Soft Plastics, Getting Started Towards Success (Part 1)

Soft plastic fishing lures what are they?...What are the benefits of using them?... What setup do I need to fish them?...How do I rig and retrieve them?...What lure or technique should I use on this species or that species?...etc etc.
Well these are just some of the many questions anglers regularly ask in relation to the use of soft plastic fishing lures.  This article is the first in a series of articles that are intended to take you through the step by step process of becoming a successful soft plastics angler.

What are Soft Plastics?
Soft plastics are fishing lures that are generally made using a liquid plastic material that is heated, then poured or injected into a mould and upon cooling the liquid plastic material sets to a soft rubber like consistency.  This liquid plastic can be molded into any shape or softness, can have dyes added to form any color, can be impregnated with salt, scent, and flavor or have these things added after molding.  Some manufacturers like Berkley with their new "Gulp" range are now producing the same style of lure but without the use of liquid plastic at all, so the term "Soft Plastics" that has been used widely to describe this type of lure to date, is now becoming a little obsolete.  

Benefits of Soft Fishing Lures
"Soft Plastic" fishing lures or lets just call them "Soft Lures" for the purposes of this article, have some distinct advantages over the "Hard Bodied Lures" that most Tasmanian anglers are currently familiar with.  As the name implies "Soft Lures" are soft in nature and this is what gives them their natural movements and makes them look and feel more realistic to the fish we target.  Just ask yourself how many times you been fishing with traditional hard bodied lures and felt a fish strike at your lure, but you have not had a good hook up?...  You say to yourself "Damn missed him'- and in all reality that same fish is not going to come back and have another go at your hard lure because it did not feel, smell or taste natural to the fish when it hit your lure the first time.  With soft lures, this scenario changes dramatically and I have had instances where the same fish has come back to hit a soft lure up to six times, before my line has come up tight to the fish. This is just one of the major benefits that soft lures have over their hard bodied counterparts, they look, smell, feel and taste more natural to the fish.
Other benefits of soft lures include:
They are typically a lot cheaper than a hard bodied lure so you are more likely to cast them into some very snagy/fishy areas that you would not typically cast or troll a hard lure into for fear of loosing it.
Because of their design, in most cases you can change the color or style of your soft lure without the need to cut your line and re-tie a new lure on as you would with a hard bodied lure.
They are very versatile and can be fished at any depth of water, or at just about any retrieve speed.  Most hard body lures have a limited water depth and retrieve speed that they are designed to operate in.
They are very snag resistant, as most soft lures are rigged on only a single hook or jighead instead of the treble hooks found on most hard bodied lures.
Soft lures can be easily salted, scented, flavored, or modified by the angler to suit the conditions or the fish being targeted.

Lure Styles Currently Available
Soft fishing lures already come in a huge range of shapes, colors, styles and brands in this country and even more so overseas.  The list of different patterns, styles, sizes and colors are growing daily to the extent of which cannot be accurately represented here.  The following pictures have been included only to give you a basic overview of the more popular styles/patterns of soft lures available to anglers in Australia at this time.

The "Minnow" shape/patterns closely resemble the whitebait, pilchards, galaxias, jollytails, mullet and other slim profile baitfish species that inhabit our lakes, rivers and coastlines.

The single tail "Grub" pattern is a popular general all round nondescript pattern that resembles many small aquatic species.

The "Minnow Grub" patterns that resemble tadpoles and other small bait fish species.

The "Paddle Tailed Grub" pattern that also resembles small slim profile baitfish species.

The "Shad" or "Fish" patterns that resembles baitfish species that have a wider type body profile.

The "Nymph" patterns that resembles mayflies, damselflies, dragonflies, stoneflies and other aquatic nymphs found in our waters.

The "Yabby" or "Craw" patterns.

The "Crab" type patterns.

The Hooks or "Jigheads" used
"Jighead" is the name used to describe the weighted hooks used to fish most soft lures.  Jigheads come in a very wide range of shapes, sizes and weights and all have a designed purpose and intended use.  It is impossible for me to show you every jighead that is currently available and describe their intended use so below is a picture of some of the different hooks, jigheads and nose weights, that I have found to suit most angling situations encountered here in Tasmania and as they say "a picture tells a thousand words'.

Un-Rigged or "Pre-rigged'?
Most soft lures now come in basically two forms of packaging design, one is where the lures are shipped loose in their packets and the angler rigs them on a hook or jighead themselves (as shown in pictures above). And the second is in what the manufacturers call a "pre-rigged" state which has the lure already rigged on a weighted hook or jighead of the manufacturer's choice.  Pre-rigged lures are great for people who are getting started in soft lure fishing and those anglers that do not feel confident that they can choose the right size, weight or shape head for the lure they intend to use.
Personally, I prefer to rig my own soft lures and match them to whatever size or weight of hook or jighead I choose.  This self rigged method gives you far more versatility and options, although it does take a little practice to rig a lure nice and straight on the hook.  As you become more familiar with soft lures and jigheads you will in all likelihood prefer to rig your own lures.  Below are a couple of important points to remember when rigging your lures for best results.
Always make sure your lure is rigged dead straight and centered on the hook or jighead. If it is not centered and straight it will tend to sink, jig and swim in an unnatural repetitive action.  It pays to give your lure a little swim/flick in the water at your feet or beside the boat to check that it swims and sinks in a straight natural looking fashion.
Try to match the hook size and length to the soft lure you are intending to use. A good general rule of thumb to remember, is that the hook point should sit somewhere between 1/3 and 2/3rd's along the length of the lures body.
In most cases make sure that your hook point is clearly exposed and not imbedded in or positioned too close to the body of the lure.
Select a jighead weight that allows your lure to spend as much time as possible in the target water depth or in the strike zone of the target species.
Check the sharpness of the hooks buy sliding the point of the hook across your thumb nail, if it bites into your nail it is sharp enough and if it slides across the top without biting in, the hook needs sharpening.  Not all hooks are sharp enough straight out of the packet and periodically check the sharpness while fishing especially after getting a snag or catching a fish, sharpen with a fine diamond file as required.
Do not be afraid to trim a little off the head of your soft lure, which makes it sit nice and neat against the back of the jighead.  You can also trim down a soft lure to accurately match the size of the natural prey you are trying to imitate.
Soft lures wear out and should be considered a disposable item just like bait. Replace your lure when they are torn, the tail gets bitten off, when it will no longer sit straight on the hook or keeps slipping down the hook and will not hold tight against the back of the jig head.

Rod, Reel and Line Setup
Fishing soft lures is a finesse style of angling and it requires a degree of concentration and good line/lure control from the angler to achieve consistent results.
Most of the time it is the angler who is providing the lure with most of its movement and this is done via subtle rod tip lifts/drops/flicks and movements imparted to the lure through the winding of the reel.  To achieve consistent results it is very important to be able to feel every little thing that your lure is doing on the retrieve and every movement you impart to the rod or reel handle should transfer directly down the line to the lure without delay.  Strikes can be very subtle at times and good feedback/bite detection from your equipment can be essential, therefore a rod, reel and line with the following characteristics is recommended to cover most river, lake, estuary and light open water fishing scenarios here in Tasmania.
Ideal Rod Characteristics  
An ideal river, lake and light estuary rod for soft lure fishing would be light (Graphite is recommended) and be capable of casting lure weights in the 2 to 12 grams range all day long. Graphite rods are lighter, crisper in action and provide superior feedback and bite detection.  It should have a medium to fast tapered blank with a fast/extra-fast tapered rod blank being my preferred option (i.e. when the tip is placed under load the rod should do most of its bending in the tip section/first third of the rod blank).  This style of rod has a light enough tip to impart action to your lure and provides excellent casting accuracy, yet has a lot of strength in the butt section to stop a determined fish.  It should have full cork grips to give good feel and feedback to the angler.  It should have quality guides that can handle the constant passing of braids and the new breed of superlines.  Rod length is a personal choice but I prefer a short rod in the 5'4" to 6'10" range to cover most of my small river work and for accurate casting around tight structure in lakes and estuaries and a longer rod in the 6'10" to 7'6" range for open water, longer casts and covering a lot of water quickly.  
Ideal Reel Characteristics
An ideal reel for river, lake and light estuary work would be a small spinning reel with instant anti-reverse, a good drag system and a slow oscillation/smooth line lay is best suited to this style of fishing.  Most of the major reel manufacturers these days produce quality reels in the 1000 to 2500 series that will do the job nicely.  Just remember that you typically get what you pay for when it comes to fishing reels and reels in the medium to higher price brackets will generally serve you better in the long run, taking into consideration that this style of fishing involves constant lure casting and retrieving.
Preferred Main Line
Main Line selection is extremely important when it comes to this style of fishing because you cannot afford to loose contact with your lure or the site of your line were it enters the waters surface for a second, or you will miss strikes.  Therefore, I would strongly suggest the use of one of the new breed of low stretch, super smooth, super fine, superlines, that give you instant feedback/strike detection and unmatched feel. From my experience the best line, for this purpose is without a doubt "Berkley Fireline', due to its super fine diameter for its breaking strain, superior strength, near zero stretch and also the fact that it comes in a highly visible color range.  The highly visible green and pink colors that this line comes in should not be under estimated as a serious benefit to the angler with regard to this style of fishing.  These bright line colors make it much easier for the angler to detect the subtle strikes that are some times associated with this style of angling and allow the angler to react to a strike even before they feel it transmit up the line. You would be amazed at times just how important this split second of advanced warning can be to your end results. I typically use anything from 4lb to 10lb line classes for most of my freshwater fishing and 4lb to 50lb line classes for most of my saltwater work.
Leader Materials:
When using Berkley Fireline as your mainline or any of the braid/fused styles of lines it is important that you use a short length of leader material so that the fish cannot see your line.  For most situations a two to three meter length of leader material tied to the end of your mainline is ample.  My preferred leader material is "Flurocarbon" and I typically use breaking strains of 4lb to 8lb for most of my fresh water fishing situations and 4lb to 60lb for most of my saltwater work.  Just adjust your leader and mainline size accordingly to suit the environment and the species of fish you target.

Knots and Rigging
There are many ways to rig soft lures for use in a wide range of fishing scenarios and we will look at many of these rigs in future articles, but what follows is the basic rig that I use most often and the knots that I have extreme confidence in when it counts.

The basic retrieve
There are many ways that you can move/retrieve a soft lure to catch a fish and I will describe some more of them in future articles but the basic retrieve that is described below will more than get you started on the road to success (if practiced).  Over the years I believe that the most consistent retrieve that has caught me the widest range of fish species would have to be what I call the basic "two short - one long lift and drop retrieve', once mastered it can be a deadly technique and it goes as follows:
1.Rig your favorite soft lure as indicated under the "Knots and Rigging" section above and cast it into a likely looking stretch of water.  As soon as your lure lands on the water click your bail arm over (preferably by hand) and lower your rod tip down to just above the waters surface while pointing the tip of your rod directly at where you have just cast.  As your lure sinks it will take up the slack line that is left over from the cast and you should be watching intently at the point where your line is entering the waters surface for any unnatural pause or unusual line movement.  If any unusual line movement is seen it should be met with an immediate lifting of the rod as a fish can be right onto your lure at times and it pays to be weary of this or you can miss it.
2.Once the slack line has all gone or you have allowed your lure to sink to the target water depth, start the retrieve by raising the rod tip up from just above the waters surface in a smooth but sharp one lift stroke / pause / two lift stroke motion.  You should not be winding the reel in this up stroke and the rod should be coming straight up in line with your ear.  You should be pausing in the lift stroke at about the 3.00 o'clock point (pause should last for about 1 second) and then continue raising the rod tip up to the 1:00 o'clock point.
3.Once at the top of the up stoke (i.e. the 1:00 o'clock point), pause for a split second then smoothly lower the rod tip back down to just above the waters surface. While lowering the rod tip smoothly wind up the slack line that is created by your dropping of the rod tip. Try to wind up the slack line without moving your lure (i.e. only wind up the slack line but no more).  Again pay particular attention to where your line is entering the waters surface for any unnatural movement as a fish will generally strike at your lure on this down stroke and if you are not watching your line for movement you may miss the strike completely.
4. Once you have taken up the slack line continue the retrieve by again lifting your rod tip back up to the 1:00 o'clock point but this time raise it in one smooth lift stroke without the pause at 3:00 o'clock.
5.Continue the retrieve by alternately repeating steps 2, 3 and 4 above until your lure has been retrieved all the way back to you. If you concentrate on making the lifts, drops and wind up of slack line as smooth as possible and constantly keeping in touch with your lure, then you cannot go wrong.

Please Note: The retrieve described above can either be slowed down or sped up to suit the water depth being fished or the aggression levels of the fish species being targeted (e.g. you can slow it down to fish deeper water of for cold water conditions/shutdown fish or you can speed it up to fish shallower water or for more aggressive fish).

The author with a nice Arthur's Lake Brown Trout, one of many he has caught recently using the above described technique.

Fishing with soft lures is an active, finesse style of angling that requires a fair degree of attention to detail for best results.  It is only just starting to take off down here in Tasmania but I predict that it will become a big part of the fishing scene in this state in the near future as they really do catch some nice bags of fish- Go on, give them a try, you will not be disappointed!...Hope to see you out on the water!
Steve Steer.

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