Over the last few years, the Ned rig has become incredibly popular in freshwater fisheries due to its ability to get bites from fish that refuse to eat more traditional offerings. The simple presentation triggers bites from pressured, cold, or just generally disinterested fish, and its ability to imitate small crustaceans hasn’t gone unnoticed by savvy inshore fishermen. Oddly, the Ned rig’s saltwater popularity seems to be limited to the Southeast and species like redfish, speckled trout, and snook. Salty Northeast anglers have not been quite so keen to adopt the Ned. This is probably because of the belief that Northeast fisheries require significantly heavier weights and larger baits, along with the lingering prejudice toward using very light tackle in the salt.
My faith in the Ned rig started on a road trip through the Southeast that was plagued by cold fronts that plunged temperatures from South Carolina to Florida to uncomfortable lows. Despite the brutal temperatures, the Ned produced trout, snook, flounder, mangrove snapper, and jacks while I searched my car for yet another layer of clothing to put on.
Fast-forward a couple months to when an April weakfish ate a 2-inch Gulp shrimp, making me think that the Ned might be the key to a couple more “unicorns.” Sadly, this was not the case, but I did notice that I caught a lot of fluke. Even on incoming tides, which is typically the kiss of death for early-season fluke in my New Jersey home waters, I seemed to find a few fish.
The full potential of the Ned became apparent during an afternoon trip with my friend Greg Borras on the River Rat, where what should have been a slow outing produced nearly 80 fluke in a little less than three hours. We experienced similar success throughout the early summer, making it hard to ignore the power of the Ned rig.
Shallow-water fluke in the Northeast are probably some of the most pressured fish in the country. If you believe that fishing pressure can affect largemouth on a lake that’s a few hundred acres, it shouldn’t surprise you that it can affect the fluke in your local inlet. On your average summer weekend, the steady stream of headboats and 2-strokes produces more than enough noise to put any fish in a bad mood. When you add in the constant barrage of white, pink, and yellow swimming mullets that the fish see, it’s hard to imagine why any would eat yours after passing up the last 30.
The Ned rig really comes into its own for fluke in the spring and early summer for a number of reasons (heavy fishing pressure and clear, sometimes cold, water), but the biggest factor in the rig’s success is how well it imitates the smaller bottom-dwelling forage that fluke focus on at this time of year.
It’s not a huge secret that early-season fluke feed primarily on small prey. In fact, a study conducted in the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers showed that in the spring and early summer, fluke feed primarily on sand shrimp and young-of-the-year winter flounder. Later in the season, they focus more on blue crabs and typical baitfish like rain bait, bunker, and spearing (Manderson et al, 1999). Furthermore, the same group conducted a study in tanks where fluke displayed a preference for eating winter flounder off the bottom than spearing from the water column. The Ned does a good job of imitating a variety of food items, but it is a perfect match for the smaller benthic prey items that fluke really seem to prefer.
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Ned Rig Baits for Fluke
While just about every soft-plastic company produces Ned baits, I use Z-Man versions with this technique. The durability, buoyancy, and scent-absorbing qualities of Z-Man’s ElaZtech material makes it ideal for these presentations.
I carry multiple Pro-Cure scents when fishing a Ned rig for fluke. In the rivers and bays, blue crab seems to be the best flavor, with shrimp and blood worm in a competitive tie for second place. In the surf, I’ve found that sand flea significantly outperforms other scents.
It is worth mentioning that the original finesse TRD is the best choice when casting Z-Man’s Ned offerings due to its aerodynamic shape, which is also beautifully generic and able to imitate nearly any forage. The TRD Bugz, TRD CrawZ and TRD Crusteaz are not as aerodynamic, but are dead-on imitations of crabs and sand fleas, especially if they’re used to tip a small bucktail. Z-man has recently come out with the Ned Scented ShrimpZ; unfortunately, they weren’t available in time for last fluke season, though I suspect they’ll work particularly well for early-season fluke.
Regardless of which bait you choose, a dab of Loctite glue will help it stay on the jighead all day. The best glue for this application is Loctite control gel (with the squeezable blue sides) because it doesn’t react with the plastic and is the only bottle that doesn’t glue itself shut.
My favorite combination for river/bay fluking is a finesse TRD matched to a ¼-ounce Gamakatsu ball-head jig. The Z-Man Pro ShroomZ jighead is also available in appropriate sizes (1/5, ¼, 1/3 ounce), but I really like the lighter wire round-bend hook in the Gamakatsu head. Its unpainted head works fine, but in the surf, painting the head orange to mimic the roe of sand fleas and lady crabs can draw a bit of extra attention.
While ¼ ounce might seem too light for most fluking situations, the combination of light line and a streamlined bait allows you to fish depths up to 20 feet when the wind and current allow. Natural colors work the best, with darker colors working better in dingier water and translucent working best in clear water. In particularly muddy waters, I’ve seen success with brighter colors.
Ned Rig Tackle
The proper rod and reel goes a long way toward casting these light baits and for presenting them, detecting bites, and landing fish. Using appropriate tackle is always a good idea, but it’s essential with ultra-finesse techniques like the Ned rig.
My go-to outfit for fishing the Ned is almost always a 7’ medium-light Daiwa Procyon inshore with a Daiwa Fuego 3000 and 8-pound-test PowerPro SuperSlick v2. My leaders range between 12- and 20-pound fluorocarbon or monofilament, but I usually settle on 15-pound green Berkley Big Game. In particularly cold or clear early-season conditions, I drop down to 12-pound fluorocarbon, but I usually prefer to have the knot strength of monofilament.
This combo is really ideal for whenever I fish a Ned, whether it’s largemouth bass in a pond, speckled trout in the Southeast, or stripers and fluke in New Jersey. The light tip and moderate-fast action in the rod casts well, doesn’t bend light-wire hooks, and allows me to view the inflection of the tip to see a bite I didn’t initially feel.
The Shimano Zodias 7’2” medium-light plus is another great rod for this technique if you’re looking for a higher-end option. I opt for 7-foot rods because I fish from shore a lot, and anything longer can be an issue in tight quarters, though there are benefits to using rods up to 7’6” to move more line during slack-line hooksets. Any lightweight spinning reel that balances with your rod is fine but, once again, use a reel that can pick up a lot of line quickly.
Light line is critical because the reduced drag in the water makes it possible to maintain contact with the bottom using light weights and provides enough sensitivity to detect the slack-line bites that will occur as your let the Ned fall to the bottom. I prefer marine-blue line, but any high-visibility line will do. (Hi-vis braid allows you to watch for slack line bites, which will take some practice.) There is something immensely satisfying about sticking a fish on a slack-line bite that made your line jump like a plucked guitar string.
Shallow Water Approach
While fluke may be your target species with the Ned rig, don’t think they are all you’ll encounter while fishing it. I’ve personally caught stripers, bluefish, tog, Northern kingfish, sea bass, hickory shad, and croakers while bouncing a Ned rig around the inshore waters of the Northeast.
I think the magic of this bait is it’s so quiet and subtle that it sneaks up on the fish. As it pops up off the bottom, it appears natural and looks to be fleeing, so the element of surprise produces a kind of finesse reaction bite. This subtleness also keeps the bait from being overly disruptive, and in smaller, shallower spots that might normally mean only one or two fluke before the bite shuts off, it can produce quite a few more. The bait shines in smaller waters like creek mouths, drains, or pinch points where its small size and, consequently, lack of drawing power are less of a disadvantage.
The Ned doesn’t really perform its best being fished in the ever-so-popular rapid jigging motion most people use for fluking. From a boat, the best strategy it is to cast the bait diagonally into your drift and let it hit bottom. Then, employ a single- or double-pop retrieve, letting the bait find bottom after each twitch. When fishing from land, fish the Ned with or across the current because it can be difficult to swing it down-current due to its light weight. As with most jig fishing, the bite typically comes on the fall, but fluke have no problem picking up a Ned that’s just sitting on the bottom or being dragged along by the current.
Let the bait fall on a semi-slack line and watch the line to see the bait hit bottom or get a fish to bite. Sometimes, the fish will “catch” the Ned as it hits the bottom, and these bites can be tough to discern. This is why, before each twitch, you should lightly lift the rod and feel/look for extra weight (this is where the softer rod becomes imperative). Added scent also goes a long way toward making the fish hold on for an extra second to let you get a hook in it.
When fish are especially shut down due to cold temperatures (incoming tide during early season, upwellings caused by south winds) or heavy boat traffic, the key is to make the presentation even more subdued by fishing painfully slow and letting the Ned get dragged by the boat or lie motionless on the bottom with just the occasional twitch.
I know the Ned is not a cure-all for every fluke-fishing situation. There are times when the current is too fast, the waters too deep, or the visibility is too poor, and you’re better off fishing with more traditional fluke rigs. That being said, the next time you’re playing bumper boats in 54-degree water during an early-season back-bay fluke trip, it might be worth tying on a Ned.