The art of softbait fishing

by Jason Harris – Strikezone fishing charters
Remember the good old days of jigging for snapper (and other bottom-dwelling species) back in the mid-eighties, and the jig-mania videos where Grim Reaper, Lethal Lures, and Mister Twister soft-rubber lures were at the forefront of lure design? The days when we used glass rods and 10-15kg monofilament lines with large overhead or 850-size spinning reels? Well, they say history always repeats, and in the last 7-8 years this once-almost-forgotten art of catching snapper on lures has been re-born. Things have come a long way over the past three decades, and the way many people catch snapper (and other species) has been completely transformed.

Let’s start with the rods. Gone are the 7ft glass rods where you needed to use two arms to impart any sort of action into your chosen lure. Modern-day jig rods are lighter, stronger, more fast-actioned pieces of thinly tapered graphite or carbon (or a mix of both), and some incorporate nano resins to make them even lighter and stronger––no two arms needed here, just a flick of the wrist can impart the right action and this can be done all day without getting fatigued.

The reels too, that go with these rods are only a fraction of the size and weight of yesteryear. With what most would once have considered a reel suitable for catching sprats, these new generation of reels can handle almost any fish you want to catch. Aircraft-grade alloys and carbon-infused graphites with high-quality internal components make up these powerful little reels. The tackle giant, Berkley, has even developed a new braided line that sinks just like a fluorocarbon (until now all braided lines have floated), and so, assisting the lightly-weighted lures we use.

The lures themselves have also come a long way over the years, and the one brand that changed the game was actually in its early stages of development way back when we were shoving our old VHS videos into their players––that’s right, thirty years ago an American scientist, named John Procnow, was working on a fishing lure that resembled the very successful rubber lures that worked so well on the bass-fishing scene in the US, not made of rubber but a biodegradable substance that, if lost or eaten by the fish, would have no harmful effect on the environment or the creature that swallowed it. About 10 years ago ‘Gulp!’ was released onto the market, and it took the fishing world by storm.

I remember working for Pure Fishing at the time of release, and to say demand was high would be a complete understatement … it was phenomenal! A marketing drive of seminars and magazine articles educating people and proving this new way of fishing produced the goods, created a massive demand for not only the lures but the tackle required to make it all work. Flying-in 40ft containers from the US on a weekly basis was required to meet this demand, and so, the softbait revolution was born. Gulp! is a unique product because it not only has an incredible action (like a lot of ordinary soft-rubber lures), it has an irresistible smell infused into it which fish find very attractive, and of course, it’s friendly to the ocean if lost or eaten by the fish. The combination of action and scent make this lure number-one in the eyes of most serious fishos.

So, we have talked a little about the history and the right tackle to use, but all of this is useless unless the right techniques are employed to be consistently successful at catching fish. Many articles in fishing magazines and even entire books have been written about catching snapper with softies, but as a charter skipper I am constantly asked by clients about catching fish with softbait, do I think it works better than bait, how do I use them, and many other questions. I also see some common mistakes anglers make when using them, so the purpose of this article is to point out the key things to remember to hopefully make newcomers and even experienced lure fishermen more successful in their fishing adventures.

Jig-head selection.

Two things to consider here are, firstly, weight selection and secondly, hook size. The most important point here is weight selection. Ideally, you want your lure to sink as slowly as possible while still being able to reach the bottom before you drift past the point of where your lure entered the water after casting. Go to heavy and your softbait will plummet to the bottom, lose all its action, and not be attractive and visible to the fish. It will also be harder to work effectively from the rod. Go to light in weight and your lure will not get to the bottom or will not be there long enough to attract many strikes. Generally speaking, the bottom third of the water column is where you will hook most of your snapper, so the longer you have in this space, the more fish you will catch. There are times when the snapper will be close to the surface and lighter weights will be required, but we will talk about what is normally the case. The weight you use will be dependent mainly on two things. Drift speed, and depth of water.


Let’s now look at hook size. Determining the ideal hook size is quite simple. Snapper attack a baitfish normally from the belly up to the head region, so you want the hook to be about halfway down your lure, around opposite the belly area. Go to a bigger size in your hook and you will take away some of the action of the lure, and you will also miss some strikes. Anglers often say to me that they get the tails bitten off, and if they had a bigger hook that came out nearer the tail they would catch more fish, but this is not the case. Leatherjackets and other reef fish are the culprits here and not snapper which are biting the tails off––trust me on this one. Generally speaking, a 2/0 to 3/0 is the correct size for a 5-inch bait and a 5/0 good for the larger 7-inch baits.

Casting ability:

This is one area that lets many anglers down. Basically, the further one can cast, the more fish they will catch. A long cast allows your lure to be in the strike zone for longer, therefore increasing the chances of a hook-up. As we are always drifting with this style of fishing, being able to cast well-forward of the drift is a huge advantage because you are covering more ground before having to wind in and cast forward again. Being able to cast a long way when wash-fishing is advantageous as well, enabling you to keep your boat and crew well away from dangerous swells breaking onto the shoreline. So, being able to cast good distances will certainly increase your catch rate and make you a better lure fisherman.

Working the bait:

As with any lure-fishing, the action the angler imparts via the rod tip often determines whether you go home with a feed or not. Softbait lures need to be worked! I have seen many clients turn up on the boat with all the good gear but struggle to catch fish often because of one or two simple errors, with neglecting to work the bait being a common one. There is no right or wrong way to work your bait with everyone having a different technique, but the point here is to impart some sort of action into your lure. Try to visualize what your lure is doing under the water, and how an injured baitfish might swim if it was in some sort of distress. After casting well forward of the drift I give the lure ample time to reach the bottom. Then I pinch the line with the hand holding the rod to make sure I get tight wraps on the reel as I wind in the slack line till I can feel the slight weight of the lure. I then give the rod tip some short, sharp jerks at the same time as I’m winding in line very slowly. Once I get the lure close to the boat I continue to work the rod, but I stop winding as by then my line will be under me or I would be drifting away from your lure. At this point I let line out again to get back to the bottom, remembering we want our lure to be in that bottom third of the water column for as long as possible. Once your line is at a 45-degree angle away from the boat, wind in and start the process again. I try to visualize hopping the lure back to the boat after casting making sure I’m close to the seabed at all times.

While we are on the subject of casting, it is important to point out that having the correct sort of braid on your reel is essential. One chink in the armour of someone who turns up on my charter boat is almost always the braid on their reel. Because braided line has only a fraction of the diameter of an equivalent nylon line of the same breaking strain, it has a tendency to knot itself very easily. This is especially so with knitted braided lines. Knitted braids are soft to touch and very limp in the hand––fine for little bait-cast style of reel, but hopeless on spinning reels which the majority of people are using.

A fused braid is far superior, will feel slightly stiff to touch, and will not have quite the same limpness as the soft braids previously mentioned. A good fused braid will not have the tendency to knot itself while casting. Without sounding like an ad for Berkley, my opinion is that their Fireline braid is second-to-none when it comes to selecting a braid for your softbait reel. Unfortunately, many sets sold in tackle stores already come with braid on the reel. These supposedly free braid sets rarely come with quality line and it’s also unfortunate that the guys in the stores are not educating their customers, or are uneducated themselves as to which products are best for their particular application. Remember, it’s the line that’s between you and the fish, so make sure you have the right one for the job.

There is a huge variety of softbaits or soft plastics on the market nowadays and they all work on their day, so it’s up to you to experiment which ones work well for you and your area. I will say though that taking a variety of styles and colours on your fishing journeys often pays dividends when your favourite go-to colour or style doesn’t produce the goods.

There is much more we could talk about like, which rods, fluorocarbon leaders, areas to fish, etc. but we won’t go into those things now. The points talked about earlier are basic fundamentals to lure fishing success and are things I most commonly see anglers struggling with on soft-baiting charters, so I hope I have enlightened or reminded some of you who are thinking of giving it a go, or those who may be finding it hard catching fish consistently on lures, particularly snapper.

Like it or not, lure fishing for snapper is here to stay and once mastered is a wonderful addition to your fishing arsenal. I would suggest when starting out to leave the bait and burley at home, and force yourself into just lure fishing until you are finding consistent success. When the wind is blowing opposite to the current, and that burley and your bait keeps going under the boat, bring out the little rod––you may be pleasantly surprised at the result!

Tight lines and screaming little reels!

Jason Harris

Strikezone Fishing Charters Tairua

Ph 02102315760 or 07 8648190

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