Your Plastic Arsenal for Bass

Do you really need anything more than worms, lizards, grubs, reapers, crawdads and tube baits? Maybe not.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

If ever you've fished successfully for black bass in the West, you've used plastic baits. Oh, sure - just about everybody likes to toss those clunky hatchery-trout lookalikes in late winter and early spring, and there are those who would swear by spinnerbaits, crankbaits, topwaters or whatever. But at some point during this time of year, even the most dedicated specialist will succumb to slipping a 4/0 worm hook into a piece of plastic to catch bass because seemingly nothing else at the time will work.

From the teeniest of manmade worms to 6-inch models with flattened tails, salamander and lizard look-alikes, fattened-round varieties with curled tails, and other elongated worms the length of small snakes, plastic baits have become more than staple items for bass fishing. They've become a way of life for anglers who target this non-native quarry in the deep, clear impoundments and lakes of our Pacific Coast states.

Go ahead: Hop on board any bass angler's boat and open a tackle hatch along the front deck. You're apt to find more than just a handful of plastic concoctions.

What you'll see will be anywhere from one to a half-dozen see-through plastic duffels loaded with plastic gobs in greens, browns, whites, grays, blacks, blues, purples, reds, even bubble-gum pink. There are floaters and sinkers and those designed with tails that lift up, some with sparkles, two-tone plastics divided horizontally as well as vertically, plastics with single, double and triple tails, and plastics with glass rattles. And that's just the worms.

In another duffel you'll see the lizards, snakes, salamanders, paddle-tailed reapers, grubs, crawdads and other specialty tools of the trade, all designed for very specific purposes and very specific situations. Match them with an artificial weight and the right hook, and these baits quickly become the No. 1 nemesis of America's most popular sportfish.

Anglers began using plastics several decades ago. The versions used by steelhead and trout anglers in the early 1960s oftentimes resembled the biggest of earthworms (what we call night crawlers) and came with two or three exposed hooks connected by small-diameter wire. Some were equipped with small propellers that would rotate and create flash to attract fish in low-visibility conditions such as in rivers and streams.

Because of the poor dynamics of plastic in those days, early manmade worms were made of a rubberized compound that would literally melt in the trays of tackle boxes. Savvy anglers soon learned to put fake worms into metal cigar tubes and other such holders, but their bulkiness and tendency to deteriorate in hot weather discouraged their widespread use.

Bass anglers didn't really embrace plastic baits until the advent of professional tournament angling in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And because tournament fishing got its start in the South, that's where most of our early bass-fishing tactics were developed.

It's easy to peg the regional origins of Carolina- and Texas-rigged baits. As bass fishing enters the 21st century, the sport's worldview has expanded beyond myopic claims and regional designations of practices borrowed from other fishing disciplines. Or has it? Today we hear of bass anglers swarming to learn the techniques of drop-shotting, a slick, New-Age name for a fishing technique that bass anglers are shocked to learn has been around for decades.

Passions do run high in this sport, so rather than getting sidetracked into an endless debate over who did what first, we'll gloss over the history of how specific techniques have been shared by various angler groups through the years and cut right to the chase. We'll concentrate on how these plastics are tied and how they can help you catch more bass this spring.

Four decades of tinkering with plastic baits has left us with a wealth of information on their use in our pursuit of black bass. What's interesting to note is that regardless of their appearance, size or use, all plastic baits retain one common characteristic: For the most part, they are fished with a slow presentation. If ever you've heard a professional tournament bass angler lament that he had to slow down for a plastics bite, he's resorted to using faux terrestrials and subterrestrials.

I've always thought it would be fun to have a camera trained on those early plastic-bait users who finally came up with the idea of what we know today as a Texas-rigged worm. Certainly, a 10-year-old boy learning about bass fishing from his father or uncle today would never consider the experiences and frustrations of those who came before him. To him, we've always known how to tie a Texas-rigged worm.

And yet we take such knowledge for granted: You start by sliding a bullet-style worm weight onto a medium-thick monofilament line, and keep the weight from falling off by tying a hook onto the end of the line with an improved clinch knot. Then you thread the hook's point through the worm's head, pull the bait through to the top of the hook, rotate the hook and impale its point in the worm's body. Because the entire idea of Texas-rigging was to present a weedless bait to fish along the bottom of a waterway, we've learned how not to expose the hook point, instead leaving it poised for striking just inside the worm's body.

When fished, a Texas-rigged plastic worm is cast beyond likely bass habitat and then retrieved ever so slowly back through that habitat on the bottom of the reservoir. The weight is oftentimes "pegged" against the worm head by cramming a small piece of wood toothpick into its hole, which pinches the weight and main line together. Pegging the weight to the line at the worm's head also serves to prevent the fish from feeling the weight when it swims off with the bait in its mouth; it also keeps the fish from using a free-sliding weight to cause the slack in the line that helps a fish disengage itself from the hook.

What one individual would've thought of such a procedure? Simply figuring out what shape the weight should be, and that it would need a hole run through its middle for the line to slip through, sounds like a summer-long project for a 12-person team of industrial engineers! Some amongst the bass fishing crowd would like to credit certain individuals with such innovations, but the truth is that it took many anglers many years of tinkering to develop Texas-rigging. And we appreciate every one of them!

Now consider the development of Carolina-rigging: You put a swivel at the end of your main line and then tie on a leader of a length that will allow a plastic bait to suspend above weeds or structure. A heavy oblong or ball-s

haped weight with a hole through its middle is run up the leader, and a worm hook tied onto the end, which also holds the weight on. The plastic is placed on the hook as mentioned for Texas-rigging, except that the hook's point extends out from the worm's body.

Carolina rigs are best fished with floating plastic baits. The rig is cast out and quickly sinks to the lake's bottom; the angler then allows slack in the line to let the floating bait pull the leader through the hole in the weight until the swivel stops the bait's ascent at its designated height in the water column. The bait can be "danced" with slight tugs on the line, and once an area is fished, the leader is pulled back through the weight's hole until the hook/bait connects with the weight and is dragged into a new zone. If a fish picks up the worm and swims off, the angler can set the hook before the fish feels the weight.

Again, regardless of revisionist historians and those who would attempt to profit from claims otherwise, no individual angler is credited with stumbling across all of the intricacies of what we now call Carolina-rigging.

We've come a long way from those early years of plastics! Today anglers are faced with an array of choices, from literally hundreds of patterns and colors of plastic baits to a plethora of amenities to help those plastics function in different ways. While the basic elements of rigging plastic baits remain the same, innovations throughout the last two decades of the 20th century and into the new millennium have introduced a complexity the sport has never known.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, glass tubes with small metal beads inside were all the rage. These were imbedded into plastic worms or other plastic baits, especially those that simulated crawdads. The result was a plastic bait that clicked as it moved along rocks and other bumpy habitat - the same sounds crawdads make in scurrying underwater from rock to rock.

By the middle of the decade, anglers added more noise by using plastic, brass and glass beads that were placed on the main fishing line above the sinker. As the angler moved the worm, these beads would crash against the sinker and make that same clicking noise anglers wanted to create.

The clear-water impoundments of the West led local anglers to break with the traditions of Texas and Carolina rigging. While their counterparts in the South opted for lines of 20-pound-test and stronger to fish heavily wooded waters or those with lots of vegetation, Westerners found that such lines were far too big for use in clear water. Line-shy bass would only fall for baits fished on lighter lines.

With lighter lines came lighter baits. It wasn't long into the 1980s before Western anglers dabbled with downsized versions of Texas and Carolina rigs, first by crudely cutting those plastic baits into smaller sizes, then by pouring their own "mini" worms. The industry followed the anglers' lead, producing plastics in 3- and 4-inch versions, and continued with the development of salamander look-alikes with flattened tails, deemed "reapers" by local anglers. Manufacturers also followed the trend by developing lightweight hooks made of carbon and other materials.

The experimentation continued. Just who did it first nobody knows for sure, but one day somebody used a small split shot in place of a heavy Carolina-style weight, and used it to dance a floating worm among rocks and other areas with abrupt dropoffs. The shot would eventually be placed anywhere from 18 inches to 3 feet up the line from the hook, allowing the bait to move somewhat freely as the weight was dragged, shaken, or hopped up, down, between, and through rocks, over points, or on other bass-holding habitat. Its affect was deadly.

By 1988, split-shotting was a regional phenomenon that quickly spread to even the good ol' boys in the South. It allowed anglers to manipulate worms and fish plastic baits in novel ways, and in areas where plastics were never before used.

While split-shotting was sweeping the West, bass anglers in other parts of the country were fiddling with a new type of rubberized-plastic bait called the tube lure. Most of us called them Gitzits, because that was the original brand name developed by manufacturer Bobby Garland. Now, dozens of manufacturers make tube lures in a variety of sizes and colors.

Tube lures are extraordinary innovations. Think of an extra-fat worm that's been hollowed out from its tail to just inside where the head would be, then slicing an inch or so of the tail vertically into several pieces. The tube has thin sides that are easily collapsed.

The hook used with a tube lure is a weighted jighead whose exposed point extends out the bottom of the lure, within its shredded tail, or is hidden away inside the lure's body. Because the bait is highly pliable, it simply slips over the jighead and then is pulled head first through likely bass habitat. Up to that time, plastic bass baits had been used to replicate the actions and colors of terrestrials and subterrestrials, but with tube lures, a plastic bait had been successfully designed to mimic baitfish.

When employed, a tube lure is cast and the angler counts to record its progress sinking in the water column. When the lure reaches a designated depth, the angler pulls it through a school of baitfish or areas where baitfish would be expected and then uses an up-and-down jigging and retrieving motion, or allows the tube lure to dive suddenly, as if it were a dying baitfish.

From tube lures came more innovations, including a rebirth of sorts of plastic grubs, which are also fished on jigheads. Plastic worms started showing up in colors and color combinations and sizes never before seen, and it seemed every Mom and Pop tackle shop in the West had its own variety of worms to sell.

Such names as "blue vein," "purple passion" and "weenie worms" became household terms, and true bass anglers wouldn't be caught dead without some of them in their boxes. Root beer, chartreuse, pink, and anything with sparkles made the rounds of popularity, and then just about two years ago, rumors started to circulate about the next wrinkle in fishing plastics.

Just the name "drop-shotting" tells us a little about this newest bass fishing method. As we detail how the rig is put together, anyone who has fished for walleyes or steelhead may recognize the application.

One way is to tie a No. 8 or No. 6 three-way swivel to your main line. Now add a leader of about 18 inches to one of the swivel's open loops and put anywhere from a half-ounce to a 2-ounce sinker at its end. Now add a 36-inch leader to the last unused loop on the swivel, tie a worm hook to its end and put either a floating or sinking plastic worm on it.

Toss this mess into the water and you have a rig that leaves the weight at the bottom and separates it from the bait. If you use a light leader on the weight line, you have a rig that will sit at the bottom of the lake and can be moved by the angler or "walked" d

own a rockpile or other underwater structure, but that can easily break off if it becomes snagged.

That's a crude adaptation, of course - but it's drop-shotting in a nutshell. If you've ever fished a bottom-walker rig for walleyes (popularized in the 1980s) or floated roe below a pencil lead for steelhead (1970s), you've got the concept, and it's deadly on largemouth bass. What makes the tactic different is that drop-shotting rigs are rarely used in moving water. The angler, not river current, imparts the bait's movement.

Only time will tell as to what the next innovations dealing with plastics and bass fishing will be.

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