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Plastic Assassins

Trolling is a broad description used within the sport fishing community and there are many presentations that can be accomplished while a vessel is in gear. Across global seas anglers find widespread success dragging an extensive array of natural and artificial enticements, yet lipped swimming plugs are possibly the most all-purpose and overlooked offerings amid an array of offshore, near-shore and inshore environs. Uniquely, these diving lures fashioned with prominent lips emit intense action at a range of speeds and can be equally effective in the wash of a Hatteras or Hell’s Bay.

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The ability of any artificial lure to elicit savage strikes from saltwater game fish relies heavily on numerous environmental and situational factors. While scent technology is appealing, saltwater is an incredible transmitter of sound and for years anglers have been capitalizing on the ability of game fish to detect minute vibrations and noise from great distances. With so many artificial lure designs and variations on the market, one constant that manufacturers and game fish can’t ignore is the rhythmic vibration of a lipped diving plug digging deep below the surface.

Hard baits come in many different designs, but the end goal of any selection process is to mimic the appearance of local forage. While game fish naturally feed on prey items of different size and species, the numerous types of finfish present among Florida’s prolific inshore and offshore waters are the most common sources of nutrition for top-tier predators.

Lure color and shape are clearly important, with manufacturers continuing to fine-tune new products down to every last little detail to the point where they look, swim and even sound just like the forage they were designed to imitate. However, the ability to properly mimic a baitfish hinges on more than just the look of a lure itself. Swimming characteristics are far more important than the enticement’s actual physical resemblance to a particular species. In the case of lipped plugs, lures are designed to achieve slow or tight wobbling, swift rattling and various evasive body roll characteristics yielding desirable low-maintenance potency.

While a sardine pattern might appear the most natural, I have a penchant for the classic plug with a red head, white body and metal lip. I tend to fish this lure in all conditions, but when the water clarity is particularly poor a chartreuse or mahi-mahi pattern will enhance visibility and contrast as it tracks below the surface. Under bright skies an all-white or bone color plug can be deadly. When light enters water, its intensity quickly diminishes. The effect is called attenuation and is caused by the scattering of light by particles suspended in the water column—the more particles, the more the scattering. Attenuation also restricts how far light penetrates the water column and directly impacts how fish perceive color. Knowing this, it doesn’t make much sense to select a lure based on what it looks like hanging on a rack or in the palm of your hand. From this point forward, imagine what the bait will look like below the surface against its surroundings. Think about depth and water clarity and how each affect the lure’s appearance.

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The inherent depth at which these lures dive to is highly dependent on the plastic or metal lip exiting the lure’s head. The closer the lip angle is to zero degrees, and the greater its length and width, the harder the lure will dig. You might think that a plug with a heavily slanted lip will track deep, but this increased angle actually assists it in swimming shallower. Flat lips create a tighter action and easily deflect structure, while lips with a pronounced curve tend to wobble more intensely. The deepest diving hard baits are designed with lips that protrude horizontally from the nose of the lure, but line tie location also contributes to any lure’s diving abilities. These plastic assassins owe their accomplishments to lips with large surface area and generally have split rings attached less than half the distance between the nose and front edge of the lip.

While the inherent concept of trolling plugs involves simply setting these lures back behind the boat and waiting for a strike, success in this pursuit requires a keen eye and feel for the action transmitted to the rod tip. Manufacturers test and tank-tune their lures to calculate achievable diving depths, though anglers can further enhance their specifics by adjusting trolling speed as well as the distance lures are deployed beyond the transom.

While trolling for grouper is a common tactic in the deep shipping channels within Tampa Bay, the state’s richest environs for this tactic exist a bit further north along Florida’s Big Bend where prime gag grouper habitat exists in depths shallower than 20 feet. Similarly, grouper fishing heats up in the fall along the southwest Florida coast as these broad-shouldered demersals make a seasonal migration to near-shore rockpiles, reefs, wrecks, ledges and even channel edges along the ICW throughout much of the region. Undoubtedly, the biggest fish are captured by anglers targeting structures in 20 to 60 feet of water, with the Mann’s Stretch 25+ (mannsbait.com) a local favorite.

...success in this pursuit requires a keen eye and feel for the action transmitted to the rod tip.

The same action unfolds across the Gulf Stream in The Bahamas, where black, red and yellowfin grouper foraging the bottom in 15 to 50-foot depths fall victim to properly presented diving plugs pulled though the crystal-clear waters. In any scenario, a plug with tack-sharp hooks that dives too violently could easily become fouled in bottom structure, while being too conservative in this approach results in a plug that won’t ever reach the strike zone. Bouncing bottom every so often is a good way to know you’re fishing in the zone and with experience you will be able to look at the vibrating rod tip and determine if your lure is tracking properly or not. You might also be surprised to see how yellowtail, mutton and mangrove snapper are fearless in their undisputed pursuits to smack massive lipped plugs.

Conversely, coastal predators like king, cero and Spanish mackerel hunt forage higher in the water column and anglers must adjust accordingly by putting their plugs at the specific depths where fish are being marked. When no signs of life seem to be present on the sonar, covering different depths with a variety of plugs can help find where the action is concentrated. Though many kingfish anglers chase smokers with large hardtails, live bait isn’t always needed to bag the biggest fish. Along the Big Bend many anglers prefer to target kings by trolling lipped plugs anywhere from 20 to 40 miles off the beach.

In comparison to tournament competitors along the southeast coast searching for ideal swaths of green-tinted water with swift current, when chasing kings in the Gulf educated anglers often head straight to rockpiles, wrecks, springs or fertile areas of live bottom anywhere from 60 to 100-feet deep. Along the slowly sloping continental shelf it’s important to focus efforts on structure regardless of current or water clarity, although this far offshore the water is usually pretty clear. Once you locate a concentration of bait or mark a few fish, the methodology involves trolling in a figure-eight pattern around the target area. Offshore anglers catch smokers in the spring as the main body of migrating mackerel moves north, but the bite picks up again in the fall as big numbers of fish return south. What most don’t know is that there’s also a resident population of fish hanging out offshore in the summer. This is where another benefit to trolling deep diving plugs enters the equation. During the coming months the sun is brutal and it’s often too hot to sit around and soak live baits, so keeping the boat moving helps beat the heat.

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Heralded by offshore anglers for the revered Bonita trolling lure that’s been credited with numerous widespread wahoo catches, Yo-Zuri (yo-zuri.com) also offers many effective lipped plugs worthy of any position in the spread. One of the best sellers is the Crystal Minnow Deep Diver. Available in 10 patterns, the largest Crystal Minnow measures 5 ¼-inches and dives just over 20 feet. It has a tight swimming action and can be pulled to 8 knots. With a more streamlined shape than the sweeping Crystal Minnow, the 3D Magnum is yet another fortified diving plug that’s an excellent option for big game efforts. At trolling speeds of 4 to 9 knots, this plug displays a wide wobble and semi-roll that very accurately mimics a fleeing baitfish. Produced in eight patterns, each with internal prism and color change technology, the 3D Magnum is available in a 5 1/2-inch version that dives 12 to 18 feet below the surface, as well as a 7-inch version capable of reaching 21 feet.

Each and every manufacturer designs their lures with varying shapes and attributes to emit unique vibrations. Regardless of your brand loyalty, trolling lipped plugs is a convenient way to fish lures below the surface without the use of bulky cigar weights or planers. While conventional gear is typically used in trolling scenarios, many inshore anglers prefer wielding heavy spinning outfits in this pursuit. If you’re in a poling skiff, then you’ll want to hold the rod in your hands with a firm grip and point the tip toward the water to minimize scope and maximize the depth the plug runs. By decreasing the angle of line upon entering the water you can more effectively reach the predicted depth. Diving plugs are also designed with specific densities and weights that determine the lure’s defined swimming attributes. Floaters will dive, but when the boat stops these offerings slowly rise to the surface. Suspenders dive too, but even when the boat is out of gear these lures continue falling.

When fishing inshore for snook and tarpon, I recommend attaching a 6-foot length of fluorocarbon leader to 65 lb. braid with an Albright or FG knot. Though the stealthy attributes of fluorocarbon are not always necessary, along inshore environs we prefer the costlier material because it is more abrasion resistant than monofilament. Near-shore, when the razor gang could be prevalent, I attach a small swivel to a 10-inch trace of No. 6 single strand wire.

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Premium lipped plugs such as the Halco Laser Pro (above) feature puncture-proof plastic and robust thru-wire construction. Photography: Halco

Rapala (rapala.com) is one of the most legendary names in the game and produces several lipped plugs capable of fooling trophy saltwater game fish in a variety of venues. The venerable X-Rap Magnum is a versatile diving plug available in several body lengths and colors, making it a logical addition to any tackle tray. For blue water pursuits, the XRMag40 is an excellent choice, as this big game brute nosedives to 40 feet! Additionally, the lure can maintain its motion throughout a wide range of trolling speeds and can even be pulled up to 13 knots. With each X-Rap Magnum’s body length stretching as the plug’s stated diving depth increases, the 7-inch XRMag40 is large enough to capture the attention of fast-moving pelagic predators, as well as behemoth bottom dwellers. Furthermore, this enticing baitfish imitation features a textured, translucent body and internal holographic foil providing enhanced attraction amid low light conditions. Available in 23 colors, the body of the plug is built to handle repeated strikes from trophy game fish, while high-quality terminal tackle includes 3X split rings that connect to 4X VMC treble hooks, creating a strong and durable lure that is ready to troll right out of the box.

Pulling plugs inshore for snook and tarpon could have you covering ground as slow as 2 mph, or even letting the current provide the motion to swim your plug. It’s an equation that requires the helmsman’s awareness of a lure’s stated diving depth in relation to the current and depth of the water column you anticipate fish to be staging. With experience you’ll soon understand the need to let lures back farther when motoring into the current, while trolling with the moving water requires less scope to reach depth.

Another plug that excels across Florida and beyond is the Laser Pro 160 from Halco (halcotackle.com). Based in Australia, where tackle doesn’t last long, Halco’s plugs are built to endure intense strikes from a variety of predators. Featuring Mustad treble hooks and a durable body, the Laser Pro 160 dives to 23 feet and can be trolled over a broad range of speeds. While many plugs geared toward offshore success can be effectively used amid inshore venues, Halco’s Laser Pro series is particularly effective within shallower waters. At slow speeds, the Laser Pro swims with an enticing wobble that can fool even the most stubborn grouper over inshore structure. Additionally, tarpon and snook have shown a liking to the lure’s realistic design and motion. Available in six sizes and 31 color variations, the Laser Pro certainly deserves consideration from anglers looking to truly maximize their time on the water.

Whether trolling close to the bottom or higher in the water column, anytime you get a strike resist the urge to pull the throttle back. Forward momentum will pull your hooked quarry from any potential line-cutting structure and also provide the opportunity to double up. On the topic of hooking efficiency, many anglers are beginning to experiment with upgraded split rings and heavy-duty 3X single J-hook replacements. Truthfully, a wobbling plug coming out of the water at speed is a scary proposition and I prefer to switch out trebles with VMC 7266 Coastal Black inline hooks, available from 1/0 to 10/0. Not only do they help me avoid a swinging treble sticking to my hand, but single hooks are also much better for fish intended on release.

Though most diving plugs are outfitted with treble hooks, the 8-inch DTX Minnow from Nomad (nomadtackle.com) is equipped with 11/0 inline, heavy-duty single hooks. Weighing 5 ½ oz., the eye-catching DTX Minnow can be trolled from 4 to 12 knots and dives to 40 feet even at slower speeds. This lure’s true-running dependability is a result of Nomad’s Autotune bib system featuring a flexible and movable tow point that ensures the lure is always trolled from the perfect centerline. Hydrodynamically tested, the DTX Minnow features a concealed belly eyelet that allows the lure to be trolled at maximum speed, reaching depths few lures can achieve, with the design also enhancing the penetration of single, inline hooks.

Consistently catching fish with lipped plugs takes a certain familiarity and you’ll come to realize they aren’t ideal offerings to fish all day, every day. Rather, the approach is simply an addition to your growing arsenal of tricks. The most lucrative anglers carefully observe and fully comprehend the surrounding environment so they can choose and present offerings depending on the precise conditions they are faced with

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