Fishing the Plug: A Guide on Surface Iron Technique

There is no school that teaches surface iron fishing. Using “the plug” as some call it, is a technique learned through the opinions of those who know, or think they do, from a thousand fruitless casts and that one unforgettable moment when you hit it just right and a big yellow stops you dead in your tracks. After you land that first trophy duped by a hunk of metal, you gain a kind of celebrity-status onboard, and you feel the eyes watching as you make yet another cast. 

surface iron arsenal

No lure has garnered such attention and notoriety in Southern California like the light, flat-sided surface iron. Since the 1950’s, these mostly aluminum jigs have been used on sportboats to catch a variety of gamefish, and in the years since, the lure itself has not changed much. To the novice, it seems pretty unimpressive when compared to the others on the rack painted to exactly mimic a baitfish, but its crude appearance is unimportant when used correctly. It is through the skills of the angler that the jig comes alive, kicks and wiggles like a baitfish in distress, and attracts some of the biggest gamefish on this coast. In this article which can only touch the surface of this style of fishing, I will be looking at the different situations, techniques, and lure choice to get you closer to experiencing that heroic bite.


The Middle Grounds

The kelp beds and boiler rocks around the local coastline became the first place where I started experimenting with the iron, and through time it’s proven itself to be an excellent place to learn the tricky nuances of this seemingly basic technique. Keeping it simple, I stick to three main aspects of my presentation and change them according to the conditions or targeted species. First is lure depth and the angle that your jig takes as it swims back to the boat. Most of the time, I like to see my lure kicking just below the surface, but there are some instances where sinking it down and winding up through the water column is the best way to get a bite. Next, I change the speed of my lure, or add erratic spurts of energy, based on the type of jig and structure that I’m fishing around. Each iron has a unique action that is optimized at different speeds, and learning which ones are slow jigs and which are fast is absolutely essential when fine-tuning your presentation and the fish are in a finicky mood. Finally, the color and pattern of my jig changes with the species I’m trying to target. Keep in mind that fish will react to the action of the jig first, but color can make a difference in their commitment and in your personal confidence. 

Calico Bass

calico bass caught on surface iron

Christian Lopez got the upper hand on this healthy reef wrecker. Image courtesy of Bryan Timm

Patiently waiting to pounce out of the snaggy structure that they call home, calico bass prove to be a challenging yet highly rewarding fish to target when throwing irons in the kelp. These are ambush predators, who rely on shadows and camouflage to sneak up on unsuspecting baitfish. The first thing to look for is proper conditions. Calico bass can be caught a hundred different ways, but when you have a steady downhill current with a nice breeze that lays the kelp down into individual lanes, the surface iron can become one of the most exciting ways to catch them. In this situation, I’ll keep my jig high in the water column with a slow to medium retrieve and try to brush the lure right by the tops of the stringers. Cast your jig down “lanes” in the kelp where the plants part just enough to show some open water. You know you have the right tempo when the lure kicks enough to swim, but not enough to spin. There are times when you can add a “kick” to the retrieve by a fast turn on every fourth or fifth slow wind that entices them to bite. Many times what looks like just another leaf of kelp will spring to life and attack your iron right as you move across, so keep winding! Watch for bites on the sink a few seconds after the jig lands in the water, but while sinking your lure down to fish the mid-column has been deadly at times, I don’t often do it because you run the risk of hitting submerged kelp and losing your lure. One of my favorite calico bass irons is the seldom-used Salas O-pop. This jig features a much wider and flatter design that when fished at slower speeds, cruises and kicks down lanes better than anything else I’ve used. The big bass that you’re after won’t follow your bait like a yellow would, they choose to commit the second they leave their hole. Choosing to slow down can allow for just enough time for the wary bass to make the decision and bite. 

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When it comes to color and pattern, calicos seem to have some unusual interests. Bright colors that I wouldn’t typically throw for any other species can be dynamite in the kelp. Yellow, green, orange, and red are some of the most popular base colors, but the classic mint and baitfish patterns will of course produce. With my retrieve being on the slower side, I look for jigs with a flat nose and wide hips to displace more water and get a wider kick. The Tady 45 has several molds they use that will all have a slightly different action based on retrieve speed, and looking at the nose is the easiest way to tell them apart. Downsizing your jig can also help when the fish are smaller or not as aggressive. The light Salas 7x Jr. is an excellent option as it presents a smaller bait without losing much weight and being too difficult to cast. The Tady C is a great jig but it’s difficult to cast with typical iron setups because it’s so light. A more effective lure is the re-introduced Tady 4/0 light, which is slightly heavier while still being a smaller target than most full-sized jigs.

Bonito and Barracuda

Along with calico bass, bonito and barracuda make what’s known as the “three B’s” of inshore fishing and offer unique and exciting opportunities for the jig fisherman. Each species requires a slightly different presentation to fully commit.

Bonito for their size are one of the hardest fighting fish I’ve caught. While rarely exceeding ten pounds, these fish school up in all types of inshore environments and will start attacking jigs with ferocity when fired up into a good bite. I like to fish my jig right below the surface and burn it back as fast as I can without having it spin out. Color seems to be of last concern to a hungry pack of bones but blue and white, sardine, or chrome/blue jigs will be your best options. Because they like the fast retrieve, I like using the smaller heavies like the Tady AA or Salas Cristy 2 all the way up to the Salas 7x when big ones are around the islands. These fish are also caught on Krocodiles, Colt Snipers, and really anything flashy.

Typically caught along with either bass or yellowtail, barracuda hold their own as being a respectable inshore species to target. This is the first fish where I start by letting my jig sink for ten or fifteen seconds before winding back. From my experience, it seems like the big scooters tend to hang below the bulk of the school and pick off the baits below. Sinking your jig out is a great way to pull a legal out of a big school of shorts, so you might even need to let the jig fall all the way to the bottom. I also tend to fish a slow-to-medium retrieve rate and change it up until I find a speed that the fish start reacting to. Chrome works well but some of my favorite barracuda jigs have been black/white and blue/white flat-nosed Tady 45’s, as well as light 4/0’s in green/white or all white.


yellowtail caught on surface iron

(Right) Caleb Forsberg with a local slug taken on the surface iron.

The first species that usually comes to mind when someone mentions surface iron fishing is yellowtail. Being one of the most popular gamefish on this coast and for good reason, yellowtail offer one of the toughest challenges for the inshore jig fisherman. Their size and power in shallow water requires proper gear and their aggression towards all types of artificial presentations is unmatched. This is often the first big gamefish that anglers encounter on the iron, and for many, it’ll be the reason why they come back year after year.

The first place I experienced truly wide open yellowtail fishing was the Rockpile below the Los Coronados Islands. This legendary high spot just South of the border lights up in the Spring and Summer to become one of the greatest yellowtail zones for full day anglers anywhere on the coast. Skippers will use their side scanner to locate a spot of yellows on the surface and run up on them. When the boat shuts down on breezers and bird schools, this is an excellent place to learn the fundamentals of jig fishing and the subtle art of reading surface conditions. Be sensitive to your surroundings, watching the birds, looking for boils and where the chum is landing. Out here, you are away from the kelp and rocks, so it takes time and a trained eye to notice how current, swell, and wind direction can affect your iron fishing. Especially on days when the weather is up, I’ll start up on the bow by casting at breaking fish or at different angles, quartering the swell until I see some action. Cast long, as far as you can. Fish are sensitive to the way bait is presented to them, and finding the proper angle or retrieve rate can be the unlocking factor that causes them to commit. Seek to know the bite zone, that imaginary circle in the water between where your lure landed and where you stand. It could be 25, 50 or 100 feet off the side, but it’s within that area where your jig has to swim perfectly in order to get a bite. Keep in mind that part of the challenge (and the frustration) of yellowtail fishing is that they can turn on and off to an iron bite without much reason to us. Stay focused on nailing down a retrieve and a lure they want given what they are feeding on until you find a pattern they can’t resist. 

surface iron setup

Dorado 7x paired with a PENN Fathom 25N. My usual starting point when searching for yellowtail.

Going along with that idea, I’ll start by keeping my lure high on the surface and and come back with a steady, fast wind. If I don’t get a bite, I will let my jig sink lower and lower and bring it up through the entire water column. I’ve been on a bite where a 30 second count to a fast retrieve was the only way to get bit. This is all about experimentation and not being a purist who only fishes one way. Retrieve speed tends to be medium-to-fast but there’s always going to be some jigs that kill on the slow retrieve. If you’re seeing lots of followers but no commitment, changing up the retrieve speed is one of the best ways to trigger a bite. As for color, I have heard some say that it does not matter. I’d say not exactly.  There’s been many times when the fish are dialed into a blue or green colored lure and would not touch anything with brown. This has made my go-to lure color as Dorado, a white-based jig with blue, yellow, and green on the sides. It may not look exactly like a sardine or anchovy on the deck, but the blend of natural colors will mimic a fleeing baitfish once the lure is moving. Some swear by mint for probably the same reason. However, when the fish are up on Spanish mackerel or squid around the islands, I’ve smoked ‘em on a scrambled egg pattern.


Moving to the offshore scene, the biggest difference here will be the pace that everything moves at. Drifting instead of being on anchor, you often pull up to a spot with mayhem both on the boat and in the water, and the ability to slow down and make a good first cast can largely determine whether you get bit or not. As opposed to the inshore waters, fish are constantly on the move and stop only to feed. Knowing how to take advantage of the small moments of opportunity will come to define your success out here.

Kelp Paddies

yellowtail on surface iron

In the Summer, the kelp paddies off San Diego can become so abundant with life that it becomes a fishery of its own. The local fleet takes advantage of the yellowtail and dorado that stack up under these paddies as it’s the only place where baitfish can hide and have some sort of cover from the predators below. Most will flyline a live bait which is probably the best and easiest way to connect. Throwing the iron tends to single out the larger units but there’s a few things to keep in mind. The first thing is to look past the paddy itself and focus on the wider circumference of water around it. Because the fish look at the kelp as a way to hide and avoid predators, most of the smaller fish will be hugging tighter to the paddy as a means of survival. This means that the larger fish will be swimming on the outside edges looking to pick off straggling baits. When pulling up to a paddy, don’t cast right at it on your first cast. Work the perimeters, and perhaps you’ll be surprised with a quality grade yellowtail while everyone else catches rats.

Sportboat etiquette is something I need to mention and especially with kelp paddies, there are some things the jig fisherman can do to reduce the amount of chaos on deck. With the iron, you become the aggressor at the rail and are able to control exactly where and how fast your lure swims through the water. Bait fishermen can’t do that. To reduce tangles and break-offs, jigs should be reserved for the bow where everyone is using the same technique. When the fishing is hot and the boat is crowded, always look behind you and call out before casting so you don’t end up snagging someone or something during your release. Finally, especially when fishing kelps in the summertime, learn to put the jigs away when dorado charge the boat. They inhale the iron and are fantastic gamefish, but the way they go crazy on deck causes issues with the amount of people around. 

Bluefin Foamers

bluefin tuna caught on surface iron

(Right) Things get messy when big ones eat the plug. Image courtesy of Joe Daly

The highlight of the offshore surface iron scene is undoubtedly the huge schools of bluefin that erupt all at once to create a massive foaming frenzy. This is run-and-gun fishing where the schools are constantly on the move and you’re trying to get one cast that perfectly intercepts them. The first thing I learned while doing this style of fishing is to choose jigs that you can rely on to swim true and stay in the water. Most of the time, I use Tady Starmans or 14a’s because their large profile makes them easy to cast and the action stays consistent even at high speeds.

Chrome or blue/white are my two favorite options when fishing foamers, but I’ve seen guys get bit on everything. The biggest takeaway from last season is to try and relax when pulling up and make that first cast count. It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment and get too excited at the critical point. It’s natural, but try to dial it back. The first cast is your best opportunity to hook up, and a smooth throw into the whitewater will often have you bit before you have time to put the reel in gear. When the fish are more scattered, I like to sink my jig down for ten or fifteen seconds and then burn it back as fast as it will swim. This has gotten me more blind strikes with bluefin than anything else.

Yellowfin Schools

yellowfin tuna caught on surface iron

The last gamefish you’ll run into with regularity on the iron is school-sized yellowfin tuna that move up into the local water in the late Summer and Fall. These fish tend to be of the schooling grade between 15 and 40 pounds, but what they lack in size they make up for in aggression. The entire school will rush the boat, readily taking artificial lures with the same ferocity as live bait. The surface iron, popper, and slow pitch jig all prove deadly when targeting these fish, so have fun and experiment. If you’ve never caught a fish on a skip jig, this is the time to do it. Use a flat-sided surface iron such as a Salas 7x and cast out as far as you can. Put the reel in gear before the jig hits the water and burn it back with a high rod tip. The jig mimics a fleeing baitfish jumping on the surface and the tuna will be flying out of the water trying to eat it. A normal retrieve can also be extremely effective and I try to keep my lure moving as fast as it can just below the surface of the water. 

In the End

The lessons of surface iron fishing come from experience. After you’re through making one blind cast after another, you sharpen your focus with the right jig, at the right time, with the right retrieve, and that same big fish that you randomly stumbled upon before starts to appear more often with the better you get.

The next article will be going over the science behind the El Niño weather phenomenon as well as some epic stories from the historic 2015 warm-water summer.


Jun 7, 2023 at 3:52 pm

Great article. Cannot wait to get some iron fish vintage ’23.

Aug 2, 2023 at 5:14 pm


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