Softbaits For Muskie And Pike
August 22, 2017
Say we assumed the underwater world functioned like a game of "rock-paper-scissors." While the human version of the contest offers equal chances to win (paper beats rock, rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper), the aquatic edition would be utterly dominated by scissors, or scissorheads, you might say.
When scissorheads go one-on-one against most anything else, they win. Pike meets perch? Win. Put pike and muskies up against other everyday stuff — mono line, fingers, boat seats, landing nets, and pretty much any traditional softbait in your box — and the result is as predictable as scissors on paper. If big toothy fish didn't show such an appetite for soft lifelike lures, we wouldn't bother. But they do. Much to the delight of softbait manufacturers, anglers happily replenish packs of ruined baits, once they experience their attracting power.
Until a few years ago, my boat's floor resembled a softbait graveyard after some pike trips. The last several seasons, though, I've been fishing new durable softbait materials, and my boat floor's never been so tidy.
I first discovered the power of ElaZtech during a trip to Northeast South Dakota in June 2010. On the advice of In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde, I'd coupled a Z-Man Finesse WormZ with a Gopher Mushroom Head Jig and had landed 10 smallmouths and half a dozen walleyes before it dawned on me that these baits were quite extraordinary. That single softbait didn't succumb until finally putting nearly 30 bass and at least half that many walleyes in the boat — and then only because the bait's nose had been pulled off the jig's collar again and again. I could have snipped a half inch off its nose and continued fishing, which might have been wise, given that it seemed to become increasingly appealing as fish tattered and scraped it.
It became evident years ago that lures made of extra-soft, almost squishy material moved more enticingly, and with more wobble and flap. I learned a lot after weeks of casting 5-, 6-, and 7-inch paddletail swimbaits, comparing at least a dozen different brands and styles, observing which ones predators preferred.
One of the best big paddletails I've fished, the Little Creeper All American Trash Fish, is an example of a super-soft, hand-poured bait that moves beautifully — swims with a classic side-to-side roll but also imparts a highly active tail thump. The difference in tail movement between this lure and more rigid ones can be compared to the upbeat tail wag of a retriever versus that of an old bloodhound. I can't say that pike prefer the upbeat thump of a softer bait all the time, or even that the thump itself is the deciding factor. But I can say that when I've fished this lure on a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce Owner Ultrahead jig side-by-side with friends fishing more rigid models of the same basic shape, length, and profile, the Trash Fish is almost always the winner, often by wide margins. A similar finding holds for Castaic's 5-inch Jerky J Swim, another fantastic paddletail swimmer made with a low-durometer (extra-soft) plastic.
There's also something about their soft texture that seems to encourage fish to hang onto them a bit longer. If only the Trash Fish and Castaic were tougher. I can't believe more fuss hasn't been made over Z-Man's ElaZtech baits and their durability for toothy species. Here's a line of softbaits, only slightly less realistic in anatomical detail than the Trash Fish or Jerky J Swim, yet with a toughness that's hard to believe. The Z-Man Mag SwimZ and Scented PaddlerZ, for example, are many times more resilient than any similar plastisol softbaits.
One pike can shred a Trash Fish, Castaic, or Berkley Rib Shad. But last September, I dressed a 1/2-ounce Z Man HeadlockZ Jig with a 6-inch Z-Man PaddlerZ and caught close to three dozen pike with it over two weeks without any doctoring beyond a few drops of Loctite.
Z-Man's Houdini color pattern, by the way, has been almost as magical as its namesake. It has a dark olive back that transitions into lighter pearlescent flanks, bejeweled with red, black, and pearl flakes, a superlative color in clear to slightly stained water.
"ElaZtech is a far different material than traditional soft plastic," says Daniel Nussbaum, president of Z-Man Fishing, one of the fastest growing tackle companies in the U.S. "This material is a thermoplastic, it contains no plastisol. ElaZtech is squishy and highly buoyant. You find this material in gel insoles and other products in the biomedical industry.
And unlike PVC baits that tear easily if you make them too soft, we can adjust the hardness or softness of each lure. Even the softest ElaZtech doesn't tear."
And while the toxicity of PVCs and phthalates continues to be a concern, Nussbaum says ElaZtech baits lack these ingredients, and are non-toxic. "Over time, our softbaits leach oil, shrink, and eventually break down, whereas PVC-based baits swell up in water and can cause digestive problems when they're eaten by fish."
He explains that the oil is a food-grade mineral oil that, like ElaZtech itself, is harmless. What you notice about some Z-Man baits is that after fishing them for a time — or storing them after fishing — they develop a viscous coating. When wet, a lure's skin resembles a layer of slime, which Nussbaum says can develop when salt impregnated in a lure begins to dissolve.
Is this a detail that makes them more appealing to fish, or that ecourages pike to hold them longer? Maybe. But I like the idea, and it gives me extra confidence, especially when I've pre-soaked a Z-Man bait in scent.
While most of Z-Man's larger lures aren't flavored, ElaZtech absorbs oil-based additives, such as Pro Cure Super Gel. "Pro Cure works well with our lures," Nussbaum says, "and it's made of natural, ground-up fish oils. It's probably the most powerful and effective scent we've tested."
Perhaps because ElaZtech lures offer so many advantages, they're slightly more expensive than traditional softbaits. "Baits like the Mag SwimZ and Scented PaddlerZ work with a standard weighted swimbait hook or a jighead, but they aren't compatible with screw-lock style keepers," Nussbaum says. "A Z-Man HeadlockZ Jighead matches our bigger baits. It has a split keeper design that locks lures into place. When rigging any ElaZtech bait, it's best to pull the material over the hook keeper — grasp it from the rear and pull it back toward the jighead, instead of pushing the bait forward while grasping its head. You can also use a dot of Loctite Super Glue Gel on the jighead, which doesn't react with ElaZtech."
Nussbaum recommends storing ElaZtech lures in their original packaging, as the material can react with tackle box trays or other softbaits. And they should lay straight to maintain their shape. On sunny summer days, avoid placing packs on dark surfaces (e.g. deck or dahboard), since ElaZtech is a bit more heat sensitive than other materials.
"Most of these baits were developed for toothy saltwater species — bluefish, Spanish mackerel, and barracuda," he says. "They excel for pike and muskies, too, often catching more than a dozen big fish per lure. It's a big advantage and a time saver, not having to dig for a fresh one after every few fish."
The flap factor noted earlier is perhaps the other advantage of soft paddletail lures. In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw calls it "slippery, jumpy ElaZtech action. Anything from Z-Man is the most durable softbait in your box," he says. "The 5-inch Grass KickerZ and Scented PaddlerZ are awesome swim-jig trailers or swimbaits on 1/4-ounce or heavier jigs. And the 8-inch Mag SwimZ on a 1/2-ounce or heavier Z-Man HeadlockZ jig is incredible from late summer through fall. Pike hit them when they won't touch other swimbaits."
While pike almost always eat soft flappers without hesitation, sometimes you need to put them behind a spinnerbait or add a blade to get fish to go. A ChatterBait is an underused pike lure. A 1/2 — ounce ChatterBait dressed with a skirt creates a lot of flash and vibration. Backed by a 3- or 4-inch paddletail, such as a Lunker City Salt Shaker or Z-Man Grass KickerZ, you have a wild contrivance that's money for pike in sparse, shallow vegetation, such as bulrushes and shallow pondweed.
In June and September — two peak months for fishing jig-paddletail combos — working across broad 5- to 12-foot points peppered pondweed or boulders yields plenty of sizeable pike. A 1/2-ounce jighead pairs perfectly with a 5-inch lure in most situations. On lakes with both large pike and muskies, I often upsize to an 8- to 10-inch lure and a 3/4- or 1-ounce jighead. Regardless of lure size, select jigheads with 90-degree eyes, since that line position accentuates the side-to-side roll and enhances the lure's motion and vibration.
You often can't beat a straight, medium-speed retrieve, pausing at least three or four times to kill the lure on each retrieve. An alternative approach is to rip a soft jerkbait, working from the bottom up, quickly raising the rod from the 10- to 12-o'clock position and reeling slack, in an alternating cadence. A 7-inch Lunker City Fin-S Fish or Z-Man Scented Fluke Shad are two top rippers, effective in late spring through midsummer.
For pitching jig-paddletails or jig rippers, choose a casting rod with moderately-fast action, such as a St. Croix Legend Tournament Musky "Downsizer" or even a 7-foot 6-inch bass flippin' stick, such as Shimano's Crucial CRCC76MHB. Match it with 20- to 30-pound braid and a 12-inch titanium wire leader. Knot2Kinky leader materal is tieable and easy to work with. American Fishing Wire also sells knottable titanium wire.
An alternative worth mentioning: Over the years, I've caught so many large pike with 10- and 12-inch bass worms that I finally started using them for pike. Slow swim a 10-inch Berkley Power Worm rigged weedless and weightless with a 6/0 or 7/0 offset-shank, round-bend hook, such as a VMC Heavy Duty Worm hook. You can also fish a weighted swimbait hook in slightly deeper water, though the worm pattern especially shines in extra-shallow water, early in the season and again in early to mid-fall. A 13-inch straight-tail worm by Upton's Custom is another big softie that pike love. They almost always grab it head-first where the hook lies.
Today, a lot of good anglers are heaving big ready-rigged baits, such as a Bull Dawg, a freakish creaturebait composed of a tough yet soft material. Bull Dawg creator Brad Ruh, owner of Musky Innovations, has led the softbait trend for years. "We walk a fine line when manufacturing a softbait that's durable, that thumps, and that moves inside a big fish's jaw to allow good hookups," Ruh says. "Over the years, we've found and fine-tuned the sweet spot in our baits. I feel our lures offer the right combination of toughness and softness, and they produce an attractive vibration. If the material is too soft, it becomes less durable and loses some of the thump that makes for a great pike and muskie lure."
This year, after working with Guide Luke Ronnestrand, Ruh released the Swim Dawg, an 11-inch hand-poured paddletail swimbait with a flexible internal harness and weight system and a pair of 5/0 3X trebles. Clip the Swimmin' Dawg to your leader and retrieve it any way you like — straight, pull-pause, or jigged along edges. If it's half the fish-catcher as Musky Innovations' other stuff, you'll want one in your box.
Some of us have embraced the notion that the success of the Bull Dawg and Chaos Tackle Medussa may be due to its unintentional mimicry of a juvenile burbot (eelpout). Both anecdotally and based on studies of pike and muskie diets, it appears that esocids have a fondness for these soft, eel-like fish, which are common in many northern lakes.
That's the reason Savage Gear's new 3D Burbot is garnering attention. Put the 10-inch softie in your hand and you can see and feel the attraction. It's a beautiful bait that's true to life. Savage Gear used a 3D scan of a burbot to create its shape. It has a sliding hook harness that allows the lure to glide up the line and away from incisors, preserving your $20 investment. I can't wait to sling this thing.
Props, too, to Jon Bondy's St. Clair Grub. This giant twistertail folds down to 8 inches, extending to 16 inches when retrieved. It comes plain or prerigged with a 1- to 4-ounce St. Clair Jig, with a wire harness and extra treble hook. Swim it. Jig it. Jerk it. Fish love big baits that flap and vibrate. Bondy's Grub does both, and holds up well to repeated gashes.
When surgery is needed to repair cuts, carry a tube of Mend-It Soft Plastic Repair Glue or Pro's Soft-Bait Glue. Musky Innovations offers Bull Dawg Replacement Tails.
The gash factor used to keep Esox anglers from tossing soft stuff. Not anymore. The only caution is that pike and muskies salivate over softbaits so much that they tend to ingest them deeply. Always carry a heavy-duty jaw spreader, a long Grabb-it or Baker Hookout, a Knipex cutter for hooks, and a soft-mesh landing net to hold fish at boatside.