Classic Plastic

Striped bass on Cotton Cordell Red Fin

Pictured above: Photo by Mike Azevedo

In an age where fluid dynamic simulations, 3D printers and space-age polymers are all used in designing new lures, we tend to forget about where some of our favorite “new” lures got their start. Some surfcaster favorites like the Daiwa Salt Pro Minnow, Shimano Colt Sniper, and Sebile Bull Minnow all have roots in classic plastic swimmers.

It’s a relatively simple design—a piece of molded plastic with a lip, hook hangers, hooks and paint—yet this style of lures has been responsible for countless large striped bass over the years, and regularly out-fishes plugs that are two or three times more expensive. They are affordable, easy to modify and, most importantly, catch fish in the surf in a variety of conditions.

Among the “old school” plastic swimmers, the Cotton Cordell Red Finwas invented by Cotton Cordell more than 50 years ago as a cheaper alternative to wooden Rapala lures of similar design. The Bomber Long ABomber Windcheater , and the relatively newer Mambo Minnowalso follow the basic molded plastic design first conceived by Cordell. These minnow plugs were originally intended for freshwater use, but were later adopted for saltwater use by surfcasters targeting striped bass. Each model has its own pros, cons, and situations where it works best.

Classic plastic plugs are affordable and easy to modify
Classic plastic plugs are affordable, easy to modify and, most importantly, catch fish in the surf in a variety of conditions.

You can get a rough idea of how deep a plastic minnow will swim based on the angle of its lip. For the most part, the greater the angle of the lip to the body, the higher it will run. Plugs with a smaller angle to the lip tend to run deeper.

The Red Fin is perhaps the most versatile of these swimmers because it is easily “loaded” to give it more weight, which helps it cast farther and swim a bit deeper. An unloaded Red Fin has its advantages, too. It rides higher in the water, which is desirable in some situations. The Windcheater was made as a solution to the tough-casting “stock” Red Fin. At 1-7/8 ounce, it is heavier than the Red Fin, an inch shorter at 6 inches, and runs a bit deeper. Bombers Long A’s have a comparable action and typically swim just a tad deeper.

The Mambo Minnow most closely resembles the design and swimming action of the Red Fin. However, the Mambo is made from a thicker molded plastic and lacks a hollow cavity; therefore, it cannot be loaded. Neither Mambos nor Red Fins are through-wired, so it is possible for a big fish to break them if it gains enough leverage. I’ve never had a Red Fin break, but I have had rear hook hangers ripped out of Mambo Minnows.

For me, a plastic lure like Red Fins is all about “the wiggle,” the side-to-side swimming motion of the plug’s tail as it’s pulled through the water. The Red Fin has a wide wiggle, and replacing the rear treble with a dressed Siwash hook helps exaggerate this motion a bit more—as well as helping when unhooking fish. When retrieved slowly in calm current, the plug stays right on top and wakes on the surface if you really crawl it. This can make for some spectacular topwater hits on quiet nights.

With a faster retrieve or in strong current, a Red Fin will dive to 2 or 3 feet. There are some situations when I hardly retrieve the lure at all. For instance, in an area with a strong side-to-side current, it’s possible to cast the lure out, come tight to it, and let the current impart the action as the lure swings through the strike zone. (This technique is not unlike swinging a streamer when fly-fishing a river.) My buddy, Jay, taught me to add an occasional twitch, which is sometimes deadly.

Old School minnow Plugs
Old School minnow PlugsLeft to right: Bomber Windcheater – Bomber Long A – Cotton Cordell Red Fin – Mambo Minnow

I’ve found that the Red Fin really shines on open beaches. Its shallow-running nature is perfect for working troughs and bars, where I retrieve it at a crawl to keep it in the small strike zone for a considerable amount of time.

Minnow lures produce in a variety of environments. I have taken quality fish on them in quiet estuaries, shallow boulder fields, and rocky shorelines. One river I fish has a good run of herring later in the spring, and I’ve had fish thumb their nose at live eels, then eat a slowly-retrieved plastic swimmer instead. The 7-inch length and medium profile is a perfect match for herring, but it also works well to imitate smaller mackerel, larger sand eels, and bunker.

I keep my color selection simple. I use white and chicken scratch on brighter nights around full moons and black or “blurple” (black and purple) on darker nights around the new moons or nights with a heavy cloud cover.

I’ve caught many big fish on classic plastic swimmers over the years, but in the summer of 2017, I caught one to top them all. In early July, on the night of the full moon. I was fishing a large, sandy beach on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Cloud cover or a rainy night is ideal during the full moon, but I had neither that night. It was a bright, cloudless night with hardly any wind. I was not optimistic about our prospects.

At that time of the season, I generally have at least a few eels, but we had been on such a hot plastic swimmer bite that I was confident in leaving the snakes at home. I attributed this to the abnormally large number of menhaden that had been in the area. There had been rumors of some very large bass following these schools, but we had yet to catch anything beyond the upper 20-pound class on our previous few outings. We arrived at our destination on the beach and began casting. It was still a little before our “tide window” for fishing that area.

The water had just started to move from left to right. Due to the bright night, I clipped on a chicken scratch Red Fin that I had loaded. With little breeze at my back, I was able to make a long cast. I reeled quickly to make contact and then started my painfully slow retrieve, letting the building sweep do most of the work in getting the lure to swim.

After about 15 minutes, Jay hooked a 20-pounder and brought it in without too much fuss. A few minutes later, I had a sharp strike early in my retrieve and caught my own healthy 20-pound-class fish. I released it and began casting again with a renewed enthusiasm.

A few minutes later, I had another sharp strike early in my retrieve. I set the hook, but the fish barely budged and immediately started taking drag, not frantically, but deliberately, as though peeling line off my nearly locked Van Staal VS200 was no big deal. Typically, even big fish take only a couple of big runs, with a bit of a break in between. This fish just kept going. I was getting close to my backing when she finally slowed down, and I was able to get her turned. I knew I had a seriously large fish on the other end, but all I could do was try to pump the rod and reel the line back down when I could.

After what seemed like an eternity—it turned out to be more like 5 to 6 minutes—I flicked on my headlamp and illuminated the fish in the wash at my feet. I was dumbstruck! I’d never seen a bass that big in person. The hooks were barely holding on just under its massive jaw, and the plug came free when I grabbed the fish. Luckily, Jay had a 60-pound Boga Grip with him. He hoisted the fish up and we both aimed our headlamps on the magic numbers. It bounced up to 55, back down to 50 and settled on 52. Jay is a tall guy, but he still struggled to hold it all the way out of the water to get the weight. A nearby surfcaster snapped a couple of pictures for me, then the fish was released.

Reality didn’t set in till the following day when I told a few select friends. I had hit one of the most sought-after benchmarks in surfcasting…on one of its most iconic lures.

Source : onthewater

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