Swapitus – and how to cure it.
by Rich Troxler
Many years ago I lost a very large fish because of a “clip” failure. Can’t say exactly what happened, but all I wound up with was a bent up clip, and no fish. After that experience, I swore off the use of any and all clips, and have tied direct ever since. Now, this is not going to be a debate on whether to use clips or not, because the clips of today are vastly superior to the ones that I lost my fish on. The only reason I brought this up is because tying direct had a beneficial side effect that I only grew to appreciate many years later.
Tying knots in the middle of the night is a pain in the ass, plain and simple. So much so, that I would rather carry multiple rods with me, each loaded with a different profile, rather than tying and re-tying the same plugs at each stop. In effect, tying direct forced me to fish a select group of profiles much longer and harder than I would have if I were using clips. And over time an interesting thing happened.
I found that because it was such a PITA to tie direct, I spent a lot more time zeroing in on bait patterns and trying to make sure that I had a profile to match the bait that might be present. If I found YOY sand eels on the beach in June, then you could bet that I would have a SS 5 ¼” Needlefish plug on at least one of my rods. I might also have a large bottle plug tied on to another, simply because in June, adult bunker are always a possibility in the surf. Same for the fall with peanuts, adult sand eels, white bait, bunker, whatever. In essence, I became a bait hound, and in the process I learned to place my faith in a few well-chosen profiles, come hell or high water.
So what exactly is Swapitus. Basically, it is an affliction that affects many surf fishermen, both novice and experienced, to varying degrees. It tends to disappear during times of stupid, blitz type fishing, but quickly returns when the blitz ends. In most cases it is caused by a lack of understanding of the conditions they are fishing in, and results in an almost compulsive need to change plugs. I know that this may sound condescending and dismissive, but it is not meant to be so. Let me work it from reverse to see if I can clarify what I mean.
When people go fishing and do not catch anything right away, the first thing they do most of the time, is change their plug. And if that doesn’t produce in a short time they change it again. How many times have you heard “I threw the bag at them and they wouldn’t eat.” Where this might actually be true a small percentage of the time, many more times the reason they didn’t catch had to do with a completely different combination of factors, other than plug choice. So let’s take a quick look at some of the factors.
Let’s start with location, or a word that is synonymous with location, where fishing for bass is concerned, STRUCTURE. If you are fishing an inlet, canal, bridge channel, or other deep, fast moving water location, then you are probably fishing something that can get down deep quickly. This most likely means bucktails, or lead-weighted shad bodies. This is pure fishing bliss, as your options are limited and the only things you have to concern yourself with are finding the STRUCTURE that holds the fish and then selecting the “right” weight for the profile you are throwing at it. If you are not catching, then the assumption is the fish are not there, or the bite is not on. Easy squeezey.
Other locations are not so easy. When fishing the open beach, location can be all-important and yet it remains a mystery to many who fish it. One of my earlier posts (The Open Beach – What You Don’t See Matters), talks about reading sand beaches, meaning locating the STRUCTURE, and the role it plays in the consistent catching of bass. If you walk out to a spot on the beach and “throw the bag” then you are going about catching bass the wrong way. Catching bass is about “finding” them, and location has everything to do with that end. STRUCTURE is one quarter of a very simple formula for success, where catching bass from the surf is concerned.
If you have no idea what bait is in the area that you are fishing, then your profile selection is the equivalent of duck hunting while blindfolded. You can hear them quacking, so you just start blasting away in every direction hoping to bag one. And a chance bagging of a duck while blindfolded, is probably the worst thing that can happen, as it enforces a mode of thinking that is basically non-productive. Simply rotating through your extensive plug selection until you catch a fish tells you nothing. Knowing what bait is likely to be in the area and selecting a few basic profiles to match it is a far better strategy than shooting blind. Bait is the second quarter of that simple formula for success.
The bite. Here’s a concept that a lot of those new to the sport of surf fishing seem to have trouble understanding. We eat 3 meals a day, with maybe some nibbles in between, but we tend to eat at fairly specific times throughout our 24-hour day. Well why would anybody expect bass to be any different. In reality, they are somewhat different, but the basic concept remains the same. While we tend to maintain our eating habits throughout the year, bass change their eating habits depending on the time of the year. This is what the “bite” is.
So why is this important? Simply because it doesn’t matter what you throw at them when their not feeding, you’re not going to catch, period. In early spring, the bite is typically all about the warmer water periods, deep in the bay and outgoing in my neck of the woods. In the summer, it can be all about the incoming around inlets because the cooler ocean water sparks a short bite. Or it may be during a specific stage of the tide, in the wee hours of the morning, on the beach under cover of darkness. Whenever it is, it is up to the person fishing to figure it out. The “bite” is the third quarter of this simple formula for catching bass
The last quarter in the formula for catching bass is presentation. Outside of stupid blitz fishing, a bad presentation of your profile will most always result in a fishless outing. Even with the other three quarters of the equation fulfilled, if you don’t fish your profile properly, the bass are not likely to commit to hitting it. Presentation is a bitch, because there are many pre-conceived notions about how to fish profiles that simply do not produce under many conditions. I will be doing a post in the near future specifically on presentation, presentation oddities, and misconceptions, so I’m not going to explore them now, but suffice it to say that presentation of any plug is VERY important.
So what does all this have to do with Swapitus? Basically everything. Regardless of where I fish, I operate on the very simple notion that fish are either looking up or looking down, and they are on either large bait or small bait. It’s a simple 2 X 2 matrix that will cover 95% of your profile choices. I follow the simple color rule of dark for dark nights, light for light nights, but I’m not even sure how much this is even necessary. Then I work my structure and presentations, and try to determine (if not known already) the bite. And I stick to my area and don’t run around chasing reports and second hand information.
So over the years I have come to carry a very small selection of profiles, all in basic light/dark color patterns, that have caught me more fish than I can ever count. Aside from bucks, swim shads, sand eel rubber baits, I primarily fish Bombers and SS Needlefish for small bait, and bottle plugs and metal lips for large bait and I have learned to fish these baits with a variety of presentation techniques tailored to the conditions they are fished under. Others may chose different profiles and develop confidence in them, such as tins during the day (and night).
And if I am on a structure and bait pattern that is holding fish, then I have absolute confidence in my ability to catch them with my chosen profiles. If you have found fish, and they are feeding, even if you are not sure of what they are feeding on, you should be able to dial it in quickly with a small selection of profiles, or what I call “test patterns”. And I feel that every minute that I don’t have a plug in the water, is a minute lost.
A couple of examples:
For several days this late spring, much of south shore of Long Island became overrun with big, nasty, teen-sized blues. I mean tons of them, stretched for miles of open beach. While I typically fish at night and don’t actively fish for them, it was too much fun to pass up, so everyday I was leaving work early and making the short hop to the beach, just to wear my arms out some and get a few for the smoker. It was retarded fishing and everybody was there, novice and experienced, smiles for all.
So one day I show up, chat with a guy in the parking lot as we both suit up, and he’s got the VS 250, the custom Lami, and equipped to the nines. We walk out to the beach and take our place in the line up, with him to my right. I happened to have a Gibbs yellow bottle plug tied on already, from my previous nights bass foray, and decide to leave it on.
First cast, I hook up. My acquaintance to my right is throwing a popper and hooks up about the time I’m releasing my fish. As the bluefish were running back and forth up the beach, the hits came in bunches, followed by short periods of inactivity. Every time there was a lull, or if I hooked up and he didn’t, he immediately went to his bag and started fiddling around changing plugs! These were Bluefish, they’ll hit anything.
So I estimate that in the hour we fished together, he spent AT LEAST 10 minutes, probably more like 15 minutes screwing around changing plugs. Several times when the fish came through and I hooked up, I’d glance over to see him messing around in his plug bag. The fish came through and he had missed his opportunity to hook up until the next time, this assuming he wasn’t still searching for a plug that would “work”. The message being, you can’t catch a fish staring into your plug bag and every minute you are out of the water is a minute that you won’t catch a fish. BTW, my Gibbs bottle plug looked like a toothpick with hooks by the end of the week LOL.
One night in late spring, I’m fishing with a friend in a back bay. I take him to a place that I am intimately familiar with. There were enough fish busting to know they were there, without being sure of what they were on, though small bait was the guess. New moon and a fog rolls in, the darkest kind of night. We set up on the spot and I go straight to a black Bomber, fishing it very slow on top, with lots of rod trembles to make the rattle dance. A couple casts in and I hook up a low teen fish.
After landing, my friend asks what I got it on, and I tell him, along with the odd way I fish it. He clips on a Bomber, makes several casts, doesn’t hook up, and goes straight to his plug bag. I tell him be patient, that these fish are running back and forth over this hole in the channel, but he goes to another plug anyway. So a few minutes later, I hook up again, same sized fish. He changes his plug yet again.
The short version, this went on for a little while, and then we moved down the channel, and history repeated itself. At least two of the fish I hooked that night came while he was swapping plugs. And he is an experienced fisherman with many 40’s under his belt. My take on this experience was that we were fishing an area he was not familiar with, so he was convinced that he didn’t have the “right” plug, even after I told him what was working for me. A little competition between friends, probably, but old habits die hard.
A fisherman contacted me and related this story. He said he observed two guys standing next to each other, catching bass from the beach. He didn’t want to make a pest of himself by asking what they were using, and was nice enough not to crowd them. So he set up about 40 yards to the east of where they were (in “nice” white water), threw the bag, and didn’t catch anything. He was convinced that he didn’t have the “hot” plug. My reply to him was that he was probably casting onto the top of a shallow point, and the guys to the west were fishing the point edge where the bass were holding. Location, location, location.
Scenarios like this have repeated themselves over the years for me many times. I have observed this many times with less experienced guys who I have elected to take fishing with me, as well as experienced friends, like the above example. And yeah, it still happens to me on occasion when I loose my mojo, or find myself out of sync with the prevailing patterns. Lack of confidence = Swapitus.
So what’s the cure?
1) Pick a small selection of profiles that match the matrix mentioned above, in basic colors, and learn how to fish them. Learn what conditions work best for each type plug and learn to vary retrieve speeds with the amount of light and/or current. Learn every nuance regarding your profiles, and trust in their ability to catch fish. Don’t get distracted by the latest and greatest, as learning to fish a small selection of plugs well will produce far many more fish, than fishing an entire tackle store half ass. It’s all about profile and presentation.
2) Bass are where you find them, and when you do, they are usually not too difficult to catch. Learn to identify structure and bait patterns and keep good records. Structure without bait is nothing but water and no plug will produce a fish under those conditions. When you’re on the open beach, move around, don’t expect the bass to find you.
3) Become a bait hound. Learn the bait patterns for your chosen area and match your profiles accordingly. If you see sand eels washed up all over the beach, then select your profile, stick to your guns, and figure out what stage of the tide the bite in on. Then show up 40 minutes later the next night (or day), with the same plug tied to your line. Same for your other bait/profile combos.
4) Learn when fish feed, as it varies throughout the year. What works in spring will likely not work in the summer. Regardless of the season, any location “bite” revolves around the stage of the tide, the time of day (or night), and the prevailing bait pattern.
In conclusion, when you are not catching fish, try to resist the urge to “throw the bag” and consider ALL of the possible reasons you are not catching. It very rarely comes down to slight variations of color or a little different “wiggle” from a different plug. It can, such as times of cloudy water, where colors like chartreuse and parrot seem to make a difference, but I’m talking the rule here, not the exception. Learn to fish a select group of profiles and spend your time locating structure and identifying bait patterns and bites. There can be other factors, like wind, which I didn’t discuss, so always keep good records of your efforts.
Someone once said, “Behind every simple truth lies a complex reality.” I guess he must have been a fisherman.