sheepshead lure

WaterLine photo by Capt. Josh Olive

Catching a sheepshead on a soft plastic is about as unexpected as the Spanish Inquisition, but it can happen.

If you read the fishing reports, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of them mention fishing with soft plastics. If you’ve never used them before, these baits can be intimidating. First, between all the different brands, shapes, sizes color, there are about a billion choices. Second, if you’re used to live bait, most soft plastics lures will require a bit more work from you.

But there’s a reason they keep coming up in the reports: They catch fish. You just need to learn which ones to choose and how to use them. The good news is this isn’t rocket surgery, and we’ll have you set up and fishing them in no time.

Soft plastic baits are extremely versatile. They come in shapes to imitate dozens of different types of prey, including baitfish, shrimp and worms. They come in sizes suitable for catching anything from bluegills to blue marlin. They can be made in almost any color you can imagine, and some that you probably can’t.

This versatility is one of their strong suits, but it can be overwhelming. How do you pick?

Let’s start with shapes. For local saltwater fishing, the top choices are baitfish (also called shad tails) and shrimp shapes. These represent the primary prey items in the Harbor and it’s hard to go wrong with either.

Size? Something around three inches is all but universal. It’s the right size for almost any of our fish to eat, and it’s not too big or too small to be rigged any way you want (more on that in a moment).

Colors throw some people. Start out with root beer (brown with gold glitter), new penny (coppery pinkish with gold glitter) and white. There may be other colors that are “hot” at the moment, but these three are pretty consistent year-round and wherever you care to fish.

Once you’ve chosen the baits, think about where you want to fish. Another reason soft plastics are so popular is that they can be rigged a bunch of different ways for fishing in shallow or deep water, over grass or sand, on the bottom or midwater, and for fishing fast or slow. The style of rigging makes a real difference.

Jigheads and swimbait hooks are the most common hardware used. Using either, you can easily fish midwater or near the bottom. Quarter-ounce and eighth-ounce jigheads are the most-used sizes, and they can be any color as long as they’re red. Actually, I like the unpainted ones myself, but you’ll find red is the favored color. Want to get to the bottom faster, or maybe troll it? Use a heavier jighead.

A soft plastic on a jighead sinks headfirst; on a swimbait hook, it sinks belly-down. Generally, the jighead is easier to use and tracks straighter in the water, but if you need to fish in heavy cover (fishing slowly through dense seagrass or skipping up into the mangroves), a swimbait rig is more or less weedless and will definitely be less likely to snag.

Most of the time, a twitch-pause retrieve — twitch the rod, reel up the slack, repeat — will catch the most fish. The idea is to bounce the lure along, simulating an injured baitfish or a shrimp getting repeatedly spooked off the bottom. If the water temperature is warm (over 85) or cool (under 70), a slower retrieve is often more appealing to the fish.

One easy way to use a soft plastic on a jighead is to put it under a float, just like you would a shrimp or pinfish. It’s surprising how often fish will go after the lure just hanging there. Maybe the current flow or wave action provides enough motion to make it look alive, or maybe just the silhouette is enough. It works, though.

If you want to add more attraction, sound is easy enough with rattling jigheads or small glass rattles inserted into the body of the bait. And scent is even easier — many soft plastics are scented out of the package, and if they’re not, the porous plastic will absorb almost any kind of prepared scent you want to use.

So that should cover the basics for you and get you started in the world of soft plastic lures. You now know which ones to get, and you’re prepared to fish them several different ways.

And now for a huge bonus: They’re dirt cheap. A bag of a dozen DOAs is less than $4. Add in three bucks for a pack of jigheads, and you’re ready to fish all day for less than the cost of a couple dozen shrimp (and no worries about keeping them alive). Lots of action for short money? That’s definitely not a bad thing.

Robert Lugiewicz is a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Longtime manager of Fishin’ Frank’s in Port Charlotte, he is now planning to open his own shop, Blind Tarpon Tackle. Contact him at 941-625-3888.

Robert Lugiewicz is a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Longtime manager of Fishin' Frank's in Port Charlotte, he is now planning to open his own shop, Blind Tarpon Tackle. Contact him at 941-625-3888.


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