Swimbaits: Kicking Tails and Taking Names
February 05, 2014
Let's give credit where it's due: When many of us first fished Mister Twister's Sassy Shad in the 1980s, we didn't realize we were using a "swimbait." Obvious from the start, however, was that this paddletail minnow was special. Rigged on a ballhead jig and retrieved at slow to moderate speeds, the Sassy Shad provoked big bites.
Created in 1979 by Glynn Carver, one of the original owners of Mister Twister, the Sassy Shad was an instant hit. Mister Twister Communications Director Kurt Mazurek recalls the bait's origins: "Inspired by success of the Curly Tail concept, Carver wanted to make a softbait that moved with the tight side-to-side action of a real shad," he says. When Carver showed the bait to Hall of Fame writer Homer Circle at the 1979 ASA Show, Circle predicted the lure would revolutionize soft plastics."
Uncle Homer nailed it. During a 10-year span beginning around 1981, anglers used it to tally big crappies, trout, walleyes, bass, and more, using sizes that matched natural forage. Since then, the paddletail swimbait has proved to be one of the most versatile softbaits. Rigged on various hooks, jigs, and rigs, it scores from the subsurface realm to the depths. Freshwater and marine predators are so completely fooled by these baitfish mimics that you often find the lure lodged in the back of their craw.
Among the vast selection of swimbaits today, some swim more fluidly, subtly, or wildly than others. Baits vary in flexibility and offerdiverse coloration and details. Companies also vary the shape, size, and action of the thumper tail — the motor that brings each bait to life. These and other production details affect a bait's swimming motion.
Malleability in Motion
Other factors being equal, the softest baits often prove most appealing to bass and other predators, though they're typically more fragile. That's why most paddletail fans carry Mend-it to repair torn baits. Z-Man Fishing's ElaZTech is a remarkably pliant, yet nearly tear-proof material that's highly buoyant and free of PVC and phthalates. Z-Man's Slim SwimZ and Scented PaddlerZ are fine swimmers that remain fishable, even after catching a dozen or more fish.
Sometimes, realistic looking hand-pours, such as Little Creeper Bait's amazing All American Trash Fish and All American Sunfish, seem to outfish everything else. They're malleable in the fins and tail, producing natural rippling motions that can trigger more bites.
Benno Heune's 4-inch Trash Fish is beautiful in hand and subtle, yet wonderfully fishy under water. Fishing one feels a little like insider trading: success seems inevitable and you may feel slightly guilty about it. Berkley's Havoc Sick Fish is shaped similarly, at half the cost of the Trash Fish. Or try the Little Creeper Garbage Minnow or Jumbo Minnow, fine alternatives to the Trash Fish at about half the cost.
The Trash Fish has dual-density construction. The body is poured with a dense, more durable plastic, while the finely detailed fins and tail employ an exceedingly pliable material that allows them to flutter, ripple, and move like the real thing.
Rigged with a 3/8-ounce VMC Swimbait Jig or similar 90-degree jig style, these baits work crisply across 3- to 8-foot vegetated flats and flutters down drop-offs. To activate many swimbaits, a 90-degree jighook is key. The perpendicular angle between bait and line-tie seems to give it a better side-to-side wobble, as opposed to the more straight and subtle motion achieved with jig eyes at smaller angles, typically from 30 to 60 degrees.
For this sort of deliberate work around heavy cover, use a weighted Gamakatsu EWG Monster Hook or VMC Heavy Duty Swimbait Hook. A 6/0 fits into the hook pocket on the 6-inch Trash Fish, while a 4/0 or 5/0 matches the 4-incher. Thanks to the Trash Fish's construction, you can catch numerous fish on a single bait.
Select Japanese designs also offer finessful qualities and great attention to detail, including those from Fish Arrow, Megabass, Gan Craft, Egogear, Imakatsu, Decoy, and others. Norio Tanabe, a leading professional Japanese bass angler, operates Nories, one of the top Japanese bait brands imported into the U.S. One of their key designs is the Spoon Tail Shad, offered in 4-, 4.5-, 5-, and 6-inch sizes. Lure designer Munenori Kajiwara says this slender swimmer has a concave spoon-like tail that produces high-pitch vibrations and delicate rolling action. Crafted with a flashy center laminate and dual layer injection technique, the Spoon Tail Shad swims with a natural posture. Dorsal and ventral hook slots ease precise rigging and hook-sets.
I've made great catches on the 4-incher, rigged with 1/8- and 3/16-ounce Gopher Mushroom VMC Barbarian Jigheads. As a spring to early-summer bait for big smallmouths on the Great Lakes and clear inland lakes, the Spoon Tail is a wonder. Beyond standard jighead rigging, however, Tanabe often uses the bait to dress his MC Jig — a compact skirted jig. He adds an extra layer of intrigue to the package, inserting an Ecogear Blade Spin into the belly of the bait. The effect goes a step beyond typical swimjigs, offering extra flash and vibration from the tiny willowleaf blade.
At the 2014 ICAST Show, Kajiwara showed me the Gan Craft Jointed Claw Shape-S, and another neat rigging wrinkle. A hinged 4- or 5.3-inch soft swimmer, the Shape-S is a lively design with attributes, such as a precision hook slot, a swimming hinge, and broad kicking tail. He rigs the 5.3-inch size with a weighted 5/0 Gan Craft Shape-S Hook, and adds Shape-S Eye inserts for realism. The wrinkle is a Decoy Egg Snap — a special round-edged snap that frees the bait's motion.
Instead of being tied directly to the line, the Egg Snap adds random jukes to the lure. Quick rod-tip pops induce darting movements in addition to its swimming routine. This snap trick works with other swimbaits, too. It's one tweak that adds action to traditional swimbait presentations.
Another noteworthy ICAST introduction, the Fish Arrow Flash-J Shad may be the most accurate small shiner/herring replica I've seen. Admire its delicate features, 3D eyes, and flashy foil insert, as well as its thin tail that produces a subtle swimming motion. Kajiwara showed me several tricks with this bait, each enhancing flash or vibration.
He rigs a 3- or 4-inch Flash-J Shad with a Fish Arrow J Head, a weedless finesse jig with a fine-wire hook and rubber baitholder. He then adds a Fish Arrow J Spinner with an R-bend wire shaft and willowleaf blade. The J Spinner has a slim metal sleeve that slides over a fine-wire clip to make it more weedless and streamlined.
For wacky-rigging, Fish Arrow Wheel Heads have a small propeller on the jighead collar, producing flash and vibration. For weedless swimbait rigging, Decoy offers the wheeled Screw Hook, an offset worm hook with a small propeller. Rigged with small swimbaits, such as the 3-inch Fish Arrow Flash-J Shad, Keitech Swing Impact, or Z-Man Slim SwimZ, Wheel Heads can induce extra bites in off-colored water or amid intense angling pressure.
Eluding classification, Imakatsu's Gill Bone is perhaps the first of a new generation of "zombie baits." Kajiwara, who has begun importing Imakatsu baits, says the Gill Bone swims with amazing undulations when rigged on a Z-Man ChatterBait. It features a short worm-like nose section that allows it to be rigged on a jighead, drop-shot, or as a swim jig trailer. Beautiful, curious in design, and potent under water, Japanese options aren't easy to find. Online retailers such as leesglobaltackle.com, japan-import-tackle.com, and tacklewarehouse.com are your best options.
One of the most effective new methods for triggering big walleyes and bass involves a jig-rigged paddletail swimbait fished vertically below the boat. When hunting big suspended hooks on sonar, a nearly dead-still presentation often scores best. Rather than dropping a jigging spoon or bladebait, anglers rig a white swimbait, such as a Z-Man Slim SwimZ, on a 90-degree jighead, and hold it a foot or less above individual fish marks. Rather than jigging, twitching, or ripping the bait, they don't move the rod, but let the bait hover motionless in a horizontal posture. Fish often approach and engulf the bait, with a slight tick and a bent rod.
In the Midwest, another radical rigging phenomenon has arisen. Legendary Minnesota bassers Al and Troy Lindner call it "swing jigging." Using VMC's new Swinging Rugby Jig, they rig a Trigger X Slop Hopper, triggering big bass with unconventional swimbait maneuvers. Similar to Gene Larew's Biffle Bug and Hardhead pivoting jighead, the their paddletail adaptation calls for dragging the football-shaped jighead slowly along the bottom.
From the road, Troy talked about the technique with excitement. "It's a big deal. The Swinging Rugby Jig's loose hook and jighead energizes any softbait. When we drag a Slop Hopper along a hard bottom, the head pivots and pauses as it contacts the uneven terrain. Each little stop and swing adds subtle movements, showing bass different looks. It's the best way to maximize swimbait movement. Instead of simply wobbling and thumping along on a horizontal plane, this jig adds random motions that often trigger a response."
From a simple soft plastic fish with a wobbling tail to today's elaborate mimics, no one could have predicted the amazing evolution of the paddletail swimbait. Versatile and natural it's a bona fide fish catcher.