Surface Lures: a Science to Success

Chapters in books old and new along with countless articles have been written and dedicated bestowing the virtues of surface lures for sea-trout. Yet, even with this endorsement, surface-lures would rarely make it into the majority of sea-trout anglers’ night-time armoury – remaining as something that looks pretty in the box, being unleashed only as something of a last resort; akin to a booby on a Stillwater.

However, I would sell you the fact that on its night the surface-lure will outfish any other method and fly in your armoury, and should be deployed as a first line of attack not as a contingency plan. In addition, surface lures offer the most exhilarating and intimate form of catching sea-trout due to their added visual aspect – as contradicting as this may sound, being deployed at night – along with the accompanying sound effects.

Surface Lures

Anything that floats can be used as a surface-lure, and, on its night, will produce fish – I once spoke to an angler who’d caught a double-figure sea-trout on the river Towy in West-Wales using a daddy long-legs pattern! However, introduce a bit of science and thought into the equation and an increased amount of takes and landed fish will soon follow.

Firstly, as with all sea-trout patterns, size and profile are paramount – getting these variables right, along with the right depth, are the key overriding factors beyond all else. Secondly, and this is the main variable that you must strive to achieve when creating a surface lure because if you get it right then the amount of takes and landed fish will increase dramatically; your surface-lure needs to be critically balanced. Now I’m not talking to the extremities of intricacies deployed by the boilie brigade, however, the logic remains largely the same. And here’s the key phrase; a surface lure fished ‘in’ the surface film will outfish one that’s fished ‘on’ the surface film every night of the season.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, and most importantly, a fish can intercept and eat an object that is stuck within the surface film easier than it can one that is bobbing around on the surface film. Take an adult olive, for example, trying to pick one off the surface to study as it glides past you is nigh on impossible, largely due to water displacement. The same applies from below, hence why trout prefer to target semi-hatched, crippled, or flies stuck within the film than those on the film that could escape when the trout attempts to intercept them, which would equate to expending fruitless energy. As the trout rises the water displaces around it with anything on the film being carried on a flex away from the trout. An object stuck within the film, however, won’t suffer this movement to the same extent, thus making them easier or guaranteed food items.

The same principle applies to our flies. Hence the reason why patterns such as klinkhammers produce so well; being ‘safe’ food objects due to their immobile state. This also explains why trout will often ignore a natural and take an imitation.

Secondly, with this point being of particular relevance to surface lures; a fly riding in the surface is able to push more water or create more of a wake than one that is riding on the surface. Given a surface lure with a round profile, for example, it would have a greater surface area in contact with the water when fished in the film compared to when it is fished on the film, therefore pushing a greater area of water, creating more of a commotion and a greater wake – essential characteristics of a competent surface lure.

Achieving this critical balance or buoyancy however, can be somewhat of a tedious affair, especially if some simple considerations are not applied and adhered to.

Variables such as hook weight do have an effect on buoyancy; however, material choice is the key variable and the one that requires the greatest consideration in order to achieve this critical buoyancy or balance.

Personally I loathe surface lure patterns that incorporate foam of any description – especially high-density foam that tends to float very high and doesn’t become saturated to help counteract this flaw. Cork tends to suffer the same demise, too. The first reliable permutation is that utilised in the majority of mouse patterns; deer-hair body with the front third constructed of foam. These can work well, and the extra buoyancy of the foam meant that the fly ‘cocked’ and rode in the surface with the hooks trailing sub-surface. However, a far better permutation, and on that fits the aforementioned criteria, is a surface lure that is constructed entirely of deer hair.

Materials should be viewed in their dry and in their wet (fishing) state, with deer hair being no exception. Characteristics and even colour can change dramatically once immersed. A deer hair surface-lure can, at first, be too buoyant riding on the surface film. However, due to its natural properties it will become somewhat waterlogged after a few casts, thus beginning to fish in the surface film, perfect.

Another great characteristic of utilising natural materials such as deer hair is that they can be manipulated and moulded very easily into creating a perfect profile. What should we look for in the profile? Again, there are a couple of variables that if adhered to will hold you in good stead.

surface lures (2)

Firstly; the scruffier the tying the better! Luckily for me. You want that scruffy, straggly profile, which mimics appendages etc. of a naturally skittering or stunned morsel.

Secondly, a bulbous head is a must for a surface lure in order for it to maximise its water pushing potential. Start with a bulbous head that tapers towards the tail, avoiding even profiles. Tapering towards the tail is equally as important because this means that there is less material at the hook-end, which may otherwise inhibit a good hook-up. This area of less buoyancy also equates to the hook drawing in and under the water’ surface, again maximizing its effectiveness and hook penetration.

Thirdly, avoid round profiles. Clip the under section on the surface-lure closely to form either a flat or slightly concaved appearance, leaving the sides clipped straggly  and the greatest buoyancy in the top section. Achieving this enables the fly to sit in the film with the hooks riding under the film, thus lodging the fly firmly in position with little chance of displacement. This profile will also maximise the surface area in contact with the water’ surface, as the mid, bulky section will be the part drawn through the surface, thus creating maximum wake and commotion.

This is, of course, my hypothesis and I don’t wish it to seem dogmatic to those who get on perfectly well with their cork or foam surface lures, and, I’m sure, catch their fair chare of sea-trout. It is, however, what I have deduced from years of experimentation and deliberation. As such, if nothing more, I would ask that you take the points into consideration the next time you fish or tie a surface lure.

With the intricacies of the tying covered, there are a few helpful hints that will hold you in good stead when fishing surface lures too, and, if taken into consideration whilst or prior to commencing fishing, would maximise the surface lure’s potential.

Firstly, stiff and heavy nylon is a virtue. Too fine a nylon selection would make the fly hinge when casting, which adds to the casting complexity and usually equates to interminable tangling. Rarely would I use nylon under 15lbs when fishing surface lures, and I would normally opt for a stiff fluorocarbon. Why such a strong leader and why fluorocarbon? The strong leader is utilised first and foremost for the reasons noted previously i.e. the ease of turning over the large, bulky flies – some of which may be over 3 inches long, with a diameter of over an inch in the head section. Take the Jambo, for example, being one of if not the finest surface lure around.. However, as a rule, I would never go bellow 12lbs for any of my night-time fishing, quite simply because the fish are not leader shy at night and utilising such nylon weights maximises my chances of landing a big fish, it gives me a modicum of control if stopping or turning a fish is required, and when the inevitable over-casting is done you are less likely to decorate the trees! Fluorocarbon sinks quicker than standard nylon – especially in the thicker diameters. I doubt this has little effect on the fish or the fishing pattern of the surface lures, but it’s a little factor that gives me confidence, so I persevere with it. My wet, sunk fly fishing is always with standard nylon at night-time – there’s very little point in spending money needlessly on expensive monofilament for the aforementioned approaches.

Leader length is also important. Forget long leaders! They’re not needed. The longer the leader the more trouble you are likely to get into. 5-6ft is ample – you can taper it down if you wish with a heavier butt section, but I tend to keep it simple and run the same diameter straight through.

Another tip worth noting is how the surface lure should be attached to the leader. I tend to fish surface lures on a loop, such as that achieved through a rapala-knot, which allows the surface lure to move more freely, and, hopefully, achieve a better fishing pattern as opposed to one that was confined to a strangulation point with the eye, as would be the case with a conventional e.g. blood knot. Again, a fine detail, but one that I do draw confidence from.

How you fish the surface lures is answerable by the components and variables you are faced with. For example; if there’s a strong current then little or no retrieve may be required. If, however, there’s very little or no flow – usually good holding water, and good surface lure water – then a retrieve of some description is required. Many people advocate stripping, however, I’ve never had much luck with such retrieves, and would always utilise and advocate constant retrieves beyond stripping, retrieves such as figure of eight and roly-poly – with this rule being generic to my subsurface fishing too. Even in very fast currents, which isn’t usually prime surface lure water, I would advocate a very slow figure of eight – more to keep one’s attention than to add some attraction to the surface lure. As a general rule the faster the water the slower the retrieve, and the slower the water the faster the retrieve. In addition, the faster the water the lower down the presentation of the surface lure should be made; e.g. 45 degrees in fast water, and square or upstream in the slower water. This is largely determined and justified by the amount of time the fish needs to intercept the fly i.e. if a cast was done square across the current in a fast run then the fly would be dragged across very quickly, whereas by opening up the angle the fly is allowed to fish a lot slower, thus allowing more time for the fish to intercept the pattern, time that they do not require to the same extent in the slower pools or sections.

The tail of a pool can be a great place to swing a surface lure, but I would tend to target the slower areas of the pool where the main bulk and concentration of the fish are likely to be holding – especially the main bulk of the larger fish. In such water I may vary the casting angle from square to directly upstream, and the retrieve from a conservative figure of eight through to a turbo-propelled roly-poly. The secret is to experiment, soon enough something will show a liking – if it fails to connect, or doesn’t take any further interest, then mark the spot where the fish was turned and cover it later with wet-fly tactics – Surface lures are a great fish-finding method and can form a great partnership with more conventional methods.

Another tactic worth trying if you find the fish are refusing or not connecting with the surface lure is to fish a trailer some 1-3ft behind the surface lure. The surface lure acts as an attractor, with the trailer providing a sub-surface offering that the fish may take with more confidence. It’s a tactic that works very well and is well worth trying, the surface lure may also be exchanged for a muddler pattern in such circumstances, in which case the trailer can be fished ‘New-Zealand’ style.

Surface lures will take fish from the beginning of the season, especially if the river temperature has risen from its winter slumber. As a rule, however, surface lures do tend to be a mid and late season tactic – working particularly well on the classical humid nights of late July and August when the fish are very active. Surface lures will draw fish to the surface even if there has been no activity all night, make no mistake. As such, don’t think you have to wait to see fish on the surface before you can catch them on/in the surface.

Certain nights indefinitely suit and produce more fish to surface lures than others. Light nights are certainly not favourable, yet, fish can still be taken when the surface lures are fished in shaded spots, or under trees. However, fish tend to splash a lot on such nights, with very few connecting firmly. Given a dark-night, however, and the results are transformed, where very few fish miss or come astray.

Takes can vary from the very explosive to very fine sips that the first you will know about is an almighty tug from the receiving end – these fine takes, as with wet-flies, can, and inevitably do, turn out to be the larger fish. In contrast, some takes can be so aggressive and visual on the surface that they scare you – I cherish these moments, they keep me lucid throughout the winter months.

No matter what has been pre-written regarding perfect fishing conditions, as ambiguous and tangible the logic behind these notions often are, a surface lure is worth a speculative cast no matter what you are faced with. For example, I remember an evening several seasons ago now where a lightning storm was looming, yet the fish were going ‘potty’ for surface lures. Very few casts reached their extremity without being molested in some form, be it a take, swirl, or a positive hook-up. That night, a night where most anglers wouldn’t have bothered to fish let alone fish a surface lures, eleven sea-trout came to the net before the storm came too close for comfort, whereas wet-fly tactics had passed them by without interest.

Give them a swim; open your mind, unleash your senses, and see what you’ve been missing out on.

Steffan runs Angling-Worldwide, a company that specialises in sea-trout fishing packages, courses, and guiding in Wales, with a history of doing so stemming back for over a decade. For further information contact:

Phone: 07879 898 344
Mail: Angling-Worldwide, Crosslane, Dolgran, Pencader, Carmarthenshire, SA39 9BY

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Steffan Jones

About Steffan Jones

Steffan Jones has fished for sea trout all over the world, but the Teifi and Towy Rivers in West-Wales are his home waters and where he honed his skills. These rivers became his laboratories on which to test theories and fine-tune fly patterns. Steffan is an authority on sea trout fishing and his work graces the pages of Angling Worldwide, Fulling Mill, Fieldsports, and He has guided people onto sea trout for over twenty years and has also now released his first book, dedicated to sea trout fishing: ‘Sea Trout Tips, Tricks & Tribulations’. Contact to find out more.

2 thoughts on “Surface Lures: a Science to Success

  1. Steffan
    Fascinated by ur article. Have just returned from Abercothi where we had a few sewin, best 4 lbs on a surface lure! Both Towy and Cothi up and down too much for good conditions.

    Want to learn more and fish more for sea trout in Wales; and try other rivers and beats.

    Do you have any vacancies over next 6 weeks for up to 3 rods for up to 3 nights?

    James Dixey

  2. Hi Steffan, many thanks for your most interesting an lucid article.

    I have used the surface lure for the first time this season and found it very effective.

    Do you ever use the surface lure without the aid of floatant?

    Regards, HH.

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