Lure Shopping Stirs Memories of the Big One
By MAX HART
It comes as no surprise that Steve Amaral has a unique collection of stories and secrets hiding inside his tackle bag.
After all, as the 60th Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby enters its final week, the man who is fishing his 59th tournament holds a distinct perspective. Although he has never won the derby, Mr. Amaral has fished almost every corner of the Island since he was old enough to hold a rod, prowling the coast in search of giant striped bass. He has caught six stripers over 50 pounds and been fishing partners with several derby winners. One of the more well-known and respected shore fishermen, he is always a threat to reel in the tournament's biggest fish.
Peering into his bag of treasures is akin to looking back over a half-century of fishing.
There are vintage Stan Gibbs plugs, old six-inch wooden lures from the fifties and sixties, next to a couple of worn Boone needlefish. A collection of muted colors dulled by time, each one bears their own nicks and wounds from battles fought long ago.
There are newer lures, too - an assortment of plastic poppers, darters, swimmers and jigs. Several smaller, shiny metal Kastmaster and Hopkins lures reflect brightly in the early morning sun. A few bucktails hide in the bottom of the bag.
Mr. Amaral can look at them all and recall the fish - or the complete fish tale, if you have the time - that is invariably attached to each one. Like the Gibbs' Danny swimmer plug he used to land a bass on the south shore up-Island. Or the darter that worked especially well in the rip at Wasque.
"They all work, I can tell you that," Mr. Amaral says with a wry grin, cautious about giving away too many secrets. "But that is what you want in your bag: something you can trust, something that is time-tested, those ones that have brought in the big fish. You hope when you get out there they work the same way and bring you some of that same luck, too."
It is closing in on crunch time for derby fishermen, and while eels and other live bait are always a popular choice for attracting large bass, many will take to the water with their trusted lures. On a recent morning at Dick's Bait and Tackle shop, Mr. Amaral reflected on his experiences and offered suggestions as to which lures might land the tournament's first 50-pound bass.
"You gotta use what you think is right for the conditions," says Mr. Amaral, the 69-year-old Oak Bluffs native who fishes primarily for striped bass. "The fish have to be there, of course, and they have to be hungry - but there's no question that the right lure will work in the right conditions. It's experience that tells you what lure works in which tides or weather or whatever the factors are."
Without that experience, buying the right lure can be a formidable task. One step inside Dick's and it is clear just how expansive the fishing universe has become. Wooden, plastic and rubber lures cover the shop walls. They are made in all shapes, sizes and colors, each designed for specific fish. They come with names like Atoms, Bombers, Rebels and Krocodiles; Boones, Gibbs and Spoffords; Slug-gos, Kastmasters and Deadly Dicks.
"They all work for something," offers Steve Morris, the store owner and one of Mr. Amaral's fishing partners. "They're here for a reason."
For Mr. Amaral, his first weapon of choice is also his most trusted: the swimmer plug made by the legendary Stan Gibbs, whose plugs revolutionized lures in 1946. Swimmer plugs get their name because of the swimming action they make in the water as they are reeled in. They are equipped with a small plate, usually a small metal or plastic lip, toward the front of the lure that makes it swivel as it is retrieved. The action it creates mimics the movement of bait under water. An array of them in different colors hangs on the wall behind the counter.
"I fished with Danny plugs for years," Mr. Amaral says, recalling several huge stripers and bluefish he has landed with the lure. "And I've especially had luck with the white ones. For whatever reason, the fish love them."
Mr. Amaral launches into a story about three consecutive years in which he caught a 40-pound bass on Mother's Day - his first fish of the year.
"Can you imagine, the first fish of the year three years in a row?" he asks incredulously.
Next to them are popper plugs. By contrast, popper plugs bounce across the surface of the water, imitating wounded bait. Those seem to work better at sunrise or sunset, Mr. Amaral says.
He also points to a darter plug, a flatter and wider lure that he lauds as being most successful in rips and other rushing tides.
"I threw one out at Wasque into the rip out there and boy, did the fish hit it," he recalls. "These lures got their own little action to them and the fish go after them right away. As soon as you feel a bump, you gotta set the hook and - boom! - you're on."
Needlefish - long, skinny lures - work well, too, he says, but he isn't quite sure why.
"They come through the water like a stick as far as I can tell," he says with a laugh. "But there is something there that they like. I find with needlefish, it's all in the retrieve: too fast and they don't like it. Slower, they seem to go for it."
But old wooden lures such as Gibbs, for the most part, are the exception to the rule in tackle shops. As technology has changed over the years, so has the material used to make lures. Plastic lures, painted to look exactly like a mackerel or minnow, and life-like squid and silver sides made from synthetic rubbers now make up a large chunk of the inventory.
Mr. Morris holds up a Slug-go, one of the year's most popular lures. It is a new pre-rigged, soft bait lure, and an exact imitation of bait fish favorable to false albacore and bonito. Those two species are much more particular about what they will go after, preferring to dine on smaller bait-like sand eels and silver sides.
Mr. Morris also says a Maria lure - another flawless duplication of the small bait - is a favorite this year.
"This is really as close to a silver side as you can get in a lure," he says. "There are hardly any of these left in the country, they are so popular."
And then there is the Gumpy jig.
"For some reason, bonito love this thing," Mr. Morris says, holding up a peculiar small lead lure enshrouded in what looks like white horse hair. "They stopped making it a few years ago, and I kept a few of them which I keep locked away. Bonito go nuts for it."
But Mr. Amaral is a bass fisherman, and his tackle bag reflects his pursuit for those striped giants. And looking through his classic collection, you have to wonder: Will his trusted Gibbs Danny swimmer land him the derby's first 50-pound bass and his first shot at winning the Boston Whaler?
"Every year you fish the derby, you find out something new, so you throw something new in there," he says of his collection. "But what you really want to put in there is luck, because sometimes that's really what you need."