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An introduction to needlefish lures for bass fishing - Guest blog post by Keith White

A profound thanks to the Jersey based angler Keith White for taking the time to write me this guest blog post, and if you have never heard of or let alone fished for bass with a needlefish (lure), then this introduction to a whole different world of bass fishing is outstanding. I am fully aware via his generous sharing of information that Keith has been fishing with needlefish style lures for many years now, and with some simply incredible success rates at times, but my knowledge of these sandeel imitations is at best very limited. And yes, the name needlefish is somewhat misleading, because as you will read below, a needlefish lure is imitating a sandeel amongst other things.

Why my interest in needlefish lures? Quite simply because straight-retrieving senkos at night is opening up a lot of bass fishing to me, but there are of course many occasions when a relatively lightweight soft plastic stick ain’t going to cut it with more lively sea and wind conditions - and unlike a few years ago, I am becoming more and more comfortable using lures that to us look like they are doing essentially nothing in the water, yet to the fish must be doing just the right thing because they hammer bass. As I said, I know essentially squat about fishing with needlefish, but I am increasingly interested in them as a hard lure which could help me out with night fishing in bouncier conditions and/or current runs etc. - and then on from that there is obviously a whole heap of info to learn about these simple looking but hard to track down lures (you can find a few here if that helps). Thanks again Keith……………

Photo courtesy Keith White

Photo courtesy Keith White

“Where do I start. OK, the beginning sounds good and though this is simply an overview, it’s probably in everyone’s interest to be accurate. In fact, I have almost 20 years of history with this lure family in British waters but the story goes back way before then. No one really knows who made the first needlefish lure, only the history of it in striped bass lore was recorded and I’d hazard a guess, even that is a sketchy recollection. So, somewhere back in the 1970’s, the striper men discovered the needlefish but it was used in the guise as a ‘sandeel profile’ lure opposed to the way similar looking lures have been used in much warmer waters for other species. The latter is more a skipping, ‘walk the dog’, even slashing style for warm water game fish and yes, of course there is always crossover and I’m sure sure some of the needlefish lures themselves will serve in multi purpose roles. However,  the needlefish in NE USA striper circles is a lure of stealth, of distance, of inaction. It didn’t take long to become one of mystery and magic either and to this day, many are scared of it’s simplicity and effectiveness because many buy, try and ‘fail’. In fact, many would never unlock its secrets even with easy on the shore exposure to the lure by other ‘sharpie’ surfcaster’s smashing big bass after big bass. The myth about this magical stick, stuck.… LOL

So, this stick with hooks on it was accounting for some remarkable catches. Plug builder’s had tried many variations and to this day, many exist. Some were also made in mass production like the super strike series and these have been, very successful used in context. However, the needlefish as a lure, simple as it is, is still surrounded in myth and disbelief despite many efforts to dispel it. Why you ask?

Photo courtesy Keith White

Photo courtesy Keith White

Well, let me go back quickly to the late 90’s. I was being shown, first hand, the use of needlefish lures at Philbin Beach MV USA. Lets just say, I got a hammering I’ll never forget but I learned lots. From my perspective, I was doing ‘everything’ my mentor and teacher was doing. But 36 striped bass to 1 later, I kinda had to concede, something was not right. I learned for the first time, and this is coming from someone with a very open angling mind, that the bass wanted what they expected and though they wouldn’t refuse other presentations, the needlefish was simply offering what they expected, were used to seeing and, representative of what they would feed on at that time of year. That being sandeel and ‘spearing’. For all intent and purposes, we get the same sandeels and, spearing are ‘smelt’. From underneath, a very similar profile and, for the large part, these baitfish, like most baitfish, shoal and are largely inactive by night. In fact, most bait, day or night, is largely inactive and this idea of bass chasing bait around all day long has been asking to be lined up against a wall and shot for a very long time. My mentor’s response to my questions about why he whacked me with a baseball bat of fish was always “You have to believe in it”. I did, I’d seen it first hand but I know now, years later, what he actually meant and, that will only come with experience.

Anyway, cutting a long story very short, after a period of years, we had finally overcome initial problems with needlefish in Britain (mostly supply and dollars as Davy Jones started his collection) and we started to enjoy good success. Success that grew and grew. Some years were so fruitful, that needle-caught fish alone, spilled into the ‘thousands of bass’ on a single lure type. Basically, it works.

Photo courtesy Keith White

Photo courtesy Keith White

Now, years later, suddenly, people are asking questions about the ‘inactive style’ lures. Most have done this backwards as we only developed the ‘soft needlefish’ system of senko’s/Sluggo’s/Hogy’s on weedless swimbait hooks etc after many years of losing hard lures to rock, reef and weed beds. The soft style of fishing ‘sticks’ is very similar indeed to ‘hard needlefish’ but each have their shiny sides where they excel in given conditions. There is much to ‘soft needlefish’ or sometimes called ‘senko’ fishing for bass that deserves a series of articles by itself. However, here, we are talking about hard needlefish.

So, calm bays, weedy, 2 or 3ft deep or weed sticking up over just covering reef … Yea, I’m going to fish a weedless ‘soft needle’. But what about those nights when the fish are 60 – 100 yards away, the water is deeper, there is a strong current, a riptide, some surf, combo’s of the above and, let’s add an onshore wind of F4 or above into the cake bowl for a laugh. Clearly, trying to cast a weightless, weedless 6” senko that at best might total 18g isn’t likely to be my first choice to make 20 meters yet alone 60. In fact, being realistic, it simply won’t work.

We are now entering the world of the hard needlefish, and this magic wand of a stick. The latter, well, it’s up to you to prove that is it exactly that, a myth. It’s just a lure and one that catches fish without seemingly offering anything you might associate with bass catching action. Lets be careful here, “What YOU associate with bass catching action”. Well, what exactly is that?

Who said a lure has to roll? To wiggle? To Dive? Not the bass, then who?

Well, no one of course. There is always a place for minnow style lures, walk the dog style, poppers, jigs, vertical presentations, metals in their many forms but they are all simply slices of the bigger pie. Bass in general are lazy. The bigger they get, generally, the lazier they get and trust me, ask any night diver to watch baitfish and bass interaction and they’ll tell you, the bait does hardly anything and neither do the bass. I’ve seen bass IN shoals of bait, the bait didn’t care, unaware that it’s brethren was being picked off on the night tide. Bass drift with, sometimes intercept and often wait in ambush but, they will if at all possible, do things the ‘easiest way’. Bass feed using negative vortex. Mouth and flared gill’s sucks baitfish in from as much as 3ft away… gone!

So, ok, sometimes, a bass rooting for crab, disturbs a sandeel in a bed and like a flock of birds, you get a chain reaction of flee response and yes, this many, momentarily, trigger a pursue response in bass otherwise engaged and in a passive mood.

In fact, let’s take this this concept, just a little further without getting all scientific…

1) Inactive Bass

2) Passive Bass

3)Active Bass

In general, over observation on many tides, these 3 states of bass mood and awareness could describe most of the bass you might encounter. An active lure might appeal to group 3 but could spook groups 1 and 2. However, a needlefish, or a passive lure, a lure that doesn’t do a lot, doesn’t offend, doesn’t excite, is … well, just cruising or drifting along, like all other bass food sources, blends in and thus, in theory, is appealing to all 3 groups. If we suggest, each group owns 33.3% of bass numbers (very general and just for example as more complex owing to tides, conditions etc) you are by fishing the flashy minnow, banging away with a walk the dog lure etc, appealing to just 1/3rd of available fish. The needlefish or family type of passive lure, appeals to 100%, or ‘could’ in theory. This is already getting longer than I wanted so let’s cut to the chase.

Needlefish are cast, either to be swung on current, eased through surf or retrieved at various paces through calmer bays. All of that and more, works. If I had to suggest a colour, and colour isn’t that important to me but I would suggest ‘mid green’ as this will work in all day and various moon states. Size wise, 5 – 7” would be a good range on ‘our bass’  but I have needles 9”, 12” long and all have caught bass.

We have talked about the Super Strike needles and I carry 2 types. The 1oz and the 1.5oz. Both sink, quickly, both cast more than well enough and, if you have 6ft of cleanish water over surf or anywhere really, or a current, a rip, the super strike is a go-to choice. You simply cast, and retrieve, as a slow to moderate pace in calmer bays (speed is determined by reel size, speed of ratio, line size, cast length, needlefish size and THEN weight). If you say, keep snagging the bottom with a 1oz sized Super Strike needle, a 1.5oz needlefish actually might not as it has a larger surface area. It’s all hydrodynamics… lol, I digress.

As I said, we match the needlefish lure, to the prevailing conditions and, depth of water and, the type of ground over which said needlefish will be cast and swung or retrieved. Let me say, I cast 70 meters with one of my super slow sinking 7” needlefish in a left → right sweep. No surf, simply current. I’d cast, pick up the slack and, just make sure, as the needle is travelling (swinging), my line contact is just enough, to let it complete the ‘arc’ but, not simply fall to bottom like a rock with too small a life jacket. In fact, all needlefishing is like this, a balancing act.

There are many design types and most of course will have a ‘mark or area influenced heritage’. My own needlefish suit British style rods, lines and reels, are designed to cast, deal with currents and sweeps. Others deal with surf AND sweeps, others might float and simply be extensions of ‘wake lures’. I might use one as a sub-surface walk the dog style lure too but, that, outside of the more tropical waters and stickbait work, isn’t the design remit of the US style ‘sandeel emulating’ needlefish.

As I’m writing this, I’m sweeping snow off the mountain. I could try to add a lot more but it would likely only serve to confuse. Just take it from me, I have been hugely successful using various needles across such a wide range of water and in recent times, others have reported some really remarkable catches using not just hard needlefish but ‘soft style’ needle fish lure types too.

This is just the beginning.

You will note, I said we make our own. This wasn’t really by choice initially as most US style needlefish are designed for stripers and rods/reels/line far in excess power wise than would ever be needed for our own bass. However…, some do work, some are just fine and you can do some homework and find stuff in the right weight and size ranges by looking at NE USA sources. I’m certain at some point, we’ll have to let some of our needle’s go. You really need the ‘right’ needle for the right job and something that ‘looks the job’ might be rubbish and completely unsuitable. I was talking with Henry about this ‘gap’ in supply and filling it, well, it’s going to be a case of hard work and research for now for those interested or, until if ‘demand’ (demanded it), sorry… lol.

Photo courtesy Keith White

Photo courtesy Keith White

Local builders of lures could start a garage industry on salt water wooden lures. Yes, super strike are plastic, most of the other needles you need and use will likely be wood. With wood, heavy doesn’t always mean sinking, or indeed, fast sinking. One of our best designs sinks around 1’ per 5 seconds and yet weighs 1.5oz. However, anyone attempting such a build project would need to understand the needlefish and the weighting options and arrangements or you would be just as well attaching some hooks to a broken pool cue section. Weighting, planing angles, hook sizes (type of wood) are all in the critical balance that in turn, gives the stick it’s magic.

Learn to trust the wood and look after it. Do as I say, not what I do and wash your wooden lures after use and ‘dry them’ slowly at room temperature. Wood is organic, it breathes, it shrinks and swells with humidity and the seasons. It’s alive! No wonder the bass love to eat it.”

Keith White 2016