Of all the lures available to the shallow water angler, plastic “softies” may be the most versatile. Different styles of soft plastics have caught everything from bluefish and stripers to snook and redfish, and almost everything in between. Why are these lures so productive? There are a number of reasons. They have a natural, pliable feel which causes fish to hold on longer when they strike, often leading to better hookups. They’re available in many realistic colors, textures and sizes, allowing anglers to match the local forage. They can be fished both high and low in the water column, meaning you can customize a single lure to catch fish in a variety of situations. Soft baits have a natural, flowing action that makes them perhaps the most realistic-looking lures in existence. They’re relatively rugged, they can be made almost perfectly weedless (so they can be cast deep into sticky cover), and they have slow sink rate, meaning they can be kept in the strike zone for a long period of time. In addition, they feature an enticing wiggle as they sink, often eliciting strikes as they free fall. And (best of all) they can be rigged weedless for fishing cover that would result in hang-ups with most conventional lures. In short, they afford the serious shallow water angler with a host of options.
There are many ways to rig and fish these unique lures. The most popular is to cast one without a weight into or around structure (mangrove shorelines, oyster beds, docks, downed trees and the like) and to retrieve it at or just under the surface. It’s a highly effective tactic that often produces fierce strikes, capitalizing on the fact that snook, redfish, trout, et al are ambush predators that prefer cover. In fact, casting mangrove shorelines with one of these imposters is a favorite tactic of many backwater vets, as shallow water gamefish tend to find a well-presented soft bait almost irresistible. The two best methods for fishing shorelines are somewhat basic: 1) On a lower tide, cruise parallel to the shoreline trying to spot fish. If you see one (or a push, ripple or wake that betrays its presence), lead it by a few feet and work the soft bait enticingly as it approaches. When a fish strikes, wait a moment before swinging the rod tip up hard to drive the hook home. 2) On deeper stages of the tide, practice flicking the lure down and then to the side, skipping it along the surface so that it spins and tumbles under overhanging branches. This technique may sound difficult, but it can be mastered with practice. It’s worth the effort, since gamefish chase bait as far up into nooks and crannies as possible.
Fishing grass flats with these lures can also be effective. I usually switch to a smaller version in this situation, especially if the water is relatively clear. Though I’m not as particular about color as some folks, I do prefer lighter versions on the flats, in general. Like sight fishing along shorelines, your best bet is to look for laid up or cruising fish, the latter often giving themselves away by pushing big wakes or showering bait fish as they move and feed. Lead them with your cast and work the lure in front of their apparent path. I seldom use a weight in this situation, as fish in shallow water (1-2 feet) will have little trouble spotting and tracking a lure, and – again – unweighted soft plastics just have a more natural appearance. Brackish water fish, such as the snook, redfish and bass found in the hundreds of creeks far down in the Florida Everglades, are suckers for weedless soft baits. Why? I can only guess that fish which are found that far back in the sticks often come across freshwater critters that roughly resemble a soft bait, such as snakes, frogs, crawdads and worms. It’s a fact that soft plastics were first created for use in fresh water for largemouth bass, so it’s little surprise that they often account for both bass and saltwater gamefish in brackish creeks. The largest snook I’ve ever hooked, in fact, slurped a soft bait halfway across a gin-clear creek down in the Everglades…and proceeded to strip me of my manhood.
Soft baits can also be effective in intermediate depths – say, between three and five feet. Snook can often be found in this depth when stacked up along passes in the summer, or in residential canals or along deeper shorelines throughout the year. The slow sink rate of most soft plastics can render them ineffective in such spots, but by adding a simple 1/4 to 1/2 ounce worm weight (bullet weight), soft baits are instantly transformed into terrific sub-surface lures. As mentioned, weighted soft baits lose some of their natural action, but they still feature a seductive movement. They should be cast toward a productive spot and allowed to sink, then – after they hit bottom – cranked in with a steady, stop-and-go retrieve, much as you’d fish a jig. Most soft plastics wiggle as they sink, and they’re often hit as they fall. It’s important to keep as much slack out of your line as possible as the lure sinks, and to stay alert for a quick jerk or even a subtle “tick” in the line that might signal a hit. As an alternative to letting the lure sink, you can cast it out and retrieve it so that it “swims” along in the water column, resembling a bait fish such as a pilchard or finger mullet. This is especially effective in areas where fish are feeding on large bait schools. On a recent trip I caught one snook after another casting soft baits under docks in residential canals.
Deeper cuts and passes
In the summer months snook can often be found in the passes, some of which feature deep, moving water that can be tough to fish since jigs get stuck on rocks, swimming plugs move along too quickly in the current, and topwater plugs are ignored by fish pressed to the bottom. Enter the heavily weighted soft bait, which can be fished deep by adding as heavy a weight as required (3/4 to 1 ounce being the norm) and rigged weedless to avoid the snags present in most productive passes. Heavily weighted soft baits retain a seductive action, even in a heavy tidal flow. My buddies and I have caught some huge snook in deep passes using weighted soft baits, often outfishing live bait fisherman two to one. And, as a testament to their versatility, I recently watched a buddy of mine catch one big striped bass after another in 15 feet of water off Cape Cod using a weighted soft plastic lure that is manufactured here in Florida for snook and redfish.
Weighted soft baits are effective in other deep water applications, as well. At certain times of year, big snook congregate on wrecks off of Florida’s West coast, in water as deep as 60 feet. Though live bait catches most of these snook, a guide friend of mine often catches them on weighted soft plastics. And in the wintertime, when snook and redfish linger in the deeper, dredged water in residential canals, weighted soft baits can produce snook when nothing else will. Cast them toward the docks, and then bump them slowly along the bottom, pausing a few seconds at a time between hops.
Most soft bait anglers prefer to use spinning gear, as they can pitch these relatively light lures farther and with more accuracy than they could with a bait-casting outfit. Spinning outfits also allow anglers to skip baits under overhanging obstacles, a trick that – when tried with a bait-caster – can lead to some serious backlashes. A medium-to-heavy action rod is necessary, primarily for the backbone required to turn fish away from heavy cover. Longer, whippier rods are OK if you’ll be fishing open water. Line in the 8 to 14 lb. class is about right, with the rule of thumb being “the heavier the cover, the heavier the line.” Newer braided versions allow anglers to use very low diameter line without compromising breaking strength.
Scroll down for details on rigging a soft bait so that it’s weedless. Any number of hooks can be used with soft plastics, but I’ve found that larger, wide gap hooks are easier to rig and result in better hookups. I like to use a 3/0 hook. When I use weight (which ain’t often) I prefer bullet weights over egg weights as they tend to be snag-free. As a rule of thumb, try to match your soft baits with hooks that – even when rigged weedless – can easily puncture and exit the lure’s body when pressure is applied. Hooks that are too small will not extend far enough away from the lure’s body to find purchase in a fish’s tough mouth, resulting in some frustrating missed strikes.
Soft plastics belong in the tackle box of every serious shallow-water angler. Their action and versatility are top notch, as are the results they produce. They’re a great lure for novice fisherman, as their action is built-in, and their forgiving (read: weedless) nature can reduce hangups and lost lures. If you’re a died-in-the wool jig or plug fisherman who has just never gotten around to trying a soft bait, give one a try. They’ll open up a whole new world of angling opportunities.
How to rig your soft plastics so they’re weedless (Texas-Style)
Note: This process works best on lures that feature a hollow body cavity (such as the one shown above), but will work on a variety of soft-bodied lures with other styles of hooks. I prefer 3/0, offset hooks for snook, redfish and tarpon, and I’ve used the same size effectively for striped bass. When fishing shallow water or structure with relatively light tackle, a weight is not required. However, when fishing with a plug rod or in deeper water, a sliding worm weight placed just above the hook eye can make the lure easier to cast and get it down where the fish will see it.
Soft-bait-related tips & tricks:
• If you’re using solid soft baits that don’t feature a hollow section, use a knife to cut a three or four inch line along the bottom of each lure to create a pocket where the hook can be hidden. This makes them easier to rig and leads to more reliable hook-sets.
• Don’t use a weight when fishing shallow water or when close to structure. Soft baits have a much better action when not pulled down by a weight.
• Gamefish will often inhale soft baits as they sink. Be sure to keep a tight line so you can feel the quick “tick” that is often the only sign that your bait has been eaten.
• Cutting a section off the front of some soft plastic baits (leaving a flat “nose” section) can lend the lure a more erratic, darting action.
• Gamefish tend to “chew” a soft bait for a second or two after it hits, so wait a moment before setting the hook after a strike
• Try squeezing a small split shot onto the shank of a Texas-rigged softbait. The added weight keeps the belly of the lure down, and stops the lure from spinning.
• In murky water, use a darker color such as root beer. In bright, clear water, use a lighter color such as white or chartreuse.
• In shallow water where gamefish are feeding on top, skitter your softbait across the surface like a fleeing bait fish. This “skipping bait” technique will often lead to explosive strikes.
• To get your soft baits to sink a bit deeper, simply use a medium-sized swivel to connect your main line to your leader line. This causes your line to sink quickly, breaking the water tension and pulling the nose of your lure down. An added bonus: it can greatly reduce the line twist commonly associated with soft plastics and jigs.
• On days when extreme temperatures force gamefish into deeper holes, attach a 3/8 to 1/2-ounce weight to the front of your soft bait and fish it like a jig, slowly twitching it along the bottom.
• On higher stages of the tide, gamefish such as snook and redfish can often be heard busting bait far back under structure where most lures can’t reach them. With practice, you can learn how to skip soft baits so they tumble and roll under overhanging branches and back into the places where fish hide.