April 22, 2019
By Steve Quinn
I’m sure Nick and Cosma Creme, purported molders of the first “rubber worm,” would never believe that lures derived from their kitchen tinkering would still be making headlines 70 years later. From the original nightcrawler look, softbaits have morphed into every shape and color envisioned by anglers, enabled by today’s sophisticated plastic-pouring machines.
When I began tournament fishing in the mid-1970s, worms were just coming on the scene, soon to be followed by grubs and pork-shaped trailers. The most popular lures still were plugs, in-line spinners, spoons, floating minnowbaits, and topwater lures. By most accounts, bass were far easier to catch in those days, being relatively unpressured in most waters. We used tackle that was crude by today’s standards, and few if any electronic aids, yet we made epic catches.
Following Lowrance’s early sonars and Humminbird’s Super 60, paper graphs, LCD units, color monitors, and side-imaging with greater resolution came along. These units theoretically made bass easier to find and catch, especially in offshore habitats. But as anglers’ powers increased, so did the abilities of bass to resist our offerings. Over time, bass in heavily fished waters tended to become lure-shy, rejecting lures they’d eagerly gobbled some years before.
Toward Better Softbaits
Fishing being what it is, inherently competitive for many, an arms race evolved as lure designers came up with softer softbaits, with added appendages that imitated the variety of creatures that bass call food. Mister Twister deserves credit for introducing two basic shapes that remain key categories today—twister-tail grubs in the early 1970s and swimbaits in the early 1980s.
Some baits came with flavors baked in, while sprays and juices emerged to be added before casting. They fooled many fish that had seemingly become jaded at the action, appearance, and flavor of plain plastisol worms.
Anglers were quick to pick up the potential of positive flavors to increase catches. In the mid-1980s, Fish Formula spray became a hit, as it offered an easy way to apply scent and flavor to softbaits. It benefited from an endorsement from tournament legend and TV star Bill Dance. Mann’s Bait Company enlisted Dr. Dan Rittschof from Duke University’s Marine Lab to craft an attractant. He tested flavors on bass in tanks and came up with FS-454 that was packaged with worms and available as a spray. I tried all these juices and flavors, making great catches at times with them.
Berkley’s Biology Breakthroughs
In 1985, Berkley recruited Dr. Keith Jones to join their staff to conduct research, shortly after he’d completed his Ph.D. in fish olfaction at Texas A&M University under the direction of Dr. Herman Kleerekoper, a world-renowned scientist in this field. Jones quickly began experiments on the taste preferences of bass and trout, resulting first in Berkley’s paste baits for trout, which remain top sellers today; so effective they’re banned in some waters where other artificial baits are legal.
When I joined the In-Fisherman staff in 1988, we received the first samples of PowerBait, the first fruits of his investigations of bass taste preferences. We were amazed at the way bass would hold onto the worms and grubs, the first shapes available, as did rock bass, bluegills, perch, and pike. Berkley expanded its fish lab in 1990, allowing for larger-scale tests with more fish species.
Jones worked with the bait production staff, headed by veteran chemist John Prochnow, to produce more effective baits. Dr. Jones tested bass’ preferences for various amino acids and mixtures, by offering them cotton pellets soaked with the material. Responses ranged from immediate rejection to swallowing. But it was soon clear that transforming amino acid flavors into usable lures wasn’t simple. This lesson had been learned by the earliest investigators in this realm of science, who worked with saltwater species to create flavored lures.
Prochnow says, “If Doc Jones’ experiments showed that bass gobble a particular mix of amino acids, our department had to figure out how to incorporate that substance into a bait that retains its flavor and also is easy for anglers to fish, is safe, and has reasonable shelf life.
“Features we wanted included making softbaits translucent, which is something anglers seem to like, though bass don’t seem to care about; shortening curing times in bait production to make the process more cost effective; making baits softer yet durable; increasing shelf life for the active ingredients; and adding lifelike features like appendages or eyes. Our experiments say these features also aren’t important to fish, but they are to anglers.”
The next phase of Berkley’s research resulted in Gulp!, which contains water-soluble attractants instead of the ones impregnated in the PowerBait formula. Fish have to engulf and chew PowerBait lures to get the full effect, so as they become tattered, they work better. Gulp!, on the other hand, excels at dispensing its potent attractors when exposed to water. But being water-soluble, it was prone to drying out if left on the line for a few hours or if the package wasn’t sealed. It was also stiffer than plastisol lures, and couldn’t be made in some popular colors.
In-Fisherman staff results found it excelled on slow presentations, such as skipping a weightless Jerk Minnow below a dock and letting it drift down, working a jigworm combo on deep breaks, or drop-shotting. Gulp! became most popular with anglers targeting smallmouth bass and marine species, along with walleyes and panfish. PowerBait and Gulp! have countless loyal users as new styles and shapes have been added to the lines over the years.
But soon after Gulp!’s release, Jones, Prochnow, and the rest of the research staff began working to create a new super-attractive softbait. Jones retired in 2016, about the time a new formula called MaxScent was first field-tested. “We wanted to incorporate the best of two lure styles—PowerBait and Gulp!—combining them into an exciting new product that’s easy to use and has proven extremely attractive to bass in the lab and our extensive field testing,” Prochnow says. “We wanted a material that offers excellent action under water, was flexible and durable, had a long shelf life, and was easy to package. It had to remain fishable in the coldest and hottest conditions, and most of all, it had to catch a lot of bass.
“Before his retirement, Jones spent five years working to perfect the flavor formula that goes into MaxScent. It’s different from the PowerBait flavor, and even more effective at causing bass to hold onto it. In extensive tests, MaxScent lures produced catch rates averaging 35 percent higher than with PowerBait, which has higher catch rates than any other plastisol lure we’ve tested. Moreover, the MaxScent material can soak up attractive water-soluble liquids like Gulp! Alive! liquid. MaxScent is PVC-based to provide action, but made of a matrix that soaks up and holds attractants, then releases them under water.”
Berkley released eight MaxScent shapes for the 2017-2018 season, and added more for 2018-2019, including the Critter Hawg creature bait and Flat Worm, a 4-inch flat-tailed drop-shot worm, in addition to 4- and 6-inch versions of the popular General stickworm. They’ve already proven deadly on largemouth and smallmouth bass. My tests with it have been eye-opening. On many occasions last summer and fall, it produced bass when other presentations and softbaits came up empty. Moreover, bass clearly savor its taste, hitting hard and holding on.
Top professional anglers like Justin Lucas have realized excellent results with MaxScent baits. Lucas lives near the shores of Lake Guntersville, one of Alabama’s best and most popular reservoirs. He first obtained packs of the 5-inch General, a classic stickworm design infused with MaxScent. “I first fished it around Guntersville’s many docks,” Lucas says. “Right away, I could tell something was different, as I rarely missed bites. Bass ate it on the fall and held on. Bass here see a lot of lures and this one outfished them all.”
He found success by wacky-rigging the 5-inch bait on a 1/0 Berkley Fusion Drop Shot Hook, hooking the worm through the middle with no weight. “Bream and other species are always pecking at it, too, so you know it has an attractive scent,” he says.
Bassmaster Elite pro Josh Bertrand of Arizona is a long-term Berkley staffer and began using MaxScent lures two years ago.”The new MaxScent additions are great,” he says. “I’ve been a huge fan of the General and now I use the 4-inch version as an alternate drop-shot lure and fish the big 6-incher around shallow cover whenever there are big bass around. Lunkers gobble that bait up.”
Bertrand and Lucas are versatile anglers and rely on a drop-shot rig for smallmouth bass and when largemouths turn tough. At the 2018 Bassmaster Elite tournament at South Dakota’s Lake Oahe, they both finished in the top 10 by drop-shotting the MaxScent Flat Worm.
“The bite was tough there,” Lucas says. “I was fishing around a bunch of competitors and we were all drop-shotting. But I was catching a lot more bass than they were, and I have to think the attractive scent and flavors of MaxScent lures made the difference.”
On tour and at the desert reservoirs back home in Arizona, Bertrand finds great success with shaky-head jigs. “If you need some fish, tie one on,” he says. “I use the Flat Worm for finesse bites, and I’ve had great success with the 7-inch MaxScent Magnum Hit Worm on a 1/2-ounce shaky-head jig, working it on reservoir ledges in summer for big largemouths. Those fish see a lot of lures, and the action and scent of the Hit Worm are deadly.”
Outside of Berkley’s biological investigations and revolutionary products, no other company has made bigger waves in recent years than Z-Man. In addition to the legendary line of ChatterBaits, their softbaits made of ElaZtech have been the hottest thing on the market. This material is an improved form of Cyberflexx, which appeared around 2000, notably in Terminator’s line of SnapBack lures. Rush to market for the sake of competition, they were, “a little too spongy for good hook penetration and so sticky that legs and other appendages would stick to the body, limiting their action,” according to Alan McGuckin, industry insider and former Terminator spokesman.
Late last fall, the company copped the President’s Award from Pitman Creek, one of the nation’s largest tackle distributors, as sales of their lures skyrocketed 425 percent during last year at retailers supplied by Pitman Creek. This growth is worldwide, according to Z-Man Executive Vice President Daniel Nussbaum. “We have distribution in 35 countries and are the top-selling lure company in Australia,” he says. “And we’ve kept adding to our top-level pro staff. We produce ElaZtech at our plant in South Carolina. It’s trickier to work with than plastisol, and the raw material is 10 times more expensive.”
Despite its cost to produce, anglers have found it a great buy as softbaits made from it last for dozens, or even hundreds of fish catches, even withstanding assaults by big, toothy critters. It’s extremely durable, as well as buoyant and flexible. “Its buoyancy makes it deadly on a drop-shot rig,” says pro Mark Daniels, who used Z-Man baits to win the Bassmaster Elite event last summer on Lake Oahe. “The bait always hangs straight out on the hook, with the tail up, wiggling in a fish’s face,” he says. “When the bite is tough, you can count on the action and soft texture of Z-Man softbaits to put fish in the boat.”
Z-Man currently has over 40 different ElaZtech bait shapes, in countless colors as well as specialized terminal tackle to most efficiently rig it. “As with the use of braided line, anglers new to ElaZtech have to get used to its unique properties,” Nussbaum says. “Hooks and jigheads that take advantage of its elastic properties work best, and this material stays on the hook better than any other softbait.”
In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde, the “Ned” behind the Ned Rig phenomenon, was among the first to appreciate and publicize ElaZtech baits in finesse situations. Over a decade ago, he first cut a Strike King Zero in two, impaling a 21⁄2-inch section on a tiny mushroom-head jig. He and his finesse-minded companions accounted for astounding catch rates for bass, commonly from 15 to 25 bass an hour on these small offerings. His network of aficionados has multiplied as chronicled by his regular reports on the Midwest Finesse Network, published regularly on In-Fisherman’s website, in-fisherman.com. I’ve often relied on these setups to make good catches during cold-front conditions or when fishing pressure in tournaments has made bass tight-lipped. And they’ve become a go-to lure for smallmouths in any conditions. Ned Rigs also are a great way to transition kids to bass fishing, as they’re sure to catch fish in short order.
Anglers find great success with a Z-Man ZinkerZ cut in half on a ShroomZ jighead of 1/32- to 1/10 ounce. A couple years ago, Z-Man added the TRD, a 23⁄4-inch bait that matches those heads well. But alternatives, including the WormZ, ShadZ, and HogZ, work better at times.
Given the constantly growing technology in lure production, as well as greater knowledge of bass biology and behavior, I expect the coming decades of the 21st century to yield more breakthroughs in the softbait market, though I’m at a loss to predict their direction. The Berkley researchers say they have no new taste tempters on the horizon, but that they’ve been experimenting with mixtures of their proven PowerBait, Gulp!, and MaxScent formulas, and results look promising.
Bass have demonstrated a knack for rather quickly catching onto the last tools made to fool them. I could list dozens of lures, soft and hard, that worked like magic when we first tried them and for subsequent seasons, but then saw catch rates fall. They’re still staples, though. Meanwhile we eagerly anticipate the next round of magic. For now, use and enjoy the latest round of super softbaits. The sooner the better.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor and fishery scientist Steve Quinn has been writing on bass topics for In-Fisherman for over three decades.