September 08, 2022
By Capt. Tom Migdalski
Early last summer, fishing partner and lifelong saltwater pro Tim Lasusa and I drifted on a conveyor belt of seawater along Old Saybrook, Conn. The conditions were perfect: We had two hours until sunset, a gently-flooding tide, light wind and the striped bass run was on.
Eager for explosive surface action, we started tossing topwater lures over depths ranging from 6 to 12 feet with a sloping sand bottom. My offering was a typical 5-inch cupped plug, which I deftly chugged across the current. It gurgled and popped and appeared as if it should be irresistible to hungry predators.
After nearly two-dozen casts and a couple of short strikes, I remained optimistic. Tim, on the other hand, landed his first fish—a 39-inch striper—on only his sixth cast and wrestled into the boat after a blistering fight.
About 20 minutes after sunset, we decided to call it a day. It had been a great afternoon on the water, landing and releasing four striped bass between 35 and 39 inches. Despite the fact that Tim and I were casting and retrieving identically with similar outfits, all four fish were his. The only difference was he was using a large and seductive lure known as the "worst-kept secret" in striper fishing—the Doc.
History of the Doc
For more than 10 years, the 9-inch Doc and its smaller cousin, the 7-inch Lil’ Doc, have been the most productive plugs for East Coast bluefish and striped bass. The unpainted, bone-colored Doc, widely accepted as the best shade, was once a mystery among anglers. To those "in the know," it was a closely guarded secret.
One protective angler claimed that if word of the Doc got out, striped bass would go extinct because the lure's enticing action and rattling noise fool fish into striking even when they're not hungry. He felt all the bass would be caught out and vanish. As the secret unraveled, the Doc's name and reputation grew, and tackle shops began to stock the plug. Fortunately, fears of the species' imminent demise were unfounded, though there's no denying the lure's effectiveness.
The Doc is produced by Musky Mania of the Drifter Tackle Corp. Musky Mania was founded by muskie fishing legend Pete Maina, who had grown tired of losing muskies on traditional wooden plugs. Rather than the hooks lodging into the muskie's mouth, the fish's ferocious teeth often sank into the lure's body, making for poor hookups.
In 1992, Maina developed the forerunner of the Doc—the Burt jerkbait—a lure constructed of impact-resistant plastic that a muskie's teeth couldn't penetrate, allowing for better hooksets. Musky Mania now offers many muskie and pike lures, but it's the tantalizing side-to-side, "walk-the-dog" action of the Doc that's accounted for countless cow bass and slammer bluefish along the Atlantic Coast.
Retrieving and Hooksetting
Lasusa creates the Doc's signature walk-the-dog action by using sharp snaps of the rod tip, varying the timing between rod pulls to change the plug's action. Quickly working the rod tip creates a tight, zig-zagging action; however, pausing a second or two between rod pumps allows the Doc to make long, wide, side-to-side glides. Lasusa prefers a 7-foot 6-inch, fast-action rod, which provides casting accuracy and responsive action imparted to the lure. Casting distance, normally better achieved with a medium-action rod, isn't a concern with the Doc lure because it weighs 3 1/4 ounces (the Lil' Doc weighs 2 3/4 ounces).
"When you get a hit, wait until you feel the weight of the fish load your rod," says Lasusa. "It's so tempting to instinctively set the hook when you see a big fish inhale the Doc, but wait until you feel the rod tip pull down.
"I also usually set back to the side and low, not straight up, because you want the lure to stay low," he continues. "That way, if you miss the hit, the big lure doesn't fly back at someone. It also keeps the lure in the strike zone if the fish tries again. Stripers are competitive, and usually if one fish goes for it, another tries to grab the Doc if it's dropped. Look for swirls and follows, change speeds occasionally, but always have the plug complete its full side-to-side sweeps."
A few years ago, the Musky Mania Doc was only factory-rigged with freshwater treble hooks intended for muskies and pike. Those models are still available, but their hooks are thinner gauge, don't have the strength to hold up to saltwater species and can straighten under excessive pressure. They also rust quickly from seawater use. Freshwater Docs—also sometimes available in hookless blanks—need saltwater hardware.
"When targeting big bass and slammer bluefish, use the best hooks you can afford," says Capt. Ned Kittredge, a pro out of Westport, Mass., with 30 years of chartering experience, "If you stay with trebles, I suggest installing Owner Power Point 4X in size 4/0 or 5/0 attached with Owner hyper wire split rings.
"Stripers are 'headhunters'—they attack prey from the front—so they're usually hooked with the front hook," Kittredge continues. "During the fight, the rear treble hook catches the gill cover or the back of the head. If your hooks are dull or weak or aren't set, there's a good chance you'll lose the fish. Even when everything is rigged correctly, the fish may still escape when using big plugs because of the distance between the hooks, which creates significant leverage between them."
Musky Mania now offers a saltwater version of the Doc, which is factory-rigged with 4X-strong VMC 9626PS hooks. These are super-sharp, heavy-duty trebles made of Perma Steel. Although the hooks are attached with saltwater-species-rated split rings, striper experts like Kittredge recommend upgrading factory split rings to a larger size because big bass and blues apply impressive force when twisting a 9-inch lure against them.
"Docs right out of the box don't have great split rings," says Lasusa. "I suggest changing it all out. I use split-ring pliers to remove the rings and even the saltwater-rated treble hooks. I replace the split rings with a heavy-duty version and further upgrade by installing single inline hooks. Pros recommend the Owner Zo-Wire 3X inline hook in size 9/0, although 7/0 inline singles are usually sufficient for all but the largest stripers."
Trebles have a 67-percent greater chance of initially sticking a fish, but the downside to trebles is a fish can work the treble hooks and gain leverage on them. In some cases, this leads to the hooks becoming dislodged or straightening out. With a single hook, once you set the hook and the fish is on, the chances of it coming off are much less. A large striper or bluefish simply can't get the same leverage on a single as they can when rolling against a treble.
"Single inline hooks are much easier and safer to deal with," says Lasusa. "They're better for both the fish and the angler, and they keep the bigger fish on. You may get fewer hookups, but you'll lose fewer fish. Part of the reason is the gap of a single is significantly bigger than the gap of a 4/0 treble, and it fits better around the lips of big fish. Most bass are caught on the belly hook, so if you're going to change at least one hook, change that one. Single hooks are much easier to remove and less likely to foul-hook the fish, which are good reasons to also replace the rear treble."
The Doc has become a hot-action producer for fly casters, too. Thanks to its crippled baitfish motion and rattling noise, the lure drives stripers into an aggressive, striking mood—even from a distance—that can't be achieved with a fly. Anglers fishing in pairs trigger lazy bass into feeding by having a spin fisher work a hookless Doc while a fly caster tosses a large baitfish pattern diagonally across the path of a chasing fish.
"The Doc has great action," says Kittredge. "But it's even more amazing when fished hookless. It's a true game-changer for fly casters. It's able to raise fish from the depths like no other lure—tease them up, get them fired up—and then you cast a fly in front and watch them eat. A slow-crank-and-stop retrieve is great, but sometimes 'as fast as you can turn the handle' really gets them excited."
Rods, reels and line for Doc work.
When targeting big predators with Doc lures, select a quality 7- to 7 1/2-foot, medium-heavy, fast-action spinning rod matched to a 4000- to 5000-series reel. Load the reel with 40- to 50-pound smooth, braided line. Attach the main braid to 3 feet of 50-pound fluorocarbon leader with a Uni-to-Uni knot. Use a Palomar knot to tie the leader to a 75- to 125-pound quick-clip snap, which speeds lure change-outs.
When casting fly gear to teased-up bass, use a 9- to 10-weight, fast-action rod paired with a sealed, large-arbor reel with 200 yards of backing. Spool up with floating line. Tie on a 7-foot leader ending in 30-pound tippet. Bring knot-able 30-pound bite tippet when expecting big bluefish.