Well-known Australian fishing writer and TV presenter Steve ‘Starlo’ Starling has spent the past decade and a half refining his techniques for using soft plastic lures, as well as helping to design an entire range of these deadly fish-catching weapons. In this series, he shares some of his valuable insights and tips on how to get the most out of fishing with soft plastics.
In my opinion, soft plastic lures have been one of the biggest game changers in fishing since the arrival of monofilament nylon line and fibreglass rods totally transformed the face of our sport during the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Actually, if you want to get technical about it, soft lures have been around at least as long as those other two trend-setting by-products of the plastic revolution that swept the globe after World War Two. However, outside of North America, soft plastic fishing lures didn’t really catch on with the mainstream angling populous of many countries until the mid to late 1990s. Since then, they’ve certainly made up for lost time!
In Australia, where I live, the soft plastic boom is now into its eleventh or twelfth straight year and shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, more and more devotees discover this form of fishing each season, constantly swelling the ranks of soft lure converts. I believe a similar trend is evident throughout South East Asia, although it seems that many anglers in this region are yet to fully embrace the potential of these life-like lures in both salt and fresh water.
Over this same period, I’ve been fortunate enough to become intimately involved with the development of an entire brand of soft plastics, jig heads and other accessories that are designed and made specifically for the Australian market. The Squidgy range was conceived by myself and my good friend, Kaj ‘Bushy’ Busch, at the beginning of the new millennium, before finally being launched early in 2002. This year marks Squidgy’s tenth birthday, and I’m pleased to report that the brand is still going strong. Squidgies remain the soft plastic market leader in my home country, as well as gradually developing a following amongst fans much further afield in Asia, Africa, Europe and even the Americas. It would be fair to say that in just a decade, Squidgies have changed the way millions of people go fishing!
However, as effective and relatively easy to use as soft plastics are, there are some anglers who still fail to fully capitalise on the fish-catching effectiveness of these lures. Here in Australia, Bushy, myself and the rest of the Squidgy team (part of the Shimano Australia organisation) have addressed this issue by undertaking a rigorous, ongoing education campaign consisting of magazine features, books, instructional videos, DVDs, television segments and public seminars all aimed at raising awareness and understanding about fishing with soft plastics. My aim in this series for “Fish On!” is to share some of that educational process and information with you in the hope of improving your results and raising your fishing enjoyment levels!
WHY THEY WORK
Make no mistake, soft plastic lures are absolutely deadly fish-catching weapons in even halfway experienced hands. It’s interesting to look at exactly why they are so successful and why, on many occasions, plastics can actually out-fish hard-bodied lures and even live baits.
As a material for lure making, soft plastic (usually a PVC-based plastisol) has a lot going for it. This material can be used to create almost any size, shape and colour that can be imagined by the human mind. Soft plastics also look and feel more realistic than any other form of artificial lure. Because they are so lifelike, these artificial baits extend the boundaries of lure fishing. Fish that may only be marginally interested in eating something made from hard plastic or metal can regularly be fooled into eating a softie — often with a high degree of enthusiasm!
The addition of scents and flavours to soft plastic lures can enhance their performance even further, inducing fish to hang onto them longer and thus making it much easier for anglers to hook those fish. No wonder plastics are proving to be so popular and effective!
In addition to feeling more life-like than hard lures, soft plastics can also be made to appear extremely real and edible to a predatory fish. For example, many creatures that fish prey on have some form of semi-transparency or translucency, and this is very easy to achieve with soft plastic.
Colour can also be an important factor at times (although perhaps not quite as critical in many instances as a lot of anglers seem to believe). Soft plastics can be made in almost any arrangement of colours and colour patterns, with or without the see-through translucency already described.
Flash is another attack response trigger and many of the prey items fish hunt have various degrees of flash. It’s fairly easy to add flash to a soft plastic lure by including some metallic glitter in the plastisol mix, or placing a thin metallic foil sheet inside the lure when it is being poured and moulded.
Then there’s shape and action. As I mentioned, the shapes of soft plastics are limited only by the human imagination, and a plastic’s swimming action is dictated by this shape and also by the hardness or softness of the plastisol formula used. As well as making the lure look alive, a swimming action gives off vibrations that fish can detect via their lateral lines and other sensory capabilities. This helps explain why lures (including soft plastics) can still attract fish in very dirty water or on the darkest of nights.
So, we have a few clues now as to why soft plastics are so attractive to fish. Basically it’s because they can be made to look, move, feel, smell and even taste like something edible. The other wonderful thing about good soft plastics is that they form part of an extremely versatile and adaptable ‘modular’ system. An angler can mix, match, adjust and fine tune their rigging methods, jig head or sinker weight selection, hook sizes, tail colours, patterns, tackle, lines, leaders, knots and presentation strategies to really make their soft plastics perform.
It may sound like a big call, but soft plastic lures often do out-fish fresh baits and even live baits! How can this be? The answer is simple: because you can cover lots of water far more effectively with a soft plastic than you can with most natural baits. In many ways, softies are like re-usable, store-able, cast-able live baits that can be presented anywhere between the surface and the sea bed and, unlike real live baits, you don’t need aerated holding tanks or floating cages to keep them alive in!
The bottom line is that soft plastics imitate prey items better than just about any other form of lure or fly, and because you can fine tune the modular system and cover water effectively with them (both laterally and vertically), you can show your plastics to a lot of fish in the course of a day’s fishing. That equates to improved catch rates… and heaps more fun!
However, there are a few tricks to getting the best from soft plastics that will dramatically improve your catch rates when using these wonderful lures, and that’s the area I want to devote the rest of this feature to.
I still meet plenty of hopeful anglers every year who are struggling to catch fish on soft plastics, despite having given these lures a good try. Most of these people have suitable equipment and a fair idea about lure selection and rigging, but are just doing one or two seemingly small things the wrong way. Believe it or not, these tiny things can mean the difference between catching a reasonable number of fish and hooking almost none.
Many of these small errors occur during the rigging stage involved in matching a soft plastic tail to a jig head or hook, and the rest arise once the lure is in the water and being manipulated to (hopefully) appeal to a predatory fish. So, let’s start with rigging:
In our part of the world (Australia and South East Asia), the most common, and often the most effective, way to place a plastic tail on a standard jig head is to rig it up in a manner the Americans would call ‘Texposed’ (a combination of the words ‘Texas’ and ‘exposed’). In other words; to push the hook point into the nose of the soft plastic and feed the rubber tail around the hook bend before bringing the point out on the mid-line of the plastic’s back. The result is the standard soft plastic set up we are most familiar with.
As simple as this rig sounds (and it is pretty simple), it’s critically important to get it exactly right. One of the most common causes of poor fishing results with plastics is incorrectly or sloppily rigged tails. Bent, twisted and off-centre tails simply don’t swim properly. They often spin in the water, looking unnatural and potentially causing line twist. However, even tails that are only a fraction out of whack and which lay over their sides slightly when pulled through the water or don’t quite wriggle right can often put sharp-eyed fish species, particularly in hard-fished waters.
Following a couple of simple steps every time you rig a tail on a jig head will really help to avoid these hassles and although these steps probably add an average of 20 or 30 seconds to the rigging of each soft plastic, that extra time pays real dividends in terms of fish caught. Here’s how to do it:
Start by laying the jig you’ve chosen to use alongside the tail, with the nose or front of the soft plastic level with the back of the jig head. Carefully note exactly where the bend of the jig hook comes to on the back (top) of the plastic tail. This will be the exit spot for the hook point as you rig. You can even mark this point, if you wish, using a marker pen, but usually there’s some feature on the plastic tail itself you can use as a reference guide (a coloured stripe, a spot or scale, a letter of the maker’s name, a moulded fin or whatever).
Next, push the point of the jig hook into the front of the soft plastic lure, right in the centre of its head or nose. Thread the soft plastic lure onto and around the hook bend (just as you’d feed a prawn or a worm onto a bait hook), so that the point of the hook exits the back of the plastic exactly on the centre line and at that point you noted earlier, or as close to it as possible. Snug the nose of the plastic up against the back of the jig head, and you’re in business… It’s really that easy. Having said that, I should stress that you can also easily make a mess of this procedure. Take the time to get it right.
If your lure looks neat and straight on the jig and the hook point emerges smack on the centre line of the plastic’s back (or within a millimetre or two of it), you’ve done it properly. On the other hand, if the finished package looks in any way suspect, as in slightly crooked, bent, skewed or bunched up—rig it again! Seriously, it’s worth the effort, as getting this right can potentially make a huge difference to your catch rates.
No matter how good everything looks, you should never cast a rigged soft plastic and begin fishing with before dropping it in the water on a short length of line at your feet or beside the boat and pulling it along for a metre or so to check its action. Do this every time you rig a plastic. If the lure swims straight and looks good on this test run, the tail wobbles or kicks enticingly, and the whole package looks like something that might actually be alive, then you’ve rigged it properly and you can start fishing. But if anything looks the slightest bit odd, lift the lure out of the water and tweak it. This could be as simple as twisting the tail ever so slightly on the hook, or pulling on it to straighten it, or it might involve removing the plastic from the jig completely and starting again. Whatever needs to be done, do it!
When you’re absolutely satisfied that the plastic is rigged correctly, you can start fishing…
One of the first things I so often find myself having to teach newcomers to plastic fishing is to slow down! Many of them, particularly people with a long history of using hard plastic, timber or metal lures, work or retrieve their soft plastics much too quickly. Remember, soft plastics look, feel and even smell or taste like real food, so you don’t need to rely on speed to create an effective deception.
The other key difference between soft plastics and most hard lures emerges when you stop cranking or trolling a soft plastic and let it simply sink down through the water under its own weight or that of a jig head. Unlike so many other artificial offerings, softies continue to swim and ‘work’ when sinking, or even when just hanging in the water (especially if there’s some current). This is a vitally important factor to understand. In fact, it’s so important that we’ve coined a term for it. We don’t talk about letting your plastic sink or drop. We talk instead, about letting it ‘swim down’. It’s a perfect description of what happens. Weighted soft plastics don’t just sink, they swim down.
The next key point to take on board is the fact that many fish will eat your plastic more willingly while it is swimming down in this manner than they will when you are retrieving it, lifting it with the rod or dragging it behind a moving boat. In fact, in some fisheries and on certain species, the vast majority of strikes, takes or bites will occur while the lure is swimming down through the water column. Please read that previous sentence again, because it just might be one of the most important in this feature! If you understand and accept this truth, you are well on your way to becoming a more successful soft plastic fisher.
There are so many more tips and tricks I would love to share with you about successful soft plastic fishing, but I’ve run out of space for now! Never fear, this series will continue in future editions of “Fish On!”, and meanwhile, you can always visit my on-line blog at www.starlofishing.me to learn more.
Until next time, Tight Lines!