Why Stick­baits Are Catch­ing On Among Se­ri­ous Salt­wa­ter An­glers

Sport Fishing - - CONTENTS - By Doug Olan­der

The term “stickbait” — which you def­i­nitely won’t find at dic­ — re­mained pretty much un­known to most an­glers just a few years ago, par­tic­u­larly in the United States. How­ever, in the past cou­ple of years, an aware­ness of and de­mand for stick­baits are grow­ing. But what is it that makes a stickbait a stickbait?

The an­swer de­pends in part on what one is fish­ing for. Stick­baits have been around for some years among an­glers fish­ing Aus­tralasian Pa­cific wa­ters. But lately, fresh­wa­ter bass fishermen have ap­pro­pri­ated it to de­scribe walk-the-dog topwater plugs or, more com­monly, straight worms — es­sen­tially nar­row cigars of soft plas­tic.

In se­ri­ous salt­wa­ter use, at least, stick­baits are hard plas­tic or wood lures. To de­rive a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of these lures, I talked to a num­ber of lure-mak­ers and cap­tains who have stickbait ex­per­tise and asked them to de­fine the term.

Most seemed to have sim­i­lar thoughts. To these I added a bit of my own re­fine­ments to come up with this as pos­si­bly the first pub­lished def­i­ni­tion of a stickbait:

A ta­pered, stream­lined plas­tic lure that sinks or sus­pends, and is cast a long dis­tance by an an­gler who might im­part a va­ri­ety of ac­tions and speeds dur­ing re­trieve.

Note the “ta­pered, stream­lined” de­scrip­tors: Stick­baits do not have a lip or bill to add ac­tion. That would qual­ify a min­now lure more as a jerk­bait.

And while many con­sider float­ing lures to be stick­baits, I have opted here to char­ac­ter­ize those as sur­face plugs, typ­i­cally of the walk-the-dog type.


While some ex­perts main­tain that these lures have no built-in ac­tion, many man­u­fac­tur­ers in re­cent years are de­sign­ing stick­baits to im­part some side-to-side shimmy when re­trieved at a steady pace. That’s par­tic­u­larly true for flat­sided stick­baits, No­mad De­sign lure-maker Da­mon Olsen says.

How­ever, stick­baiters of­ten es­chew steady re­trieves for long, slow rod sweeps with sig­nif­i­cant pauses or fast, hard jerks with short pauses, de­pend­ing upon the sit­u­a­tion, the species and gen­eral an­gler pref­er­ence.

I sus­pect that, like me, many stickbait en­thu­si­asts love to cast to the hori­zon, then crank like crazy while jerk­ing the lure rapidly, ef­fect­ing a fast-flee­ing bait­fish. Strikes dur­ing such re­trieves can be arm wrench­ing.

Un­til their re­cent spike in pop­u­lar­ity, stick­baits were gen­er­ally hand­crafted, as many still are. Of­ten these lures ap­peared as ex­quis­ite in de­sign and fin­ish, painted by ar­ti­sans cre­at­ing not just lures, but one-off works of art com­mand­ing steep prices. “In the North­east, where stick­baits have be­come a sta­ple for cast­ing to tuna, an­glers have el­e­vated de­tail-ori­ented high-qual­ity-stickbait crafters to near-roy­alty sta­tus,” en­thu­si­ast Capt. Jack Spren­gel says.

But rea­son­ably priced mass-pro­duced stick­baits will fill spa­ces in most tackle boxes. Even these tend to be char­ac­ter­ized by a va­ri­ety of strik­ing, of­ten eye-pop­ping fin­ishes, as if com­pen­sat­ing in color for their gen­er­ally plain shape. Most use through-wire con­struc­tion as


well be­cause per­haps no cat­e­gory of lure is more abused by tough game fish than stick­baits.

Stick­baits tend to be fairly heavy for their size, which makes sense be­cause stick­baiters gen­er­ally want long throws. They’re also, as Strate­gic An­gler Cus­tom Lures’ Merv Ru­biano points out, gen­er­ally bal­lasted fore or aft, which en­hances dis­tance. That weight also makes them em­i­nently throw­able even in a stiff wind. Long casts give stick­baits the ad­van­tage of cov­er­ing a great deal of wa­ter with each re­trieve.

“A well-pre­sented stickbait, when worked with skill by the an­gler, can cre­ate an ac­tion that trig­gers a deep, pri­mal re­ac­tion in a preda­tor,” says Siren Lures’ cre­ator Ja­son Ward.


Stick­baits con­tinue to gain pop­u­lar­ity among tuna en­thu­si­asts who play the run-and-gun game, chas­ing fish breez­ing af­ter bait­fish on top. Such schools of­fer ex­cit­ing but of­ten spooky tar­gets that boats might have dif­fi­culty ap­proach­ing. A heavy stickbait can, with a long rod, be cast a coun­try mile, then given the sort of fran­tic flee­ing ac­tion that quickly at­tracts the at­ten­tion of preda­tors around a melee.

An­glers in the North­east in­creas­ingly fa­vor large, flat-sided stick­baits for bluefin — as do tuna en­thu­si­asts Down Un­der, off south­east­ern Aus­tralia, chas­ing big south­ern bluefin. (When tuna gorge on sand eels, Ru­biano points out, a long, slen­der stickbait might out­fish a flat­tened de­sign.) Phil Carfagno with Ocean Tackle In­ter­na­tional goes as far as say­ing re­ports he

sees on so­cial me­dia sug­gest stick­bait­ing for tuna has gone global.

Stick­baits have also been find­ing fa­vor with South­ern Cal­i­for­nia an­glers af­ter yel­low­tail. Aus­tralia-based Olsen cites rave re­ports from his Cal­i­for­nia guides. Rapala’s Chris Bel­don, also in Aus­tralia, points to the pop­u­lar­ity of stick­baits with king­fish (south­ern yel­low­tail) en­thu­si­asts there.

Carfagno sug­gests that when en­coun­ter­ing mahi, an an­gler would do well to throw a stickbait and watch them chase it down.


Around nearshore co­ral reefs and rocky head­lands, stick­baits can pro­voke sav­age strikes. These ar­eas where an­glers work large pop­pers are prime for stick­bait­ing (and can be the bet­ter choice in choppy wa­ter when a popper might lose some ef­fec­tive­ness or, as An­thony Dil­lon with Hanta Rods and Lures points out, when ag­gres­sive birds make fish­ing a topwater dif­fi­cult). They’ve be­come a pop­u­lar item in the ar­se­nals of Cen­tral Amer­i­can an­glers cast­ing the coast for big Pa­cific cu­bera. “Heavy stick­baits are the best lures I know of to catch big cu­beras off Panama,” famed lure-de­signer Patrick Se­bile says. Cer­tainly stick­baits serve as a pri­mary weapon for gi­ant trevally in the Indo-Pa­cific.

In many cases, stick­bait­ing nearshore can

make for a sight-fish­ing fest in shal­low, clear wa­ters. See­ing large dark shapes come charg­ing up­ward to chase down a stickbait swim­ming back to­ward the boat a few feet below the sur­face of­fers ma­jor-league thrills. I’ve had the priv­i­lege of throw­ing stick­baits around Co­ral Sea bom­mies (huge, tall co­ral heads) to see the sil­hou­ettes of sev­eral species come blast­ing out, each at­tempt­ing to am­bush the prize ahead of the com­pe­ti­tion — in­clud­ing trevally, big co­ral trout, red bass and nar­row­barred mack­erel (fastest of the bunch and one of my all-time-fa­vorite game fish).

The op­por­tu­nity to see a lure gen­er­ate this sort of re­sponse re­ally drove home to me that few types of lures more ef­fec­tively gen­er­ate an at­tack re­sponse in preda­tory game fish than does a quickly and er­rat­i­cally dart­ing stickbait.

Many lure-mak­ers of­fer much-smaller stick­baits de­signed with the in­shore an­gler in mind. On light gear, these also cast great dis­tances. While any in­shore preda­tor might pounce on a stickbait, for many in­shore game fish, fi­nesse plugs serve well. I think stick­baits would be a great choice when pur­su­ing school­ing and/or fast-mov­ing game fish, which can in­clude

blue­fish, stripers, lit­tle tunny (false al­ba­core), Span­ish mack­erel and other species likely to re­spond with re­ac­tion strikes.


Given that many flat-sided stick­baits do wob­ble side to side when re­trieved, Olsen says at times just crank­ing back a lure as fast as you can turn the han­dle is the ticket.

On the other hand, some ex­perts fa­vor a far slower re­trieve, us­ing long sweeps of the rod and gen­er­ous pauses. “Most fish don’t like a fast re­trieve,” says one of the most ex­pe­ri­enced stick­baiters around, Sami Ghan­dour of Sal­ty­wa­ter Tackle. He fa­vors pauses that let sink­ing stick­baits fall into deeper wa­ter. With longer, more cylin­dri­cally shaped stick­baits, Olsen says, a slower re­trieve with fre­quent pauses will work best — in ef­fect, a sub­sur­face walk-the-dog ac­tion.

And a slower re­trieve with pauses means the lure re­mains in the strike zone longer on each cast, Halco’s Ben Patrick adds.

Spren­gel ad­vises his an­glers to think about con­di­tions be­fore they cast, and where the lure will “swim” upon re­trieve in re­la­tion to cur­rent, struc­ture and, if present, fast-swim­ming preda­tors. For ex­am­ple, the stickbait should “flee” away from the fish, not right into them, Spren­gel says.

Se­bile coun­sels stick­baiters to vary their re­trieves, par­tic­u­larly when look­ing for an op­ti­mal ap­proach in a given sit­u­a­tion — so bring one cast in hard and fast, the next slow with pauses, and so on, to gauge what works in that place and time. But Spren­gel sug­gests not vary­ing the re­trieve dur­ing a cast; rather, he sug­gests, main­tain a pace and ca­dence from the time the stickbait touches down un­til it’s back at the boat.

As for gear, many ex­perts em­pha­size that for fish­ing sub­sur­face stick­baits, a stiff pop­ping rod is less than ideal. Shi­mano’s Adam Lyt­ton says that “these lures re­quire the softer tip of a fas­tor ex­tra-fast-ac­tion rod” to work them op­ti­mally with var­ied re­trieves.


The cat­e­gory of stick­baits in­cludes some of the largest (and cer­tainly the heav­i­est) of cast­ing lures, up to 12 inches or more. Of­ten, when pur­su­ing quarry such as cu­bera snap­per or mon­ster bluefin, fishermen might fa­vor the largest lures they can throw. Sim­i­larly for GT, Chris Henry with Shi­mano Aus­tralia says of­ten the largest stick­baits seem to most ef­fec­tively get the at­ten­tion of trevally.

But many ex­perts, in­clud­ing Ru­biano, fa­vor smaller stick­baits when try­ing to match a hatch (or at times op­er­at­ing on the ele­phants-eat-peanuts sce­nario). Some will even in­ten­tion­ally vary from “the hatch”: Lure de­signer Mads Grosell sug­gests that tar­get fish might fo­cus at­ten­tion on and chase down lures de­vi­at­ing from preva­lent bait­fish size — go­ing a bit larger or smaller.

For lure-maker Ben Patrick, a stickbait of 150 mil­lime­ters or about 6 inches works well for the great ma­jor­ity of game fish.

Se­bile says he fa­vors the big sticks but re­lies on a great range of sizes, de­pend­ing. The range of sizes and styles with which these lures can be fished is key, Se­bile says, ac­knowl­edg­ing their great adapt­abil­ity.

“The beauty of stick­baits is their ver­sa­til­ity,” Henry agrees. “The more ways you can work them, the more ap­pli­ca­tions you’ll find for us­ing them.”

One of the at­tributes that char­ac­ter­izes stick­baits is casta­bil­ity; typ­i­cally these weighty, slow- or fast-sink­ing lures can be cast long dis­tances.

Left: Bluefin an­glers in the North­east in­creas­ingly rely on stick­baits to con­nect with bluefin tuna. Below, left: Lures as art — a num­ber of bou­tique lure-mak­ers com­bine hand-painted per­fec­tion with tan­ta­liz­ing ac­tion such as this col­lec­tion of Strate­gic An­gler Cus­tom Lures.

Stick­baiters who work Oman shore­lines for gar­gan­tuan GT also come up with other prizes, such as this enor­mous queen­fish.

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