By Jeff Samsel
Cast it out. Wind it back.
That’s the short answer to how to fish a soft-plastic swimbait for early-season smallmouths, and if you happen to be in the right place at the right time, that might turn out to be all you need to know. More often than not, though, you’ll want to know more about stuff like times, places and swimming paces and about the huge variety of swimbaits on the market.
One thing you can know is that swimbaits are outstanding smallmouth lures, and at times they will out-produce anything else you could tie on our line. Therefore, if you’ve not yet delved into the swimbait world, it would be worthwhile to invest some time playing with different baits and rigging options.
The term “swimbait” gets used quite a bit and can encompass a lot of different lures, and there probably is no officially correct definition. In this coverage, though, we’ll focus on soft-plastic baitfish-imitating lures that are primarily worked by swimming them through the water column. We’ll leave out the high-dollar hard swimbaits that are hand carved from wood or made from hard plastic, using highly detailed molds. We’ll also focus on straight “swimming” presentations, with due acknowledgement that are many other highly productive ways to fish these lures.
Soft-plastic swimbaits actually have been around for decades — just not by that name. Many old-timers undoubtedly have thought smugly about their bags of Sassy Shads as bass pros have heralded the “new” swimbait fishing technique in recent years. In fairness, though, while baitfish-shaped soft plastic lures indeed have been producing bass for many years, swimbait designs and rigging options clearly have evolved through the first decade of the 21st Century, and swimbait fishing has become far more mainstream among serious bass fishermen.
Early in the 2000s pre-rigged soft-plastic swimbaits such as the Storm Wild Eye series baits hit the scene. These baits found immediate popularity, and pre-rigged versions from numerous manufacturers now come in a host of fish-like shapes, with a wide range of actions, in a big range of sizes and weights and with various hook options.
Advantages of pre-rigged swimbaits are that they come ready to fish and most have exposed hooks, which often equates to more hooked fish. The biggest disadvantage is a lack of flexibility. If you generally like the bait and its swimming action but don’t want it to swim as fast or would prefer weedless rigging for a particular setting, you might be out of luck.
Unrigged soft-plastic swimbait bodies found national popularity among bass fishermen a little later than the rigged baits. Major advancements have been the development of hollow-bodied swimbaits such as Poor Boy Silly Bunnies, YUM Money Minnows and Berkley Hollow Belly Swimbaits and highly natural flat-side and multi-jointed baits such as the Lake Fork Live Magic Shad and the Sebile Soft Magic Swimmer. Meanwhile, bass fishermen have been discovering saltwater baits such as the Cocahoe Minnow and rediscovering classic baits, including Sassy Shads.
Size an obvious important consideration for picking smallmouth swimbaits. Soft-plastic swimmers made for bass fishing average about 5 inches long, which borders on big for most smallmouth applications. There are exceptions. In waters where bronzebacks grow extra large, a narrow-profiled 5-inch swimbait might be just the ticket when fish are shallow and aggressive, especially if they are feeding or perch or other large forage. Generally speaking, however, look to the 3- and 4-inch models for smallmouth fishing.
Also consider action. The entire body shimmies as you pull some swimbaits through the water. Others stay mostly steady, with only the tail in motion, and the tail action can range from a quick wiggle to a hard thump. Baits like Sebile’s Soft Magic Swimmer sort of glide and are usually fished with gentle rod sweeps and pauses. The ideal action depends on the size and the mood of the fish, the color of the water and how the fish are positioning themselves. For slow presentations, think natural. Save the harder kicking swimbaits for times when you expect fish to chase or you’re trying to trigger reaction strikes.
Along with the hollow-bodied swimbait craze came a host of new hooks designed specifically for these baits. Most resemble worm hooks — with either an offset shank or some sort of screw-in keeper at the hook eye that goes into the head of the bait — except there is weight added to the belly of the hook.
Swimbait hooks allow for weedless rigging, with the hook going in the belly and out the back and resting flush with the back of the lure. The weight serves double duty of keeping the lure upright and level and pulling it down in the water column. These hooks allow for slower, more natural presentations than do most jigheads, and they tend to have large gaps and are good for keeping bigger fish hooked. The flipside is that they tend to be made with a little heavier wire — like a typical worm hook — and are really best fished on baitcasting tackle with at least 12-pound test and a rod with enough background to achieve a good hook set.
Although many swimbait hooks are similar in concept, various manufacturers have different ideas about how to do the same job, and finding the best hook for any given swimbait and situation calls for a bit of trial and error. The amount of weight, the diameter of the wire and the size of the bend are important considerations, and the best hook depends on the depth, mood and size of the fish, the diameter and softness of the bait, and the nature of the cover.
As a reference point, YUM makes a special weighted hook for each size of Money Minnow, and the one made for the 3-inch model is a 3/O hook with 3/32-ounce of weight on the shank. With this hook, a Money Minnow can be swam fairly slowly just beneath the surface and it stays very level.
Whatever hook you select, straight rigging is critical. If the hook isn’t centered where it goes into the belly of a bait and out the back, almost all swimbaits will spin instead of swimming properly. Rig carefully, and if you miss the mark a little try again. If you still can’t get a lure to swim the way you think it should, try a different hook before giving up on the bait. Often a subtle shape difference will totally change the way a bait swims.
In stream settings, swimbaits work great for drawing reaction strikes, playing on a smallmouth’s need to feed opportunistically. They generally work best around cover, whether in the form of boulders, brush or bridge abutments, and in shoal areas, where drops, foam and current seams create their own type of cover.
The ideal scenario is to cast just upstream of and beyond a specific target and swim the lure back quickly and steadily so that the fish suddenly sees the lure as it comes past the cover, with the lure already in a swimming motion. Fish in these positions are ambushing prey and must feed opportunistically, so they’ll often dart up and nab a swimbait.
The angle of the cast can be important, but it varies according to the nature of the cover and the speed of the current. Identify a where a smallmouth is likely to be holding and try to present the lure so the fish doesn’t see it until it is close. Depth also can be important, and retrieve speed, rod angle and the weight of your jighead or swimbait hook all play a role. If you find yourself having to slow your presentation too much in order to get down to the fish, use a heavier head or smaller swimbait. To draw reaction strikes, you have to keep your swimbait moving along at a pretty good clip.
Because a fast presentation with a high rod tip is the norm for river fishing, you can usually get away with jighead rigging, which provides and open hook and results in a better hook-up rate. You can also get away with lighter line with a jighead than with most “swimbait hooks” because the hook point is exposed and the hook itself usually is made from lighter wire.
The best swimbaits for drawing reaction strikes in most rivers offer a fair amount of tail action to turn the smallmouths’ heads but are on the small end of the spectrum. An opaque pearl type color or something with plenty of chartreuse in it tends to work well for this application.
Swimbaits can also be effective on those days when smallmouths are in lazy pools or other spots where the bass enjoy good visibility. The approach is totally different, though. Instead of trying to surprise the fish and draw quick reactions, you have to lure them into attacking what looks like an easy meal with the most natural possible presentation.
Generally speaking, these conditions dictate going smaller and using a bait with a highly natural finish, such as a TABU Tackle Tiny Tim. Jighead rigging remains a good option because you normally will not have to contend with many would-be snags, and an open light-wire hook allows you to use lighter line.
June is prime time for swimming baits for smallies in most lake-fishing settings because the fish find comfortable conditions at all levels of the water column. A lot of fish will be fairly shallow, over big gravel flats and boulder fields and atop points and high-reaching reefs because the baitfish congregate in these areas. Although some bass will still be spawning, others will be finished and looking for meals.
The most obvious reason that a swimbait is a good choice in this setting is that the fish are feeding primary on baitfish. With that in mind, use natural color patterns that match natural forage and baits with a fairly subtle action. If there’s a lot of ambush cover, you can err on the heavy side with swimbait hooks and fish the bait pretty quickly and try some brighter colors. For more open water, think slow and natural.
Another swimbait appeal during June is that the smallmouths can be quit widespread, and you cover a lot of water by making long casts and reeling a swimbait back at a steady pace. A swimbait also gives you good flexibility in terms of retrieve speeds and levels of the water column. By simply changing the weight of your hook or jighead, your retrieve speed and/or the angle of your rod, you can do a lot of experimentation with a single lure.
The smallmouths’ broad comfort zone is both good and bad. The good news is that if you keep the boat moving and work a lot of different kinds of rocky structure, you’ll most likely find fish with a swimbait.
The bad news is that there are so many places to look that it can be difficult to know where to start. Also, while you may find a handful of fish together, you probably won’t find a giant congregation and catch fish after fish a single spot. What you will find are daily patterns, so fish a variety of structure types both in open water and in bays and pay careful attention to details as you fish.
Finally, watch the water through polarized glasses from the point where you first begin seeing your lure on every cast. (Depending on water clarity and the depth your fishing, that could be the last few feet or the entire presentation.) If you see followers that aren’t quite committing, try changing your cadence. If that doesn’t trigger the desired reaction, switch to a bigger (or smaller) swimbait or one with a little different action. Usually, when fish are following, you’re close, and a slight alteration often will convert followers into takers.