Trout on Plastics - It ain't always easy
When I first moved into Launceston to study at the Australia Maritime College, I found that the easiest way to sneak out for a quick fish was to chase trout. Consequently I researched everything I could find on trout, in Tasmania and round Australia. Baits, lures, retrieves, locations and typical dwellings, tackle and gear - the works. After extensive investigation I set-up with a light rod and spinning reel and your run-of-the-mill bibbed minnows and cobras.
Fishing baits from time to time and casting small lures into various streams around Launceston proved rather fruitless for the first year. My collection of lures evolved and changed and fishing methods and places substituted and modified. If I recall correctly I am pretty sure I caught less trout than anyone else who calls themselves a fisherman for the first season. Understandably upset with the poor results I looked more into the new stuff coming out. Soft plastics have become a huge phase in angling lately and based on results that people were achieving in all other aspects of fishing I thought I would give them a good bash. A quick trip to the tackle shop for some packets of Gulp! and Powerbait, 6lb fluoro for leader and some nitro jig heads and we headed off to Hadspen to chuck away at the browns the everyone else was reporting.
Fast forward a month or two and about 15 trips later. After losing many plastics in trees and snags, wet feet (often), watching Matty hook himself in the backside (priceless moment that it was), lots of fuel, time and effort AND the results at stood at zero. Admittedly, it seems fairly comedic to have done that many trips without a single fish, but for some reason the more we used plastics and talked to people about them the more excited we got about using them in practice. By all accounts it is amazing that we continued to go and flick them repeatedly for no result but none the less, persistence should always pay off. We hadn't really worked out what we were doing wrong and we were both determined to solve the problem. I can't remember the exactly when now, but the next evolution went something like this.
I had been living down in West Launceston for a while before we finally cracked the trout code. I can't take full credit for it, my fishing buddy Matty Harris was actually the first to break our drought. I remember really distinctly because he woke me up at 7:00 am on a Saturday to show me his highly prized first trout on soft plastics. The funniest thing was that he had caught it first cast on a dawn fishing trip (not awfully appealing in the cold) and left straight away to drive half an hour and wake me up to show me. Within minutes we were back in the car and motoring along the southern outlet towards Longford at speeds that would frighten Schumacher. I grilled Matty on every single detail I could about how he caught the fish, all to no avail. His most predominant response was that he didn't know what he was doing differently. We arrived back at the river and kitted up. It's only about 100 metres from the car park to the few gaps in the trees where you can fish the running water at Longford and olympians would have been proud of my sprint from the car to the water that morning. The prospect of finally seeing the fruits of my labour was so exciting I was near on shaking when I popped the first cast out under the trees. Within seconds of hitting the surface that flash of silver appeared out from under the sticks and slammed the lure so hard I barely had time to click the bail arm over before I was hooked up to my first trout on plastics. Based on the power of the initial strike my first size estimate of the fish was around the 100 kg mark. It's hard to believe fish can hit soft plastics as hard as they do and new high-modulus rods give you such great feel that every touch is a buzz. After a short fight the trout was finally landed and photographed before being released back into the river. Turns out that it was only about 35 cm tip to tail but a VERY memorable fish all the same. Finally the drought was over. We fished out the rest of the day (which turned out to be a similar weather pattern to hurricane Tracy) through rain and sleet and freezing cold air catching trout after trout after trout. It was hard to believe that we had fished the same place with the same gear for so long without any sign of action and then suddenly we were getting blasted almost every cast. I think we landed around 30 trout that day. The fishing slowed down at Longford so we migrated to Hadspen and proceeded to extract every trout in the vicinity for a photo shoot before releasing them back into the crystal clear water. Following Hadspen we fished the rest of the day right through to dark at Evandale and Perth without letting down the steady catch rate all afternoon. It was a total back flip on previous experience and I was hooked on soft plastics for trout.
Last season we consistently produced fish from almost everywhere we went and to this day I am still convinced that the major thing that changed in our fishing was our experience. Once you catch a fish you learn everything about how it happened and mimic the process. You note where you cast, how you worked the plastic and where you got the hit. Rinse and repeat.
With the popularity of soft plastics on the rise all over Australia, across a huge range of fish and anglers, it is inevitable that things will change and develop to produce more and better gear than ever and the knowledge we have on using them will increase exponentially.
Here is a basic run-down on how we go about chasing trout on plastics.
To make the best use of soft plastic lures it is almost essential to have suitable gear. The old favourite rods just won't cut it. I know that a lot of people are hesitant to go and buy a whole new outfit just to use a certain type of lure but although old tech gear will work, the new stuff will really increase your chances of getting that fish on. High-modulus graphite rods are a must. The ultra quick taper and sensitivity will making casting and feeling the plastic through the water infinitely better and you can get a must better grasp on how the lure is working when the fish hits it. For fishing the larger lakes, rivers and streams that have good angler access and casting room I am using a hi-tech graphite rod with a 2000 size reel. Its 7'6 long with a line rating of 2-8 lbs and with such a long smooth taper right to the butt it works brilliantly for casting the lighter plastics and maintaining a connection with the fish once he's on. Having a good reel to cast with and a smooth drag for those bigger fish that peel the line away is pretty important as well. Any reel size from 1000 to 2500 is good as long as it is matched reasonably to the rod you're using. Plenty of rod manufacturers are building high-modulus rods now and you can pick them up for a reasonable price in any size and shape that you want to fish with. I also use a short rod 5" 6'" from time to time, usually in those half-overgrown places that you sometimes end up in trying to catch that next fish and the 2000 reel sits ok on it.
The Line: Braid, braid, braid, braid, braid, braid, braid! Having a nice light braid to fish with will miraculously change your ability to keep tabs on your retrieve and the fish in the water. The zero stretch maximises feel and contact in the water and it has no memory so casting farther and more accurately is practically a certainty. At the moment I am using Super PE in 10 lb, but there are some very good braid and fused lines on the market. Ask for advice and find some you like-you will never look back. Most people (including me) would say that 10 lb is overkill for trout fishing and they are mostly correct but I have found that casting plastics around in places like Brushy Lagoon the occasional 10 lb plus Atlantic salmon will grab a hold of your lure and take off into the sticks and having the extra bit of leverage and wear resistance can be a god send at times. Mostly for trout I prefer around a 3-4 lb braid and I have a spare spool for my reel which makes the changeover much easier. It's not so much that you can fish with more drag because a lot of the time you're only using 4-8 lb fluoro leaders but one of braids downfalls is that it frays more easily on snags than mono. Try to compromise between strength and fishability for your own particular application.
The Business End: Fluorocarbon leaders are a well known and recognised constant in soft plastics fishing for a few reasons. They are much more difficult for the fish to notice in the water so less will be spooked by the line as it pulls the lure across the front of its face. They are also hard coated and abrasion resistant which comes in handy when you're fishing those areas that are particularly treacherous for lure fishing. The hard fluorocarbon line prevents wear and tear on the leader during the fight if the fish has slurped the plastic right down deep in his mouth (which is often the case with soft plastics). Brands don't seem to be quite as important with fluorocarbon as with braid but try and find one that isn't bottom of the line because there is nothing worse than losing a good fish due to cheap gear failing on you. One of the other things that it's important to learn here is knots and joining techniques. When your fishing light braid with somewhere between 4 and 10 lb fluoro leader you will have to learn some new knots for joining them. You should find a strong knot that is easy to tie and small enough to cast well through the runners. Most favoured knots are the double uni and 5 turn surgeons knots. There is also a new knot that I am yet to master called the FG knot, apparently it works extremely well on heavy stuff but I'm yet to try it in the smaller weights. You can finish the knot off with Loon Knot Sense. This smoothes the join and stops it snagging in the runners as sometimes happens. Loon Knot Sense sets almost instanly in sunlight or under any ultraviolet light.
The Pointy Bit: Jig heads are available in so many different brands, shapes and sizes that it's almost impossible to choose one to begin with. So far I have found that the Squidgy plastics actually swim better with the round squidgy heads and most other plastics swim better with the nitro heads. Hook size is the easiest factor to account for, put as simply as possible, use the hook size that matches the plastic you intend to use on it. Most people will say that anywhere up to a 1/0 is reasonably appropriate. The hook should be well clear of the lure body and come out at the right point for the style of lure. It varies a little between different styles but your tackle shop should be able to show you how to rig each style if you ask them about it. Weights are another matter all together. This is where soft plastics can start to become complicated. Don't stress out if you have a lot of problems choosing the right weight to begin with. Matty and I will usually be using a different weight even though we fish together quite often with exactly the same lure. He uses a little more lead than me and works the plastic slightly faster through the water. For trout fishing you can use anything from zero weight up to about 1/11 oz. Rarely will we ever go past this weight for trout waters unless it is fast flowing water and very deep. It is hard to learn to keep in touch with your lure at the lighter weights but the less you can use to get to the place in the water column you want to fish, the more time you can hold it in the strike zone once it gets there. Try a few different things and find out what works for you. I wish it was easier to steer people in the right direction but it's so far from generic that to advocate a specific size and weight would most likely lessen people's chances of catching good fish. As an example, in the fast, shallow, turbulent, running water of a clear stream such as St. Patricks River, I would start by using a three inch T-Tail with a size #1 hook and a 1/24 oz jig head casting square of the current as working it diagonally across the river just above the bottom as the water drags it back. Quite often I will cut 10-12 mm off the front of a T-Tail if the fish are fairly small. It doesn't seem to alter the strike rate very much but the hook-up rate is much better. In the super shallow still waters around the top edge of Brushy Lagoon a three inch hollow belly with a 1/32 jig head will operate really well, darting left to right, in two inches of depth without dragging the bottom or floating on the surface (you should try touching the surface every few metres on the retrieve here, it works well for me sometimes). I've got to say that I do prefer the Berkley Gulp! and Powerbait range of plastics and hence I mostly use the Nitro jig heads with Owner hooks in them. They are super sharp and work really well in the water. When you're attaching the jig head to the leader you can choose one of two different methods (with a myriad of knots). The two methods are speculated over by all of the plastics fishing community and it seems to work both ways for me so try both and make up your own mind. The first method is to attach the line hard down onto the jig head with any of the normal knots. The other method, which I tend to lean towards, is to tie the lure on using a small loop of about 2 cms which gives the plastic more room to move around freely in the water and lift and sink slightly differently. The best knot for this is probably Lefty's Loop Knot and it's really easy to learn. Give everything a try at some point and find out what will work best for you.
Again it's really ambiguous as to which plastic will catch you a fish. It depends on where you're fishing and what for. The general consensus is to "match the hatch". Have a look at where you're fishing and try to establish what the trout in the area are eating. If there are reeds and sticks around that could be harbouring fugitive larvae you could try a one inch Berkley Nymph, in running water or where you can see baitfish skirting along the edges try a T-Tail or minnow style plastic. There are so many styles now that you can pick and choose in the shop until the cows come home but it comes down to experience. Try a few and see what works for the sort of fishing your doing. Colours are also pretty hazy in plastics. Sometimes one colour will work really well and another one will perform poorly in the same place. One rule to start from is to try a natural colour for the area first and work from there. Less distinctive colours usually work well in clear water in particular the black/gold glitter T-Tail. For the more murky waters try something a bit brighter to catch the fish's eye or something very dark that will make a good silhouette in the water. As with everything else in fishing, people have their preferred plastics that they will exploit more often than others and my personal favourites are the three inch pumpkinseed minnow, one inch off-white nymph and the three inch olive/pearl T-Tail from Berkley. Don't be afraid to put on a big plastic when you're fishing for trout. I know people who use a four to five inch plastic when chasing the big bumpers in the lakes. The problem with bigger plastics is that you can decrease the hook-up rate on smaller fish. Get out there and do some testing of your own to find what works best in your area.
Retrieves are the most diverse, hardest to teach or explain, and peculiar part of all soft plastics fishing yet probably most critical to the strike rate. They will work when fished in almost any retrieve but to get the best results from your lure you have to be able to make it work in the water. I find that nearly all the trout that I catch hit the plastic just as it starts to drop but my friend Josh "Captain Courageous" Clark does quite well too and he barely ever lets the lure fall straight down through the water. It is good practise to watch your lure in clear still water and try and get an idea of exactly how it moves when you change your retrieve. Every place I fish and every different style of plastic requires a different action (even if only very slightly) and you can adjust to suit the situation by paying attention and focusing on what happens when you lift or drop the rod and how fast you retrieve the line onto the reel. I find that in deeper calm water two long fast snaps upwards and then a long slow sink (with the lost line wound up) works well and in the shallows fishing with a minnow style (especially a hollow belly) I use as little weight as possible and a low rod tip, twitching the lure along with only a few inches movement left to right. When I am using a nymph I tend to cast reasonably close to the fish and let it drop straight down for a moment as often they will not spook but instantly swim over and scoff the lure, it depends on where you fish, conditions and how timid the trout are. The only thing that most people will agree on is that plastics generally work better when you incorporate pauses into your retrieve in some form, whether it is for just a split second or for long slow drops through the water column. Where you cast can have a dramatic effect on the plastic too. In shallow running streams many people will cast upstream because trout practically always face upstream and if you cast ahead of yourself the fish won't have seen you walking the bank and frighten easily. The down side of this is that it is hard to make the plastic work well when it is being buffeted down the river towards you. With a bit of practice and patience it can be done very effectively but retrieving the lure diagonally with the river as it is washed downstream works reasonably and is easier to master. In the lakes it is usual to let the plastic sink right to the bottom before beginning your retrieve and because this can take such a long time a lot of fishermen don't get the results because they get impatient and start the retrieve to early. As with everything else I've mentioned, such a huge part of soft plastics in general, it's all about practical experience.
The biggest thing I want to mention to all anglers who are just taking up the soft plastics craze now, or those who are thinking about it, is that it definitely does work, but it takes time and patience. It really is hard work for some people to get the hang of it. Some people pick it up straight away and fall into a pattern that works for them. Others like myself (at least in the case of trout) spend hours throwing away at the water for nothing until they finally crack the code. The one thing I will just about guarantee is that once you have got it happening for yourself its addictive and you won't look back for a moment and the results are all worth it. I am catching more and bigger trout every time I learn something new and the more you learn the easier it is to take the next step. It's hard to beat the soft plastics I reckon, you just have to climb that great big steep learning curve and take the leap of faith. It's hard to believe, but they really are as good as people say they are once you are using them properly. So take the next step and get cracking on some big trout on plastics.