Breakthroughs in Panfish Softbaits
July 18, 2012
In the 1980s, the revolution was all about rods, reels, and boats. New lighter, stronger materials transformed our basic tools. In the 1990s, the greatest and fastest changes took place among fishing lines and electronics, where we went from line of sight to satellite.
In all that time, the things we use to actually hook fish--the plastics, crankbaits, and metal baits--changed little. The best-selling body bait in the country, the Rapala, was introduced in the 1960s. Suspending jerkbaits were first introduced in the 1970s. The plastic worm is more popular now than it was then. Certainly, lures have become slightly more streamlined. The finishes are more lifelike, more durable, and the hooks are light years ahead of what we had 30 years ago. New shapes and styles of plastics appear every year. Some stick, some don't. "Magic lures" hawked on infomercials come and go. But major earth-shattering technological advances in lures have been slow in coming.
Scent-impregnated plastics first appeared over three decades ago. Mann's was one of the first to bake scent right into the plastisol of the Jelly Worm, which remains a popular bait today. But when Johnson started the Chum line, incorporating actual "fish food" into artificial grubs and worms, the trend started on something entirely unique. Chum products were stiff, hard to set hooks through, melted in direct sunlight, and failed to inspire much consumer confidence. But Chum did catch fish, and more importantly, began to blur the line between artificials and "naturals."
Berkley began to impregnate plastic baits with scent and taste in 1988. This was the first major lure project to incorporate constant laboratory testing with live fish. Berkley tweaked the Power Bait formula until they came up with a product that was: (1) soft and natural in appearance; (2) scent impregnated; (3) provided a taste element fish "bit and didn't let go of," and (4) didn't break down, melt or harden in the tackle box. This formula created a new genre we call "panfish softbaits," as opposed to "plastics," and was the first of its kind to inspire major consumer confidence. Power Bait also proved almost impossible for anyone to emulate until the recent development of the Mister Twister Exude and YUM lines of softbaits.
Cliff Soward, product development coordinator for YUM, described the manufacture of YUM softbaits as an expensive process that involves extracting minute amounts of natural enzymes from natural sources. "We are fingerprinting, as close as possible, individual enzymes found in crawfish and shad,"
Soward said. "While it's a tiny amount, it's much more than Mother Nature gives off from an individual minnow or crawfish as a scent trail predators can follow.
"When fishing for crappies with YUM on tubes and other plastics, we frequently outfish guides and experts using live shiners. With the spray-on version of YUM, you have a peak, quickly after spraying; and after 10 casts it's still giving off a scent trail greater than a natural minnow. With the new YUM impregnated plastics, the scent trail lasts as long as the plastic endures."
One Berkley scientist described the limitations of scent impregnation this way: "Just because you can smell it when you open the bag doesn't mean a fish can smell it at the same distance. Since humans can't smell underwater, it's hard for us to know whether these 'air volatile' scents carry through a medium like water in the same manner, or that fish can smell them at all. We know they can taste it. When fish bite, they don't let go of Power Bait. We proved that. It's harder to prove what they can smell and at what distance. To make scent travel any distance underwater, the scent has to slowly dissolve, creating an actual trail of scent particles."
So, with the rest of the field starting to catch up, Berkley raised the ante with Gulp!, a biodegradable line of softbaits. In theory, these "plastic" baits produce a much more "water volatile" scent that fish can smell throughout the usable life of the bait. "We're using natural water-based polymers," said John Prochnow, Berkley Product Development Manager. "Gulp! evolved from a water-based system instead of a petroleum-based system. These polymers can be derived from corn. Since it's water based, the scents and flavor dissolve into the water for the fish to detect 400 times faster than plastic. The polymers in Gulp!, however, do not dissolve in water. Water permeates through it, actually flows through it. Only the scent and flavor dissolve at the molecular level. So you can, conceivably, fish the scent right out of these, but I've not yet been able to dissolve all the scent and flavor out after 8 hours of fishing. The longer you fish it, the weaker it gets. It peaks quite quickly at a dispersion of, say, a 6-foot detection zone that gradually diminishes to, say, a 3-foot zone after about 8 hours. After 8 hours of fishing, we can present it to tank fish and they eat it just as readily as when it was fresh."
The Panfish Connection
My first experience with a Gulp! Earthworm was in the big In-Fisherman holding tank. Using an 8-pound high-vis Triple Fish leader and a #4 walleye hook (which was all I could find lying around), I pinched an Earthworm in half, ran it onto the hook, blunted the point, and dropped it in. It sank about a foot before the first bluegill, the smallest in the tank, ate it, hook and all. I pulled gently and the big hook popped out of its mouth, with the worm still attached. Immediately, the biggest bluegill in the tank engulfed it. I pulled gently again, and the hook came out, but not the worm. I watched in amazement as it disappeared like a strand of spaghetti into the bluegill's mouth. He ate it--as in "did not spit it out." As in "digested."
Now, that's impressive. The Gulp! Earthworm feels like the real thing, looks like the real thing, falls through the water like the real thing, and apparently tastes like the real thing. It means you never have to be without bait. It comes in jars that store nicely in the tackle box, where it won't melt or break down until it comes in contact with water. In the water, it slowly degrades, leaving a microscopic scent and taste trail. The line between artificial and natural has blurred considerably since the early days of Chum. What could be wrong with that?
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Well, not much. Gulp! Earthworms are joined by Gulp! Maggots, Corn Nuggets and two varieties of Grubs to provide a potpourri of visual profiles and rigging opportunities for panfish. The Earthworms and Maggots are as natural on small jigs under floats as on Lindy Rigs dragged over the top of deep humps and rockpiles. The actiontail grub is perfect for horizontal presentations with small jigs along weedlines and breaklines. Corn Nuggets make great choices for stationary presentations for panfish, trout, and carp. The retail price is fair, at $3.99 for 10 Earthworms that can be broken into small enough pieces to make, at most,100 presentations or, at the very least, 20 presentations; the same price for 100 maggots. With the rising cost of livebait, the difference is slim. But, if you forget and leave a jar of Power Naturals in the boat over the week, you won't have to fumigate.
The problem with blurring the line to this extent is that the negatives of livebait become much the same as the negatives of softbait. Obviously, panfish will swallow these baits quickly when they're highly active. Disgorging hooks from gluttonous panzies takes too much time. As soon as a panfish swallows a baited hook, I start looking for plastic alternatives. One of the great positives of plastics is that aggressive panfish hold them long enough to pull down a float or straighten the line, but eventually will spit them out.
Because it's water based, Gulp! has a slick and slippery texture. Panfish can rip them free of hooks easier than standard plastics. Since price really isn't an issue, Gulp! still makes all kinds of sense, offering almost the same appeal as livebait, in a jar that can be left in the boat all summer. The key word being "almost." The only difference between livebait and softbait at this juncture is life itself. Sitting at rest on the bottom or under a float on a calm day, softbaits don't move like real worms or maggots. The natural movement of a cricket, waxworm or nightcrawler can be the critical difference when panfish are highly inactive. When finicky, spooky, pressured panfish slowly approach your offering, the natural movement of a livebait is the final trigger--the difference maker. So when, and why, use softbaits?
Nit picky as it may seem, situations occur when panfish will ignore plastics yet devour softbaits. For the panfish in our aquarium, it's practically a constant. Of course, fish being held in a tank are stressed, pressured, and wary. They've been caught before, and obviously are not in the wild--where competitive feeding frenzies are more common. Our tank fish will take plastics occasionally, but it generally requires patience and a perfect presentation with light line and the right plastic. (Or you can starve them for about a week before experimenting, which isn't something we tend to do.) By contrast, our tank fish will swim up to and eat Gulp! without hesitation most of the time. Obviously, whenever faced with spooky, pressured, wary panfish, livebait or softbait is the right choice.
On a windy day, bobbers and floats lend life and that "final triggering action" to softbaits. Most softbaits are best under a float. Softbaits can be easy for panfish to rip free of the hook, so a sensitive strike indicator puts the odds back in your favor of both hooking the panfish and retrieving the bait. The constant up-down movement of a float imparts fabulous, lifelike action to a softbait on a tiny jig (I prefer jigs in the 1/64- to 1/100-ounce range with softbaits). The best float option is a casting bubble, which requires no additional weight. Letting a Gulp! Earthworm drift slowly down to the level of the fish on a light jig, or just on an Aberdeen hook, is simply deadly.
Gulp! Grubs with action tails are deadly for open-water crappies on 1/32-ounce jigs with 7- to 8-foot ultralight rods and 4-pound-test line. Cast, let it drop to the level of the fish, and slowly retrieve. The scent trail with Gulp! is, theoretically, 400 times greater than with scent-impregnated plastics, drawing more follows. My next favorite option is to use softbaits as dropbaits with ultralight equipment, drawing in fish from a larger area. Casting a light jig-worm or jig-maggot combo to weedlines, rocky breaks, or suspended fish is a blast, and softbaits are prolific catching machines when used as dropbaits. Cast it out, let it fall vertically, count it down, and watch the line.
These are open-water or confined-open-water techniques. Scent-impregnated plastics still get the call over softbaits in heavy weeds, wood, pads, reeds or any other tough cover. Water-based, biodegradables are not tough, will not protect hook points from embedding in cover, and will slide down the hook on the retrieve. But a small piece of a Gulp! Earthworm, just enough to cover the shank of the hook on a marabou or hair jig, is a great addition in cover. It exudes more scent than a natural, while hair or feathers work the attraction angle.
In heavy cover, many of the new scent-impregnated plastics still rule. In heavy cover, I prefer thin, straight plastics like the Innovative Sports Group (ISG) Leechette. It's tiny, it's tough, it's slick, and it's straight--all of which help it slide through cover better than livebait or softbait. ISG impregnates this and other members of their Plankton Series panfish plastics with a heavy-duty garlic scent.
Berkley Power Baits and Mister Twister Exude products include two-inch grubs that are fairly tough and stand up to weedline fishing better when panfish are tucked in tight. Mister Twister Sales Manager, Todd Plath, explained that Exude is a proprietary blend of protein, minerals, and amino acids--"fish food"--combined with a special polymer that constantly releases a cloud of built-in scent and taste.
When panfish hold deeper, along the edge of breaks, gravel flats, and the base of deep weedlines, salt-impregnated plastics rule. Salt makes the plastic more dense, so the lure sinks quicker, especially when salt is impregnated throughout the lure, as with Yamamoto plastics. Laboratory tests show that fish will pick up and hold cotton balls effused with salt or garlic, so it appears that fish find both tastes agreeable. Salt has the added benefit of a quick sink rate. The Yamamoto 2-inch grub is one of the finest for probing deep weedlines, sunken humps, and rockpiles in the 12- to 18-foot range because it allows for lighter jigs in the 1/32- to 1/16-ounce range on 4-pound line.
Scent- and taste-impregnated plastics for panfish exist in a far smaller capacity than for bass. So far. Bet on seeing more, soon.
"Biodegradable means it takes bacteria to consume and digest it before it breaks down," says John Prachnow, Berkley product development manager. "It does not mean water soluble. Biodegradable means it has to break down into carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and other basic elements. Legally, a product like Gulp! has to completely break down within a year to be called biodegradable. But, in the jar, we guarantee 3 years of shelf life with the lid on tight. Sunlight and heat won't break it down any quicker--but the container can't be left open, because the water will evaporate. Dried up Gulp! can be rendered back to a usable form by letting it soak in water.
"The chemical constituents we use in Gulp! are the same as those found in worms, minnows and crawfish, but we didn't extract them from naturals. We isolated chemical constituents of natural prey and injected them into the recipe in ratios that mimic the type of chemical compounds found in natural prey, omitting negative and accentuating positive cues. So we synthesized these components. We didn't set out to do that, but our research found the same basic chemical compounds present in a variety of prey species--and those are the ones we used."
1 Clear Lake, California
The largest lake in California (43,000 acres near Lakeport) is known for lunker largemouths, but houses overlooked giant '˜gills, yielding the 3¾-pound state record last year, along with others over 3. The bite by docks and at the edge of tules is strong from mid-April into September. Nearby Collins Lake, renowned for trophy trout, also produces massive sunnies — 2 to 3 pounds. The best bite starts in April and lasts into the spawn in May and early June. Contact: Clear Lake Information, lakecounty.com; Clear Lake State Park, 800/444-7275, parks.ca.gov
; Collins Lake, collinslake.com
6 Deep Creek Lake, Maryland
This impoundment in the northwestern corner of Maryland yielded the state record 3-pound 7-ounce '˜gill, giving evidence of its productivity. With a deep basin, the Prespawn and Spawn periods are protracted, with prime action from mid-April into early June. Contact: Fish Deep Creek, 240/460-8839, fishdeepcreek.com
; Guide Ken Penrod, 301/937-0010,
7 Coastal Impoundments, Virginia
Four reservoirs near Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia, are regular producers of big bluegills and shellcrackers. Fertile lakes Cahoon, Western Branch, Prince, and Burnt Mills have a history of trophy fish production. Western Branch (1,265 acres) reopened to public fishing in 2010 and is known for outsize redear, with certified specimens approaching 3 pounds. Boating permits required. Contact: Burnt Mills Reservoir Manager, 757/441-5678; Chesapeake Bay Office, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 757/465-6812, dgif.virginia.gov
5 Kentucky & Barkley Lakes, Kentucky-Tennessee
These massive impoundments — Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River and Barkley on the Cumberland — are joined by a canal and offer outstanding fishing for big redear sunfish, as well as bass and crappies. Contact: Jack Canady, Woods and Water Guide Service, 270/227-2443, woodsandwaterguideservice.com
2 Lake Havasu, Arizona-California
Lake Havasu, impounding about 45 miles of the Colorado River, has become redear central after producing the all-tackle record 5-pound 7-ounce fish, along with many others over 2 pounds. The record was 16¾ inches long and boasted a 19-inch girth. Best action runs from April through June, when fish gather in coves to spawn. Locals fish livebait but small spinners and cranks catch some monsters. Contact: John Galbraith, basstacklemaster.com; Captain Jerry's Guide Service, 760/447-5846, havasufishingguide.com
; Havasu Fishing, havasufishing.com
3 Pelican Lake, Nebraska
Nestled in the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in the Sandhills region of Nebraska, Pelican Lake consistently produces the biggest '˜gills in the region, many over a pound and occasional 2-pounders. Blessed with abundant and diverse large invertebrates, growth is fast in this shallow waterway. Abundant vegetation provides habitat for bugs and a sanctuary for big sunfish. Most giants are caught through the ice or in early spring. Contact: Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, http://www.fws.gov/valentine/
4 Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Labeled 'œEarthquake Lake,' a mighty tremor of the New Madrid Fault in 1811 diverted the Mississippi River, backing up this highly productive 11,000-acre waterway in northwestern Tennessee. Big bluegills and shellcrackers roam the shallow lake's cypress forests and lily pad fields, yielding prime pole-fishing opportunities all spring and summer. Contact: Bluebank Resort, 877/258-3226, bluebankresort.com
; Eagle Nest Resort, 731/538-2143, eaglenestresort.com
9 Richmond Mill Lake, North Carolina
Located near Laurel Hill, North Carolina, Richmond Mill likely offers the best shot at a 2-pound bluegill, truly a rare animal. This pay-to-play waterway, owned by the Kingfisher Society, is managed to ensure balance between bluegills and largemouth bass and habitat quality. After refilling in 2000, it's approaching prime productivity. Giants sometimes require finesse presentations, such as tiny jigs tipped with a bit of '˜crawler. Contact: Kingfisher Society, 910/462-2324, kingfishersociety.com
10 Santee-Cooper, South Carolina
This lowland jewel produced the former world record shellcracker and continues to yield amazing numbers of platter-sized bluegills as well as redears, not to mention big catfish, bass, and crappies. Spring comes early and a fine bedding bite starts in late March, lasting into May, but recurring on a monthly basis until September. Anglers also take jumbos in the Diversion Canal between the paired impoundments in fall and winter. Contact: Santee-Cooper Country, 803/854-2131, santeecoopercountry.org
8 Tidal Rivers, North Carolina
Flowing into Arbemarle Sound in the northeastern part of the state are a series of blackwater rivers that represent the northernmost range of the coppernose bluegill, the southern subspecies known to attain large size. Panfish expert Jim Gronaw picks the Pasquotank, Yeopim, Perqimens, and Chowan rivers, with loads of 9- to 11-inch fish and some over 1½ pounds. Local expert Jeffrey Abney scores with hair jigs tied in a grass shrimp pattern. Contact: bigbluegill.com
; Pembroke Fishing Center, 252/482-5343; Bethel Fishing Center, 252/426-5155.