Swimbaits succeed because they mimic natural baitfish.
My friend had no clue how to fish properly, but he owned the boat, so I couldn’t say much about how we fished.
“You’re wasting your time,” I said authoritatively as I cast a dead shrimp to a likely spot.
He didn’t even bother to anchor the boat after I generously offered to teach him. Instead, he just dropped an electric motor into the water and proceeded slowly down a weedy shoreline, casting lures into pockets between the grass and working them over the edges of drop-offs.
What was he thinking? We weren’t bass fishing! This was saltwater and he was going to scare all the fish away with the motor before I could catch any. I couldn’t even let my shrimp sit on the bottom because the movement of the boat kept pulling my bait from the spot. Starting to grow angry, I thought I’d give my friend a few free fishing lessons.
“Redfish don’t hit lures,” I tried to explain, but he wouldn’t listen. “If you want to catch redfish, you need bait. Now, let’s anchor and fish. Want some shrimp?”
“Not right now,” he responded. “Maybe after I unhook the lure from this redfish.”
It didn’t take many more fish in the boat for me to eat a little crow and tie one of his lures to my line. Then, we both started catching fish.
About three months later, Dad and I anchored in a bayou and caught few fish. With nothing to lose, I tied on the lure that my friend had given me and started catching fish on almost every cast.
As the bait hit the water, I let it sink to the bottom. Then, I hopped it once or twice and set the hook on another speckled trout. As the trout teeth tore the soft plastic, I snipped a bit off and reinserted the jighead until I couldn’t use it any longer.
Meanwhile, Dad scored a complete blank. He rummaged through nearly his entire tackle box, pulling out various metal and hard plastic lures. He tried each one a few times without success before changing as I continued to boat fish after fish.
Finally, he gave up, put his rod down, picked up the net and stayed “on guard” for my next fish. In about an hour, I loaded the ice chest with enough trout for us to clean. I couldn’t find another spot to insert the hook into the bait again so we quit for the day.
That was late 1979 and the new-fangled lure was a Mr. Twister Sassy Shad. Made of spongy two-tone plastic, dark gray top with a white elongated abdomen, it looked like a shad. More important, it “felt” like a shad and moved through the water with a tempting wiggle thanks to a rounded, downward-facing tail.
Probably designed to attract bass, these “swimbaits” spawned a saltwater revolution. Before that, saltwater anglers who could afford it, fished with live bait under a cork. Those who couldn’t afford to buy live bait caught their own or used dead shrimp on the bottom.
Some people threw metal spoons or hard plastic, minnow-shaped baits, such as a Bingo, for speckled trout. People also threw “shad rigs,” bolo-looking tandem jigheads, often suspended from corks and tipped with shrimp, that frequently tangled into a mess. A few soft plastic grubs, beetles and similar baits began to hit the market in the 1970s.
Today, these realistic lures still catch bass and other fish, but swimbaits set the standard for saltwater artificials. Although they come in a multitude of colors, sizes and configurations, swimbaits generally fall into two basic categories. Most anglers simply attach a soft plastic tail to a lead jighead. Using one jighead, anglers can easily switch colors, sizes or types quickly just by replacing one tail with another.
Other swimbaits come equipped with internal lead weights. Anglers cannot easily change their minds with these baits, but they last longer and look more like live baitfish than those with external weights. Storm makes a Wildeye Shad in a soft, holographic body that features an odd bottom-heavy trapezoidal weight that produces an enticing wobble as it swims or falls.
Looking like live minnows or shrimp, both types generally stimulate fish by sight, although lunkers can also feel them bumping along the bottom. Some with elliptical tails or curled tails give off underwater vibrations. Some, such as Yum Samurai Shads or Berkley Power Baits, come with scent already built into the plastic for that olfactory appeal. Anglers can also dip plastic tails in dyes, scent or both, sometimes at the same time.
Anglers may fish swimbaits in any number or ways, but most people fish them one of three ways a steady retrieve, a stop and go retrieve or bottom bouncing, also called “worming.” As the word implies, anglers working baits with a steady retrieve simply cast and reel. A hanging tail creates wobbling action. A ribbon tail creates scintillating flailing action.
Many fish bite baits “on the fall.” They wait for the right opportunity to strike, perhaps when a wounded baitfish struggles to swim. Seeing a baitfish in distress kicks the feeding instinct into overdrive. Every few seconds, pause to let a swimbait sink a few feet before resuming the retrieve. If anglers catch only small trout, they might want to try a slightly larger jighead.
“Big trout following a school of small trout often feed on croakers that also follow the school of small trout,” said Capt. Jerry Norris of the Original Sabine Lake Guide Service in Sabine Pass, Texas. “The croakers pick up bits and pieces that fall to the bottom after the trout and birds get through with the shad. The bigger trout feed on the croakers. Fish a little deeper and slower for big trout.”
In very hot or very cold temperatures, anglers may want to “slow-roll” baits just over the bottom, almost like fishing spinnerbaits for bass. With this method, let the bait fall to the bottom and then begin a slow, steady retrieve. Keep the bait just off the bottom or out of the oyster reefs.
“Many anglers try to do too much with a bait,” said Capt. Dudley Vandenborre of New Orleans, who invented Deadly Dudley swimbaits and caught a 10.5-pound speckled trout among other lunkers on them. “A big fish won’t chase after a fast bait,” he said. “At the top of the food chain, a big trout is going to wait for something to come to it because it doesn’t want to expend a lot of energy.”
For deeper presentations, many anglers “worm” baits off the bottom. With this method, let a bait hit bottom and then slowly lift it off the bottom a few feet. Then, let the bait flutter back to the bottom before repeating the process. This method works best when fish bite finicky or cold weather makes them lethargic and unwilling to chase baits far or fast. It’s also works dynamite for flounders.
“Sometimes, trout want an aggressive pop, 12 to 14 inches off the bottom,” Vandenborre said. “Sometimes, they want a more subtle approach. Sometimes, trout just want a bait to crawl past them. In the winter, I fish a bait very slowly, just crawling it along the bottom. In the summer, I move it a little faster and pop it more. Sometimes, we just throw into the tide and let the current carry the bait without any popping.”
People can also fish heavy swimbaits by dropping them vertically in extremely deep water offshore or next to channel drop-offs. Add as much weight as necessary to make a bait sink quickly then simply bounce it up and down. Lift it about three or four feet off the bottom and let it drop naturally.
Sometimes, fish hit swimbaits aggressively, gulping them as fast as they can. At other times, fish simply suck them into their mouths. Since the soft plastic tails feel like natural bait, fish may hold them in their mouths for a time, especially in cold water. Sometimes, anglers may feel only a slight heaviness as if a lure snagged on submerged grass. If anglers feel a tap or heaviness, they should set the hook.
“Bounce the bait on bottom with slack in the line,” Vandenborre said. “I put my finger on the line and feel the fish bite. That way I would feel the fish on the line way before I could feel it through the rod. I detect a lot of strikes and miss many strikes that way, but I always catch plenty big speckled trout. Often, speckled trout strike a bait, and the fisherman doesn’t even know it hit.”
Like most other baits, swimbaits come in a rainbow of colors. In general, stick to more natural colors since these baits mimic natural baitfish or shrimp. In clear water, use clear or translucent baits. In murky water, use brighter colors, such as chartreuse, red or orange. Many people use a combination of colors to improve visibility and contrast.
Story by John N. Felsher