Livebait is undeniably deadly, but in many situations today's crop of advanced softbaits offers equally or more effective options. In addition, softbaits are far easier to gather, care for, and store between trips. They never go belly up in the bucket, and often prove much tougher than natural baits.
Lifelike or strike-provoking action, profile, and color are key concerns when selecting softbaits, whether you're jigging for crappies, Texas-rigging largemouths, or slinging swimbaits for walleyes. But scent and flavor remain important in many situations as well, especially when fish are feeding more by taste and smell, or when tough conditions have fish in a funk.
Walk into a well-stocked tackle shop and you find many choices, almost too many at times. To help make sense of what to choose and where to fish it, I offer the following thoughts from the softbait frontlines.
When Scented Baits Shine
"Scent and flavor are most important whenever you're fishing a slow-moving bait or when you're hoping fish hold onto the bait a bit longer after they bite," says Scott Bonnema, a well traveled and successful bass tournament competitor. In spring, he favors scented Senko-style stickbaits in slow-motion presentations for both largemouth and smallmouth bass. "The fish have time to sneak up on and assess the bait, gently pick it up, and often swim quite a distance with it before you feel them," he says. "Anything that causes a bass to hold on until you realize what's happening is golden."
He says the same goes for Carolina-rigging because bass can swim several feet with the bait before you realize it. "If a bait has no flavor, they may peck at it and drop it," he explains. "But flavored baits encourage them to hang on and move off, giving you a far better chance to catch them."
Bonnema also factors scent into the equation when dragging tubes and other small softbaits. Along with encouraging bass to hold onto baits, he believes you can also create a fish-attracting scent trail. "I've seen many times when two anglers are fishing tubes, and the one in the back of the boat outfishes the other," he says. "I believe it's at least partly due to the bow angler's bait emitting a scent trail that gets the bass in the mood to bite when the second bait comes into view."
At last spring's Sturgeon Bay Open tournament on the famed bay of Lake Michigan by the same name, one of his top tactics for smallies up to 8.29 pounds — the big fish of the event — was slowly working scented baits along bottom. Tubes were rigged on 1/8-ounce jigheads and sweetened with extra scent. While Bonnema has experimented with a wide variety of attractants, including sprays and markers, tubes beg for a shot of high-octane gel.
His other top bait was a Trigger X Slop Hopper, which is infused with Ultrabite Aggression pheromones, which the company says mimics chemical cues from predator-prey interactions. Ultrabite was developed and patented by Britain's Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Sciences. It relies on synthetic pheromones to stimulate fish behavior, and I've fished the product many times, including when it was used in Mustad's earlier attractants.
One of the most compelling cases for Ultrabite I've seen first-hand occurred in June 2005, when Missouri bass pro Denny Brauer and I put Ultrabite to the test for smallmouths on New York's Finger Lakes. Fishing identical tubes in the same manner, baits laced with Ultrabite consistently caught more bass. I've seen similar results for salmon in the Gulf of Alaska, as well, where supersized softbaits and cut salmon sweetened with the attractant outfished unseasoned baits. In Alaska, the case study involved a group of outdoor writers on a press trip with Cabela's and Mustad. Pheromone attractants were so effective, the press corps ended up jockeying for position to man the lines with Ultrabite-enhanced baits, as the non-doctored lines often went fishless.
While Trigger X offers a selection of bass baits including the Slop Hopper, for 2015 the company continues its push into the panfish arena, adding the Wingding, Boot Tail Minnow, and Curl Tail Minnow. Back in 2013, Trigger X released a flurry of cold-water offerings, including the Mustache Worm, which proved deadly on hardwater panfish. These baits encourage tight-lipped panfish to bite and hang on longer than with standard plastics.
It's worth noting that a bait's chemical makeup can also be a factor. Trigger X sports a phthalate-free composition, eliminating the plastic smell of some baits than some anglers believe can put fish off. Berkley utilizes water-based resins to make Gulp!, which have no plastic odor and disperse the baits' flavorings faster than traditional plastics, which become most effective once a fish has the bait in its mouth.
While pheromones may be an emerging frontier, baits with food-based flavorings and other natural attractants have a strong track record. Options include various baitfish, crustaceans, and other forage flavors. Anise- and garlic sweetenings have been around for decades and have a dedicated following. Many anglers, including more than a few pros, also swear by salt-infused offerings.
"While no major breakthroughs have occurred recently, a number of companies are tweaking formulas," says In-Fisherman Senior Editor Steve Quinn. "The folks at Berkley continue to be the leaders, with full-time researchers and chemists working on the development and implementation of tasteful flavors into baits that can be economically made and distributed."
Indeed, Berkley began raising the softbait bar back in 1985, with the hiring of Dr. Keith Jones, who has led the company's research ever since. Jones was soon joined by chemist John Prochnow, and together the two have ushered an array of fish-catching products to market.
"Trout PowerBait was our first big hit back in 1988," Jones recalls. "It outfished salmon eggs and other baits three or four to one." Though the selection of baits expanded to serve bass, walleye, and panfish anglers as well, Berkley hasn't forgotten salmonid seekers. For 2015, the company unveiled a palette of catchy new colors for PowerBait Power Eggs, Gulp! and Gulp! Alive! Floating Salmon Eggs that cover the original, garlic, and Gulp!-flavored spectrum.
After considerable research on the bass front, Berkley debuted the soft-plastic PowerBait Power Worm and Power Grub in 1989. The bass-busting cocktail of natural attractants was an overnight success, and spawned a long line of PowerBait products that fuel countless presentations worldwide.
Years of research and refinements yielded Berkley Gulp! in 2003. The water-based resins and water-soluble attractants saturate the surrounding area with scent, making them a natural for slow-moving presentations. Gulp! Alive! arrived shortly thereafter. "It's similar to Gulp!, except Gulp! Alive! is packed in natural juices that constantly recharge the bait," Jones explains.
Along with flavored baits, Berkley offers a number of attractants in dip, gel, spray, dust, and fluid formulations. Notably, the company's new Rotten Cheese Gulp! Alive! spray and liver-flavored Gulp! Alive! Marinade are a hit on the catfish scene. A squirt of cheese spray adds olfactory punch to a variety of sponges and catbaits, while the marinade is brewed for saturating these baits before deployment.
YUM remains a major player in the food-based scented softbait market. Its attractants, used in all baits except Money Minnows, rely on a trio of amino acids created by stressed baitfish. "There's no doubt the F2 formula encourages bass to strike and hold onto baits longer, so you can get a good hook-set," says company spokesman Lawrence Taylor. "Olfactory cues are one of the hurdles you must jump while a bass is determining whether it's going to strike or not. It's especially important when using slow-moving softbaits." For 2015, YUM brought five new baits to market, including the Sharp Shooter, a drop-shot and finesse worm offering all the supple, shapely features of hand-poured plastics without the sticker shock.
Northland Fishing Tackle's Impulse Instinctual Attractants utilize a baked-in micro-plankton formula that many anglers find effective on many species. I've used Impulse panfish baits such as the Scud Bug, on tight-lipped crappies, with notable improvements in catch rates over standard plastics. Television host and tournament organizer Chip Leer finds the Impulse family's effectiveness extends to largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleyes, and more.
"Dragging tubes is a prime example," he says. "But even more stationary presentations, such as bulking up an RZ or Slurp! jighead with a 3- to 4-inch Smelt Minnow or other Impulse softbait shines in cold-water situations, when walleyes slide in and watch a bait, but don't open their mouths until they get a whiff of the attractant."
Some anglers swear by scents for faster-moving baits as well. Here, the idea is to create a scent trail, but it also involves getting fish to hold the bait longer once contact is made. For such applications, scented baits like Northland's new crankbait-style softie, the Paddle Shad, are standouts.
On a different front, longtime pork producer Uncle Josh offers a series of baits made from pork fat and other natural ingredients. The lineup was revamped last season, and expanded for 2015 with the Pork Baby Crawler, a downsized version of the 7-inch Pork Crawler that proved immensely popular with walleye anglers. This smaller bait is ideal for slow-death rigging and other presentations for finicky fish.
Though I live in Minnesota, I've spent considerable time fishing southern waters. Last year, for example, while on a press trip with Cabela's on Lake Fork, I learned a pair of valuable tricks. I shared a boat with crappie master Billy Rushing. A fixture on Fork, he often uses an 1/8-ounce leadhead tipped with a Larew Slab Slay'r spear-tail grub. His secret to success, however, is threading a single Berkley PowerBait Crappie Nibble onto the jig hook.
"That bit of extra attraction can be important," he says. Sure enough, as we swam jigs over sunken brushpiles, jigs tipped with Nibbles consistently scored strikes while those without often were ignored.
I also fished with bassin' legend Tommy Biffle. While we conversed about our previous careers on Ford Plant assembly lines, the soft-spoken Oklahoman managed to teach me the effectiveness of his namesake presentation.
When designing Larew's Biffle Bug, Biffle insisted the soft-plastic, beaver-style bug have a hollow body for holding rattles and fish-attracting scent, such as the company's Biffle Bug Juice, which Tommy also helped bring to market. The gel is billed as an amino-acid based crawfish formulation, with garlic. And it was packed inside a Biffle Bug rattling across a midlake rockpile when a 10-pound Lone Star largemouth inhaled it on our final evening on Fork. Under the setting Texas sun, I found yet another reason to believe in the power of scents and scented softbaits.
Gulp! Versus PowerBait
Two of the biggest players on the scented softbait stage originated in Berkley's laboratories in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Berkley PowerBait dates to 1988, while Gulp! hit the American market in 2003. Despite the brands' long and proven track records, some confusion remains among anglers regarding which to fish, when.
"In simplest terms, PowerBait's ability to make fish hang on longer after striking makes it perfect for active presentations that appeal to fish hunting by sense of sight or lateral line," explains Dr. Keith Jones, kingpin of Berkley research since 1985. "Gulp! products, meanwhile, are designed to flood the strike zone with seductive scents, so they're better for slower presentations."
Arkansas bass pro Scott Suggs, who cashed a million-dollar paycheck using PowerBait at the FLW Forrest Wood Cup on Lake Ouachita, offers presentational guidance. "PowerBait is great on pressured lakes and whenever bass aren't in a biting mood," he says. While a 10-inch Power Worm was key to his Cup victory, Suggs fishes a variety of PowerBait designs, and is particularly fond of the Crazy Legs Chigger Craw on a football head jig.
For Gulp!, Suggs' favorite application is dropshotting smallmouths. He threads a 3-inch, olive-color Gulp! Leech on a #1 dropshot hook, 8 to 24 inches above a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce drop-shot sinker. "It's my favorite way to fish smallies, either drifting or directly beneath the boat," he adds.
Top walleye pro Mark Courts uses PowerBait and Gulp! in many of his strategies. "It's changed the way I approach walleye fishing," he says. Courts uses Gulp! baits all season, but notes their heightened value in cold water early and late in the year. One of his favorites is a 4-inch Gulp! Crawler on a slow-death-style rig, which he deploys throughout the open-water period.
When pitching or vertical jigging, he often selects a PowerBait 3-inch Twitchtail Minnow. "It has so much action, and is available in a variety of colors," he says.
, Tru-Turn Hooks
- Likely the most universal panfish hook, particularly among crappie enthusiasts, the Aberdeen's straight shank and ultra-fine-wire construction make it a perfect choice for fishing small minnows. Hooked beneath the delicate skin along the dorsal fin, minnows wriggle for extended periods. The Aberdeen also couples well with a small leech fished below a float.
The Aberdeen's light wire easily penetrates bony-jawed bluegills and perch, yet typically doesn't damage a crappie's paper-thin mouth. Its slightly beaked point further aids light hook-sets, and keeps fish pinned. Many anglers prefer gold or red finishes for flash and visibility, while muted bronze is another option. Size 8 and 10 are favored.
Perhaps the trendiest Aberdeen-style hook, the easy-setting Tru-Turn, was invented by John W. Campbell in 1960 and is now owned by TTI-Blakemore. With its kinked shank, the hook rotates toward the source of pressure, moving and perhaps embedding the point more easily. This design is also offered by Mr. Crappie, another TTI-Blakemore brand, and there's a newer rendition from Eagle Claw.
- A timeless design for presenting pieces of nightcrawler, worms, and chunk-style baits, the baitholder sports a beaked point and a double-sliced shank (two baitholders) to keep baits from sliding off the hook. Many versions also have a turned-down eye for snelling, or come as pre-tied hook leaders. Anglers frequently 'thread ' a worm onto these hooks or re-impale the bait multiple times to keep it from wiggling free.
Often presented on a slipsinker or split-shot rig for perch, trout, sunfish, and rock bass, the baitholder's thicker wire makes it less desirable for rigging with minnows or other delicate baits. Anglers commonly opt for a #8 baitholder, with #6s and #10s also popular.
- Another option for aggressive sunfish, perch, or rock bass intent on swallowing standard J-hooks, circle hooks can be effective in select situations, hooking fish shallower and causing less deep-hooking injury. For float-fishing with livebait, slow-drifting, and generally passive presentations, #4 to #8 circle hooks can be a fine choice. Put the rod in a holder or sand-spike and let the hook do its thing.
, cabelas.com (Tiemco/TMC)
- Many anglers are discovering the advantages of drop-shotting for big perch, sunfish, and other species. Octopus designs in #8 and smaller work well for standard drop-shot rigs tied with a Palomar knot. TTI-Blakemore offers an alternative, the StandOut hook, which features a second 'guide ' eyelet for holding the hook in a horizontal position. TTI-Blakemore also has a series of Stacker Rigs for presenting multiple baits on a single line.
, basspro.com (White River)
, Kamasan - Overlooked by most panfishers, tiny hooks used by fly-tiers offer advantages for finesse presentations and dropper rigs with tiny baits. Of particular interest are curved designs intended for scud and pupae imitations, such as the Daiichi 1130 Wide Gape Scud Hook, which couples beautifully with live larvae and baby leeches. Diminutive #14s to #20s effortlessly pierce tiny yet bony bluegill chops, and also give micro softbaits an unmatched natural stature. Straight-shank hooks, such as the Partridge Spider and Daiichi 2460 are fine alternatives to Aberdeen hooks in #12 and smaller.
Choice options from Daiichi, Tiemco/TMC, Kamasan, and Partridge feature premium forged steel, micro barbs, and chemically sharpened points.
Kahle & Wide-Gap Hooks
- Though not a traditional panfish design, some anglers are discovering the advantages of using wide-gap hooks for rigging tiny plastics and finesse worms. The pronounced offset aids hook-sets and adds action to certain softbaits. Wide-gap and Kahle-style hooks in #14 and #16 match tiny plastics and livebaits for species such as crappies, perch, and white bass.
Carlisle / Cricket Hooks
- A top choice among redear sunfish (shellcracker) anglers, extra-long-shank 'cricket hooks ' offer several advantages. Pierced lightly through the upper neck section, crickets and grasshoppers stay securely fastened and continue kicking. Usually fished beneath a bobber or slipfloat and one or more splitshot, these hooks also can be used to present worms or small tail-hooked minnows. Common sizes for panfish are #6, #8, and #10.
Even with deeply hooked fish, the long shank and eye of this hook protrude out of the mouth, allowing you to easily grasp and extract it. When snagged, a slow, steady pull usually straightens the hook and sets it free. You can quickly bend it back to its normal shape.
- This popular design is versatile for presenting an array of live and artificial baits. Two #10 octopus-style hooks snelled in tandem constitute a top choice for spinner-rigging for short-strikers with minnows, earthworms, and wormlike softbaits. Egg-style octopus hooks sport a sliced shank or single bait barb for holding an egg or dough bait securely on the hook. Anglers pursuing stocker-sized rainbow trout are especially fond of this hook in #8, #10, and #12 sizes, which makes an outstanding panfish option as well.