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By Rich Johnson

I can hear many of you now…what’s a swim bait? Don’t all baits swim? Well, yes they do, but swim bait is another word for "shad" baits or soft plastics that look like imitation fish. Swim baits are used in fresh or saltwater and range in size from one-inch or up to nine and 12 inches for stripers, tuna and other offshore game fish.

HOW DO THEY WORK. The paddle tail is what gives these baits their action and size of tail varies depending on the brand. Their design allows you to vary the speed of your retrieve and still have optimum action from the bait. You can twitch the bait along the bottom or swim it at breakneck speeds and still, the bait works like it is supposed to. These baits are easily and quickly adjustable by changing the size of the bait or weight of the lead head you fish. You can go heavier or lighter depending on tide, water depth or how current dictate presentation. You can make quick, controlled adjustments in the depth your fishing even during the course of your retrieve!

ADVANTAGES. In fishing, presentation spells the difference between success and failure for precise presentations, these are the easiest baits to use. They’re worked within inches of rocks and structure because you "feel" the bait the entire time. Whether it’s submerged vegetation, wood pilings or rock, you feel every bounce and these are the places where the big ones live. Combine Berkley Fireline to the equation and fish don’t stand a chance the sensitivity of the two is unbeatable. Whether you fish the bottom or mid-depth, you’re always in touch with the bait. You can stagger or use a steady retrieve with the same feel. You get longer casts than other plugs because of the weight of the lead head. The great advantage to swim baits is the low mortality rate of fish caught. More than 90% of fish caught using these baits are lip hooked in the corner or other outer areas of the mouth. It’s a rare occasion when a fish takes the swim bait deep into the throat. This helps to encourage catch and release and makes releasing fish that much easier.

RIGHT BAIT & COLOR. When searching for, or locating fish, the four to five-inch bait is the usual choice. If "short" strikes are what you’re getting, move down to a smaller size bait and lighter jig head. If you’ve located larger game fish you can step up in size such as five to seven inches. As for color, the basic color categories and patterns are blue, green, red/orange, brown and dark.

Blue with some flash is appropriate where baitfish such as anchovies, herring or spearing are present. Green when water is discolored or smelt and spearing are the prime forage. Red/orange imitate crustaceans like crabs, lobsters and even forage like sea robins. Brown for small forage like blackfish, sea robins and other bait lurking around underwater structure like pilings, rocks and mussel beds. Dark colors are good on dark days, nighttime fishing or bottom dwelling fish. Next week, the right tackle, scents & strips and what swim baits to use,

SCENTS & STRIPS. Swim baits are designed to trigger instinctive responses from game fish and therefore do not need any scents and ornaments to catch fish. The use of porkrind will more likely hamper the action then help, but if you insist on adding a strip it should be very thin so as not to interfere with the action of the bait. As for scent, I think scents are more for masking our odors than adding an attractive scent to the bait. Scent may encourage a fish that has taken the bait to hang on a little longer, but his is a personal decision for you to make.

THE RIGHT TACKLE. Spinning or conventional gear will work with these baits. A good choice for spinfishermen is the Abu-Garcia Tournament series of spinning reels with the model T3000F holding 200 yards of 10-pound test with a gear ratio of 5.2:1 or the smaller model T1000F which has the same gear ratio and holds 125 yards of 8-pound test line.

However, I prefer baitcasting tackle. The drags are superior to spinning tackle and I use the Amassaduer 5600UC and for larger baits the 6500UC. I spool up with 12 to 15-pound Berkley Big Game line or use 15-pound test Big Game as backing and load the front end with15-pound test Fireline which has the diameter of 8-pound test. I use a mono leader, about 18 inches, tied to a small barrel swivel. This allows me to break off if snagged and gives me a "handle" to grab; you don’t want to be grabbing Fireline with wet hands.

The rod should be 6-1/2-foot with a fast taper like the Berkley Lightening Rod, model #LR50-7 MH. This medium-heavy (MH) stick handles lines of 12 to 25-pound test, has a soft, fast action taper with plenty of backbone and works great with baits from 3/8 to 1-1/2 ounces. When using baits of five to seven inches, I move to the Fenwick Inshore series rod, model 706M or 708M. Fenwick has changed the name of the series, but ask your local tackle shop, he will find the right name, but the model numbers and blanks are still the same.

RIGGING TIPS. In order to maximize the action of a swim bait, it’s important to rig it on a leadhead hook as straight as possible. Position the bait vertically with front secure between your fingers and insert hook point at front of bait. Drive hook straight through the length of bait body, passing the bait along the hook and exiting the hook slightly ahead of the thin tail portion. If the body of the bait appears crooked from either the top or side view, "back" the bait off the slightly and try again.

When a plastic body is "chewed" up to a point hat it won’t thread up onto the hook straight, remove it and spread super glue or super gel on the hook shank. Thread the body back on the hook and over the glue creating a bond along the full length of the bait. Another version of this is too straighten the bait on the hook as much as possible and then gripping the leadhead with a pair of pliers. Pass the flame of a lighter across the hook point until the entire shank heats up. The dip the lure in water and what you have done is welded the torn bait to the hook.

When soft plastic baits have become warped from sitting in the sun or an overheated tackle box, you can straighten them by dipping them with tongs into boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds. Once heated, remove the bait and lay it flat straight to cure in that position after it has cooled.

RETRIEVE & HOOK SET. When fishing up against an embankment or rocks, make a series of casts in tight to the structure and allow the bait to sink straight down. Pay attention, many strikes come on the fall. Where there is evidence of a strike, work that area thoroughly. If not strike occurs, start a steady retrieve, but half way through, allow thew bait to sink in free spool again. Now start the retrieve again and repeat. Learn to free spool the bait after a missed strike, as fish will often come right back to it after a miss. Remember, with this technique most and sometimes more than half of your strikes come on the fall of the bait.

Usually when the bait is grabbed on the sink (fall), it is important to wind and take up slack line as quickly as possible then swing back and set the hook. If a strike occurs during a retrieve, crank thought the bite to set the hook and set it to the side if possible. When you feel a pick up off the bottom, refrain form swinging back hard right away. As the fish climbs on the bait, you feel the line tighten. Continue cranking as you feel tension steadily increase. The more you tighten the line, the more the fish wants his meal, thus hooking itself.

DON’T BE CHEAP. I’ve seen swim baits priced dirt-cheap however, what good are a soft plastic baits if you have to change the bait after every fish. Some even break, tear or rip the tails off if you skip a cast across the water. It can become expensive in the long run and even stripers and weakfish can cause great damage to some of the cheaper baits. I’ve been using these baits for a long time and have searched far and wide for the right ones and have found three brands that work well and hold up to the challenge.

The first one is the Fish Trap Lure Co. of San Diego, CA. This company’s swim baits are thinner in profile than others with a larger paddle tail. They’re hand-poured in three colors with a catalogue of over 85 different combos. They will hand custom pour to your specific color needs, matching any bait in the country. They’re just starting to come into our area and you need to ask your local tackle shop for Fish Trap Lures or call for a catalogue at 619-273-6970.

The next is the 9er Lure Company of Middleboro, MA. This company is known for inventing the swim bait or shad bait umbrella rigs. They make individual shad baits on lead heads or you can buy the bodies and use you own lead heads. The come in two color combos and have a wide body profile. You order these by the "back" colors. Black back, blue back, green back etc. and they have up to six colors. Call for a catalogue at 508-947-9223. For those of you already using swim baits, you must be familiar with the Berkley Power Baits in the shad bait styles. These come in handy when fish are finicky or you want to tip the scales in you favor. They are available everywhere and are certainly no secret by now.


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