Tackle for soft plastics
Starlo and Bushy
One of the great things about soft plastics is that you can fish them reasonably effectively using almost any sort of tackle. In fact, you can work a soft plastic on any gear you'd use to fish natural baits with, including a humble handline. Of course, you won't be able to cast very far with a handline, and it will present various other limitations, but in offshore bottom fishing, for example, it would still offer an acceptable method for bouncing a plastic or two up and down in front of a fish. Plastics can also be worked reasonably well off deck winches or short, stiff boat rods and non-casting centrepin reels (again, mostly only in up-and-down scenarios, where casting isn't necessary or important).
As we move up the scale of tackle sophistication from handlines, deck winches, centrepin reels and boat rods to outfits that will actually allow reasonable casts to be made, so it becomes increasingly easier and more effective to work soft plastic lures in a range of situations. For example, the sidecast outfits favoured by rock, beach and jetty anglers in many parts of the country are actually very useful tools for chucking and working soft plastics, especially from the shore, while a whole range of popular spin (threadline), spincast (closed-face), plug (baitcaster) and overhead rigs also make fine tools for fishing with softies.
Our point here is not to tell you what gear you can and can't fish plastics with (because, as we've already stated, there really isn't any form of tackle that won't work to some extent in this role). Instead, we are going to attempt to explain and describe what it is that makes some combinations of rod, reel, line and leader more effective as soft plastic presentation tools. Our aim here is to optimise your results and increase your level of enjoyment when fishing with plastics and, in particular, to provide information that's specifically relevant to the most popular forms of soft plastic fishing currently undertaken in Tasmania and on the mainland.
The finesse factor
One theme that will constantly crop up as we talk about the ideal tackle for fishing with soft plastics is the concept of "finesse'. Some people don't like this word, while others over-use or misinterpret it, but in our opinion it's still the best term for describing the sometimes subtle factors that can combine to spell the difference between a reasonable outfit for soft plastic fishing and an outstanding one.
"Finesse tackle" is all about balanced, sensitive, responsive gear that is a pleasure to handle and use, which casts well if called upon to do so, provides maximum "feel" and feedback to the angler, is effective at detecting bites and setting hooks, and has the strength and power necessary to control and land a hooked fish. Finesse in this application definitely doesn't always mean light or soft or delicate!
For example, an effective "finesse" outfit for casting large soft plastics to catch big mulloway from an ocean rock wall on the mainland might consist of a beefy, 3 m rod matched to a medium-sized overhead reel and filled with quite heavy line. The subtleties that elevate a rig like that from being an average, heavy overhead casting outfit and turn it into genuine finesse tackle are things like the graphite content in the rod blank (more graphite means lighter overall weight and improved feel), the sophistication of the reel (does it have smooth bearings and good cast controls to prevent over-runs?) and the line chosen (thin-for-strength15 kg braided gel-spun polyethylene, instead of fat 15 kg nylon, for instance). All of these seemingly small but very important features combine to create a superior outfit for the job. We can take this even further by looking at details like the rod runners or guides (are they lightweight but strong, correctly spaced and made from a material that dramatically reduces friction?) and even the handles or grips at the rod's butt end (soft, spongy EVA, Duralon or Hypalon that soaks up feel, or high quality cork, or thin, rubberised tape that transmits every bump and tap from the line and rod straight to the angler's hands?).
This finesse model can be applied to every form of tackle commonly used to work soft plastics; from an ultra-light, 1.8 m single-handed "flick stick" and diminutive threadline reel used to cast tiny lures into a mountain stream for trout, right through to a 37 or even 60 kg class fully-rollered game rod and lever drag overhead reel that might be employed to troll a giant rubber scad or mackerel along the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef in the hope of hooking a half tonne black marlin. So, get over the idea that "finesse" and "light" are somehow inter-changeable terms. They're not - at least, not in our book. Fact is, the heaviest gear can also benefit from a clever application of the finesse concept.
Having said all that, we'll now return to the very lightest end of the tackle spectrum and begin our examination of some of the most versatile and popular soft plastic outfits with a close-up look at perhaps the most useful plastics outfit of all; a lightweight, single- or double-handed spinning rig:
Light spin gear
As already explained, you can use soft plastics on just about any tackle and expect to catch some fish, but you'll catch a hell of a lot more fish on something that's really suitable for the job. One of the best all-round tools for this job is a light spinning (threadline) outfit, capable of casting weights from almost nothing up to about 12 or 15 g (half an ounce). With a set-up like this, you can target everything from trout, redfin perch, bass, yellowbelly and sooty grunter in the fresh to bream, flathead, estuary perch, smaller snapper, trevally, tailor, salmon, pike and so on in the salt, as well as handling the odd much bigger fish that will certainly come along from time to time.
Basically, when fishing "light" from a canoe, a boat or the shoreline of a river, an estuary, a bay or a harbour, you'll need a light spinning rod from about six-and-a-half to seven-and-a-half feet in length (1.9 to 2.3). The rod should have a fairly fine, sensitive tip (but definitely not a soft or sloppy top end), because sometimes you'll have to cast lightly weighted plastics or even un-weighted plastics with it. It will also need sufficient "guts" or stiffness in the butt section, because most of your fishing will probably be done with GSP lines that have substantial true breaking strains, despite their very fine diametres. Even on quite small fish, you might sometimes have to use these reserves of power to engage in locked-drag, win-or-bust battles, especially when fishing in and around dense snags or up between encrusted wharf pilings.
Because fishing with soft plastics at this end of the spectrum generally requires a lot of casting, and most soft plastics have to be "worked" or manipulated with the rod tip to produce their best results, modern spinning rods ideally suited to this task are slightly different in overall design and behaviour to their predecessors. Lightness in the hand is particularly important, especially over extended fishing sessions, so graphite rules supreme, and cork grips are still the best for their feel and light weight. Butt lengths have changed as well, as anglers have found longer butts tend to dig into fore-arms or catch in sleeves and other clothing when the rod tip needs to be continually shaken, wriggled or flicked to impart action to a perpetual-motion plastic. Butts on single-handed spin rods, in particular, are often very short today. Overall, however, modern rods in this class are tending to be longer than they once were, as this helps in casting light weights, and also when it comes to manipulating those soft plastics in the water and setting hooks, even at long range. Ten years or so ago, a typical single-handed flick stick in this light category was around six feet (1.8 m) long. Today, it's much more likely to be six-and-a-half or even seven feet long (2 to 2.2 m). These longer, lighter rods with a relatively high graphite content, short butts, cork handles and lightweight fittings are just about perfect for soft plastic fishing.
There's also no doubt that a spinning (threadline) outfit rather than a baitcaster (small overhead) is the best way to go at this lighter end of the spectrum, because the eggbeater is just so much more versatile in these fishing applications. Many smaller fish such as bream and trout love tiny, lightweight lures, and you just can't cast these far enough with any degree on consistency using an overhead. The great thing is, you can throw just about anything off a light eggbeater outfit; from a dirty big jig head that the rod can barely handle to the tiniest, un-weighted soft plastic tail and hook weighing less than a gram. Better yet, you can cast these offerings into the wind, across the wind, or with the wind, without the fear of those nasty over-runs or backlashes that plague overhead reels under these conditions.
Technology has really improved in recent times and now it's possible to buy great eggbeater reels that are much more sophisticated than their predecessors, but still surprisingly affordable. Nowadays, the reels are lighter than they have ever been, their drags are smoother, their bail arm return systems are more reliable, their bail rollers actually roll and they are very serious fishing tools. Matching one of these sophisticated new threadline reels with the sort of rod I've described creates a very potent package for so many different kinds of soft plastic fishing, as well as for casting or trolling hard-bodied lures and fishing with natural baits.
The kind of "light" outfit we're talking about here also really packs a punch, and we have landed several jewfish (mulloway) up around the 10 kg mark on similar set-ups. If you fill even a little 1000 size eggbeater reel with, say, 4 pound (2kg) GSP line - which actually tests at something more like 4 kg - you are going to give most fish up to 10 or even 12 kg a pretty good run for their money, especially in open water, and especially if you have the ability to follow them, should they take a lot of line. It's amazing what you can do with gear like this, if your knots are sound and you keep a level head when that whopper finally comes along.
Smaller fish such as bass, yellowbelly, bream, trout, estuary perch, jungle perch, flathead, Australian salmon, blue salmon and so on can all be targeted on the light spinning outfit just described, ideally using GSP lines with rated breaking strains from 2 to about 4 kg, always remembering that the manufacturer's ratings on these GSP lines are usually just plain wrong. You can just about double those ratings to come up with the actual strength of these lines, so it's obvious that you have the reserves of power needed to land considerably larger fish, should you happen to cross paths with them. However, if you are consistently targeting bigger stuff like snapper, tuna, kingies, jewies, barra, Murray cod and so on, and especially if you are chucking larger plastics on heavier jig heads (from 15 to 30 or 40 g and more), you will need to consider putting together a heavier outfit. Depending on the range of fish you're going to target, and the spread of environments you'll be chasing them in, the fact is you'll probably need more than one light to medium soft plastics outfit to cover all the options, so let's move up the tackle scale a little:
When we want to catch larger fish on bigger plastics, we need a rod with a bit more grunt, and a reel with a bit more line capacity, as well as the ability to handle slightly thicker, stronger line. To target yellowtail kingfish, spotty mackerel, barramundi, jewfish, snapper, trevally and a host of other middle-weights, all we really need to do is up-size our basic "light" plastics outfit (described above). For the sake of the exercise, we'll call this next rig a "medium" outfit, and it will be designed for two-handed casting, using either a medium-sized spinning (threadline) reel, or possibly a baitcaster, should you wish to go that way.
In this class, we usually opt for a rod in about the same approximate length range as the light, single-handed outfit (2 to 2.2 m - slightly longer if mostly fishing from the shore) with the same sort of action; a gutsy butt and relatively light, sensitive tip (but never a sloppy, soft one). However, this rod needs the backbone and stiffness to be able to handle lines with rated breaking strains up to about 10 kg (remembering that GSP lines with that rating could actually test much stronger than this) and casting weights to perhaps 40 or even 50 g (a couple of ounces). To complete this heavier outfit, we also need to up-size the reel. Threadline or spinning reels are still great for this application, and a 4000, 4500 or 5000 size eggbeater from most manufacturers is spot-on. However, if you are a baitcaster (overhead) fan, we are now moving into an area where a reel of this sort will also definitely do the job, even if it won't be capable of punching lighter jigs and plastics quite as far into a breeze as the eggbeater. Personally, we've never found an eggbeater to be inadequate for this class of work and we love the versatility of my medium-weight, double-handed spin rigs.
This sort of double-handed, medium-weight plastics outfit (either threadline or plug) is still fairly light in the hands and a joy to use, even over extended casting sessions, but man-oh-man; it really packs a punch! We have caught plenty of solid jewfish, good snapper and hard-fighting yellowtail kingfish up to 10 kg and more on tackle like this, and we're confident I could land something much bigger, if we could get a hook into it!
Speaking of getting your hook into something big, as you well know, there's really no limit to what can be caught on soft plastics. Our experiments with over-sized Squidgy Bluewater prototypes have already produced hook-ups on marlin of 300 kg and more. Having watched those amazing "Air Jaws" jumping shark documentaries on TV, we can tell you that if great white sharks weren't a protected species these days, we'd seriously consider crafting me a metre-long rubber imitation seal pup surface lure and having a crack- can you imagine the top-water strikes!?
Seriously, beyond the incredibly versatile light and medium outfits already described, it's possible to fish plastics effectively off all manner of gear up to and including full-blown blue-water game trolling outfits.
In fact, offshore jigging and trolling gear is just about perfect when fishing really heavy lead-head jigs with rubber tails or magnum drop-shot rigs for reef and bottom dwellers or various pelagics, while the same tackle can also be used to troll for these and other fish, or to cast lures, if the reel is designed for this purpose.
As mentioned earlier, heavier beach, rock and jetty rods based around 3 or 4 m rods and big threadline, overhead or sidecast reels are also spot-on for casting large plastics from shore-based locations in search of mulloway, kingfish, snapper, tuna and so forth. As always, the "finesse" concept explained earlier should be applied to all of this tackle, and a great deal of thought given to optimising the balance, sensitivity, "feel" and power of the gear to achieve the best possible results. A big part of getting this right lies in choosing the correct line, and it's no secret we are huge fans of the modern gel-spun polyethylene (GSP) "super lines" in this role. But that's another story for another time!
POSTSCRIPT: You can read all of this great information and lots more in the book "On Soft Plastics" written by Starlo & Bushy, published in 2005 by AFN Publishing of Melbourne.