Unlocking the secrets of soft plastics

Part 1: The Basics
Soft plastic of rubber lures are taking the country by storm, but many anglers are still not getting the best from these lures. In this ground-breaking of how-to feature, soft plastics" whiz, Steve Starling, reveals the secrets of success, with a special emphasis on Victorian waters.

Soft plastics are the flavor of the month across Australia right now, and with good reason. I call this the "third wave" of the plastics" phenomenon, and I suspect that this one is here to stay. Let me explain:

If we rule out isolated historical anomalies like the original French-made Floppy and Sossy and the American Burke's Little Big Dig (which are all rubber-bodied diving plugs) as well as early home-made Barra Frogs, the first genuine wave of interest in soft plastics in Australia occurred during the mid to late 1970s, when limited supplies of soft plastics (mostly Mister Twisters and Vibrotails) first hit our shores.

After an initial flurry of excitement and some good catches of flathead in the south and barramundi up north, interest in these lures rapidly waned. They simply weren't that much different from hard-bodied lures, they were too prone to damage from toothy critters to justify their unit cost and, to be honest, apart from flatties and barra, they weren't spectacular produces on other Australian species- or so it seemed.

The second wave peaked in the in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a new generation of switched-on sport fishers discovered soft plastics and began doing some genuinely innovative stuff with them. This was the time when guys like Craig McGill (who later became a top Sydney-based fishing guide) travelled through the tropical north catching everything from queenfish and big trevelly to saratoga and sooty grunter on plastics.

Sadly, this second wave also petered out. This was due, in my opinion, to two major factors. The first was a false perception amongst the general angling populace (especially in the southern half of the country) that soft plastics only really worked in exotic, tropical locations and on aggressive northern species. The second factor was the continued paucity of supply and the difficulty of obtaining decent soft plastics without resorting to overseas mail ordering.

The third and current wave of soft plastics" growth reared up out the back of the metaphorical surf break in 1999 and is still growing as it roars towards the beach. I firmly believe that this is wave that will have the greatest impact, and that it will change for all time the way Aussies think about fishing with soft plastics.

This third wave is different to the earlier ones on two key ways. Firstly, it has been heavily based on southern species that a huge number of grass-roots anglers know and understand; specifically, bream and bass. Secondly, it has come at a time when the supply and variety of soft plastics available on the local market is expanding rapidly.

We still have a little way to go if this looming wave is to have the impact I'm predicting. The problem now lies in the general skill levels of the surfers paddling to get onto the wave. Some are very good, and are already on their feet, confidently riding the crest. Many others, however, are at risk of missing the wave altogether, or getting on but wiping out before they reach the beach. With this in mind, I have set myself the goal of kick-starting a grass-roots educational program to teach any angler in Australia with even a vague interest in soft plastics how to choose and use these deadly lures. This feature article is the first important lesson in that process.

So, grab your board and paddle out with me- the wave is nearly here. It might be a while before you're hanging ten or doing three sixties, but today, we're going to at least get you standing up - I promise!

Getting the Basics Right

Like anything else in fishing, if you get the basics right with soft plastics, the rest of the process will largely take care of itself. You'll start catching fish, and you'll be able to fine tune, refine and personalise the entire process as you go along.

In this introductory insight into modern soft plastics and their use, I don't want to get bogged down with all the nuances of makes, models, designs, sizes and colours. That'll come later. Instead, I want to start giving you 10 hard-core principals of soft plastic fishing that will get you started on the best possible footing.

Observing the following 10 key points will unlock a whole world of sort plastic fishing for you, and immediately improve both your results while using these lures and your overall enjoyment of the sport of recreational angling. Please take the time to read and thoroughly digest these ten vitally important points, because this information is at the absolute heart of successful soft plastic fishing:

   1. Rig them right

      Because the concept of "finesse" is so important when fishing with soft plastics, and also because presentations with plastics are often slow, care in rigging these lures is paramount. Remember, fish will have plenty of time to scrutinise your offering.

      Take the time to make sure all your soft plastic tails are rigged straight and true on your jig heads and hooks. When rigging up soft tails, measure the tail beside the hook first to work out exactly where the hook point should exit the plastic. Then make every effort to keep the body of the tail straight on the hook as you slide it on, and to bring the point out as near as possible to the center-line of the soft plastic grub, shad, worm or whatever.

      Trust me, a few extra seconds spent getting this part of the equation exactly right will dramatically improve your fishing results when using soft plastics!

      2. Check those hooks

      The best jig head hooks are soft plastics" hooks (sometimes called "worm hooks') are made using fine gauge wire and are wickedly sharp, but like any hook, they can dull and corrode with use.

      When fishing soft plastics, check your hook point often by touching it lightly against the ball of your thumb or running it across your fingernail, where it should dig in rather than sliding freely. If the hook point loses it's original "stickiness', carefully re-sharpen it using a fine-grain honing stone or file, or immediately replace the jig head or worm hook with a new one.

      In particular, examine your hook point after recovering it from a snag or landing a hard-mouthed fish. While you're at it, check the meter or so of line and the leader above the jig for chafes, nicks or frays, and re-tie if necessary.

      3. Use light tackle

      As a rule, you will hook many more fish on soft plastics (and most other lures or bait) if you use fine line, light leaders and sensitive rods, while also avoiding bulky swivels, snaps and other terminals. However, you need to balance this increased hook-up rate against your ability to safely land those fish, especially around structure and snags. After all, there is no point hooking lots of fish if you lose most of them!

      Soft plastic tackle selection should always be a trade-off between finesse and strength. Use the lightest, finest, and most sensitive gear you can realistically get by with, while still being able to quickly subdue and land the average run of fish that are likely to be encountered. If the fishing is especially slow and the fish seem to be shut-down or inactive, and the water dirty or cold, try going a little lighter with your gear, especially your line and/or leader.

      4. Slow it down!

      You'll catch reasonable numbers of fish with soft plastics by working them in exactly the same manner as conventional, hard-bodied lures; be it casting-and-retrieving, jigging or trolling. However, you'll catch a whole lot more fish if you slow your presentations down and incorporate plenty of stops, starts, pauses, lifts and drops into the process. Remember, quality soft plastics have more in common with live, natural baits than they do with hard-bodied lures- so try fishing them like you would natural bait.

      In particular, don't be in too much of a hurry to pull the lure out of the fish's strike zone, and don't be afraid to stop or pause the lure from time to time and give the fish a good look at it. Many bites will come during these pauses, or immediately afterwards, and the lure begins moving again.

      5. Set that hook!

      When fish strike at conventional hard-bodied lures carrying multiple hook points, they often hook themselves. This is less common when using soft plastics. In most cases, you will need to identify the fact that a fish has actually eaten your lure (usually by feel, sight or a combination of both senses) and then set the hook in the fish's jaw by smartly raising the rod tip while simultaneously cranking the reel to recover any slack line.

      Don't get carried away with this and rip your rod up too violently or you risk breaking the line or tearing the hook from the fish's mouth. Strike smoothly, as you would when bait fishing. And remember, because fish tend to inhale soft plastics and hold onto them for a few moments, you don't always have to be in a tearing hurry to react.

      6. Keep Trying                          

      If you fail to hook a fish after a solid jarring strike on a conventional hard-bodied lure, or hook it briefly but drop the fish, it is fairly unusual for that particular fish to come back and try again, at least in the short term and while you are using the same lure. However, this is definitely not the case with soft plastics.

      Because soft plastics look, feel, taste and smell like the real thing, fish frequently strike at them repeatedly. So, if you fail to connect on the first bite, be prepared for the same fish or one of its school mates to try again, cast back into the area of the first strike two or three more times. Don't give up on missed opportunities when using soft plastics. Keep working on that fish!

      Mix it up

      Just because your not catching any fish, it doesn't necessarily mean there are none there to be caught. If you strongly suspect that fish are present in a specific area, and especially if you can actually see fish in the water, or are marking them on the boat's depth sounder, keep trying different things. Regularly after your combinations of soft plastic tail size, head weight, colour and presentation technique. Remember, there are plenty of potential combinations.

      Try brighter or more subtle tail colours, heavier or lighter heads, longer or shorter tails, faster or slower retrieves or even a different presentation angle or running depth of your line. When a particular mix of these variables begins to produce results, stick with it for as long as the fish keep hitting.

      8. Broaden your horizons

      Soft plastics will catch every species of fresh, salt and brackish water fish you've ever dreamt of hooking on hard-bodied conventional lures, plus a whole lot more types you might never have considered as being potential lure takers.

      Even omnivores, foragers and grazers such as snapper, bream, luderick (blackfish), mullet, whiting, garfish, flounder, leatherjackets, wrasse and carp will all regularly attack soft plastics, especially if you choose the right combination of tail, head and presentation strategy to suit the conditions. For this reason, you need to significantly broaden your horizons when fishing with soft plastics and think outside the square. Assume that anything is possible when using these amazing lures, then go out and make it happen!

      9. Develop a philosophy

      Soft plastics are not really like other lures. In fact, they have more in common with natural baits. Not only do you need to rig and fish soft plastics a little differently, you also need to think about them in different ways. Above all" you need to accept the fact that soft plastics are expendable items.

      Soft plastic tails do get torn, cut and chewed by fish, jig heads will occasionally snag up and hook points may sometimes dull or hooks corrode. Soft plastics and there associated hardware are generally much more economically priced than hard-bodied lures, in part to compensate for this expendability. If you take the time to work out the unit cost of a single prawn, worm or pilchard in a pack of premium natural bait, you may well find it is not much different to that of a soft plastic tail. Think of your plastics" as "bait', use them accordingly, and you will catch many more fish.

      10. Fish for the future

      I sincerely believe that using soft plastics will eventually make you a better, more efficient angler and that you will catch an increased number of fish as a result. It is therefore vitally important that you practice restraint and moderation in your angling, otherwise our already depleted fish stocks will be subjected to additional pressure.

      Please observe all bag, size, seasonal and tackle regulations in the waters where you fish and give serious consideration to carefully unhooking and releasing any fish that are surplus to your immediate needs. Limit your kill, don't kill your limit!

      I would also implore you to respect our aquatic ecosystems. Please take all lure packaging home and dispose of it correctly. Furthermore, do not discard line, jig heads, hooks or used soft plastic tails in or around our waterways, as all of these items are potentially hazardous to the environment.

Next issue:

In part two of this essential series on soft plastics, Starlo looks at tail types, jig heads, sizes, weights and colours.

Steve Starling
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