Beginner’s Guide to Plugging For Delta Stripers
Written By: Thomas Amberson, March 12, 2012
If memory serves well, it was in 2003 when I became infatuated with plugging for Delta striped bass. Up to that point, I trolled for stripers, and was still mostly involved in largemouth bass fishing on the Delta. That is until one day, I happen to be fishing with living legend and striper expert Mark Wilson, and a mutual friend.
We’d had a great day of trolling for stripers and Mark suggested we do a bit of “plugging” to finish the day off. We dropped the trolling motor right there on the West Bank, Mark made his first cast and just like that, FISH ON – a 21 lb. striper on a Fish Trap! It was at that very moment I knew I wanted to plug for these fish; I’ve been going at it non-stop, ever since.
In my humble opinion, “plugging” for Delta stripers is the most challenging and fun method to catch striped bass. Unlike other common methods, you’re casting to your fish and always have your rod in your hand when you get bit. And when a striper hits a plug, it can be downright violent! And, it should go without saying that on any given day, a trophy fish can inhale your bait, at any time of the year. What’s more is that striper plugging allows the angler to use the lighter gear, in relation to gear commonly used in more traditional techniques, such as bait fishing and trolling. Standard largemouth bass gear makes it downright sporting, and even the “schoolie” sized fish can provide endless action and excitement that is diminished with the gear often used with other techniques.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to casting for your fish is this – you can fish water that trolling and bait fishing simply cannot fish effectively. More often than not, I’m making casts, and getting bit in 1’ to 3’ feet of water – the shallow zone where you will find active feeders. This, combined with literally 1000’s of potential holding areas make plugging for striper a challenge that can be appreciated by anglers of all ability levels.
Gear: As mentioned, this in part is what makes plug-caught stripers so much fun. You can keep it simple with a rod rated 10-20lb with medium-medium/heavy action, paired with a nice baitcasting/spinning reel and 15lb monofilament. This kit will certainly get you in the mix and catching. As your repertoire expands into different techniques, the sky is the limit. Most of my kits are 8-17lb medium action rods, 100 size baitcast reels spooled up with 20lb Spectra and finished with a short, 20lb fluorocarbon leader. This set-up enables me to do 90% of the techniques (cranking, swimbaits, ripbaits, etc.) effectively. In the areas I fish, it’s mostly open water with very few snags or other impediments that may call for heavier line.
I size up a bit for large topwater baits, such as Black Dog Lunker Punkers and Bodega Bay Sporty Spooks. 65lb Spectra is perhaps the most common application for the big wood, but you can also go as low as 30lb and still get it done.
I am partial to Abu Garcias’ line of REVO reels – real powerhouses for the size that pull an incredible amount of drag. The “SX” is the middle of the road model, and is more than capable of taking fish in excess of 20 pounds in the hands of a somewhat skilled angler. For bigger jobs, my REVO Toro gets called into action, along with a heavier rod, usually something in the 12-25lb range with fast taper and medium/medium heavy action. I like medium powered rods anytime I’m fishing with Spectra due to the no stretch properties of braided “super lines.” Something has to give, and powering down on your rods provides that dampness that’s needed to prevent pulled hooks and popping leaders when fishing Spectra.
Baits: For the most part, striped bass are non-discriminatory predators and will take a wide variety of offerings. For the burgeoning striper plugger, the following baits should be in your tackle box:
Lipless Crankbaits - Bill Lewis Rattletraps are a long time favorite with many striper anglers. ½ and ¾ oz. sizes are most commonly used. Color wise, black-blue/chrome as well as natural baitfish color patterns are popular. My favorite color is black over white, with green flecks for a bit of flash. On the higher end, it’s very tough to beat Luckycraft LV500 crankbaits. Essentially, they are ½ oz. size with ¾ oz. weight, well balanced and throw off a vibration that will trigger tons of bites from hungry stripers.
I find lipless crankbaits to work best in warmer water conditions, where stripers are more inclined to chase baits and give in to their reactionary instincts. That said, these baits will take fish year round. Further, these can be effectively fished shallow and deep, with several different techniques.
Swimbaits: Day in and day out, I believe that no other bait can out-perform a swimbait. Natural in presentation, swimbaits appear to be more of the “real deal” than reaction baits, and will catch fish 365 day a year. My hands-down favorite is the good ol’ 5” inch Fish Trap in “striper special” and pearl colors. Coupled with a 3/8 to ½ oz. leadhead, these baits flat out produce in shallow water. If the wind is up or if I’m fishing in 6’ to 15’ of water (rip-rap and deep points/drop offs) I may opt for ¾ oz., but 90% of the time, a ½ leadhead gets it done.
Basstrix, Big Hammer and Trophy swimbaits also work quite well, and I’ve always got a few of those in my box. Natural colors match the presentation nicely. Fish swimbaits slower than your other striper baits, close to the bottom and hang on! To aid in this presentation, I like to use an Abu/Garcia REVO “Winch” reel, but any 5 to 1-ish reel should work fine in slowing it down. Like lipless crankbaits, Swimbaits can be effectively fished in water shallow and deep. Adding scent to these baits will definitely trigger more bites.
Rip Baits: As our Delta waters cool, the rod with a rip bait tied on is the one I’ll be reaching for quite often. A reaction bait by design, there are times that stripers find this type of bait too much to bear and must attack it. My favorite rip bait is a Luckycraft 128 SP Pointer, in ghost shad. Be forewarned – this bait is work to fish, in that it’s a rip bait. I’ve found that instead of ripping it, I simply use a high speed (7 to 1) reel and “burn” it quick-like, with pauses. I’ll pause it and just let it sit there suspended, and BAM! 99% of the bites you’ll get on this bait will be when the bait is doing absolutely nothing, but it’s the erratic rips/ reel-pause that get’s their attention.
Active feeders don’t need much of a pause to react; however, if the fish are in a negative (non-feeding) mode or I’m fishing cold water, I may let is suspend for upwards to 10 seconds. These baits are most effective in shallow water, with 3’ to 6’ feet being optimal. Although more work than most other baits, you simply cannot go without – there’s been more than one day in which the only bait getting bit is a ripbait.
Topwater Baits: If you were to ask any avid striper plugger their preferred method to take a striper, 9 times out of 10 they’d say “topwater.” And rightfully so – there is no more exciting way to plug for these fish than with topwater lures. The “magic” lies in the visual; the angler gets to see it happen. There are very few things in fishing that can trump seeing a double-digit striper crush a topwater bait.
The explosion and (hopefully) subsequent hook set is enough to give even the most jaded angler a huge dose of adrenaline. Further, it’s a great way to land a striper of a lifetime. Many trophy-sized Delta striper fall victim to topwater baits. To add to the intrigue, topwater baits are most effective in low-light conditions, which means windows of opportunity are not as abundant as other methods. That being said, there are days when stripers will take a topwater plug all day long when daytime sun is filtered by thick clouds.
Favorite topwater baits of Delta striper anglers include Zara/Super Spooks, Pencil Poppers, Lunker Punkers and Sammies. I fish all these baits; however, my personal favorites are Super Spooks, in largemouth bass, trout, shad and bone colors.
It may take a day or two to figure out the retrieve in that most of these baits are “walk the dog” type retrieves. Once you get the retrieve dialed in, it’s only a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Once you experience your first topwater striper, I can assure you that fish will be swimming in the back of your head for days to come.
One very important note to add is that these aforementioned baits are simply a starting point. As mentioned earlier, striped bass are a fairly non-discriminating predator, and will take a large variety of properly presented baits. In the past 6 months alone, I’ve landed stripers on Senkos, Shimano Waxwings, Flukes and even Sweet Beavers. Eventually, you’ll reach a point where you’ll look at a bait and think to yourself, “that’d get bit.” Clearly, there is much opportunity to make striper plugging “your own” with a bit of creativity and willingness to try out different baits.
Where to fish: This is truly the 64,000 dollar question. I’d argue any day that overall, success in this type of fishing is more “where” you fish as opposed to “how” you fish. And the tricky thing about the Delta is that virtually every bit of it looks fishy, but in reality not all of it holds fish consistently. In fact, I consider stripers to be the “ghosts” of the Delta, in that they can be here today and gone tomorrow. Indeed, there are spots that consistently hold fish, but to rely on these honey holes day in and day out will only lead to heart ache and frustration. And, don’t get too hung up on fishing the “runs.” Certainly, there is a greater density of fish in our Delta system during the runs, but I can say with certainty that good fish can be caught year round with a little more effort, and pinpointing of likely holding areas during the “off” season.
Out of respect for those who’ve worked hard in developing their “circuit” of spots, I will not name specific locations. However, I can say that one of the most consistent zones is the West Delta. During the spring and fall runs, large schools of stripers will stage on both the San Joaquin and Sacramento River sides of the Delta in this area. You can also find concentrations of fish in the northern, southern and eastern zones at certain times of the year, but overall, going west is a good bet. I’ll break from my normal routine during the fall and early winter months and fish east and north during the Fall run, as stripers follow shad schools to the thinner and warmer water.
Two essential items when searching for likely areas to fish are a map of the Delta and a GPS function on your sonar, preferably with high definition contour detail so you can find the fishy areas.
Ironically, I hardly ever use the “fish finder” to find fish, unless I’m fishing deeper with spoons. I use the sonar for depth only, 90% of the time, since I usually have the boat in 6’ to 8’ feet of water, or less. If I happen to see a few sonar targets in a spot I’m fishing – good, that means they’re present, but I certainly don’t need fish on the sonar to fire off some casts.
A great map is the “Fish-n-Map” brand available at most local tackle shops. These maps provide enough detail for one to determine likely holding areas, such as shoals, drop-offs and even offer the angler some “hotspot” areas. In the beginning, I would study this map prior to a day on the Delta, and start fishing the spots that looked good to me. Trust me, this works.
The GPS function with contour detail is invaluable, and I still use it to this day when looking for new spots to fish when on the water. One should always take some time out of their day to look for new spots, especially on slower days or when you’ve blown through your established spots and want to add to the “circuit.”
What to look for? In a phrase – THIN WATER. 1’ to 3’ foot of water is what I’d consider prime plugging water. However, 3’ to 10’ of water should not be overlooked. Sunken tracts like Big Break, Franks Tract and Mildred Island are prime examples of shallow water habitat.
If you study a Delta map, you’ll find that there are a lot of areas throughout the system that has similar features to the aforementioned areas, albeit smaller in size. Further, open water shoals on the main rivers are also mainstays in my circuit. Rip rap, tule islands, levy breaks, points corners, piles, pumps…..all these can hold striper at any given time. However, in a nutshell, I focus my efforts on the sunken tracts and rip-rap during the late Summer/Fall/Winter and open water shoals/sandbars/high spots during the spring and summer.
One other key factor is tide and current. As a general rule, my spots are most productive during the ebbing tide. That said, it’s also a good idea to find some spots that bite on the flood as well. Some areas can bite on both tides. For example, if I plan on fishing Franks Tract, I’ll fish inside during the flood, and during the ebb, I’ll move out to the outside and fish the levy breaks as the ebbing tide pushes water from the inside, out.
With regard to current, most spots need some sort of current to bite. Stripers are like most predators in that they want to burn the least amount calories for maximum amount of return for their efforts. Current can act as a forage conveyor belt, bringing their meals to them. With that said, you want to look for areas that have current, but also have current breaks/eddy’s near by so they can be close to the “conveyor belt” without actually have to be in the current. Local striper expert Randy Pringle once mentioned to me that “Nobody wants to eat a cheeseburger on a treadmill.” I think that sums it quite nicely.
The truth to the matter is this – For the most part, it’s going to the tiny “no name” spots that will be the bread and butter of your striper plugging success. The only way to build your circuit is to get out there and start pounding the water. Use all the tools at your disposal; give yourself time on each outing to look at new water and eventually, things will start to click. And even if you find spots that don’t initially produce, keep coming back. If it looks like a fishy area that has all the elements that striped bass prefer, eventually they will be there. I’ve got literally hundreds of these tiny, no name spots all over the Delta that I’ll hit time and again without a single bite, and then one day – wide open. It’s simply a matter of time and circumstances lining up to produce some fish. I may go back to that spot the next day and it’s as dry as a desert.
On the other hand, you’ll find spots that consistently hold stripers, and lot’s of spots that are somewhere in between. The best way to put yourself on the fast track to striper plugging is to get to know your spots well, fish them hard and eventually a “snowball” effect will take place – really like any other type of fishing. Moreover, develop your “eyeball” and instincts – this can only be achieved by time on the water, but know in your heart of hearts that eventually, it will all come together and you’ll be consistently slaying plug caught stripers, during all seasons.