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A Little Bit of Needlefish History

By Russ Bassdozer

Who knows how long ago the first needlefish was made, and who really cares? They may have been made for a long, long time, but they were unknown on the striper coast until a few were innocently taken to Block Island from Cape Cod in the late seventies. Then all hell broke loose and the needlefish was reborn into modernity. Would you like to hear how it happened?

My bassin' crew summered over on the Cape as usual, and the locals up there kept telling us this one summer about these stupid-looking Boone's needlefish that the guys fishing Buzzards Bay (across from the coast guard station) were starting to use on big bass. We had never seen a needlefish before, and they looked totally ridiculous when we first saw them. Looked just like pencils with hooks. But we bought a few anyway, before we go to travel back down the coast with the autumn line storms. They were Boone's with brown backs (looked like a stick of sh*t) amd olive green/light blue back combo (which looked nice). You can never have enough lures you know, and you really don't want to ever get caught in a blitz without having at least a few of every plug ever known to mankind. Helps you function better, you know.

By the time we got to Block Island, we were doing well with plastic lip plugs and eels. I don't know why, but I decided to try a needlefish. Well, we started to ton out with them. It was ridiculous though. You see, the Boone's were soft white pine and they had SCREW EYE HOOK HOLDERS. It was unreal, like a nightmare. You would beach a mid-40, screw everything back together. Cast it out and beach another one. Screw it back, beach it, screw it in...well you get the idea. You were afraid to look at the needlefish once the sun came up out of horror of how flimsy a plug you were actually using to tong big bass. Well, it was quite unacceptable to us, so we called Donny Musso of Super Strike fame and told him what we needed. He made the first Super Strike needlefish for us out of maple. He express-mailed them to us.

Charlie Dodge was the island's resident sharpie, and his mom worked in the post office. So Charlie alerted his mom about suspicious-looking packages being addressed to us, and Mrs. Dodge would call her son whenever a package of new needlefish came over in the post box on the afternoon ferry. Of course, Dodge would always take his cut.

When we used the very first batch that night, the paint was still tacky. The first ones, Donny made the swivels and hooks too light. We bigged up the hooks, but the cows were still pulling apart the swivels like they were cotton candy. So the next morning we had to pull the through-wires out and re-rig with bigger swivels and hooks. Once we did that, we cowed out like there was no future. We let Donny know of whatever modifications were required, such as to replace the original two belly hooks with only one central belly hook. Donny fed us a lifeline of needlefish as we worked the coast that fall. The next year, Donny contracted for the injection mold for the plastic needlefish. Some of the first ones curled up on the ends like ripe bananas. After a while, he got them straightened out, and the rest is, as they say, history.

The Super Strikes are the "original" modern day needlefish plugs and still work the best for moderate to heavy surf and sweeping tides. The Super Strikes do not work as well in calmer, slower water. For progressively heavier surf, stronger sweeps, and harder blows, we drilled and loaded the Super Strikes with light, medium and heavy loads. When you hefted the heavy load in your hand, it almost felt like solid lead. You could cast this into the worst seas that King Neptune could throw at you, and still slew out on big bass with it!

The Gibbs needlefish came out with the first models of their wooden needlefish about a year or two later. Gibbs stunk when they first came out. They had the Gibbs heavy screw eyes, and they didn't fish right. The next year, Gibbs came out with a better shape and a through-wired model that was and still does work very well in shallower, calmer, slower water than the Super Strike. There were no Gag's Hab's or any other models out there, just these two modern models, plus the older, flimsy Boones.

The best needlefish color by far was fluorescent green back with white belly. Also, all black. Fluorescent pink backs were also okay on BI, but fluorescent pink backs were far more deadly in the Cape. A shocking fluorescent chartreuse always seemed to drive bass insane during those sleep-deprived, incoherent moments right at first light. MACKERAL was hot, hot, hot. The fact that mackeral was so hot often makes me very suspicious whenever people say that needlefish were designed to imitate sand eels and therefore only work when sand eels are present. I am not too sure I absolutely agree with that theory. Yes, they do work exceptionally well in the presence of sand eels, but I have caught enough big bass on them throughout the years whenever conditions seem right for them - which usually means a HEAVY SWEEP. By the way, although they do catch small bass or blues, I believe that it is the larger bass that exhibit a special fondness for needles.

We even had Donny make us a 12" long neeedlefish we called the "Johnny Wad". It would put any male porno star to shame. The best color for that was completely solid fluorescent green, and again MACKERAL. It weighed about 5 ounces. We had an even heavier one that we called the "Hurricane". Guess what nights that was for?

Neither Donny nor Gibbs made the best colors for the first few years - the glaring day glow green, pink or chartreuse colors. Although we asked him to do the complex mackeral patterns for us in blue, green and fluorescent green mackeral, I guess we just never got around to telling Donny just how good the shocking day glow colors we would spray them up ourselves in the backyard when no one was looking our way. Always sand lightly and spray a thin white base coat before you spray the top coat on plug backs, then clear coat. It only takes a few minutes plus in-between coat drying time, but it's worth the trouble, boys.

As far as the stubby little needlefish, they came on the scene a few years later, and they never really became too popular. However, the stubbies established credibility when a few guys caught a few good bass under the Southeast Light at BI on a stubby little needle made by Danny Pichney, another legendary plug maker from Long Island who has passed on, God bless him. The stubbly little "Pocket Rocket", as Danny called it, was about 4" long, no belly hooks, just a large single O'Shaughnessy tail hook with long saddle hackles on it. And it was drilled out and pumped full of lead.

Shortly thereafter, Donny came out with his uniquely-designed little football-shaped needlefish called the "Bullet". It casts well, and holds well in a moderate surf. Although the Bullet is a fair producer, I would never recommend that you remove the hooks, slide an eelskin over it, and use rodwrapping thread to tie it down in the recessed eye sockets. Never tie a double length of heavy mono to the back hookholder before you slide the skin on. The mono will never prevent the eelskin tail from fouling the belly treble too much. Never replace only the belly hook (no tail hook) with a larger size treble. It just won't work - and if you somehow get it to work, never tell anybody. It is our little secret, okay?

As far as getting the proper action out of any and all varieties of needlefish, bending the wire eye up or down will allow you to tune your lure for the correct action. As you experiment by twisting the eye up or down, you are looking for an eye postion at which the lure almost - but never quite - becomes unstable and unbalanced for the surf and sweep conditions you are fishing. Take ten minutes out of your fishing for proper tuning. It will bring out your needle's best fish-catching action.

That's it for now. I hope you have enjoyed reading a little bit about needlefish history.

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