Just a short decade ago, it seems that only western anglers knew what soft swimbaits were all about. Since that time, the genre of lures has spread across the bass-fishing world, and is now a firmly rooted lure on the tournament scene. Whether filling a limit or searching for a kicker, swimbaits can get the job done when you understand the situations in which the various baitfish-shaped plastics perform best.
Solid-bodies swimbaits have been around my entire life, if you consider the old Mister Twister Sassy Shads in the category. Three decades ago I used the small verisons on exposed jig heads for smallmouth bass in mid-Atlantic rivers but never considered a big version for largemouth. Today’s swimbaits with hook slots, ribs, large paddle tails and many other tweaks are dialed in for tournament and recreational fishing alike.
For the last several years, plastic swimbaits have accounted for many wins and high finishes on the national circuits, as well as untold numbers of regional open and club tournaments. Last winter on Lake Okeechobee, Drew Benton used Bass Assassin Die Dapper swimbaits as a key component of his attack that won that FLW Tour event. He burned the solid body swimbait over lily pads to draw reaction strikes. He also used the bait as a trailer on a vibrating jig to produce fish.
Later in the spring, Patrick Bone, of Cleveland, used solid-body Keitech swimbaits on a Yum Flash Mob Junior bladed umbrella rig to clinch the B.A.S.S. Southern Open tournament on Douglas Lake and punched his ticket to the recent Bassmaster Classic on Guntersville. The versatility of these plastics is undisputable, but the selection can be overwhelming to a beginner. The two main styles of swimbaits that I will deal with in this article are hollow-body swimbaits and solid-body swimbaits. While they both resemble baitfish, they have very different properties and varied applications. To help you sort it out, bass pros Josh Bertrand, Patrick Pierce, Patrick Bone and regional tournament angler Tommy Sweeney offer their swimbait tips.
Hollow-body swimbaits became popular out west in the gin-clear water, and their popularity moved east following tournament wins. B.A.S.S. Elite Series rookie Josh Bertrand, of Gilbert, Arizona, knows all too well the reality of fishing in water where you can see the bottom in 25 feet.
“Hollow-body swimbaits are so natural looking that they are one of the few artificial lures a bass will eat in ultra-clear water,” Bertrand shared.
He touts the glimmer powders, paint job, quality plastics and other attention to detail in the Pro Swimbaits line (www.proswimbaits.com). Their 3.5 and 5-inch Pro Minnows are a staple in Bertrand’s arsenal. He fishes the lures in open water with exposed jig heads (also available at Pro Swimbaits) that have a spring to lock down the head and have a razor-sharp Gamakatsu hook. The spring helps minimize torn baits, which saves both time on the water and money in fewer replaced swimbaits. He pairs the 7/0 hook with the 5-inch swimbait and the 4/0 version with the 3.5-inch Pro Minnows. He also rigs these exposed hook versions on umbrella rigs when that is the most effective presentation. When fishing heavy cover, Bertrand rigs the hollow-body baits on Owner Beast hooks (6/0 version for 5-inch Pro Minnows and 4/0 for 3.5-inch Pro Minnows).
He uses baitcasting tackle for fishing larger swimbaits but switches to spinning gear when flinging the smaller 3.5-inch minnows. His baitcasting setup is a 7-foot, 3-inch heavy-action Temple Fork Outfitters rod paired with a Abu-Garcia Revo STX reel (7.1:1 ratio) that is spooled with 15-lb. test Berkley 100 percent fluorocarbon line. For spinning, he uses a 7-foot, 3-inch medium-heavy action Temple Fork Outfitters rod and Revo Premier (30 Series) reel spooled with 12-lb. test Berkley NanoFil braided line. A 6- to 8-foot 10-lb. test fluorocarbon leader between his braid and lure ensures that the fish will not be spooked by his line.
Bertrand offers one additional tip for fishing swimbaits in clear water.
“If you are not getting bites in ultra-clear water, try throwing the swimbait on an unweighted hook and work it slowly where the fish can chase it down. It has to be rigged perfectly straight to work properly, but it is worth the extra rigging time,” he said.
Star Tron pro Patrick Pierce, of Jacksonville, Florida, fishes the B.A.S.S. Southern and Central Open trails and P.A.A. events and uses both hollow-body and solid-body swimbaits. Pierce is used to fishing southeastern waters several orders of magnitude dirtier than Bertrand’s typical lakes, and he usually picks up the hollow versions when heading outside of his home state to reservoirs where structure instead of cover is the target. He employs them to fish points, drains and creek channels and usually opts for a 6-inch Strike King Shadalicious.
“I like to fish the hollow-body swimbaits in clear water and in open areas where shad school and suspend, and I fish them all the way back to the boat,” Pierce said. “A lot of times they will use the shade of the boat and follow the swimbait all the way back in and cream it right at the boat.”
In his native waters of Florida, Pierce usually gives solid-body swimbaits the nod. The main reason is the cover.
“Solid-body swimbaits come through cover great and hold together well. With all the vegetation in Florida and the more stained water, I’m usually throwing a solid bait,” Pierce shared.
He fishes the solid baits in places where he throws a spinnerbait or swim jig. These prime locations includes blowdown trees, grass edges and docks. He uses the Strike King Swimming Caffeine Shad in both the 4- and 5-inch sizes and rigs them with Capt. Bert’s Swimbait Hooks and Flashy Swimbait Hooks with a light weight, often 1/16-oz. He likes the spring on the front of the hook, as it securely holds the bait, allowing him to fish it right in heavy cover and skip under docks without mangling his lure.
During the spawning period when he is primarily sight fishing, he has a solid-body swimbait tied on and uses it to cover water between beds. All summer, he fishes them around vegetation.
“I like to wake the baits, reeling them fast, but not breaking the surface,” he said. “You can reel the bait over holes in the grass, and the big females will come up and trash it!”
For fishing swimbaits around cover, Pierce chooses a 7-foot heavy action Legend Extreme rod paired with a high-speed reel to allow him to take up slack quickly. He spools with 50-lb. test Vicious braided line and ties directly to his hook. In the stained water, he does not believe that you need a leader, and the fewer knots the better. This is the same setup he uses for fishing hollow frogs over heavy vegetation.
Tommy Sweeney, regional tournament angler from Waycross, uses solid-body Keitech Fat Swing Impact swimbaits (in the 3.8- and 4.8-inch sizes) all around the Southeast to bring big sacks to the BFL tournament scales.
“I have not seen any other swimbaits that have such tremendous action on the fall,” he said. “I cast past a shoreline target, reel up to it, kill it for a second or two, and then pick up the retrieve, and they smash it.”
Sweeney rigs the Fat Swing Impacts on Capt. Bert’s Swimbait Hooks built around an extra-wide-gap Mustad hook that fits the shape of the Keitech perfectly.
He shared, “The way that spring holds the nose and the hook rides perfectly in the hook slot, I can frequently catch a dozen fish or more off of one swimbait.”
When he wants a little more flash, he opts for Capt. Bert’s Flashy Swimbait Hook with a small willowleaf spinner on the bottom to trigger bites. He has had several instances over the last year when fish turn up their noses at larger lures but will eat the more subtle presentation. The most dramatic was last spring while field-testing the hook-lure combination. He saturated a bay with a spinnerbait without a tap and then switched to the bladed swimbait rig and crushed a 6-pounder and several other fish. The 4/0 hook perfectly fits the 3.8-inch bait, while the 5/0 hook matches up with the 4.8-inch version.
Patrick Bone, B.A.S.S. Southern Open pro angler from Cleveland, has tried a variety of retrieves with swimbaits and has settled on a straight, steady retrieve as his most effective. It does not matter whether he is throwing swimbaits on his favorite YUMbrella rig or individually, whether for spotted bass or largemouth, his most effective retrieve is the same.
“I like to make that swimbait look natural, like a fish just roaming around,” Bone said.
That slow, steady retrieve is key to the bass eating his lures. His recent trip to the 2014 Bassmaster Classic Tournament is proof that the retrieve works.
Color selection is an interesting variable with swimbaits. Out West in the gin-clear water, anglers are very dialed in to the various shades of colors and fish many nuances of a color. A quick perusal of the Pro Swimbaits website will show you that there are many shades of shad, bluegill and other baitfish. There is even a Bertrand Special color in the line, developed by its namesake.
In the Southeast’s dirtier water, anglers focus more on how to rig a swimbait for the application at hand and where to throw it than the color. Most anglers are throwing a shad or a bluegill version of their favorite swimbait. Pierce throws shad colors but adds a watermelon-red version frequently when fishing Florida grass. Sweeney also uses a gold flash Keitech when fishing Georgia and Florida black waters with a high population of golden shiners. The key, as with most plastics, is to throw the color you have confidence in, while taking into account the baitfish you are trying to imitate and the water conditions.
Swimbaits have found their way into the mainstream of tournament and weekend anglers, but the options can certainly be intimidating. Use these tips from the pros to choose the right lure, rig and gear setup for the waters you face, and your catch rate will soar with the temperatures this spring.
Editor’s Note: Capt. Bert is a freelance writer from Waycross. He has also been making quality lures (both freshwater and saltwater) under the name Bert’s Jigs & Things since 1987. Give him a call for a catalog or information at (912) 287-1604 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Swimbaits In Saltwater
Swimbaits are just as effective in saltwater as they are for bass. Fished with an exposed hook on a jighead or weedless, like a Flashy Swimbait Hook, you can catch saltwater predators on them in almost any habitat. Inshore fish like seatrout and redfish will inhale them as if they were eating a mullet. Do not be surprised if an outsized tarpon mauls your swimbait, as well. While bass anglers will use giant swimbaits from time to time, the smaller versions in the 3- to 5-inch range typically get the nod in the brine.