Stan Gibbs, legendary plugmaker and founder of Gibbs Lures, used his testing grounds of the Cape Cod Canal to hone a great many lure designs in the years following World War II. Several of those designs survive today, not just in the offerings of Gibbs Lure Company, but through other plug builders who have further honed Gibbs’ designs to their waters and fishing styles. It’d be difficult to choose which of Gibbs’ lure styles has had the most lasting impact on striped-bass fishing. It’s tempting to pick the pencil popper, the long-casting topwater that brought stripers beyond count to the surface. However, ask a surfcaster who plies his trade under the cover of darkness the most important Gibbs design, and he’ll surely tell you it’s the darter.
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History of the Darter
The first darter pre-dated Gibbs’ design by some 30 years. The Creek Chub Darter was initially made in freshwater sizes in the 1920s, but larger models for saltwater soon appeared in the catalog. The Creek Chub Darter had a smaller, less dramatic flat spot on top that likely caused it to swim shallow and favor calmer water. Gibbs took this design and exaggerated it, making a steeper angle on the slope and extending the flat spot halfway down the plug, which helped it hold in current and swim deeper.
While it was the waters of Cape Cod that inspired Gibbs’ darter design, it was Montauk that made it famous. For many years, some fishermen believed the darter worked only at Montauk. The sweeping currents, changing depths, and ample boulders around the East End of Long Island do make it textbook water for the darter.
With the darter’s success at Montauk, more plug builders began making them. In the 1960s, Jack Frech, innovative Long Island surfcaster and plug builder, made a version of Gibbs’ darter that was heavier and a bit wider, allowing for longer casts. But a darter is a difficult plug to make well and imperfections in the wood led to inconsistent actions. With no dramatic lip to give the lure life, a darter must be balanced to achieve that zigzagging action.
Development of the Plastic Darter
It was frustration with the inconsistency of wooden darters that led Don Musso to begin producing his own darter, the Super Strike “Zig Zag” in plastic in the mid-1980s. The plastic provided the consistency and durability missing from the wood and allowed him to add weights horizontally inside the plug, which better balanced it.
Today, there are several darter options in both plastic and wood. North Bar Lures makes a plastic “Montauk Darter” modeled after Frech’s design. Tactical Anglers makes the 7-inch, 3-ounce plastic SubDarter, and even released a smaller version, the Jr. SubDarter. For a short while, Cotton Cordell—maker of the timeless Red Fin minnow plug— also produced a plastic darter, the hilariously named “Sea Hag.”
Wooden darters remain available from Gibbs, as well as a number of boutique builders who sell their wares at flea markets and through social media flash sales.
Fishing darters is simple, provided you’ve chosen your location well. A slow retrieve across the current puts the plug to work. Most often, you won’t feel a darter working through your rod tip, the way you’d feel a metal lip or bottle plug thumping. Instead, a steady resistance as the lure digs into the current lets you know it’s working. Occasionally interrupting the retrieve with a snap of the rod tip can help convince a following bass to strike, but often, a slow-steady reel is all you need.
Depending on the shape of the darter, the action could be a meandering S-turn or a tighter zigzag. Choose the former style for faster-moving waters and the latter for slow water.
While darters are an absolute must-have lure for Montauk, they are also required for any nearshore rips, inlets, or current-swept points. Even open beaches with a good sweep can be fertile ground for swinging darters. In fact, many beach fishermen report an upgrade in the size of the fish they hook when switching from minnow plugs to darters.
The darter design has persisted for 100 years and will continue to catch for as long as there are moving waters and striped bass within them.
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