CUTTING SOME SLACK
If I can teach you just one thing about fishing with soft plastics, please make it this: You will catch a lot more fish on plastics if you learn the importance of giving a little slack. Let me explain by telling you a true story that provides a practical example-
One of the great things about fishing the ABT BREAM and BASS Tournament circuits, that Bushy and I have been involved with almost since their beginning, is that you are partnered each day on the water with a different angler. People enter these events as either boaters or non-boaters, and the non-boater contestants are paired at random each day with a different boater. Not only does this diminish the opportunity or even the suggestion of anyone cheating towards zero, it also means you get to meet some great folks and swap ideas with them. That's why the motto of the ABT circuits is: "Who shares wins'.
I've learnt a lot from the non-boaters I've been lucky enough to fish alongside over the years, but I guess the most important penny of all dropped one competition day during a bream round staged in an estuary on the south coast of NSW a couple of seasons back. That day I finally recognised a few of the subtle, but very important differences between getting the whole soft plastic thing right and only nearly getting it right. I guess I'd been doing these subtle things almost unconsciously for years, but that day forced me to analyse precisely what was going on, and when realisation dawned, it was like a big light bulb snapping on in my head. Suddenly, a whole lot of things made much more sense.
It was a very tough day and the fishing was slow. We were struggling to catch a few legal bream, but I was at least scoring the odd one. Not my non-boater, though. He was frustrated by the odd bump and short take, but just wasn't catching them, and I started to wonder why this was so.
My companion on this particular day was a reasonably experienced angler. His gear was good, he was using virtually identical lures to me and he could cast every bit as well as I could. He was landing his plastics right in there against the bank or up under the overhanging trees and beside the sunken snags. But he just wasn't getting many bites and, when he did, he converted almost none of them into solid hook-ups. Why?
The big difference turned out to be the fact that I was incorporating what I've nowadays come to refer to as "controlled slack" into my presentation. To begin with, after the lure splashed down close to the structure, I would let it sink on a semi-slack line until it actually touched bottom. By semi-slack, I mean with a slight, but not exaggerated, belly in the line between my rod tip and the water. And I'd watch this belly of line like a hawk, especially that all-important 20 or 30 cm closest to the water's surface. If it twitched, ticked, kicked, flicked, paused, tugged or jerked, I'd strike! As the jig head touched the bottom, the belly of line would visibly relax and droop toward the water. At this point, I'd turn the reel a couple of times to remove the slack and make contact with the lure, then stop turning the reel and use a lift of the rod, from horizontal to about 45 degrees, to lift or "swim" the lure half a metre up through the water column, then drop the rod tip again to create more controlled slack, allowing the lure to once again swim down to the river bed while I watched that all-important belly for those tell-tale signs of a bite or pick-up.
Once again, when the lure touched down on the bottom, the line would visibly relax and I'd turn the reel a few times to pull the slack from it, then use the rod to lift the jig again. And so it went, until I'd fished the soft plastic halfway or even two-thirds of the way back to the boat, maintaining frequent contact with the river bed all the way. At this point, I figured I was out of the primary strike zone (for that day), so I'd retrieve my lure, but not flat out. I'd always start the straight retrieve with half a dozen slow cranks of the handle, followed by a momentary pause, just in case a following fish chose this moment to finally pounce. Only after this process would I speed up the retrieve and bring the lure back to the boat, but even then, I'd watch it carefully as it swum into view, just in case something was following it.
By contrast, my offsider was making his lure sink on a tight line next to the structure (causing it to swing out and away from the fish holding cover), then cranking it on a relatively tight line. Sure, he was stopping and starting his retrieve as he knew he should, but rarely, if ever, was his jig getting the opportunity to sink on slack or semi-slack line. This was making all the difference. He was getting a lot fewer bites and, when he did get a hit, he was typically pulling the lure away from the fish as he struck instinctively at the tug.
All the fish I caught that day (and it was few enough) ate my plastic on the drop. I saw their takes as a little jerk or tick in the line. By the time I saw this, the lure had already been sucked well into the fish's mouth, was being tasted, and was just about to be ejected. If I was quick enough, I was able to smartly raise the rod and set the hook. This matter of bite detection is something Bushy will come back to at the end of the chapter, but for now, please take on board the fact that this phenomenon is common to nearly all types of soft plastic fishing in almost every angling environment. If you understand it and begin to make it work for you, you'll take that next big step up the learning ladder and you will definitely start catching more fish. I guarantee it!
Learn to cut your soft plastics a little slack, to let them swim down from time to time through the water, to slow down your presentations, and to incorporate frequent lifts and drops or stops and starts into the retrieve process. If you are trolling, you can still achieve this end by holding the rod and giving its tip an occasional jig, or by pulling the lure forward with the rod, then pushing the rod tip back to create momentary slack. You will catch more fish as a result.
Of course, a big part of getting this whole presentation thing right is correctly matching your soft plastic tail to the optimum casting weight or jig head for the prevailing conditions, and Bushy now has some interesting comments to make on this important subject.
WAS THAT A BITE?
As already explained, because soft plastic lures are so life-like, fish take them "on the drop" very confidently; either while they are first sinking after being cast, or when you pause the retrieve or jig the rod tip and then let them stall and sink in mid-retrieve. When fish take a plastic on the drop, they generally just eat it and sit or hang there. There's often no reason for them to bolt, as they think they've caught their dinner. If the angler is on the ball, he or she should see the line give a little twitch as the lure goes into the fish's mouth. If the angler fails to strike at this stage, he might eventually see another twitch on the line as the fish spits the lure out! How fast this happens depends a lot on the species of fish involved. Sometimes you will also feel a tug on the line - that familiar "bite" - but more often than you might imagine, the only indication of a pick up will be a visual one; that movement in the semi-slack belly of line between rod tip and water. You really need to be watching for it.
Most newcomers to the game don't see either the first twitch (as their lure is inhaled) or the second twitch (as it is spat out) and return from a fishing trip thinking that they haven't been doing the right thing with their lures, that they didn't get so much as a single bite, and that the whole soft plastics "thing" is just a hyped-up myth.
Any time your plastic lure is swimming its way down through the water you really need to be watching the slight belly in your line about 20 or 30 cm above the point where it enters the water, and you need to strike fast and firmly if you see that line do absolutely anything out of the ordinary.
That's for sure. In fact, Bushy and I have a saying about this: "If you thought you had a bite, you probably did'. It is so often true! Even those of us with lots of soft plastic fishing experience still miss a surprising amount of takes because we don't see the take, we don't react in time, or we doubt ourselves. Could that tiny shiver or tremor in the line really have been a fish picking up the plastic? Chances are it was! And you'll never know unless you lift the rod and find out. My advice is: if in doubt, strike. You'll be surprised at how often you come up tight, and even more surprised at how often a tiny shiver or almost imperceptible flick in the line has been caused by a much bigger fish than you might ever expect.
Perhaps this is one reason Bushy and I do so little soft plastic fishing at night. Plastics are certainly capable of catching plenty of fish after sunset - even on the darkest of nights - but our inability to see those tell-tale twitches in the line not only decreases the effectiveness of the process, it also robs it of a great deal of its visual aspect which, to us, is half the fun. Seeing that magic little "tick', then lifting the rod and coming up solid is a blast. It has many parallels with watching a nicely balanced stem float glide under the surface to the tug of a biting fish and then lifting to set the hook. Just as float fishing is tricky at night, so is this visual aspect of plastic fishing. (By the way, if you do fish at night, maintain a slightly tighter line than you would during daylight hours and feel for those subtle pick-ups instead.)
Okay. Those are basic rules of soft plastic presentation; tailor your casting and your jig weights to the prevailing conditions, give your lure some controlled slack so it can swim down from time to time, slow everything up and watch that belly of line. Keeping those golden rules firmly in mind, let's now dive headlong into the biggest chapter of the book, and look in detail at some of this country's most popular soft plastic target species.