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Summer Swim Lessons for Catching Bass

The versatile swimbait is the centerpiece of numerous rigs and setups. Know when, where and how to use them.

Summer Swim Lessons for Catching Bass
Chatterbaits, whether paired with a purpose-built RaZor ShadZ or other swimbait, excel in many scenarios by calling in fish with sound. (Photo courtesy of Z-Man Fishing)

A soft swimbait rig is about as simple as it gets. Take a plastic baitfish and impale it on a hook. Not even a float-and-bobber rig could be more elementary. And yet, the simplistic swimbait is also incredibly versatile. It’s the main component in a broad and ever-expanding array of rigs, each of which offers a variety of fish-catching presentations.

Soft swimbaits are relatively uncomplicated weapons that every angler can wield. They shine just as well in straightforward presentations as they do in virtuoso setups. And when baitfish size matters (as it often does), there are swimbaits for any situation, from 3-inch finesse offerings to life-size trout and shad-type baits of 9 inches or more. Bottom line: Swimbaits—and the many different rigs that utilize them—are adaptable options that perform from the pre-spawn period to the spawn and all the way into summer and even fall fishing patterns.

smallmouth bass
With a slow, pump-and-stop retrieve, a ChatterBait WillowVibe is deadly for bass on deep, hard-rock bottom with sporadic cover.(Photo courtesy of Z-Man Fishing)

CRAWL A SWIMBAIT

Early in the modern swimbait era, professional angler and TV personality Byron Velvick called deep-water swimbait fishing “one of the last frontiers in bass fishing.” No more. Anglers east, west, north and south are working swimbaits at depths once believed beyond their effective reach.

Brad Betke, whose home waters are the rivers and lakes of southern and central Wisconsin and northern Illinois, fishes swimbaits in water from 14 to 20 feet deep, and sometimes down to 25 feet. The 2023 Wisconsin Bass Federation Angler of the Year says he uses a jig head just heavy enough to bounce off rock and doesn’t start reeling until the bait hits bottom. He’ll then work the bait at a crawl, reeling as slowly as possible so that it just contacts the bottom.

Favored swimbaits are the Keitech Swing Impact from 3.8 to 4.8 inches (3.3 inches for smallmouths) and the Reaction Innovations Skinny Dipper. Swimbait jig heads come in various shapes, including flared minnow-head types, but Betke prefers a 1/2-ounce ball-head jig when probing deeper water. In rivers, his jig head sizes range from 3/16 to 1/2 ounce depending on depth and current velocity.

RUN A WEIGHTED HOOK

My first exposure to swimbaits came on Alabama’s Wilson Lake with Jimmy Mason, a guide on the Tennessee River’s fabled impoundments. Jimmy was regularly crushing bass using the Yum Money Minnow, then a new addition to the brand, fished on a weighted hook.

This setup, when correctly rigged, has the hook point rest in the weedless fashion of a Texas rig. The baits proved particularly effective where bass corralled baitfish along vertical walls or steep, 45-degree sloping shorelines.

Matching hook size to the bait body is critical. Most manufacturers will recommend the proper style and hook size on their package, and some include a sample hook with the baits. Adding several different weights of hooks to your arsenal will also extend your baits’ versatility, allowing you to work them at different depths or achieve a faster or slower rate of fall. The biggest advantage to a swimbait so rigged is its ability to go over and through cover—aquatic plant growth, brush piles, stumps, sunken trees, chunk rock, boulders and more.

swimbait fishing lure
Pairing a swimbait with a weighted hook allows anglers to bring the bait over and through all sorts of shallow cover. It can be used to reach fish holding deep as well. (Photo by Mike Pehanich)

A swimbait is naturally well-suited to shallow flats. However, mate it with the right hook and it can be fished effectively in an extended depth range, too. California bass angler Eddie Guedikian is a big proponent of swimbaits and fishes his own 6-inch Bottom Dweller Baits Shiner as deep as 25 feet on a 3/4-ounce Owner 8/0 Beast Hook. (Long popular out West, the Bottom Dweller Baits Shiner series, available in 4-, 6- and 9-inch models, will reach the Midwest market this season.) Full-bodied swimbaits like the BD Shiner offer a different profile and action from many other paddle-tail baits.

“A lot of times, you just want to slow-crawl it along the bottom, but sometimes they want it moving,” Guedikian says. “You want them to react to it. You don’t want them to think about it.”

For added depth, he inserts a nail weight horizontally near the tail or downsizes his fluorocarbon line from 15-pound test to 12-pound.

“I’m always trying to make bottom contact,” he says. “The bait doesn’t always have to be touching bottom, but I want it tracing bottom, hovering just above it. When I feel a boulder or stump—the cover housing the fish—I give it a slight twitch, moving my rod from the 10 o’clock position to 11 o’clock. That usually triggers the bite.”

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SWEEP or SNAP A JIG

Freshwater predators like bass, walleyes and pike will rise from bottom cover to attack prey or suspend in the water column. When targeting these fish, I often employ a flat-sided jig like the Trout Eye or Swimbait Eye from Z-Man or an aspirin head VMC Moon Eye Jig with a “sweeping” technique.

My 7-foot-6-inch, medium-light-power, fast-action spinning rod enables long casts. I let the bait sink to the mid-point of the water column or deeper before beginning the retrieve, which is executed with a slow, sideways sweep of the rod, picking up line with the reel between each sweep.

The sweep causes the bait to rise and swim in short bursts and to fall like an injured baitfish. It also covers a broader segment of the water column than a steady retrieve. The “sweep” with that soft spinning rod allows fish to load up well when they attack the bait, too. Hook-ups are solid, and unless fish drag my bait into a brush pile, my landing ratio is excellent.

The Keitech Swing Impact, Strike King Rage Swimmer and Berkley PowerBait Power Swimmer are similarly shaped baits that have proven effective for this. At times, fish favor slimmer-profiled swimbaits like Z-Man’s MinnowZ, DieZel MinnowZ or Slim SwimZ or Keitech’s Easy Shiner instead.

I work a snap-jigging presentation with either the same jig head or a Northland Thumper Jig (four sizes from 1/16 to 3/8 ounce), a jig head with a small, hammered spinner blade suspended from its belly. Best results have come using a thin, almost flat-sided swimbait like the Northland Impulse Paddle Minnow (3 1/2 inches), Missile Baits Shockwave or the compact Z-Man swimbaits. Minnesotans who taught me the technique alternate between fluke-style and slim paddle-tail swimbaits until the fish show a decided preference.

Start the retrieve with an upward snap of the rod tip, then let the bait fall on a controlled slack line. Almost all hits come while the bait is falling, so stay alert. It’s my favorite approach in fall on lakes with good populations of smallmouths and walleyes.

SWIM AN UNDERSPIN

I resurrected a couple of unnamed underspin jigs with extended weighted arms and willow blades from their Plano caskets this past season. My first cast with a ribbed swimbait brought an 18-inch walleye to the boat. Two casts later, I added a largemouth of 3-plus pounds. Instant fandom!

The fish did not tire of that rig the rest of that day. Multiple bass topped the 4-pound mark. Walleyes and bass alike found the rig appealing through the remainder of the summer until northern pike consumed the last of these jigs.

Many underspin advocates prefer a slow retrieve with an occasional pause to retain or maintain depth control. However, my best results have come with a more patient rendition of the sweeping retrieve described earlier. I have found that round-bodied and slim, flat-sided swimbaits yield similar results regardless of the target species.

Underspins come in standard jig and weighted-hook varieties. The latter enable a snag-free presentation through vegetation and heavy cover. Whichever route you go, it’s a rig to be reckoned with.

TRY A TRAILER

The first season I fished a swimbait at the back of a skirted swim jig, I found it hard to fish anything else. At times, the fish preferred the rolling, aggressive swimming motion of the thick, round-bodied swimbaits. At other times, the more subtle wiggle of slim-bodied baits summoned the best action.

A swim jig with swimbait trailer seems to work everywhere. I generally prefer to work the combo around docks and shallow cover, on flats with some depth to them and along edges and drop-offs and in deeper water. The Booyah Mobster Swim Jig paired with the chevron-ribbed YUM Pulse minnow has proven a hot combo the past two seasons.

Betke similarly likes a swim jig with a swimbait for much of his shallow-water fishing. He’ll throw one around patches of vegetation and on weedy flats. In the Rock River, he fishes this combo around wood and under docks a lot. He appreciates that it skips well and that fish can be caught on a simple reeling retrieve.

Bladed jigs offer another powerful swimbait delivery system that rarely fails. Experiment with different styles of swimbaits, though. The Z-Man RaZor ShadZ and Yamamoto Zako were designed for these baits, but fish don’t seem to shy from other full- and slim-bodied swimbaits.

WALTZ A WILLOWVIBE

The Z-Man ChatterBait WillowVibe, an offshoot of inventor Ron Davis’ ChatterBait experiments, is a dark-horse player in the bladed jig category. A plain, flat-sided jig head with a relatively small 2/0 hook swings from a willow-style blade. Just add a swimbait, and it’s ready to fish.

“Its action is different,” says Cory Schmidt, marketing director for Z-Man Fishing. “Davis invented it for stripers and largemouth bass in open water, but it really shines when you are fishing deeper edges in 8- to 20-foot depths.”

Schmidt teams the 3/8-ounce WillowVibe with a paddle-tail swimbait like the Z-Man Slim SwimZ, MinnowZ or a shad-shaped trailer. A slow retrieve is imperative, as the bait will rush to the surface if worked too fast. He heavily endorses a pump-and-stop retrieve, executed by moving the rod horizontally.

“It really shines on a deep, hard bottom with sparse cabbage or rock,” he adds, noting the exceptional effectiveness of a chartreuse head in stained water. “At times, I’ve seen it out-fish other rigs 10- or even 20-to-1.”

SWIM ON

No matter what type of rig you use, both Betke and Guedikian emphasize the importance of feel and visualization when working swimbaits. With enough experience, you can learn to almost see the bait working through your hands as you reel and twitch your rod tip.

“If I can sense the swimbait working over the right bottom, I am feeling the juice,” says Betke. “I just know that I am going to get bit!” Pair this sense of confidence with the ability to choose the right swimbait presentation for a given situation, and you can have some stellar days on the water this summer and beyond.


  • This article was featured in the April 2024 issue of Game & Fish magazine. Click to subscribe.



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