Hard Bait Lure Basics

To me, there is nothing more exciting in inshore fishing than watching a big fish rise and smack a topwater lure.  Sure, the jump of a tarpon is spectacular and other things, like the blistering first run of a big snook, will get your adrenaline pumping, but there is nothing like watching a big fish attack a topwater.  My favorite is watching a big red drum either propel itself partially out of the water or roll on its side to slurp the bait.  Watching this never gets tiring and always reminds me of how long I can hold my breath.

While fishing topwaters is extremely exciting and usually fun, there is more to fishing hard lures than walking-the-dog or chugging a lure while waiting on an explosion.  Some days the fish just won’t come to the top so you must fish lures that get below the surface.  Let’s break the subsurface lures into those that suspend and those that dive or sink and talk about all hard lures for a moment.  There are multiple manufacturers that make hard plastic lures that fish the surface, a little below it and even deeper.

I grew up and into fishing using MirrOlures, so they will be the ones I discuss by name and model.  However, you should understand that many of these general traits should cross to other lure lines.  Getting the actions that convince fish to bite may vary a bit and require some practice and on the job training.

Topwater fishing is the most spectacular, so let’s begin there.  There are basically two types of topwater lures; those that use the walk-the-dog, side to side motion and those that use a scooped or cupped head to splash water in a chugging motion.  Some lures also have rattles and the rattles may be either high or low frequency rattles for another level of attraction.

Mirrolure’s long time top topwaters have been their Top Dog (Top Dog, Top Dog Jr and Top Pup) and She Dog (She Dog and She Pup) lure series.  In recent years they have added the Pro versions of these with clear eyes and several smaller topwaters like the Poppa Mullet, MirrOmullet, MirrO Prop and the big boy Popa Dog.

Shape and color differences are easy to see, but some differences aren’t.  Sound is a big difference and some of these, like the Top Dog, have a single low frequency rattle, while the She Dog uses multiple high frequency rattles.  Others, like the MirrOmullet and MirrO Prop are smaller and more subtle and are better suited for smaller and quieter waters.  The Popa Dog and Poppa Mullet have cupped faces to work as chuggers, but will also walk-the-dog.

Sometimes the way these lures attract are subtle and sometimes they are the extremes of night and day.  My introduction to the She Dog lures occurred this way.  I was fishing at first light with a friend using one and I was using a similar size Top Dog.  When he had caught four trout and I hadn’t had a strike, I asked what he was using.  He told me and offered me one to try.

They were new at the time and I didn’t have one , so I took him up on his offer.  It sounds a bit dramatic to say I caught a trout on my first cast with the new lure, but that’s exactly what happened.  Even better, I matched his catches for the remainder of the morning.  I used a different color, so I don’t think it was the color.  The She Dog floated a little higher and walked side-to-side slightly different, plus its high frequency rattles, made all the difference in the world that morning.  I now always have several She Dogs and She Pups in my tackle bag.

Moving down through the water column, suspending lures are the first step for fishing below the surface.  There are shallow suspending lures, like the Catch 5, Catch Jr. and Catch 2000, which tend to suspend at about 10 to 16 inches below the surface.  These suspend on the shallow end of this range near the inlets where the water is saltier and settle a little deeper heading inland to brackish waters.  Choose them depending on the bait in the area.  The Catch 2000 and Jr. lures are mullet shapes and the Catch 5 is more of a menhaden/shad shape.  All have low frequency rattles that carry well below the surface.

I have become a big fan of the MirrOdine and MirrOglass suspending lure series.  These lures will almost fish themselves.  I cast them to points, creek mouths, oyster rocks and other places that should be holding fish and let the current sweep them through the strike zone, while only twitching them occasionally.  This mimics the action of baitfish moving through the area and draws strikes.  In areas with minimal or no current, I retrieve them slowly, twitching them occasionally.  If there are schools of baitfish in the area, try to mimic their movements.

There are two sizes of the MirrOglass, which resemble glass minnows and four sizes of the MirrOdine, which are the menhaden/shad shape.  These typically suspend around 2 feet deep except for the largest MirrOdine (37MR), which settles roughly a foot deeper.  As with the Catch series, they will be a little shallower in the higher salinity water near inlets and gradually suspend deeper moving inland to lower salinity water.

Both sizes of MirrOglass represent glass minnows well, but it is always wise to try and match the size of the bait in the area.  The middle sizes (17MR and 27MR) of the MirrOdine series are the most popular with fishermen and the fish – most of the time.  However, there are times in the heat of the summer and cold winter water when the smallest size (14MR) draws strikes and the larger ones don’t.  Perhaps it looks easier to catch, but, whatever the reason, it has saved a few fishing trips.

My introduction to fishing hard plastic baits came a long time ago and was with sinking/diving MirrOlures, specifically the 52M and TT series.  These are mullet shaped lures and I still use them in depths up to about 10 feet or so.  I count both of these down at a rate of a foot per second, but MirrOlure says the TT sinks slightly faster.  I fish them pretty slow in warmer water and very slow in extremely warm or cold water, but have friends that also catch well fishing them faster.  They will even draw strikes when stopped and sitting on the bottom.

My experience that convinced me I couldn’t fish them too slowly came courtesy of an extreme backlash and a TT11 (red head, white back and belly, with silver scale) that sat on the bottom while picking out the backlash.  The resistance once the line was straight was not being hung on the oyster bottom as I expected, but an 8 pound and 4 ounce speckled trout.  I now find it difficult to fish these lures quicker – even when I should.

There is a sinking lure (18MR) in the MirrOdine line in the same size and menhaden/shad shape as the 17MR.  This lure catches well, but sinks a bit quickly for me except in depths of 6 feet and deeper.  When I want to fish a MirrOdine a little deeper than it normally runs, I add a SuspenDot or SuspenStrip.  These small weighted pieces are from Storm Lures and stick on the bottom of lures to make them heavier.

There are several smaller lures (32M, 4M and 51MR) that dive shallower and three sizes in the Big Game Series that fish 10 to 20 feet deep and deeper.  Most of the MirrOlure sinking/diving lures can be cast or trolled and the line eye is a little farther to the rear on the 65M. which makes it good for vertical jigging also.

There are several things to keep in mind when selecting and fishing hard lures.  MirrOlures with a R in the model number have a rattle.  Some lures are available with or without a rattle and some only one way or the other.  Most lures are fished under water and most of the rattles are low frequency to penetrate through water.

Some lures, like the She Dog, She Pup, Poppa Mullet and Pro Dog Jr. topwater lures, have multiple high frequency rattles whose sound carries differently across the surface.  These lures are made of a different plastic and float a little higher on the water.  They catch well in calm conditions and often shine when fished in a light chop.

A special tip to fishermen using topwaters is to have patience.  It is very easy to get excited seeing a fish charge the lure and attempt to set the hook before the fish actually has the lure.  You must wait until you feel the fish before you can set the hook.

All lures will have better and more realistic movement if tied to the line using a loop knot.  I like the enhanced feel of fishing braided line and add 18 inches to 2 feet of mono or fluorocarbon line for a leader.  Mono works well in dirtier or off-color water, while fluoro gives an edge in clear water.  It’s also easier to tie the loop knot in these than braid.

There are many loop knots that allow the lure to move freely and have good action.  I prefer and recommend the No-slip Loop Knot.  As its name implies, it doesn’t slip and almost as important is that the tag end of the line points back towards the lure and not forward or out to the side.  This helps prevent the knot from picking up vegetation and debris in the water.

There are several ways to fish hard lures effectively.  Topwater lures are most effective when fished in the side-to-side walking-the-dog motion.  However, lures with cupped heads will also splash and get noticed by simply chugging them along in a series of short jerks.  Both of these produce well with aggressive fish.  Sometimes the walking-the-dog motion convinces less aggressive fish to strike.

SuspenDots and SuspenStrips can be added to make a lure heavier and fish deeper or sink quicker.  Adding the weight in the middle keeps the lure balanced, while adding it closer to the front or rear changes the attitude of the lure.

Diving lures that rely on a lip or having the line attached on top of the head rely on forward motion to dive.  Many fishermen troll these, but they can be worked well by retrieving them fairly quickly and using an occasional extra tug of the rod to get them to dart or move quickly.  Sometimes this quick or odd movement is what convinces the fish to strike.

As I noted earlier, I really like fishing suspending twitch baits, especially the MirrOlure MirrOdine series.  The first thing is to match the size of the lure to the bait in the area that day.  On days when the water is either overly warm or very cool and the fish are lethargic, I may start with the smaller 14MR.  It seems fish will strike these small baits on days they won’t chase larger lures.

Regardless of the size of the lure, I prefer to cast it to just upcurrent of where I think the fish will be and let the current carry it through the strike zone.  My only motion is to twitch it occasionally.  This would vary a little depending on the speed of the drift, but would generally follow the timing of drift, drift, drift, drift, twitch, drift, drift, drift, drift, twitch and occasionally double twitching the lure.  The twitch doesn’t have to be a big movement either.  All you want is for the lure to move a few inches and flash.

Hard lures appeal to a wide variety of fish.  Sometimes the fisherman must work them just perfectly to convince fish to bite and sometimes it seems the fish are ravenous.  There are lure models to fish from the surface to the bottom.  Taking the time to learn the right ways to fish them will convince fish to bite.  Some fishermen even believe that hard lures attract larger fish.  You’ll have to try them and decide that for yourself.

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Capt. Jerry Dilsaver has been fishing since he was a child and writing about fishing, hunting and the outdoors since 1986. He is from Southport-Oak Island, N.C. and continues to live there in semi-retirement. His writing features this area prominently, but he has fished and written about the East Coast from Virginia to Florida, the Gulf Coast, California, Alaska and several of the Great Lakes in the U.S., plus several countries in Central America and several Caribbean Islands. He has been on staff at Carolina Adventure, North Carolina Sportsman and South Carolina Sportsman Magazines and his byline has appeared in several other magazines and newspapers.