September 27, 2021
Imagine biting into a cheeseburger that turns out to be made of hard plastic. You'd spit it out pretty quickly, right? Inshore gamefish have the same reaction when they bite a hard-plastic lure. That's why hard plastics have to be bristling with treble hooks in order to catch anything.
But that's not the case when you offer them a lure that’s soft, chewy and maybe even edible. Soft-plastic lures can be killers on trout, reds, snook, tarpon and other inshore species that grab them and hold on. Single-hook rigging means they're far more weedless than most hard baits, and also makes it easier to release fish unharmed.
And because they're relatively easy to make, they support a robust cottage industry beyond the behemoth brands, including a number of operations that started in garages and have become remarkably successful in recent years.
But not all soft plastics are created equal, and knowing how to fish them is the key to success. Here are a few pointers I've picked up over the years and gleaned from countless fishing trips with some of the top sticks in the Southeast.
A Material Thing
Some soft-plastic lures don't look a whole lot like what they're intended to imitate, but still catch fish. The dart-tail models exemplified by the Z-Man Jerk ShadZ and the Pure Flats Slick Lure, for example, look like the injector ran out of plastic before it could finish the rear half. But that odd shape doesn’t bother the fish at all, and it makes it possible to throw the lure a lot farther than if it had a big, wind-resistant tail flapping in the breeze.
Of course, the material of the plastic is also significant. Conventional PVC plastic is inexpensive, fairly durable and has neutral density or, in some cases, a slight negative density, so it works well for lures that are going to be fished deeper or that need to sink quickly in strong tides.
On the other hand, the TPE plastic used by Z-Man, Strike King and others floats high, so it’s good for a lure that’s meant to stand head-down and be hopped along bottom with that tail waving behind. Also, the positive buoyancy means a nice, slow sink that will draw strikes on the fall. And it's far softer than conventional plastic, so tails made of the product swim exceptionally well. Last but assuredly not least, TPE is unbelievably tough—you can hardly rip a shad tail in two, and there have been cases of anglers catching more than 100 fish on a single tail.
Rig It Right
It's easy to make a soft plastic weedless by burying a single hook in the pliable body. This gives anglers a huge advantage when fishing them around shallow grass, oyster bars, rocky flats and mangrove shores—the lures go where others can't. But if the hook is too small or the wrong design or inserted improperly, the lure can be rendered ineffective.
Some lure companies make it easy on the angler by creating hook pockets in their "fatter" lures, like the D.O.A. C.A.L. Swimbait and the Pure Flats Slick Lure. The pocket allows for easy rigging without having to pass the hook through an inch of plastic to get it where it needs to go. This makes it much easier to get the lures to run straight and bring out maximum action. Additionally, it positions the barb well aft where even light-striking fish are sure to get it.
The best rigging for the D.O.A. C.A.L., according to owner/designer Mark Nichols, is a special hook the company had produced specifically for the lure. The D.O.A. 5/0 Longneck Hook has an extended "neck" allowing it to snuggle perfectly into the hook pocket while keeping the body straight.
Joey Landreneau, the Florida guide who originated the Slick Lure, advises using extra-wide-gap (EWG) hooks like the Owner Beast 4/0 to assure that his lures run right and stick most biters.
When rigging, it’s best to pre-measure by laying the hook alongside whatever lure you choose to see where it needs to come through the back in order to keep the body perfectly straight. If the plastic is bowed up ever so slightly or the hook is off-center, the lure won’t be effective. A nice feature of lures with hook pockets, like the C.A.L., is that the large pocket makes it very easy to see where the hook will come through and you only have to penetrate an eight of an inch of plastic to get it just right—very simple.
Lighter is better, except when it’s worse. For lifelike fall and action, a 1/8-ounce jig head with a 3/0 or 4/0 hook is hard to beat with a 4- to 6-inch lure in water up to 4 feet deep. A 1/4-ounce head is much less effective on the flats and more likely to catch weeds than fish, though it's very good in 8 to 10 feet of water where there’s deep grass, as is the case on Florida's west coast flats roughly between the Anclote River and Ochlockonee Bay.
Additionally, that quarter ounce can also be good in the Panhandle's St. Andrews Bay on the edge of the drop and around bridge pilings, but it's not nearly heavy enough if you move to Destin Pass, the Dixey Bar at the mouth of Mobile Bay or the nearshore oil rigs of the Louisiana/Mississippi Delta to fish for big reds. There you’ll want a full ounce to get the lure down on a good outgoing tide.
The bottom line is this: Carry a variety of heads and tails with matching hook sizes and weights to deal with the changing conditions you'll encounter.
The right retrieve is also critical, as most soft plastics have little built-in action. Lures that have a swimmer, paddle or boot tail can score on a slow, steady, straight retrieve, but those with no built-in action do best if you activate them.
To do so, give the rod two or three sharp twitches followed by a pause. Repeat this sequence all the way to the boat (or to yourself if wading). This retrieve causes the lure to flit back and forth several times, then slowly start sinking, then dart again and so on—much like a dying mullet or sardine.
When you feel a bite—anything from a slight tick to a rod-bending strike—set the hook like you're fishing a plastic worm for bass. A hard hook set is a must because you're driving that big, single barb into a fish's jaw.
Show Some Flash
While the realistic look, action and feel of soft plastics is hard to beat in clear to slightly dingy water, in murky water, like that often found in Mobile Bay and points west, adding some flash and vibration can increase the number of strikes.
The Z-Man BullZEye spinnerbait with a MinnowZ or SwimmerZ TPE tail and the Strike King Redfish Magic dressed with a tear-resistant Glass Minnow soft plastic are both proven killers in these conditions. The spinning blades on these lures also provide lift, allowing the baits to plane over shallow oyster bars, rocks or turtle grass without hanging up.
Give 'Em a Whiff
The Gulp! Alive! Paddleshad, in 3-, 4- and 5-inch models and the Gulp! Alive! Swimming Mullet in 3-, 4-, 5- and 6-inch sizes, supplement the soft, flexible action of a swim shad-type soft lure with loads of scent. The lures come in a tub of scented liquid, assuring they’re totally infused with the proven fish attractant that starts to ooze out the moment the bait hits the water.
They can be dropped back into the tub several times during the day to refresh them. The added attraction of scent makes them particularly effective on fish that depend on smell for part of their feeding success, including redfish and flounder. D.O.A., Z-Man and others also add scent to their soft plastics.
Because most soft plastics are fished with a single hook, it’s smart to fish them on tackle that will allow an authoritative hook set. This means a fast-tip spinning or baitcasting rod and fluorocarbon or braid as the running line with a flourocarbon leader. In most instances, 10- to 15-pound-test line does the job for long casts and provides the necessary hook-setting power.
Keep 'Em Kicking
Bait buckets that keep live bait alive.
There’s no arguing that soft plastics are extremely effective for inshore fish, but there are days when they just don’t work. For those days, it’s wise to equip yourself with the real thing. To keep scaled sardines, shrimp, crabs, eels and other tasty fish snacks lively, a baitwell that supercharges the water with oxygen is a must.
Frabill Bait Coolers not only load the water with oxygen, they also keep the temperature low—a big plus in the late-summer heat. They range in size from the compact 8-quart model to the big Magnum models. The largest, the 30-quart version, has a heavy-duty, injection-molded body lined with an inch of commercial-grade foam insulation to help the bait stay cool.
The boxes are equipped with lift-out net liners for easy, trauma-free bait retrieval. The non-corrosive lid latches shut to prevent spilling water or bait during travel.
The Bait Coolers feature Frabill’s Aqua-Life two-speed aerators that run on D-cell batteries. All models up to the 19-quart version are small enough for one-handed carry on a pier or beach. The 30-quart cooler, big enough even for finger mullet and other large baits, is sized for a pier cart or the back of a kayak. ($79–$169; frabill.com)