Australian fishing writer and TV presenter Steve ‘Starlo’ Starling concludes his two-part overview of modern soft plastic fishing with an insightful look at the sometimes vexing question of choosing the best soft plastics for any given angling scenario.
In the previous issue of “Fish On!” magazine, I offered my thoughts on why modern soft plastics are such effective fish-catchers in an extremely broad range of angling environments and on so many different target species, in both salt and freshwater. I also provided some observations about the seemingly small differences in rigging and presentation of soft plastic lures that can have a profound influence on catch rates. This time, in the concluding instalment of my two-part special, I want to look at a subject that seems to cause great anxiety amongst many anglers: Choosing the best plastic to use in a given scenario.
In the course of my travels, I talk to lots of anglers. Some I encounter on the water, or meet at seminars and shows. Others I chat with via the various pages on Facebook that I run or help to administer (especially the StarloFishing, Fishingscool and Squidgy Soft Plastics pages), or through my blogs at www.starlofishing.me Still more send their letters or emails via the various magazines I write for. A lot of these anglers are keen to expand their knowledge of soft plastic fishing, and are struggling with aspects of that art. One question tends to dominate the requests for advice that I receive in this area. Almost without fail, that query begins with the words: “What’s the best soft plastic to use for…?”
The rest of that sentence almost always contains a species of fish and a precise location: What’s the best soft plastic for catching Barramundi in the Northern Territory’s Daly River? What’s the best choice for Coral Trout out on Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef? What’s the best softie to jig for Ebek off the Malaysian coast? What should I choose when chasing Toman in a Thai lake? Or Peacock Bass in a freshwater reservoir? And so on it goes…
I can’t help smiling at some of these questions. Anglers clearly have their favourite fishing spots and species, and many seem to expect that the fish they chase in these places will behave differently to those living down the road, around the bend or across the border. Generally speaking, this is not the case. To give you an example, I’ve caught introduced Redfin Perch in the New England rivers of north western New South Wales here in Australia, and also in the very “Old England” rivers around the historical university city of Cambridge, in Great Britain (where they’re simply known as Perch). Not too surprisingly, these fish looked the same, behaved similarly and happily ate identical lures in both locations, literally a world apart. The same could be said of Peacock Bass in their Amazonian home waters or a Singaporean reservoir…
Rather than asking me (or someone else) to nominate the best soft plastic for catching Barramundi in the Daly, an angler would be much better off seeking advice and opinion regarding the optimum approaches for targeting Barra in big, tidal rivers with lots of current flow and slightly discoloured water. That way, the answers they received would be applicable across a whole range of waterways featuring similar target species and conditions.
The message I’m trying to convey is a simple one: Fish are fish, and a particular species will behave in a very similar way when presented with a particular habitat type, season, degree of water clarity and set of food sources, regardless of its precise geographic location. This is a great thing to know, because it means that once we sort out some effective guidelines for one place and time, we can apply them in the future whenever we encounter similar conditions, even if we’re a long, long way from home. That’s a useful lesson to learn.
It still surprises me how daunted some anglers are at the prospect of making that initial choice, tying on that first lure and actually beginning to fish. It seems that the entire process genuinely freaks some folks out! They open their tackle box, scan its contents with a confused, worried expression, sit in an agony of tangled indecision for several minutes, then turn desperately to look for someone to direct their burning question to: “What should I use?”
If you truly have absolutely no idea where to start, take the plunge and make a guess! Tie something on, give it a swim and see if the fish show any interest. If they don’t, change your lure and try again. Or try something that has worked for you before, perhaps even an old favourite.
In reality, your approach rarely needs to be blind. You should at least have an idea of what lives in the waterway and what some of the most important food sources are likely to be. This basic knowledge is a big help in making your initial selection. If it’s a stocked Barramundi lake in Queensland, renowned for producing metre-plus bruisers and boiling with hand-sized Bony Bream (Herring), it doesn’t make a lot of sense to kick off with a 5 cm long worm or grub imitation! Conversely, if it’s a gin clear jungle stream with a good population of small to middling Sebarau, it will most likely be counterproductive to tie on a 15 or 20 cm long lure.
Engage your basic common sense and begin by pruning down at least the size selection process. If you’re chasing big fish that you suspect are eating big things, then choose a biggish lure. If you’re after smaller fish that you think are eating tiny food, pick a little lure.
While you’re at it, at least have a think about roughly matching the shape, colour and swimming action of those likely food items. Fly fishers call this thought process “matching the hatch” and it’s one of the most important steps in successful lure selection.
Be willing, however, to accept that you might be wrong… It happens! Just occasionally those big Barra, surrounded by all of those chunky Bony Bream and beefy Mullet, might actually be dining on a prolific year class of juvenile Rainbow Fish half the size of your little finger.
What I’m trying to tell you is that nothing and no one can give you better feedback on your lure choices than the fish themselves. Let them tell you what they want and, when they do, make sure you’re listening!
THE COLOUR QUESTION
The next most common question I field after the perennial “what’s the best lure for…?” is “what’s the best colour for…?”.
In my opinion, far too many anglers expend far too much time and energy agonizing over the lure colour issue. Yes, sometimes it’s important. Occasionally it’s absolutely critical. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: Most of the time the actual colour of your lure is far, far less important than its size, action and running depth. And that’s exactly where I usually rate colour in the lure selection process… Behind size, action and running depth. Yet I’m so rarely asked “what’s the best depth to target this fish at?” or “what sort of speed and lure action do they like?”. Instead, most anglers seem to believe that if they’re told the magic colour to use, success will instantly be theirs. If only fishing were really so simple!
Once again, matching the hatch is a very good place to start. If the little baitfish showering out of the water in fear where you’re fishing look to be silvery with a darker back, why not choose a silvery lure with a darker back to begin with?
If no obvious food sources are present and you’re not sure what the fish are actually eating, look at the water itself. Is it clear or dirty? And if it’s somewhere in between those extremes, is it green-tinged, brownish or tannin-stained? Whatever it is, the little critters living in it are likely to be wearing a roughly similar hue. So if it’s greenish, go for a green lure. If it’s tea-like, choose a red or brown plastic. Again, this is just a starting point. The tick of approval (or otherwise) will come from the true experts on this issue: the fish themselves. In other words, if your first choice draws a blank, try something else.
As a final word on colour selection, there’s a rule of thumb I’ve used for many years that usually stands me in pretty good stead. It goes something like this: If the water is gin clear, use subdued, natural tones. If it’s a bit dirtier, use something a little brighter. If it’s very discoloured, go for vivid, fluorescent tones. If it’s absolutely filthy, try black or purple… or bait… or go home! And finally, if you’re fishing companion is catching fish and you’re not, switch to exactly what he’s using!
As a final word on lure choice, try to accept that you won’t always get it right. While they’re not particularly bright, fish can be surprisingly fickle critters. Their “moods” (for want of a better term) constantly change, as does their behaviour and their choice of food. Sometimes they simply stop feeding altogether for lengthy periods (perhaps a lot of the time, for things like impoundment Barra or big Murray Cod here in Australia). When they do, the smartest lure choices in the world may still leave you with a limp line and a straight rod. After all, as has been said many times, if we were always successful, this wonderful sport of ours would be called “catching”, not “fishing”, and I’d imagine that we’d soon grow bored with it.
So, don’t be afraid of the lure selection process. Dive in (metaphorically speaking!) and have a try. Start by narrowing the parameters of size, depth, action and colour (in about that order) and making some educated guesses, then test your hypotheses. Sometimes you’ll find the right answers. Sometimes you won’t. And sometimes there is no right answer… That’s fishing!