The Swimbait Sensation

Once highly regional in popularity, swimbaits have now swum from coast to coast, and their applications are becoming increasingly broad.

Pros like Edwin Evers of Oklahoma like to fish swimbaits on weighted hooks, with the baits rigged weedless.
Photo by Jeff Samsel.


A decade ago, that term meant nothing to most bass fishermen, and even as recently as two or three years ago, most fishermen had never given a swimbait a try. Although it's true that certain swim baits have been common tools for select groups of western anglers since the late 1980s, those anglers did a fine job of keeping their favorite big-bass lures to themselves until pretty recently.

During the 2000s, the popularity of this style of bait started to work its way east, and the baits began to become more mainstream. Tournament success, magazine and web articles and talk about giant bass in California and from waters south of the border helped sparked the spreading interest. Momentum seemed to increase as the decade progressed.

Before digging too deep into the swimbait story, it's probably worth noting that while the term "swimbait" has been popularized only within the past few years and while new styles of swimbaits clearly have evolved and swept the nation, the general style of lure isn't totally new, even to the East. Long-established soft-plastic minnow imitations, such as Sassy Shads, would probably be categorized as swimbaits if they were introduced today.

In addition, some of the swimming wooden baits that were popular more than half a century ago shared characteristics with today's hard swimbaits. In fact, a fine case could be made that the original "trophy bass swimbait" was the Creek Chub Fintail Shiner that George Perry used to catch the fish that's now tied as the world record largemouth bass on June 2, 1932.

So what exactly is a swimbait? Given the great range of materials these baits can be formed from and the variety of sizes, shapes and swimming actions, defining a swimbait is a little like explaining what makes St. Bernards and chihuahuas both look like dogs. Generally speaking, swimbaits are elongated, natural-shaped, fish-imitating lures that are engineered to come to life with a natural swimming motion when cranked steadily. They can be made of hard or soft plastic or wood and some require rigging while others come ready to fish. Some stay very shallow -- even waking the surface. Others probe the depths.

A decade ago, when swimbaits were largely regional baits used by western trophy bass specialists, the bulk of the baits were quite large and many were sculpted to resemble rainbow trout. Hard versions were usually jointed and often hand-carved from wood, although some had soft-plastic tails. Some looked like they should hang in art galleries or be placed on mantles and were extremely expensive. Most of the earliest soft-plastic versions were pre-rigged with a hook and internal lead weighting systems. Some of the soft baits were exceptionally realistic and were also quite expensive, although not quite as expensive as their hand-carved wooden counterparts.

During the past decade, as swimbaits have gradually grown in popularity, various major companies with national distribution have added both hard and soft swimbaits to their line-ups, with some of the hard versions being highly realistic hard-plastic versions of the wooden baits that started the swimbait movement more than two decades ago.

Among the most realistic of the modern hard swimbaits is the Spro BBZ-1, a bait designed by western trophy bass legend Bill Seimantel that has three hard sections and a soft-plastic tail. The original BBZ-1 is 8 inches long and weighs between 4.8 and 5.1 ounces, depending on the sink rate. Spro has since released a slightly smaller (6-inch) version and a shad-bodied version.

Sebil followed the introduction of the popular Magic Swimmer with a Soft Magic Swimmer, which features a highly natural swimming action.
Photo by Jeff Samsel.

Sebile, a French lure manufacturer, has gotten the attention of the fishing world two years in a row with innovative swimbaits. In 2008, the Sebile Magic Swimmer was selected as the best new hard bait at the fishing industry's biggest trade show. The following year, the Sebile Soft Magic Swimmer took the same honor in the soft baits category. Both hard and soft versions are unique-shaped double-segmented offerings that can be worked straight or worked with gentle twitches and pauses that create exceptional realism.

The hard version varies by model in size and in "sink rate" for use in different situations. A unique hook-weighting system for the soft version that utilizes soft, removable weights allows the bait to be easily adapted from a very slow sinker for shallow water to a fast-sinking bait.

Tru-Tungsten also uses a unique weighting system in its Tru-Life Swimbaits. Four-segmented and seriously natural in appearance, the Tru-Life Swimbaits come with removable Tungsten balls for easy weight variation. One model can either be waked or fished shallow as a slow sinker, depending on whether the weights are utilized. Another can be either a slow sinker or fast sinker.

In 2007, tube-style swimbaits stormed onto the popular bass fishing scene, and today these rank among the most important and most widely used swimbaits. Baits such as the YUM Money Minnow and the Berkley PowerBait Hollow Belly have helped put swimbaits into far more anglers' tackle boxes and in all parts of the country and have made them much more widely used fishing tools.

Soft-plastic, minnow-shaped baits that often have very realistic finishes for soft-plastic lures, these swimbaits come in packets -- like plastic worms -- and they need to be rigged on weighted hooks or jigheads, which are usually sold separately. Although still more expensive than traditional soft-plastic lures, these soft swimmers are nonetheless far more affordable than virtually all hard swimbaits, which certainly has helped swell the popularly of swimbaits.

It's important to note while many of these swimbaits look very similar, they swim quite differently from one another. Subtle differences in things like tail shaping, plastics used, pouring procedures and the size of the hollow cavity have a major impact on the swimming motion, and every brand of swimbait is unique. Many bass pros carry several varieties of hollow-bodied swimbait because they favor a specific type for faster presentations, more tentative fish, extra clear water or whatever el

se. That might be overkill for the day-to-day angler, but it is worthwhile to try a variety of baits and to talk with friends in order to make the best specific selections.

The most popular way to rig soft-plastic swimbaits is somewhat like a Texas rig, with the hook going into the nose and out the chin and then turned back through the belly and out the back. Most (although not all) swimbait hooks are weighted, with lead somewhere on the shank, both to control depth and to provide a keel for the bait. Similar to worm hooks, some designs use a keeper of some sort to affix the head near the eye of the hook, instead of the hook being strung through the head.

An alternative for open-water applications is to fish a swimbait on a jighead. The jighead approach works especially well for deep-water applications and for faster presentations in shallow water. The biggest benefit of a jighead is an open hook, which facilitates better hooksets. -- Jeff Samsel

Many of these baits also have distinctive features that are worth considering. For example, the Money Minnow features a hook slot in the belly, which makes it easier to get hook sets and also facilitates easier rigging. The PowerBait Hollow Belly, of course, is made with the PowerBait formula. The addition of flavor helps fish hold the lure longer, which can translate into fewer missed fish.

One potential pitfall of tube-style swimbaits is that they absolutely must be rigged straight, with hook entry points centered, or they will spin in the water or wobble unnaturally. Using the most popular rigging technique, which is similar to a Texas rig but done with a special weighted hook, the hook enters, exits or pushes though the plastic in four separate places, and it only takes one being slightly off center to prevent the lure from swimming properly. Unquestionably, many an angler has been turned off by a very expensive packet of "rubber minnows" that didn't swim right in the water, let alone catch fish.

Likewise, using the proper hook is very important. Although swimbait specialists have much-divided opinions on what constitutes the perfect hook, the size of the hook must match up well with the size of the bait to achieve the proper swimming action. The amount of weight on the hook (if any) is also important and depends upon preferred depth ranges and retrieve speeds. Other hook considerations are the width of the gap and the sharpness, both important for effectively hooking fish that do bite.

You won't catch as many fish with a swimbait as you might if you were tossing a finesse lure. But there's a better chance the fish you do hook is super-sized. This lunker couldn't resist a double-jointed, soft-tailed swimbait that's made to look and swim like threadfin and gizzard shad.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Swimbait applications are as diverse as the baits themselves. However, the most traditional way to work a swimbait is with a slow and steady retrieve that brings to life a natural swimming motion. Most angers like swimbaits best for relatively clear water, and they usually are used to appeal to actively feeding fish.

Because swimbaits do appeal to feeding fish, more so than being used to trigger reaction strikes, matching sizes, shapes and color patterns of natural forage can be the difference between success and failure. Another important factor for picking the proper swimbait for the job is the likely mood of the fish. Large, hard-bodied swimbaits typically call for fairly aggressive fish, while more subtle, soft swimbaits will appeal to fish that aren't necessarily in total attack mode. A final important determining factor is the depth range an anger wants to probe.

When baitfish are cruising shallow and the fish are looking up, a "waking" swimbait or a weightless soft swimbait is the offering of choice. The fish will blast a big bait worked barely beneath the surface, with the tail or the back of the bait creating a bulge on the surface and pushing out a wake. Big baitfish kicking up wakes as they flee bass or other gamefish are the most certain clue that it's time to tie on a super shallow swimbait. Broad flats with scattered cover on them, open pockets among stands of flooded trees or brush and the outside edges of grass patches tend to be good areas for waking swimbaits.

Fast-sink models and more heavily weighted soft swimbaits come into play when the fish are relating to specific structural feature such as points, humps and channel edges. An angler typically makes long casts past the target, counts the bait down to the right depth (or allows it to sink all the way to the bottom) and then retrieves the bait slowly and steadily.

Many swimbait applications fall between the surface and the bottom, and the proper bait and presentation really depend on the depths of the baitfish and the bass and their feeding behavior. The best specific locations for using swimbaits, likewise, vary a lot by region and by season. Generally speaking, swimbaits work better in fairly open water than around thick cover; however, weedless riggings of soft swimbaits do allow them to be fished through vegetation.

The biggest challenge for many anglers who are just getting started with soft swimbaits is to find the right hook for the bait they want to use and for the way they want to fish. YUM provides a solution to that with YUM Money Minnow Weighted Hooks, which come in three sizes to correspond with three sizes of Money Minnows. The hooks are excellent matches for the three respective baits, but they were designed for shallow swimming presentations. Therefore, anglers who want to fish these baits deeper or to fish them weightless still have to search for the right hook.

For weightless rigging applications, Lazer Trokar makes a super sharp swimbait hook in sizes 4/0 to 7/0. The Trokar TK140 uses a screw style bait keeper to hold the head of the swimbait firmly in place. -- Jeff Samsel

It's worth noting that most swimbait applications call for heavy line and long, beefy rods. Hard swimbaits are heavy (often several ounces) and call for a lot of rod for casting and controlling. Soft-plastic swimbaits, although not nearly so bulky, still need to be fished on pretty stout tackle in order to get good hook penetration with hooksets. A long rod is also helpful because many swimbait applications call for long casts.

Although the bulk of the swimbait craze has revolved around the bass fishing community and most swimbaits are used for the purpose of fooling largemouth bass, the same style of lure is highly effective for any predator fish that eats other fish. Little by little, anglers who target northern pike, striped bass a

nd other game fish are beginning to figure this out. Manufacturers are figuring out the same thing and are beginning to market large swimbaits to those groups of anglers.

At the other end of the spectrum, the same manufacturers are now making down-sized versions of swimbaits, and the "junior editions" open up many new avenues for anglers. Even within the bass world, having down-sized options make the baits more diverse. Looking past largemouth lakes, though, small swimbaits work well for stream smallmouths, trout and even crappie.

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