The Perfect Combination
One of the hallmarks of soft-plastic swimbaits is their ability to attract and trigger the biggest fish in a lake, river, reservoir, pit, or pond. Last season, the biggest walleye we boated was a 35-inch, near 15-pound goliath hooked by a friend who'd never before used a 5-inch Berkley Flatback Shad on a 3/4-ounce Owner Saltwater Bullet jig. And our biggest smallmouth was caught by another friend with a Berkley Hollow Belly Swimbait, rigged on a Freedom Lures 1/2-ounce Hydra jig, with the hook loosely hanging from the head to provide freedom of movement.
Last winter, my best "numbers" lure for icing lake trout was a 4-inch X-Zone Swammer swimbait attached to a hand-poured 3/8-ounce bullet jig with a 3/0 Gamakatsu hook. The biggest muskie I saw had her nose glued to the back of my 9½-inch Water Wolf Lures Shadzilla. When the big toothy cruised by the side of the boat, pectoral fins splayed out like a shark, I could have reached out and touched her, had I not been intent on trying to get her to bite on the figure eight I was weaving.
Finally, Bassmaster Elite pro Ott DeFoe surprised me when I spent a practice day with him on the Mississippi River near La Crosse, Wisconsin, last year as he fished a 6-inch swimbait on a 1/2-ounce jighead in shallow water for largemouth bass cruising the bank.
DeFoe's bulky combination looked out of place in the weedy shallows until I saw how he worked it. With an underhand pitching motion, he placed the lure silently near cover, then raised his rod tip to make the bait swing back toward the boat.
Although it may seem there's no wrong way to work a swimbait, many anglers err by using a jig or weighted hook that's too light. As Stange discovered years ago by studying the action of baits in a large aquarium, heavy jigs cause baits to roll from side to side as the tail kicks. It's an enticing, multi-dimensional swimming motion that few other lures can match.
Jig weight can be critical. For a 2- or 3-inch finesse swimbait like the new Nippon Tackle Fish Arrow Flash J Shad used for perch and slab crappies or a 31„2-inch Castaic Baby Jerky J for moody smallmouths, a 3/16 - or 1/4-ounce jig is appropriate.
To fish 4-, 5-, and 6-inch soft-plastic swimbaits in open water for walleyes, bass, pike, and lake trout, 3/8-ounce is the lightest you'd consider, with 1/2-ounce generally the best starting point.
The weight of your jig or hook has little to do with the depth you're fishing. We routinely work 1/2- and 3/4-ounce weighted swimbaits in rocky areas just 8 or 9 feet deep.
Those unfamiliar with swimbaits often fear snagging the exposed hook, but these lures are remarkably buoyant by nature of their material and action. The weight encourages you to fish them properly, casting and letting them fall, then snapping them up before swimming them back to the boat in a relatively brisk manner, a foot or so off bottom.
The weight of the jig and the bulk of the bait compel you to raise and lower your rod tip while you retrieve the lure, forcing you to execute subtle pauses that often evoke strikes.
When anglers report they can't catch fish with swimbaits, it's almost always because they refused to use a sufficiently heavy jig or weighted, wide-gap hook. They mistakenly feel that swimming these lures slower and steadier is more productive.
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Berkley Flatback Shad on Kalin's Bullet Jig — solid-body style on heavy jighead
Castaic Catch22 Swimbait — weighted, segmented swimbait
Luck 'E ' Strike Scrounger with 4-inch Berkley Hollow Belly Swimbait
Megastrike Cavitron with Reaction Innovations Skinny Dipper
Optimum Baits Double Diamond on Mustad Power-Lock Plus
Storm WildEye Swim Shad — prerigged, weighted paddletail
Terminator T-1 with Trigger X Slop Hopper (cut down an inch)
Yum Money Minnow — hollow-belly style on Lazer TroKar Magnum Weighted Swimbait Hook
Z-Man Chatterbait with Lake Fork Live Magic Shad
Choosing between a solid body and hollow body swimbait can affect success. Though the difference is subtle, tube-style swimbaits like the original Basstrix, Berkley Hollow Belly Swimbait, and Yum Money Minnow are more buoyant, even when pinned to a heavy jighead or with the internally weighted harness system in baits like Water Wolf's Shadzilla, making them ideal for fishing shallow, snaggy terrain.
I prefer solid swimbaits like Berkley's Flatback Shad and Ripple Shad, Castaic Jerky J, X-Zone Swammer, and the Bass Magnet Shift 'R Shad when I fish deeper water and want to stay closer to the bottom. Both types work well on umbrella rigs. When hooking a hollow-belly bait on a jighead, care must be taken to run the hook shank through solid plastic, not the hollow chamber, so the lure runs right.
Elongated soft swimmers, like Reaction Innovations Skinny Dipper, Yum's Li'l Suzee, or the Trigger X Slop Hopper, also work great when Texas-rigged behind a slipsinker. Fish them over the through shallow vegetation, both submerged and emergent. With the hook buried, they're amazingly snagless, but readily hook bass, pike, muskies, and more.
Other soft swimbaits come rigged with weight and hook, such as Storm's WildEye Swim Shad and Berkley's Freshwater Swimming Pogy. With lead slugs in the body, they typically sink fast and excel for deep work when snags are not imminent or when fish are suspended in mid-water. They don't work well around weedgrowth.
Finally, some prerigged soft swimbaits have segmented bodies and straight or flat tails, intended to swim in a snakelike S-pattern. Top choices include styles from Mattlures, Jerry Rago's Trout, Bluegill, and Hitch creations, Huddleston Trout, Castaics' line of swimbaits, and Sebile's Magic Swimmer Soft. Most have treble hooks and are sized for big bass, stripers, pike, and muskies. The Magic Swimmer comes in four sizes from 4 to 8 inches, and can be rigged on weighted swimbait hooks.
While I haven't much experience with umbrella rigs, their amazing success in reservoir situations has taken the market by storm. Many companies have added 3- to 6-inch paddle-tail swimbaits for this application.
Soft swimbaits also excel for trolling. For example two of the three biggest lake trout I've landed — a pair of 40-pounders from Lake Athabasca — walloped a 9-inch Storm WildEye Swim Shad rigged on a downrigger and lowered into 90 feet of water, trolled at moderate speed.
I've also been experimenting by trolling 4-, 5- and 6- inch swimbaits we use for walleyes and bass, rigged with heavy Owner Saltwater Bullet jigheads on a 20- to 40-foot leader behind portable downriggers on my aluminum boat. The 51„2-inch Jerky J Swim Laminate and 5-inch Sakura Slit Shad, two of the sleekest swimbaits and perfect cisco and smelt imitations, have been particularly good.
I've also tried pulling boot-tailed swimbaits behind Dipsy Divers and Jet Divers for back-country lake trout. I feel they can be deadly for salmon and steelhead in the Great Lakes or Pacific Ocean. Trolling may start a new chapter on what may be the most versatile softbaits in your box.
Soft Swimbaits as Trailers
Soft swimbaits are deadly when matched with spinnerbaits, chatterbaits, buzzbaits, swim jigs, bladed jigs, and vibrating jigs like Luck "E" Strike's Scrounger. Their bulk and buoyancy lift the lure in the water column, which can be especially important when fishing around vegetation.