March 14, 2018
By Dan Johnson
Fishing with paddletail or thumper-style "swimbaits" rose from obscurity to prominence within the last decade or so. Today, lots of anglers use these hard-thumping, 'eye-catching lures and almost every company that produces softbaits has at least one in their lineup. The paddletail category has become as fundamental as other categories critical to walleye fishing.
In-Fisherman encouraged anglers to join the revolution, detailing benefits, including the ability to fish more aggressively and often catch larger fish than other techniques. Editor In Chief Doug Stange, in particular, championed this category and continues to push the boundaries of how to use them. "Paddletails are remarkable tools for walleyes—among the best of the best for producing fish in many situations," he says.
By now, of course, many other top anglers have found solid new ways to use these lures. We'll explore that theme in the next issue. First, let's chronicle how we got to where we are today.
The roots of the paddletail movement trace to early soft designs like the legendary Creme Wiggle Worm, followed by baits with paddle or boot tails that enhanced action and vibration. Stange considers the Vibrotail, which he used in the 1970s, as the first of the thumpers. But it had limitations. "It came prerigged with an anvil-shaped head that didn't allow the body to swim," he says. "The tail didn't move much, either. But it was an important product of choice for a cadre of anglers who waded for walleyes, casting into wind."
The arrival of Mister's Twister Sassy Shad in 1979 was a breakthrough. That introduction was a follow-up to the company's original classic curlytail, developed in 1972. Dressed correctly on a light, round jighead, the 3-inch and particularly the 4-inch curlytail were the original swimming softbaits, according to Stange. "The body of the bait rocks back and forth ever so slightly as the tail shimmies along," he says. "That combo did a good job of imitating small bullheads as forage in shorecasting situations."
The Mister Sassy Shad was a pronounced improvement. "It was the first true paddletail swimbait," he says. Stange wrote about fishing it on reaper-style wedgehead jigs or on a jighead with a long-shank hook offered by Mister Twister. Shorecasting worked best when the water was cold. You had to retrieve a Vibrotail too fast to get the tail to work. The Sassy Shad excelled at slower speeds.
Even by 2003, thumpertails still suffered an identity crisis. Most companies and anglers considered them saltwater lures. "Berkley sold three styles of thumpers, each of them great for walleyes, yet all were listed as saltwater lures," Stange says.
Most manufacturers were also hesitant to market softbaits large enough to trigger walleyes to bite in many situations. "In a mad continuum that makes market sense but doesn't mean better fishing, manufacturers consistently offer softbaits that are too small," Stange wrote in 2003. "Three-inch lures dominated sales, 4-inchers are less common but should be the most versatile choice, and few 5-inch thumper-style softbaits are available.
"Six-inch baits were even scarcer," he says. "Large, even by contemporary standards, they worked better in some situations than most anglers could imagine." To offer a complete lineup for hardcore walleye anglers, he recommended at minimum 4-, 5-, and 6-inch baits, with half-inch increments adding even more versatility.
Stange experimented with lures of all sorts, often pitting hard- and softbaits against one another to see which produced best. "For about 20 years, I spent 30 nights a year wading for walleyes," he says. "On the hardbait side, it became apparent that bigger stickbaits like the #13 Husky Rapala or #13 Floating Rapala (doctored with lead shot to cast farther, fish slower, and suspend) produced more and larger fish than tighter-wobbling stickbaits and smaller baits.
"When 3-inch Mister Twister curlytails came along, we used them but they didn't consistently produce big fish. It wasn't until the 4-inch Sassy Shad arrived that we began catching more big fish on softbaits. It was a toss-up between the Rapalas and the 4-inch Sassy Shad, usually fished on a 1/4-ounce head."
He found numerous situations where paddletails fished as well or better than crankbaits, usually for casting but at times for trolling, too. "Thumper plastics often fish better than the more widely used crankbaits," he wrote in "The Theory & Practice of Plastics for Walleyes" in 2003. "They fish as modestly as a Floating Rapala or as distinctively as a Cotton Cordell Ripplin' Red-Fin," he wrote. "They fit into any lineup as a tool to be used at least on occasion, and often are the best choice."
At that time, Berkley offered the Power Pogy, a classic thumper design that somewhat resembled the Sassy Shad, as well as the more tubular minnowlike profile of the Berkley Power Mullet. The Saltwater PowerBait Swim Shad also was available in 2003. That year In-Fisherman aired its first TV segment about using that lure, which Stange rigged on Owner Saltwater Bullet Jigheads, weighing 1/2 or 3/4 ounce. He targeted walleyes along deep weededges. "The PowerBait Swim Shad became my primary paddletail," he recalls. "It was also the catalyst for the swimbait wording we began to use in print and on TV."
As we've mentioned, the main criteria for considering a product a "swimbait" is that the body produces a swimming motion as the tail also does 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 notes. "Not all paddletail swimbaits produce much body swimming motion, although they all have tail movement. The best of them do both, although of course to do that they also have to be rigged on an appropriate jighead."
Other classes of thumper baits began to emerge, including the Matzuo Sterling Minnow and Northland Tackle Mimic Minnow. These were built along an opposite line from the original shad-bodied softbaits—narrow on top with a fat belly—somewhat like the original Vibrotail.
Storm's WildEye Swim Shad also debuted as a unique prerigged design with the plastic head and body formed around interior lead. The bait had a wide flat belly, thin back, and long tail with the widest flap of any thumpers to date. "The WildEye Swim Shad is the best prerigged swimbait I've used," Stange says. "Most designs aren't keeled correctly and ride up on their sides when you run them a little faster, but the Swim Shad grinds along true as can be. Even in the 6-inch size, the body swims seductively as the tail thumps distinctively."
Today, the paddletail swimbait category is flush with options, allowing anglers to experiment until they find the right combination of size, profile, and tail characteristics for the conditions at hand. Again, we'll dig more deeply into that in the next issue.
As the paddletail swimbait genre matured, In-Fisherman further noted the lure category's benefits, such as the ability to sometimes catch more and larger fish than other presentations. Anglers can also make long casts with swimbaits to cover lots of water. But the primary advantage is that they provide precise depth and speed control, the two most fundamental elements in any presentation. They often excel when fished aggressively, allowing anglers to search efficiently. They work well through the edges of weedcover or along the edges of rocky shoals, or run over the top of such shoals. They also work well in open water.
Fishing swimbaits for fish suspended in open water is mostly unexplored. On one occasion, fishing on the Bay of Quinte near Picton, Ontario, in late November, Stange and Merland Park Resort owner Kevin Lavers had found big fish scattered across about a two-mile stretch of the bay by using standard trolling methods. Stange suggested they make controlled drifts and cast 5-inch swimbait bodies on 3/4- and 1-ounce jigheads. They completed a TV show segment by catching four fish from 8 to about 12 pounds. The fish were 10 to 15 feet down over 30 to 40 feet of water. They duplicated that feat two years later. Stange has also caught fish suspended about 25 feet down in portions of the basin area that runs 35 feet deep in Mille Lacs in Minnesota.
One thing that often surprises anglers is how deeply walleyes take a swimbait. A fish sees the bait, rushes to overtake it from behind, opening its mouth wide, gills flaring as it inhales the lure. There is a momentary lack of resistance, a pause in jig action, as the lure is pushed forward, before everything stops. Often the jig's totally gone, down the hatch, literally at the entrance to the gullet, even with smaller fish. One soon realizes that the reason for this must have something to do with how thoroughly walleyes are fooled by this presentation.
Science helps explain some of what's at work here. Predatory fish use their lateral -line system to detect underwater vortices, or wakes, left by baitfish as they swim. Such trails allow predators to identify and home in on potential prey. When a walleye sees something of interest, it swims steadily toward the object, gets behind it, and tracks it. In such close quarters, the lateral-line system, not vision, tells the fish whether to break off the chase or eat the object of interest.
"The reason swimbaits often so completely fool fish is because the lateral line is getting feedback from something that feels perfectly natural as the predator closes in," Stange says. "It's alive, or the closest thing to it."
In the Beginning
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange began fishing the 4-inch Mister Twister Sassy Shad after it was introduced in the late 1970s. He considers it the first true "swimbait," although the prerigged Vibrotail preceded it. Stange mainly fished the Sassy Shad body on a jighead while shorefishing (boot fishing) for walleyes in shallow areas during spring and fall.
In the late 1990s, he began using the 1.5-ounce J-Mac jig for muskies, dressing it with a Berkley saltwater swimbait, the 6-inch Power Pogy, or a Lunker City Salt Shaker. He rigged the bodies flat on the jighead to give it bulk, make it swim (glide) better through shallow weedgrowth, and to add vibration to the presentation.
This 7-inch package was deadly for muskies on many waters, but a curious thing happened, as he often also scored big walleyes on it. Even more curiously those walleyes didn't just strike that big package, most times they totally engulfed it.
He made the connection to using another Berkley swimbait product, the 5-inch Saltwater PowerBait Swim Shad on one of his favorite jigheads, the Owner Saltwater Bullet, which he often used in the 1.5-ounce size for tarpon, redfish, pike, muskies, and stripers. He downsized to the 1/2-ounce and 3/4-ounce sizes for working weededges in from 5 to 15 feet of water.
The first television filming with that combo was in June, 2002, on Mille Lacs lake. That footage aired in 2003, and he began to write about using what were at the time considered saltwater swimbaits, starting the march to where we are today.
It isn't hard to get the hang of fishing swimbaits, although there's a bit of a learning curve. "Lots of anglers are used to tiptoeing around, dragging slowly, lift-dropping minutely, trying to finesse 'finicky' walleyes into taking a nip," Stange says. "The underlying presentation principle at work with swimbaits is that fish sometimes respond tentatively to tentative presentations, while they may in the same situation respond exactly the opposite—aggressively—to a bolder presentation."
Stange instructs that someone just getting started should cast it out, count it down, get the rod tip up, and fish the lure on a slow, steady grind. Get the lure doing its thing. Then you can stroke the rod tip a bit to make the lure bob and swim a bit more. Drop in a stop-restart move from time to time. When walleyes are holding close to the bottom, you may have to stop the retrieve to re-establish bottom contact. If you hit weedgrowth, often it works to just rip it free. Generally, though, you move the lure steadily along.
Stange admits that he was slow to start using smaller swimbait bodies. "Early on I was in 'Give 'Em Holy Hanna and Hang On Mode,' with 4-, 5-, and 6-inch baits most of the time," he says. "But I started catching a lot of river fish on a 3-inch Berkley Hollow Belly (now discontinued) rigged flat on 3/8- and 1/2-ounce jigheads. That got me using smaller bodies anytime fish seemed a bit hesitant or I was on a water with smaller fish and I was looking for a mess of eaters."
One of his favorite smaller bodies is a 3.5-inch Berkley PowerBait Ripple Shad, trimmed to about 3 inches, rigged flat on a jighead like the 1/4-ounce Northland Tackle Slurp jighead. That jighead has a longer hook shank that couples well with that size swimbait. He rigs the body flat, as opposed to how it's designed to be fished with the body projecting a natural profile.
"Rigged flat you have more hook gap so you hook more fish," he says. "The bait glides better and settles on the bottom without tipping, which means it has a natural touch-down and takeoff as you swim it along. As you swim it, any rod-tip pump makes the body tip slightly, providing natural baitfish flash. And if you slowly grind it, the body swims as the paddletail also does its thing. Not all smaller bodies fish best like this, but many do."
Tinkering with smaller size classes of swimbaits on lighter jigheads triggers more walleyes in some environments. And once anglers have a bit of faith in a smaller package they don't have so much trouble moving on to something a bit bigger, which, as Stange's experiences have shown, is what big walleyes want in many places across North America.
Once you become proficient with swimbaits, you can tackle many conditions on countless lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Stange has caught walleyes on them from the Great Lakes to the Columbia River; on many Canadian Shield waters as well as reservoirs and rivers in Canadian provinces; up and down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers; on classic mesotrophic waters across the Midwest—lakes like Mille Lacs; and many more, including Devils Lake.
Paddletail swimbaits should be a fundamental part of your presentation program. Next issue we follow up with a look at how some of today's top anglers fish these modern marvels.
*Dan Johnson of Isanti, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media.