Techniques, tips and tricks of softbait fishing – getting the most from your soft baits – by John Eichelsheim.
Once you’ve got the right gear to fish softbaits (or soft baits and sometimes referred to as soft plastics) effectively, you’ll be itching to get out there and try it.
As detailed in the first article in this series, proper equipment plays a big part in soft bait success, but there’s a lot more to it than simply tossing soft baits into the ocean in the hope a fish will eat them.
Soft bait fishing is a technical form of angling where a number of variables can mean the difference between success and failure. Consistent success demands a certain level of skill, which comes with practice; the most successful anglers will be the ones who take the time to learn the right techniques.
Lures, not bait
Despite the name ‘bait’, soft bait fishing is really lure fishing – it’s an active technique, which is probably why it appeals to so many good anglers. It’s a fair bet most good soft bait fishers are skilled in other fishing techniques as well. But no matter what your level of experience, softbait fishing is something you can learn, and reasonably quickly as the techniques are not particularly complex.
Soft baits will catch fish used as a substitute for natural bait, even when fished statically. In some instances this is a legitimate and effective technique (see Gulp! peeler crabs below) – Berkley Gulp! offers ‘artificial bait’ made from the same material as the rest of the Gulp! range, but designed as a cut-bait substitute. It works well.
But most soft baits are designed to be actively fished, i.e. worked through the water by the angler to impart action, attract the attention of fish and fool them into biting. And like any form of lure fishing, you need to hunt out fish and work the lure in the strike zone for consistent success.
In this respect, soft bait fishing is rather like flyfishing – you need to present your offering right in a fish’s face. They’ll move a certain distance to intercept your softbait, but not too far – it really needs to pass close to them to draw a strike.
Of course where most soft baits have an advantage over a fly is scent. The majority are impregnated with scent/flavouring, which fish can detect from some distance away. It may not draw fish from a great distance, but it could trigger them to actually bite rather than just look. Soft baits such as the Berkley Gulp range have yet another important advantage over other artificials: they’re soft, so fish hold onto them longer, allowing the angler more time to set the hook.
Available in a huge range of shapes colours and sizes, they’re also incredibly lifelike if worked properly. The combination of action, softness and scent/flavour, in that order, is what makes soft baits so deadly on so many fish species.
Why soft baits work
Soft baits work on a whole range of fish, but by some fortunate coincidence, they’re especially effective on snapper. Snapper are opportunistic feeders perfectly happy to accept any decent-sized food item presented in front of their noses – that’s why they’re also suckers for metal jigs.
Soft baits are large enough to attract a range of fish sizes and available in a variety of shapes and colours, which effectively imitate common food items. Their unique action, partly the result of their material composition and partly imparted by the angler, is highly attractive to snapper and other fish. Perhaps soft baits imitate injured prey items or maybe fish bite them out of annoyance. Sometimes bites can only be the result of fish chasing intruders from their territory.
To get the most from soft baits, anglers need to match the bait size, shape and colour to the appropriate jig head (weight) for the conditions and species sought. In general, larger lures attract bigger fish, though it’s surprising how big a fish will eat five-inch jerk shads!
When I began my rediscovery of soft bait fishing, I brought home from Australia several packets of three-inch Berkley bass minnows and a selection of lightweight jig heads, after experiencing first-hand how successful they were on Australian bream. I figured that snapper were in the same family, so they should work here too. And they did – spectacularly well.
However, the baits were small enough to be considered fair game by snapper as small as 15 or 20cm. I caught bigger fish, too, but the lightweight jig heads were often unequal to the task, the hooks straightening or breaking and small fish took an ungodly toll on hard-to-get soft baits, which were not available here at the time.
Matters improved markedly when I laid my hands on larger five and six-inch soft baits with jig heads to match. Pure Fishing got in on the act, importing the Berkley range of soft baits and soft bait fishing took off in New Zealand. Armed with larger five-inch baits, I was hooking a much better class of fish and this lure/tail size continues to be a favourite, particularly for snapper fishing. It is attractive enough to take just-legal fish, as well as mega-snapper.
The more recent introduction of larger seven-inch jerk shads has resulted in some very large snapper, as well as kingfish and other species, while even larger lures with heads to match are opening up a whole range of deepwater soft bait fishing.
All shapes and sizes
I particularly favour jerk baits (jerk shads) because they work so well on a variety of fish species and sizes. But there are many other shapes and styles that work equally well or better at times. Classic grub tails, or variations thereof, are great, though they’re more vulnerable to having their tails removed by small or short-biting fish. Worms and ‘stick baits’ – long, cylindrical baits – also work well, either fished on an appropriately weighted jig head, or from a weighted or unweighted worm hook. They really come into their own in shallow water.
Other styles include ‘shads’ – baitfish imitations with paddle tails – squids, some in XOS sizes, crabs, shrimps/prawns and a variety of plastic creations imitating creatures at whose identity we can only guess. All of them work to a greater or lesser degree so don’t be shy about experimenting – you may just discover exactly the right bait on the day.
Rigging for success
Rigging soft baits correctly makes a big difference to their effectiveness. A soft bait won’t be anywhere near as attractive if it’s simply impaled on a hook any old way.
Ideally, the bait should be free to move as much as possibly and its natural shape shouldn’t be distorted when it’s rigged. This is not as easy as it sounds. If you push the point of the hook too far into the lure before exiting, the lure body will bunch up; alternatively, if you don’t push it in far enough, the lure won’t snug home properly on the jighead’s collar and its tail may kink at an odd angle. It’s also important for the hook to run down the centreline of the bait for similar reasons. It takes a bit of practice to get it right every time. Fortunately, you can usually pull a dud lure off and have another go.
Now that jig heads are readily available, most anglers rig soft baits on these. A few years ago, when jig heads were hard to get, we used to rig the lures on conventional, unkirbed O’Shaunessy or ‘baitholder’ hooks of appropriate size with a ball sinker on the trace directly above the lure. This rig works well, though it doesn’t seem quite as good as a jighead. We found our strike rate improved if we secured the sinker against the eye of the hook using a toothpick or similar. The fixed weight seems to impart a better action to the lure.
These days I seldom use this technique, though I have resorted to it on occasion when I lacked suitably heavy jigheads for the water depth or current I was fishing. Also, an extra ball sinker pinned to the trace directly above the jighead is a good quick fix if you haven’t got jigheads heavy enough for the conditions.
Jig heads are designed for a certain size of bait, regardless of the head weight. The length of the shank between the lead head and the bend of the hook is a good guide: extra-long shanks are meant for large soft baits. There’s a fair bit of latitude. You can successfully fish large soft baits on relatively small jig heads, but it doesn’t work so well the other way round – a large jig head designed for a seven-inch lure will completely deaden the action of a five-inch bait, rendering it much less effective. Berkley have a great range of ‘Nitro’ jigheads on strong, sharp Owner hooks – a deadly combo.
The attachment of the trace to the jig is also important. For the lure to work properly, it should be attached via a loop connection. The easiest way to do this is using a uni-knot, pulled tight, but not snugged down against the eye of the jighead’s hook. Every time you hook a fish, the knot will pull tight, so you need to remember to work the knot back up the line to re-form the loop after each fish.
An alternative is to use the Rapala knot, which forms a loop that doesn’t close under pressure.
Trace line is another part of the system that deserves attention. Soft bait fishing is all about lightness and subtlety of presentation – you’re using light tackle, so traces should also be light. Fluorocarbon is the trace material of first choice – readily available in the ‘Vanish’ brand at most tacklestores. Go as light as you dare. For most of my soft bait fishing I use 10kg trace or lighter – sometimes as light as 5kg.
If you’re fishing for large fish in foul territory, whether the water’s shallow or deep, you might go to a heavier trace for some protection against sharp rocks and weed. But not too much heavier, or you’ll compromise the lure’s action, making it less attractive, which means fewer bites.
In really deep water, or if you’re using alternative rigs like a dropshot or a Captain’s rig (more on these subsequently), heavier trace may be a OK or even an advantage. But I seldom go heavier than 15kg trace except when fishing jumbo soft baits for kingfish and hapuku in deep water.