If you walk into any well-stocked tackle shop, you’ll see at least one wall is full of soft plastic baits. There’s a very good reason for that: Soft plastic baits catch fish. But when you find yourself standing in front of that wall of baits, you’ll face a conundrum — which ones do you buy? The shad tails with gold glitter? The scented pink curlytails? The glow-in-the-dark shrimp?
There are literally thousands of possibilities. DOA CALs alone are made in seven body styles, most of which are available in dozens of different colors. Other manufacturers have similarly overflowing catalogs.
Many of the offerings are remarkably similar, but somewhere out there is a fisherman who swears Brand A’s curlytail swims way better than Brand B’s version. Don’t worry, though — I guarantee there’s someone else who says Brand B is the bomb diggity and Brand A is junk.
Obviously, choice of soft plastic baits is a very personal thing. Unless you have way too much money, you can’t really try them all. When you’re trying to select a pack or two for a day of fishing, there are a few ways to make a choice. First, you can talk to your fellow anglers. I see it all the time, both in the shop and out on the water. Fishermen are often very willing to share their experiences, positive or negative.
If that doesn’t work out for you, ask an employee for a recommendation. They spend a lot of time talking to anglers who are in the know (and usually are fishermen themselves), so they’ve probably got a pretty good idea of what’s catching fish.
Another option: Just grab a pack. Pretty much all of them work at some time or another, and sometimes there’s an advantage to be gained by using a color or style that isn’t being thrown by every other “expert” fisherman out there.
If you’re just getting started in fishing soft plastics or want to experiment with a different brand or style, there’s a short list of tried-and-true colors that will catch fish under most conditions. Those are white, new penny, root beer, dark green with red flake, baby bass and electric chicken. Although these colors are basically all-purpose, the general rule is to stick with light colors in clear water and dark colors in stained water.
Does that mean that dark purple won’t catch fish when the Harbor’s gin-clear? Nope — it just means that on average, you’re probably going to catch more on a pale color pattern under those conditions.
So now you’re ready to pick a pack and go. But wait — the guy next to you is telling his buddy about the new scented bait he’s been using to slay ‘em. The baits in your hand aren’t scented. Now you have to make another decision: Do you need scent? Well, it can’t hurt.
A scented soft plastic can definitely give you an edge over unscented, but maybe not for the reason you think. Most scents are more for masking the smell of the plastic itself and the smell of your hands rather than being attractive to the fish. Some scented baits like Gulp have a distinctly stinky smell that most anglers think is there for the fish.
Guess what — that smell there is for you, the fisherman. The actual fish-attracting scent is an enzyme undetectable to the human sniffer but that fish pick up on right away.
If you have soft plastic baits that aren’t scented, consider adding some yourself. But be careful — some scents will leach color out of plastic, or even dissolve it. To be safe, try scenting a couple of lures as an experiment before you dose a hundred of them. You can use manufactured scents or make your own, depending how adventurous you’re feeling.
OK, so you’ve got your baits and you’re on the water. Now it’s time to rig up and start fishing. But wait: How are you going to rig it? On a jighead, a wide-gap hook, a regular hook or a weighted hook? Weedless or exposed hook? Are you going to run the hook through the lure or put a screw lock in the bait? Are you going to put the bait on the hook as the manufacturer intended or go backwards (or even sideways)? How about adding a popping cork?
Just as there is a near-infinite variety of lure choices, there’s a virtually endless number of options for rigging those lures. And different methods of rigging will produce vastly different actions from a single bait. The most popular ways are to slide the bait onto a jighead or to use a weighted weedless hook. Start with those, but don’t be afraid to try other methods.
How you work a soft plastic lure will also have a big impact on your success. A soft plastic can be crawled across the bottom, jigged vertically or horizontally across the bottom, fished at a moderate speed in midwater, ripped quickly across the surface, or fished above the water across floating vegetation. You can even troll a soft plastic bait.
Different retrieves work for different species — flounder are unlikely to hit a fast-swimming lure near the surface but find it tough to resist when it’s crawling over the sand. For mackerel, it’s just the opposite. Knowing the habits of your target species is the key.
Here’s what it comes down to: Any predatory fish species you can think of, from snapper to swordfish, can be caught on soft plastic baits. They should have a place in every angler’s tackle kit. And although it can be difficult to decide which bait to use in what color with what scent rigged which way and worked how, that just keeps you from getting bored and stuck in a rut — which is definitely not a bad thing.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. For more information about the shop or for local fishing tips, call 941-625-3888 or visit FishinFranks.com.com.