnomer. The small, cupped mouth doesn't quite come into play while the pencil is being retrieved. Instead, as the angler rhythmically bounces the rod, the tip of the plug swishes across the surface of the water while slowly creeping toward shore.
It's been said that Gibbs designed the Pencil Popper to mimic a whiting (silver hake) tail-walking across the surface trying to escape marauding stripers. Whiting may have been the inspiration, but the pencil popper also calls up big stripers when fished around schools of adult bunker, mackerel, mullet or any other large baitfish.
Today, there are dozens of pencil popper styles made by a number of talented plug builders, but the Gibbs Pencil Popper still ranks high among angler favorites.
Cotton Cordell Red Fin
Many surfcasters tie on a 7-inch Red Fin before any other plug. That’s because it’s considered a great “searching” lure. It covers water fast, and if any stripers are around, they’ll take a swipe.
The Red Fin has a similar action to other minnow-style lures, except that it swims closer to the surface. Right out of the package, the Red Fin is very light and casts poorly, especially if there's wind. For this reason, most surfcasters fill the hollow body chamber with water. Adding too much water, however, will hamper the plug’s wiggle. Ten CCs seems to strike the balance between increased casting distance and minimal loss of action.
Compared to some of the large wooden swimmers on this list, the Red Fin is relatively small, and many anglers don’t think of it as a big-bass catcher. But it is. The Red Fin’s reputation for attracting cow stripers has been enhanced by a few exceptional catches, the most impressive of which is the 61-pound Block Island striper caught by Alfred Anuszewski in 1984.
Photo by Earl Evans
Super Strike Super 'N' Fish
In the 1980s, when Block Island surfcasters were regularly picking up the pieces of Boone Needlefish dismantled by huge stripers, it was Don Musso of Super Strike Lures who got the call to make a needlefish-style plug that could withstand the punishment dished out by big bass.
Instead of using screw-in eyes as hook hangers, Musso through-wired his plugs to make them tougher and more durable.
The Super 'N' Fish is uniquely tapered at both ends; a design that Musso says is a closer match to sand eels and smaller profile baitfish.
Need proof that the Super 'N' Fish catches big stripers? Look no further than Tom Rinaldi's 64-pound behemoth, wrestled from the Long Island surf in November 1990 on this 6 3/8-inch lure.
Yo-Zuri Mag Darter
Instead of the tight wobble of plastic swimmers with lips, darters glide through the water during the retrieve thanks to a forward-sloping head. The occasional twitch of the rod tip will cause these lures to dart to one side or the other.
Though there are many darters on the market, the subtle swimming action of the Yo-Zuri Mag Darter just seems more irresistible to surf-cruising stripers, perhaps because its natural swimming action mimics an unsuspecting baitfish better than other darters. Another advantage is the internal magnetic weight, which shifts to the rear of the lure during the cast, helping it fly past the breakers and into the strike zone. When bass are schooled up, the Mag Darter often draws strikes on every cast. It's a favorite in New Jersey, Montauk, and Cape Cod.
Andrus Jetty Caster
Walk the bluff at the Montauk Lighthouse in October and you will notice that almost every angler has a bucktail jig tied on. Look a little closer, and you'll see that most of those jigs are Andrus Jetty Casters.
The effectiveness of the bucktail jig is no secret. Variations of this deerhair-and-leadhead combo can be used to catch just about any fish that swims. The Jetty Caster, however, is made specifically for stripers. Richie Andrus of Millville, New Jersey, ties these jigs with extra hair to slow down the sink rate, making them perfect for swimming over rocky bottoms with minimal hang-ups. Add an Uncle Josh 70-S porkrind strip as a trailer, and you have a combination that's caught more stripers than the rest of the lures on this list combined.
Introduced in 1945, Bob Pond's Atom 40 was one of the first swimming plugs specifically designed for stripers, and was a direct competitor of the Creek Chub Pikie, which was built for freshwater species and couldn’t always handle the strain of large stripers in the salt.
The Atom 40 had a large profile, a deadly swimming action and, thanks to the heavy through-wire running the length of the lure, was built to sustain the punishment dished out by big stripers. Pond began making his lures out of plastic in the late 1940s to help cut production costs and distinguish his product from similar wooden lures on the market.
The Atom 40 tempted big stripers for more than half a century before being taken out of production. Though Atom Lures no longer makes the Atom 40, plug builders such as Beachmaster and Lordship Lure make wooden versions of this classic that remain popular with surfcasters today.
Super Strike Zig Zag
The subtle side-to-side sweep of a well-made darter has been responsible for countless surf-caught cows. But darters made of wood can be fickle. Just a knot in the grain can mean the difference between a plug that swims and a plug that spins. Recognizing this, lure maker Don Musso perfected his design and began making his darter, the Super Strike Zig Zag, out of plastic in 1990.
Because the Zig Zag’s action is so reliable, it has become one of the most popular surfcasting plugs ever. The lure works best after dark, while being slowly retrieved against a moving tide. The Zig Zag can rack up big numbers of small to medium-sized fish and just as effectively fool 40-plus-pounders. Without question, no arsenal of surfcasting plugs is complete without the Super Strike Zig Zag.
Photo by Kevin Blinkoff
Back in the days when conventional reels were the standard in the surf, fishermen would have to "tune in" their casting at the beginning of the season. To do this, some Cape Cod fishermen would take an Atom 40 plug, remove the hooks, and tie it on backwards to make it cast farther.
According to an interview with Atom designer Bob Pond in a 2005 issue of Hunting and Fishing Collectibles, one surfcaster was practicing casting with a hookless Atom 40 tied on backwards when big stripers began knocking the plug all over the place. The fishermen put the hooks back on and started catching fish with the modified Atom 40. He then went to Pond and asked him to make lures in that style, and the Reverse Atom was born. The amber-colored Reverse was said to imitate a squid fleeing from a hungry striper along the surface.
Though these lures are no longer in production, every once in a while you might still see one getting flung on the beach, and if you find one at a yard sale, buy it.
Photo courtesy of Peter O'Neill
Made and self-titled by Long Islander Danny Pichney, this surface swimmer weaves across the top of the water leaving a tremendous V-wake that striped bass find irresistible. Pichney has passed on, but his legacy lives in the Danny Plug. Plenty of builders make a version of this lure, and pretty much all of them will catch fish.
The Danny works great in calm water, and is flat-out awesome when retrieved through the whitewater left behind by crashing waves.
Countless species of gamefish fall for the Acme Kastmaster’s tail-kicking, wounded-baitfish action, not the least of which is the striped bass.
True to its name, the Kastmaster casts like a rocket, making it popular among surfcasters who frequently battle windy conditions. The jewelry-quality nickel plating of Acme Lures gives the Kastmaster an unrivaled flash when retrieved steadily or flutter-jigged through the surf. The Kastmaster’s shape is a close match to juvenile bunker, herring, and other forage staples.
Gibbs Casting Swimmer
Striped bass love rough water. Their wide tails help them easily navigate through the churning surf while baitfish and crustaceans are being pushed around and disoriented. Unfortunately, these conditions can be difficult for surfcasters. The same rough seas that put stripers in a feeding mood can overwhelm many swimming plugs, making them roll over and giving them an unnatural appearance. Enter the Gibbs Casting Swimmer.
Nicknamed "bottle plugs" for their thin necks and wide bodies, the Gibbs Casting Swimmer is built for turbulent water and long-distance casts. The large curved lip makes them swim frantically while they track straight, even through the biggest surf and fastest rips.
Daiwa Salt Pro Minnow
A relative newcomer to the surf scene, the Daiwa "SP Minnow" is a fresh take on the old Finnish-minnow design created by Lauri Rapala in the 1930s. While this plug style is generally not known for casting long distances, the SP Minnow has a magnetic casting weight inside the body that lets it fly like a bullet, even into a stiff wind.
Its other upgrades include a holographic finish and frantic action that simulates a fleeing mackerel, silverside, or other slim-bodied baitfish. But here’s a tip: when you buy a new SP Minnow, you'll want to change the split rings and hooks to beefier models before casting it into the surf. A good-sized striper will have no problem twisting the stock hardware into a pretzel. I found that out the hard way.
When I first caught on to the SP Minnow in 2010, fishermen were already using it to haul big stripers out of the Cape Cod Canal. Not long after, I heard that fishermen in New Jersey were using this plug to beach bass into the 40-pound range. Long Island and Rhode Island surfcasters followed the trend. Before long, the SP Minnow had become the new hot bait throughout the Northeast, and I don’t see any signs of that changing.
Larry Welcome developed the wooden bottle darter in 1994. This cross between a bottle plug and a darter darts from side to side while maintaining the tight, seductive wiggle of a bottle plug. Welcome knew immediately he was onto something. While he made the BottleDarter in limited batches, it wasn’t until he partnered with mechanical engineer and longtime fishing buddy Rob Koch that plastic BottleDarters started being produced. It was Koch who helped created the mold that set the mass-production in motion.
Before it even hit the shelves, surfcasters were buzzing about the BottleDarter, largely because the story got around that while field-testing the lure in June 2009, Koch caught a 60-pound striped bass. When the plastic BottleDarter went on sale later that year, anglers quickly discovered that Koch’s big fish wasn’t an anomaly (or a marketing stunt, as some suspected). Big striped bass eagerly latched onto this hybrid plug, and it quickly earned itself a prominent spot in many surfcasters’ plug bags.
Super Strike LittleNeck Popper
The mark of a truly great plug is versatility, but that’s generally not an attribute of popping plugs. The Super Strike Little Neck Popper is an exception.
In addition to working extremely well as traditional surface popper, the Little Neck can also be used as a swimming plug. With a slow, steady retrieve, it kicks from side to side right at the surface like a metal-lip swimmer. The difference between the Little Neck Popper and a metal-lip, however, is that metal-lips catch the wind and tumble during the cast, while the LittleNeck Popper flies through the air like a dart, easily reaching sandbars or rips far off the beach.
RM Smith Swimmer
Of all the custom wooden plugs on the market, Ryan Smith's designs are some of the most coveted. His metal-lip swimmers dive a foot or two below the surface and have an extra-wide wobble that stripers just seem to love. The big eyes and artistic paint jobs make RM Smith lures almost too pretty to cast. Almost.
Lunker City Slug-Go
The Slug-Go made waves among largemouth bass fishermen long before it migrated into striper fishing circles. This soft-plastic stickbait has a simple design, but it can imitate almost any baitfish a striper is likely to eat—particularly eels and bunker—so its versatility has made it a must-have for surfcasters.
A Slug-Go can be paired with a jighead and hopped along the bottom, threaded on a big worm hook and retrieved along the surface as a topwater, or rigged with two hooks and fished much like a rigged dead eel. The latter technique was made popular by Rhode Island surfcasting sharpie Steve McKenna. McKenna uses a needle and Dacron thread to rig the Slug-Go with one hook in the nose and another seated halfway back towards the tail. He even adds a few nail weights into the Slug-Go's body to help it cast farther and sink below the waves where the bass are feeding. He's used this rig to catch stripers weighing in excess of 40 pounds from the surf.
Sebile Stick Shadd
Lure-making mad scientist Patrick Sebile struck striped bass gold with the Stick Shadd. While most lures on this list have been around for 20 years or more, the Stick Shadd is a newer member of surfcasting arsenals, only gaining popularity in 2010. However, in just a few short years, the Stick Shadd has racked up an impressive number of big stripers.
At first, most surfcasters didn't know what to make of this bait. The wide body and lipless design gives the Stick Shadd the appearance of a spook-style topwater, yet the lure dives no matter how slowly you retrieve. What fishermen quickly discovered was that there is no wrong way to fish a Stick Shadd in the surf.
On a straight retrieve, the lure swims in a tight "S" pattern. By slowly twitching the rod, the Stick Shadd walks the dog under water. Work the rod quickly, and the Stick Shadd gets a mind of its own, darting up, down and side-to-side like a panicked baitfish. In my experience, the fast retrieve often catches the stripers that turned their noses up at everything else.
Atom Striper Swiper
The Striper Swiper is the only Atom Lure in production today. Created in 1956, this tough-as-nails sinking surface popper is tail-weighted to improve casting distance. While the design might seem counterintuitive, sinking poppers are actually quite useful in the surf. They will hold their position in rough or windy conditions, where a floating popper might be prone to skipping across the surface. With a steady retrieve, the Striper Swiper has no problem staying on top, and its action triggers explosive strikes from striped bass and bluefish alike.
Red Gill Rascal
It's almost hard to believe that a 30-pound striped bass would see—much less eat—this 4 1/2-inch sand eel imitation on a dark, moonless night. But trust me, they do. Fished ahead of a plug or metal lure as a teaser, the Red Gill is a staple on sandy beaches where sand eels thrive from Jersey to Cape Cod.
When sand eels are the primary baitfish, the lure used in tandem with a Red Gill becomes little more than a casting weight. Surprisingly, large stripers will bypass the big lure for this relatively tiny offering.
Developed in England in the 1950s as a codfish lure, the Red Gill eventually migrated across the Atlantic, where surfcasters quickly put it to use. For a few years, Red Gills became hard to find in the United States. Showing their devotion to this lure, surfcasters paid exorbitant shipping costs to have them sent over from the UK. It was worth the freight, but luckily Red Gill lures once again have a reliable state-side distributor, and can be purchased at most tackle shops that cater to serious surfcasters.
Storm WildEye/Tsunami Swim Shad
When the Storm WildEye and Tsunami Swim Shads first hit shelves in the early 2000's, they quickly became two of the hottest striped bass baits ever invented. Since their introduction, many anglers have packed away their Sassy Shad/jighead combos—the only lure that came close to matching the action of modern swim shads—and never looked back.
The reason for their success is that Swim Shads are very easy to fish and have an internal weight, which did away with the need to carry jigheads. The tails kick as the lures fall, so a simple lift and drop retrieve is enough to convince even the most discerning striper to bite. First-time surfcasters and grizzled vets equally praise these lures for their productivity.
The swim shad is one of the few lures that can be counted on for quantity of fish and quality fish. The 4- to 6-inch models are some of the deadliest lures for 20- to 36-inch stripers, while the 9-inch models are like cow-striper kryptonite. Perhaps best of all, a pack of swim shads won’t drain your wallet, so you don’t cry when you lose a few.
Point Jude Tins
First introduced in 1946, Point Jude metals have unique designs that have stood the test of time. Most of the company’s original models are still in production today…and still catching big bass. Made to mimic local Rhode Island baitfish, such as butterfish, sand eels, tinker mackerel, and peanut bunker, Point Judes have an enticing action aided by a keel running down the length of the lure. This helps the lure maintain a consistent action and right-side-up orientation, even in rough surf. Current company owner Joe Martins is still churning out classic models like the PoJee, but often introduces new metal designs.
Yo-Zuri Surface Cruiser
With a relatively short run of fame compared to lures like Creek Chub and Atom, the discontinued Yo-Zuri Surface Cruiser is sorely missed among striped bass hunters. The plug was widely considered one of the best pencil poppers ever made. Its plastic construction made the lure extremely buoyant, which made it easier to dance across the surface. Another benefit of the plastic was its durability. Wooden pencil poppers will eventually swell and lose their effectiveness, but the only time the Surface Cruiser stopped working was when you broke it off.