By Dan Johnson
Paddletail or thumper-style swimbaits are one of the hottest presentations happening for bass of all stripes, coast to coast. More anglers are fishing these hard-thumping, bass-catching softbaits for largemouths, smallmouths, and spots than ever before—virtually year-round, in a variety of conditions and situations. Countless options are available from tacklemakers large and small, and in the span of a few decades the paddletail category has risen from relative obscurity to become a cornerstone presentational option on par with other critical bass lure categories such as crankbaits, spinnerbaits, worms, topwaters, and more.
“What’s not to like about paddletails?” says decorated touring bass fishing pro Justin Atkins, of Florence, Alabama. “What makes paddletails so awesome is they replicate what bass feed on every day. Granted, bass eat worms, lizards, snakes, and crayfish on occasion—sometimes heavily during certain times of the year, like the crayfish spawn—but I’d say 70 percent of the time, bass feed on baitfish. And there’s nothing more natural than a paddletail plastic for imitating baitfish forage such as shad, herring, or bluegills. Which is why on virtually any lake, at any given time, there is a paddletail swimbait bite available. Anglers who can identify these opportunities and choose baits and tactics to capitalize on them routinely catch larger, and often more, bass than fishermen chasing other bites with traditional presentations.”
Rise of the Paddletail
As it has with so many cutting-edge bassin’ trends and tactics, In-Fisherman not only chronicled the rise of the paddletail, but encouraged anglers to join the revolution, detailing benefits including the ability to fish more aggressively and catch larger fish, on average, than other techniques in many situations. Editor In Chief Doug Stange, in particular, has tested and championed the use of paddletails for bass and other species, including walleyes, since the 1970s, and continues to push the boundaries of these baits’ applications.
The roots of the paddletail movement trace back to early soft and supple bait designs like the legendary Creme Wiggle Worm, followed by baits with paddle- or boot-tail designs that enhanced action and vibration. While Stange considers the Vibrotail the first of the thumpers, he notes the bait had limitations. “It was coupled with a heavy, anvil-shaped head that didn’t allow the body to swim,” he recalls. “The tail didn’t move that much, either.”
Mister Twister Sassy Shad’s debut in 1979 fueled the paddletail fire. The introduction was a belated follow-up to the company’s original curlytail, developed in 1972. By this time, savvy anglers were well aware of that bait’s potential for a variety of species, bass chief among them. “Dressed correctly on a light, round jighead, the 3-inch and particularly the 4-inch curlytail were the original swimming softbaits, which made the body of the bait rock back and forth ever so slightly as the tail shimmied along,” Stange says. The Mister Twister Sassy Shad did the same thing in a far more pronounced way. “It was, in my mind, the first true paddletail swimbait, even though the Vibrotail was on the market first,” he says. “The Sassy Shad remains an excellent swimbait choice, even after all these years.”
Diligent bass fans continued working paddletails into their presentations. But it was a slow process. In 2003, for example, the category suffered an identity crisis as to whether paddletails were built for fresh- or saltwater duty. “At that time, they were widely considered saltwater baits,” Stange says. “Berkley sold three styles of thumper baits, yet all were listed as salt lures. The YUM Samurai Shad was also listed as a saltwater bait.” Many manufacturers were also slow to produce plastics big enough to mimic large baitfish.
Still, bass anglers enjoyed increased options in paddletail baits, including Berkley’s Power Pogy, which had the classic thumper design that began with the Sassy Shad. The deep-bodied bait featured a thin belly, modestly wide back, and traditional down-turned thumper tail. Its profile was representative of shad, bluegills, and several other forage species. Other options included the more tubular, minnow-like profiles of baits like the Berkley Power Mullet. The tail thumped hard, but the bait fished a bit stiffer than classic shad designs. Flapper tails like the Gene Larew Baby Mega Ring Shad offered a hybrid between curlytail and thumper baits.
Notably, the first true “swimbaits” also began to enter the picture, including the Berkley Inshore Power Swim Bait. In 2003, In-Fisherman aired its first TV segment about using the Power Swim Bait, which Stange rigged on an Owner Saltwater Bullet Jighead. “The bait was the main ‘modern’ catalyst for the swimbait wording we began to use in print and on TV,” he says.
The criteria for considering a product a swimbait was, to Stange, that the body produced a swimming motion as the tail also did its thumper thing. “Today the best term seems to be ‘paddletail swimbait,’ to distinguish from the several styles of bass swimbaits on the market,” he says. “Not all paddletail swimbaits produce much swimming motion of the body, although they all have tail movement. The best of them still do both.”
Around 2003, other classes of paddletails began to emerge, including beautiful baits with a holographic interior lining like the Matzuo Sterling Minnow and Northland Fishing Tackle Mimic Minnow. Flash aside, the baits varied from true shad-bodied designs—narrow on top with a fat belly—somewhat like the original Vibrotail. The Mimic Minnow is still available, but Matzuo’s Sterling Minnow was replaced by the Swim Shad, a prerigged paddletail that also offers ample amounts of internal flash.
Storm’s WildEye Swim Shad also took the stage, debuting a unique design with the plastic head and body formed around an interior jighead. The bait had a wider flat belly, thin back and long tail with a wide flapper tail. “The Swim Shad, still available today, is one of the finest prerigged swimbaits ever,” Stange notes. “Many other designs aren’t keeled correctly and ride up on their sides, but the Swim Shad is just right; the body swims seductively as the tail thumps distinctively.”
Today, the paddletail swimbait category is flush with a variety of options allowing bass anglers to experiment until they find the perfect combination of size, profile, and tail characteristics for the conditions at hand.
Atkins simplifies the lure selection process by breaking modern paddletails into three basic categories, which he uses in specific situations. “Berkley makes several different swimbaits but basically three types of paddletails—the PowerBait Hollow Belly, PowerBait Power Swimmer, and PowerBait Grass Pig,” he says.
“The Hollow Belly is my go-to for targeting deep fish, whether they’re suspended schoolies, bottom cruisers, or bass relating to deep vegetation,” he says. “You can pair the Hollow Belly with a big weight like a 1/2- to 1-ounce jighead and beefy hook without affecting the bait’s action or your ability to fish it fast without rising toward the surface. I use it in a variety of scenarios, from fishing big bass feeding on large gizzard shad around dams on the Tennessee River to deep grassbeds and weedlines across the South and in northern natural lakes.”
Atkins favors an exposed jighead most of the time. “I use some custom pours, but Berkley’s Fusion 19 Swimbait Jighead, available in weights up to 1 ounce with a 5/0 hook, is also a top choice,” he says. To make baits last, he religiously applies high-strength adhesive where jig and bait meet. “A shot of Super Glue on the back of the jighead and the last 1/4-inch of the jig collar will save you dollars in the long run,” he says. “I prefer to give the glue 30 minutes or more to dry, and rigging baits the night before is ideal. Still, adding a dose of glue while you’re on the water is better than nothing.”
When targeting bass holding at a certain depth, Atkins counts the lure down to the strike zone. But he cautions that standard foot-per-second rates may not apply. “Heavy jigheads fall fast, so I test the drop rate by counting them down to a bottom depth confirmed by my Humminbird electronics, then use that rate of fall when counting jigs down to suspended bass,” he says.
Atkins says steady grinds are the rule. “Steady retrieves work wonders,” he says. “But to spice things up, especially when you catch a few bass from a school and the rest play hard to catch, bumping or following the bait but not striking, every fifth or sixth turn of the reel handle make two quick revolutions, then slow back down. The change in cadence often trips their triggers.” When using lighter jigheads, Atkins says you may need to add pauses to the performance, to prevent the bait from rising in the water column.
Due to their buoyant nature compared to solid baits, hollow-bodied paddletails also excel in shallower environs. “Weedless riggings like a skin-hooked Fusion 19 Weighted Swimbait Hook are ideal in grass and brush or around laydowns,” Atkins says. “The 1/4-ounce version with a 5/0 hook is great in depths of 10 feet or less.”
He leans on the PowerBait Power Swimmer in finesse situations, such as when targeting smallmouths or spotted bass in clear water. “The bait’s ribbed, solid body has a tighter wobble than the Hollow Belly’s rolling, kicking action,” he says. “Combined with the different vibrations produced by the tail and water flowing over the ribs, it appeals to bass closing in for the kill after spotting it 15 or 30 feet away in clear conditions. The 3.3- and 3.8-inch options are my go-to choices, fished on a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jighead with a slow, reel-fall retrieve. Be forewarned, bass grab the bait but don’t smash it like they do a Hollow Belly; strikes often register as nothing more than the rod loading up.”
The PowerBait Grass Pig excels waked near the surface in shallow cover, though Atkins also fishes it over suspended bass in deeper water. “This bait is a solid piece of plastic with a limber tail that produces a kicking action that shines in lily pads, grass topping out within 18 inches of the surface, or topped-out grass with sporadic holes in the canopy,” he says. “All the action is in the last quarter of the bait, so rigging it with a big hook and 1/8-ounce weight pegged to the nose doesn’t affect the performance a bit. It’s a high-speed, intense reaction bait ideal for covering large grassflats because you can cast it a long ways and fish it fast and aggressively. Use a quick, steady retrieve that keeps the bait high and moving. The faster you go, the harder the tail kicks. If you see a bass’ wake come up but the fish doesn’t strike, speed up even more.”
Tournament ace and In-Fisherman friend Scott Bonnema is also a fan of paddletails. Hailing from central Minnesota, he’s traveled the continent competing in events with The Bass Federation and other trails, and currently operates the Midwest-based Champions Tour. He says few venues, for largemouths or smallmouths, don’t have paddletail potential. “Paddletails have so many applications, when I’m on the road these days, half my truck is full of them,” he says.
Bonnema factors time of year and predominant forage into bait selection. He tinkers with tail size, body consistency, and color, among other variables. “Keitech produces a body and free-swinging tail that generate a lot of good vibrations, making their baits among my favorites,” he says. He also cautions against fishing too small. “A lot of anglers focus on 2.5- and 3.5-inch baits, but the 3.8-incher is a great starting point. If bass follow or bump the bait but don’t strike, you can always downsize or tweak the color.
“Jig choice is also critical,” he says. “I like 3/16-ounce heads in general, but switch to 1/8-ounce in really shallow water. I also think it’s important to find the right speed and keep the bait just off bottom. A lot of guys fish paddletails too fast. Experiment with speed until you dial it in.”
When chasing largemouths in thick weedy cover, he opts for larger, solid-bodied options like the now-discontinued but still widely available Trigger X Slop Hopper. “Rig these baits weedless, either with a weighted belly hook or weightless, and swim them quickly across vegetation like a frog,” he says. “I also like buzzing them over deep, clear open water.”
Bonnema says one of the most overlooked paddletail applications for both largemouths and smallmouths is pairing a paddler with a swing-head or articulated jighead with a free-swinging hook, which tumbles across the bottom while allowing the paddletail to move freely throughout the retrieve. Think Larew’s Biffle HardHead, VMC’s Swingin’ Rugby, or Freedom Tackle’s Freedom Football.
“I’ve caught more and bigger bass on a big swing head and paddletail in the past three seasons than I ever thought possible,” he says. “Rig a 3- or 4-inch paddler like a Keitech FAT Swing Impact on a 3/4- or 1-ounce head. Cast it out, let it settle to bottom, then slowly bring it back, dragging, hopping, and bouncing bottom, then pausing it like a Texas-rigged worm. I think the tail imitates a dying baitfish. When they hit, you know it.
“Tipping a swim jig with a paddletail can also be phenomenal for smallmouths,” he says. “I stumbled onto the pattern on Minnesota’s famed Mille Lacs Lake. I was struggling to catch numbers of bass, and caught a couple on a swim jig and grub. When the fish ripped the grub off, I replaced it with a 3.3-inch Keitech paddletail and the bass almost ripped the rod out of my hand. Something about the motion and combination of perchy-looking jig, skirt, and plastic colors drives them crazy. Keep the bait moving and swimming and they don’t like it in a good way.”
A final tip for putting paddlers to work for you, Bonnema says, is using supersize paddletails as A-rig replacements and bonafide search baits. “Five- and six-inch mega paddletails, rigged with a big belly hook, are good search lures for covering water, especially in areas where you can’t throw an Alabama rig,” he says. “You catch largemouths on them, but more importantly, big smallies also come out of nowhere to nose up to the bait. They don’t eat it, but you can slow down and catch them on other presentations.”
*Dan Johnson is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and Public Relations Manager for the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance.