June 13, 2022
By Ken Duke
There’s an old saying among those who chase lunker largemouth bass: "Big baits catch big bass." And there’s a lot of truth to that.
Large bass got that way by eating bigger-than-average forage and by eating more often. It only makes sense that bigger lures—and big live baits—will attract and catch bigger bass.
The proving grounds for that approach was California in the 1980s. That’s when striped bass anglers like Allan Cole began making big swimbaits and trolling them for stripers. As they logged nautical miles pulling lures like Cole’s AC Plug, they made a discovery: Big largemouth bass liked the giant baits, too—maybe even more than the stripers.
And these bass weren’t just "big." They were often gargantuan, weighing in the upper teens—world-record-class fish that had mostly been falling to anglers fishing live crayfish on light lines in very deep water (when they were caught at all).
The big swimbaits were the right tool to mimic the rainbow trout that were being stocked in California waters by the state and by city and county recreation offices. A lot of these stocker trout were 8, 10 or even 12 inches long when planted. As a result, swimbaits measuring 8, 10 or even 12 inches long were productive.
But that was out West, where they stock a lot of trout and have a decades-long history of Florida-strain largemouth bass that grow to legendary sizes. What about in the South? Would big swimbaits work there too?
NO STUPID QUESTIONS, BUT…
Well, of course big swimbaits work in the South. And not only do they work, they can be just the right tool to help you catch your personal best (PB) and really ramp up your lunker game. You just need the right teacher, the right tools and the right attitude.
Let’s start with the teacher. Matt Allen spent the early part of his life in California and grew up throwing big baits in trout-stocked waters. In the 1990s, they were just about all he used, and he caught his PB on an 8-inch Huddleston Deluxe swimbait—a 17.2-pound largemouth from northern California.
Since then, he’s come to recognize that big baits are not always the answer, but they can fill an important role.
Allen now lives in Dayton, Tenn., where he and Tim Little produce one of YouTube’s most popular and successful fishing channels—Tactical Bassin’. There they cover all the bass fishing bases, but you can tell that the big swimbaits still have a place in Allen’s heart.
"When I say ‘big’ swimbaits," he says, "I mean lures that are 7 inches and longer. Baits certainly bigger than most anglers use on a regular basis, but not bigger than the food a lot of bass are eating—especially bigger bass."
And that’s an important lesson when considering bait size. Most anglers are using lures that are small when compared to the forage most lunkers target. The typical crankbait is just two or three inches long. The average jerkbait is less than five inches long. It’s likely there are many times when baits of this size don’t even get the attention of bigger bass because there’s not enough food value to get the fish to move for it. Really big baits offer that and more.
"Sometimes I throw a truly giant bait to get the bass to come up and show themselves," Allen says. "These lures have a tremendous drawing power. The bass may or may not try to eat them, but quite often they’ll come up and take a look. When they do, I learn something about where that bass lives and how to approach that fish later if I don’t catch it on the big bait."
So, three things can happen when you throw big baits: You can get a bite, you can get a follow or nothing happens at all. The first two are triggers that don’t occur nearly as often with more conventional lures.
ONE RIG TO RULE THEM ALL
Big baits demand different tackle. You’re simply not going to be successful using the same rods, reels and lines that you use for 1/4- or 1/2-ounce baits. Many of the big swimbaits weigh 3 or 4 ounces, and—in extreme cases—some weigh half a pound or more.
If you have the financial means, it’s a good idea to create several rod-and-reel combos for big swimbaits—hard and soft; big, bigger and gigantic, etc.—but that may not be in the cards. Allen has one setup he likes for both hard and soft baits. It’s pricey, but worth it, he says.
"If you’re going with just one combo for big swimbaits, I’d start with the G.Loomis IMX 966 Pro Swimbait casting rod," Allen says. "It’s an 8-foot, heavy-action rod, and I pair it with a Shimano Tranx 300 that I spool with 80-pound braided line—nothing lighter. For anglers just getting into the big baits, you can use a 20- to 30-pound mono leader. It offers a little stretch and forgiveness with big fish. If you’re more experienced, you can go with fluorocarbon like Sunline FC100."
For swimbaiters on a budget, Allen recommends the Dobyns Fury 8-foot heavy swimbait rod or the similarly sized Savage Gear Squad rod.
Allen divides soft swimbaits between boot tails (like the Bacca Burrito Swimbait) and wedge tails (like the Huddleston Deluxe or Savage Gear Pulse Tail RTF series). He likes boot tails in warm weather and wedge tails when it’s cold because they work best on fast and slow retrieves, respectively.
Generally, Allen’s go-to retrieve with the big soft baits can be detailed in two words: "slow" and "steady."
"If you retrieve them too fast, you’ll destroy the action," he says. "I generally make a long cast, let the bait sink to the bottom and then start a slow, steady retrieve. I want that bait to maintain contact with the bottom or any cover down there."
When it comes to color selection, stick with the usual suspects that work on your favorite waters and mimic the prevailing forage. Allen likes shad and bluegill patterns almost anywhere. If local authorities stock trout in your fishery, get some rainbow trout finishes to "match the hatch." And if you’re looking for colors beyond that, he has some advice that sounds offbeat, but makes a lot of sense.
"My other colors are all really bold," Allen says. "Remember that a big part of what makes these baits good is their drawing power. A bright white, hot pink, or banana yellow lure can be seen a long way away and will pull fish to it."
Soft baits can offer a comfortable entry point into the big swim game because they tend to be less expensive than similarly sized hard baits.
The lower price tag often means that anglers are more willing to throw them into harm’s way and heavy cover—where they’re more likely to get bit.
But it’s the big hard baits that have captured the imagination of so many otherwise calm, cool and collected bass anglers. Their sheer size and often spectacular paint jobs make them not just lures, but collectors’ items … with price tags to match.
To keep things simple, Allen recommends starting with two types of hard swimbaits—single-jointed models ("glide" baits) and multi-jointed models. Both styles are typically fished faster and more shallow than their soft counterparts.
"I like to fish multi-jointed baits, like the Triton Mike Bucca Bull Shad, by burning it really fast for a few cranks and then stopping it," Allen says. "That makes the bait turn 180 degrees and face whatever might be following it."
For glides baits—so named because their single-jointed bodies and flat sides cause them to glide or drift to alternate sides on the retrieve—Allen typically reels them slow and steady for a few turns, twitches them twice with the rod tip and repeats all the way back to the boat.
Some of his favorite glide baits include the River2Sea S-Waver series and the G-Ratt Sneaky Pete. He opts for the same colors that work for him with soft baits.
WHERE TO THROW THE BIG STUFF
Where to fish big swimbaits may be the easiest of all questions to answer. Simply put, you want to throw them in the same places you’ve always caught fish. It’s just that now—with their drawing power—you’re likely to see if any lunkers live there.
And you need to throw them in those places where you always thought big bass lived but could never get one to bite. You might find that the lures you were fishing simply weren’t big enough to capture the interest of the lunkers.
There are a plethora of big swimbaits out there. These are a few of our favorite customs.
Quite a few lure manufacturers make swimbaits these days, and some of them make big swimbaits. But for the big swim connoisseur (or those who just like collecting big, beautiful baits), some of the best and most interesting lures are made by zealots working in their basements or at kitchen tables. Some have found enough success to make limited production runs, and all seem to have a dedicated following that makes it hard to get these baits at any price.
Among the legends of big swimbaits—with price tags to match—are the Hinkle Trout and Roman Made Mother Chaser. Their extreme size and exquisite paint jobs help them command $1,000 or more.
More modestly priced hard baits made with a similar attention to detail are available from cottage-industry standouts like KGB Swimbaits, Marling Baits, Phoney Frogs, Red Beard Baits, Sly Guy Lures, Stray Rats, UFO Bait Company and more. All have a following and a problem: Because they are both extremely rare and incredibly popular, they can be hard to find.