May 14, 2021
By Frank Sargeant
Few lures are as simultaneously beloved and despised by inshore anglers as the artificial shrimp.
When fished correctly, some of these plastic deceivers possess an almost magical ability to transform the wariest redfish, trout, snook or other flats species into fall guys as easy to catch as stocked rainbow trout or farm-pond bluegills. In some situations, they even score better than real shrimp.
On the other hand, when fished incorrectly, these lures catch pretty much nothing, as many anglers have found to their great disappointment. As with most artificial lures, to be successful with a plastic shrimp you've got to fish the right one in the right place at the right time under the right conditions.
One of the top plastic shrimp authorities in the business is Mark Nichols, originator of the D.O.A. Shrimp. Nichols grew up working on a shrimp boat, and he knows pretty much everything there is to know about how shrimp move and where they travel.
"Most of the time, shrimp are pretty much going with the current flow, and that's what an artificial shrimp should do to fool fish," he says. "Fish it where there's good tide movement and just let the water provide the motion—the fish will do the rest most of the time."
Nichols mostly freelines his carefully-crafted shrimp imitations—from the tiny 2.75-incher up to the 6-inch version—on braided line to provide maximum sensitivity. D.O.A. Shrimp have a rigging channel molded into the body that facilitates securing a hook. A tube molded into the belly holds a pencil-type weight to impart a level drop like a real shrimp.
"It can be hard to tell when a fish takes the lure because you're pretty much slack-lining," says Nichols. "Keep an eye on where the line enters the water. If it moves at all or if the drift stops, set the hook."
SIZE MATTERS, too
When fishing a plastic shrimp, Nichols pays particular attention to getting the size and weight right.
"Choose the lure based on the weight and the current," he says. "A 3-inch D.O.A. Shrimp weighs a quarter of an ounce and is good for all-around use in water to 4 or 5 feet deep. But on deeper docks or in the passes with a strong current flow, you might go with the 4-incher because it weighs half an ounce and will get a lot deeper."
Daniel Nussbaum, president of Z-Man, is another inshore fishing expert who loves artificial shrimp, particularly his ShrimpZ designs molded from the company's soft but super-tough ElaZtech plastic. The TPE plastic is not only amazingly durable, it also floats—a plus in a lure where a slow sink is desirable.
"I like to fish the EZ ShrimpZ in high-current areas where the flow will provide most of the motion," says Nussbaum. "Rig it with the head forward—[shrimp] travel forward when they're not spooked. Cast up current at about a 45-degree angle and let it sweep back as it slowly sinks. Our weighting and the flotation of the plastic provide a level drop. Keep a little tension on the line so that you feel the take. It's easy to miss, but when that line jumps just a bit, a fish has it."
Nussbaum likes to rig the shrimp on a 1/8- or 1/16-ounce wide-gap Mustad UltraPoint hook, with the point skin-hooked in the back to make it weedless. He says this is the ideal setup for sight-casting to reds on foot-deep grass flats.
"Cast the lure ahead of the fish and let them swim up to it, then just shake the rod a bit to make the bait appear alive—that's usually all it takes," says Nussbaum.
And when he's fishing schooling fish where it's likely the shrimp will be fleeing—that is, going backwards—he rigs the bait tail-first and works it in a more typical hop-and-drop movement.
A heavier, keel-weighted hook can be used to fish deeper water and stronger currents, as might be found in major passes, Nussbaum says. Or the shrimp can be added to the company's Trout Eye jighead (available in weights to 1/4 ounce) to get it deeper.
A word of caution on ElaZtech and all other TPE lures: They don't play well with standard plastic jig tails, nor with most plastic tackle boxes. Store them in the sleeves they come in to prevent a melted mess.
CAST A SPELL
Ken Chaumont at Egret Baits—producer of the Vudu Shrimp—says his segmented lure, also made of TPE and highly flexible, works particularly well under a popping cork.
"Rig it 18 to 24 inches below the cork, and go with a pop-and-stop retrieve," he says. "When you give the rod a pull and pop the cork, that makes the lure hop up toward the surface. Then it glides slowly back down on slack. Most of the time they hit as it's falling or when it's sitting still after a pop."
He also notes the importance of "matching the hatch."
"Early in the summer the shrimp run small, so use a 2- or a 3.25-inch shrimp for best results," says Chaumont "As the larger shrimp move in late summer and fall, we recommend using a 3 1/2- or 4-inch lure. Corks work best for the smaller sizes and free-lining pays off with the larger models."
He's also convinced that certain colors work best in different conditions. "In dark or muddy water and on cloudy day, use a darker color. In sandy or rough waters, go bright with chartreuse or pink. When the water gets clean and green, the natural colors prevail."
There are plenty of other situations in which artificial shrimp excel. Lighted docks are shrimp magnets after sundown, and therefore are gamefish magnets, too. Shrimp are drawn to the brightness like moths to a porch light. Snook, reds and trout often hang just inside the shadow line, waiting for a shrimp to drift by close enough for an easy attack. Skip an unweighted shrimp lure into these spots and hang on—the take is often instantaneous.
While there are several varieties of plastic lures with shrimp scent added, some are a better choice than others when visibility is low, such as at dawn and dusk or in muddy or tannin-stained water.
Unlike shrimp-scented lures that are molded of conventional soft plastic, Berkley Gulp! Alive and Gulp! Shrimp are actually edible (to a fish) and they smell very much like the real thing. For situations where the fish may have a difficult time seeing the lure—in murky water up coastal rivers in winter, around marsh creek run outs after heavy rains or in a rolling surf where loose sand cuts visibility—they can have the edge.
The Fish Bites Fight Club shrimp is another heavily scented composite lure that smells not-so-bad to humans but evidently smells and tastes really good to fish. It's also extremely tough and very difficult to pull apart. You can cut it up, though, and use just the body on a small jig as an imitation sand flea, which is a great way to catch pompano in the surf.
KEEP IT LIGHT
Light tackle is key to fishing faux shrimp baits. Braid of 10- to 15-pound test on a spinning rig is about right. Tie on 18 inches of 15- to 20- pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon leader with a Double Uni knot. The clear leader is less visible than braid, and also less likely to loop back over the lure. Monofilament allows for tying a good loop knot, like a King Sling, which gives the shrimp better action. Most loop knots won't stay put in braid.
A 7-foot, medium-action rod and 2500- or 3000-size spinning reel allows for long casts and plenty of line capacity in case you hook up with a bull redfish. If you're going to throw popping corks, opt for a longer rod, as the extra length helps manage the extra-long leader below the cork.
Some anglers like the simplest popping rig possible—a standard foam float with a weight molded into the bottom and a plastic post inserted down the center to capture the line and set the depth at which the bait will be fished.
Others are convinced that more noise is better, and some popping corks have a good bit of engineering built in. The Back Bay Thunder has a wire center shaft, two glass beads on top and two brass beads on the bottom, plus swivel line ties top and bottom. In addition to the popping sound created by the cupped bobber head, the setup makes a lot of clicks and rattles, and some anglers believe the clicking sounds imitate noises shrimp make. These work, no doubt about it, though the standard sliding cork allows easier adjustment of lure depth.
The pop or chug, of course, sounds like a trout or redfish attacking bait at the surface—sort of a dinner bell for any fish near enough to hear it. And the cork also acts as your strike indicator—when it dives, you're hooked up.
The bottom line is whatever your brand of choice and favored style of fishing them, artificial shrimp are killer lures anywhere shrimp are at the base of the food chain. Next time out, follow the tactics outlined here and we're confident you'll put more fish in the boat.