Soft plastics have been around for a couple of decades now and have a place in most regular and casual anglers’ tackle boxes. Unfortunately, many anglers are still not achieving the success rates they could. This is because they’re not rigging correctly, using the wrong combination of plastic and jighead, using the wrong line, action, or simply fishing them in the wrong location or stage of the tide.
Consequently, I hear a number of casual anglers say they’ve tried soft plastics, but they don’t work. Either that or they’ve only caught one or two fish on them, and usually return to bait in frustration. The truth is, soft plastics work. Like most things in fishing, you need to adapt to the time, tide, wind, water colour and importantly the location. Your action also goes a long way to determine your success, as do factors like tackle choice and the correct presentation of your lure on the jighead.
This article highlights a range of soft plastic techniques, including the how, when and where to use them. It includes basic tips for people who are new to soft plastics fishing, as well as more advanced techniques for anglers who use them more regularly, but aren’t maximising their potential. With a bit of patience and practice, hopefully these techniques will deliver you better results with your soft plastics, regardless of how often you’ve used them before.
To begin with, there is little point being at the right place with the wrong tackle or presentation. It’s the fishing equivalent of trying to win the Melbourne Cup riding sidesaddle on a donkey! To maximise your chances of success, there are a few basics that soft plastics anglers need to get right first.
While an occasional hungry bream or flathead might take a poorly presented glob of frozen bait on a heavy monofilament trace, a poorly presented soft plastic will rarely, if ever, catch you a fish. Get it right though and it’s a different story! Here are some tips to get you started and well on the way to success with your tackle choice and presentation.
Only ever use jigheads, that have the weight built into the top of the shank of the hook, and not a standard hook for attaching your plastic. If you need more weight, use a heavier jighead and not a sinker above your jighead, or you’ll present the lure in a very unnatural fashion.
Make sure the plastic is sitting straight on the jighead. If it isn’t, keep re-inserting the plastic until it is. Line the plastic up with the nose against the end of the jighead and make a little mark where the hook should come out. Rig a few jigheads and plastics up before your session, so you can quickly tie on a pre-prepared one, reducing downtime on the water. If they’re scented, you can simply place them back in their bag.
Plastics with in-built jigheads and weights are also available and easier to use, but the downside is the choice of weights tends to be limited.
Regularly cover your plastic with scents to mask human smells like suncreen and enhance the taste of the plastic. This makes the fish come back again if you miss them the first time. There’s a range of soft plastic scents on the market – Pro Cure and Squidgy S Factor are popular and effective choices.
Use the thinnest possible and brightly coloured braided line for the location and target species. The bright colour is to see the hits and the slack of the line as it lands on the bottom, so you know when to pause and lift again. The bright colour makes a big difference and improved my catch rate when I got over the notion that it would put the fish off. The trace provides you with enough camouflage.
When you buy a new reel, look for ones with a spare spool. If they don’t have it, order one direct from the manufacturer or distributor. This way you can quickly change spools when you’re wading the flats, rivers or estuaries and avoid having to take a whole extra reel for different species, like whiting on surface lures and flathead on plastics.
Use graphite rods to get the best action from the lure and to feel hits transferred to the tip of the rod from the braid. Fibreglass rods might catch you fish, but they lack the sensitivity of graphite and will cost you many more. If you feel a bump with your graphite rod, strike! This is usually the fish closing its mouth on the lure.
Your jighead weight should be as light as possible for the location and tide. At the top of the tide, always reduce the weight of your jighead to get the most realistic natural action possible from the lure. Always tie a fluorocarbon trace to your braided line as this is less visible to the fish than brightly coloured braid. Fluorocarbon line is also preferable to monofilament as the refractive qualities mean it’s extremely difficult to see underwater.
To reduce the chance of wind knots, ensure your fluorocarbon trace is about a rod length, but not much longer. A top tip I was given recently is to make sure your connecting trace knot is above your bottom runner as you cast. Otherwise, when the knot comes in contact with the large bottom guide, even if it passes through, the leader will slow down while the line coming off the spool will still be moving at a speed that will tangle the line. Also make sure you follow through with your cast by pointing your rod tip toward the lure to assist the line coming off the spool as smoothly as possible. FACT BOX:
Always use jigheads not a sinker and hook.
Pre-rig a number of plastics and jigheads.
In-built jigheads are easier but limited in choice.
Cover your plastics in artificial scents.
Use the thinnest braid for the location and structure.
Buy reels with a spare spool for quick tackle changes.
Use graphite rods for the best action and feel.
Keep jighead weight to a minimum.
Use a fluorocarbon trace.
Reduce wind knots by reducing your trace length.
Now you have the basics of tackle choice and presentation right. Before we move onto particular locations and methods, let’s consider the strike. The strike is very important when using a soft plastic. When you strike, lift the rod straight up. The aim of the strike is to hook the fish in the top jaw. Strike, then keep the rod up and stay tight to the lure. Don’t lift your rod up then drop it down slack – this will pull the lure out of the fish’s mouth like a rubber band!
When fighting the fish, make sure you keep a nice bend in the rod to ensure the line is tight. The fish won’t get any loose line or slack that might allow it to shake the lure free. Finally, check your leader for any scuffs after every fish and replace the leader if necessary.
Just like buying real estate, soft plastic fishing is all about location, but there’s more to it. Particular techniques work better in some locations than others, and will vary according to the tide in the same location. Here are the actions and techniques that have worked for me in different locations and stages of the tide.
Shore-based soft plastic fishing is one of my favourite techniques. It has a lot more challenges and it gives you that feeling of freedom with your feet planted on terra firma, on the sand flats or shore of a river, lake or estuary. While you may have done some pre-planning at home on Google Earth, you don’t have all your modern technology with you or ability to quickly motor off from spot to spot – it’s just you, the water and the fish. You’re now relying on your senses and instinct to find fish, and that’s why I love it so much.
Importantly, when you’re land-based and restricted with how far you can go, you need to be comfortable. You want to make sure you keep your weight down in terms of the gear you lug with you. The less weight you carry, the more enjoyable it is and the longer you’re going to be prepared to fish, particularly in locations where you might be several hundred metres from shore on the flats or estuary.
In terms of rod and reel, lighter is better when you’re walking and casting for a few hours. A 1000-2000 size reel and 6’6”-7’ high modulus graphite rod is light and perfect for this situation. Apart from that, all I carry is a Lox shoulder bag with my lures, jigheads, braid scissors, scents and water, a few snaps and an Alvey Deluxe wading bag for any fish – it also fits a ruler, long nose pliers, rag and more. I’ve started attaching to my bait belt or waders a light weight Wilson landing net, which is perfect for landing flathead or bigger fish out in the water and saves you wading back several hundred metres to shore to land them.
The spots you should be targeting from the shore will depend on your species, but if you’re after flathead, you want to be targeting the entrance of drains, creeks, drop-offs, the edges of weedbeds or even small sand patches amongst the weed. The latter locations are where a pair of quality polaroid lenses come in very handy. Spotter’s Penetrator lenses are perfect to spot underwater structure, even in low light or overcast conditions as the lenses adjust to varying light conditions.
With tidal movement slowing right down at the top or bottom of the tide, you can use lighter weight jigheads, but also a simple cast and retrieve method. Every soft plastics angler has their own particular method, but the key thing to emphasise in any location is to use your wrist to impart the action, not your shoulder or arm, or you’ll soon end up very sore after hundreds of casts!
When chasing flathead, bream or fish like grunter from the flats at this stage of the tide, use the three lifts and drop method. This means, cast out and wait for the lure to hit the bottom and then watch the bright coloured braid go slack and form a bow in the line as the jighead hits the bottom. Pause for a couple of seconds before taking up the slack or bow in the line by pointing the rod tip at the water and winding your reel. Then use your wrist to impart three short lifts or hops, so that the rod tip ends up at about two o’clock, or 70-80°, then drop the tip and watch the braid until the plastic sinks and hits the bottom again. Pause, take up the slack and go again.
If you get a short fast peck peck peck, it’s probably a bream, not the cleaner chomp or take of a flathead. If I miss a hit like this, I use faster shorter lifts or hops with my wrist. This seems to excite the bream and they hit again. A coating of artificial scent also helps here with fish coming back for more. I reapply scent every 6-8 casts.
As flathead are a schooling fish, if you catch a couple, keep peppering the same area with casts. You’ll normally get a few more fish and often the big female. I like to return any flathead over 65cm as these are the big breeders.
When the tide picks up, say in the third and fourth hour of the tide, your shore-based technique should change, especially in an area where the current passes through strongly. In these circumstances, you can still use relatively light jigheads, between 1/8-1/6oz for flathead in the shallows, but cast the plastic in the direction that the current is coming from. Then, use your wrist to lift the plastic up with the current and use your rod to hold it up in the current for 3-4 seconds, then drop your rod and let it sink. Walk along a few steps. Repeat until the lure is past you where you should retrieve it and cast against the current again. This technique can be deadly!
Many anglers might have thrown out a soft plastic as they’ve drifted along in an estuary or reef. The set and forget technique as you drift along can have limited success, but there are so many more tactics you can adopt that will increase your returns if you use the right gear, techniques and fish the right tides.
There are a couple of ways you can successfully drift your plastics from a boat. One method is to cast your plastic at your respective target area and retrieve it back to your boat using the lift and drop technique in shallower water, or a fast whipping of the rod, which is particularly effective in deeper areas. If you can, use the wind to your advantage by casting with it.
There are numerous places you can target with plastics in a bay, river or estuary with these methods. These include the edges of drop-offs, rock walls, oyster leases, fallen trees, creek mouths, sand patches amongst weed beds and man-made structure such as bridge pylons and boat pontoons. When drifting, try and cast over clean water that the boat hasn’t drifted over to reduce the chances of fish being spooked.
A huge advantage for soft plastic anglers drifting in a boat is the use of an electric motor. As you approach your target area, you can turn off the outboard motor and sneak up to your spot quietly with the electric. The electric motor also allows you to manoeuvre around quietly at your spot, and back to the top of your drift. Newer electric motors also come with the option of spot lock, to keep you on a particular spot. This is a useful anchoring technique.
Over reef or rocky ground, use your sounder to find the fish and structure. Start a drift that will use the current and take you over the structure. Here you can cast in front of the boat, work beside the boat and retrieve. Alternatively, you can cast your rod diagonally behind the boat and let it bounce along and drift, particularly mid tide when there’s a bit of run. This can also be an option in the estuary or river, if you’ve got someone on board who wants to take the less active approach to soft plastics fishing!
In deep water, if fish are showing on the sounder, a useful technique is to drift and jig and drop the plastic vertically using sufficiently weighted jigheads.
One of the less used soft plastics techniques is to anchor and fan cast lightly weighted plastics around structure in the two hour period around the turn of the tide, when the tidal run slows.
Essentially, the technique involves sounding around reef areas of the bay or offshore using structure or side scan technology to find fish. If the fish aren’t there, move – simple as that. The key is that the techniques are not time dependant, but rather tide dependant, so that means we catch fish regularly in gentleman’s hours. The tide rule of twelfths dictates that only 1/12ths and 2/12ths respectively of the tide movement occurs in the first and second last hours of the run-out, and the first and second hours of the run-in tide. This smaller movement is when we anchor down current from the tide and structure and cast very lightly weighted jigheads from 1/8-1/4oz up current and let it flutter down to the structure. Very regularly the fish will hit the lure on the first drop with this technique.
The same method can be employed if you have spot lock on your electric motor to hold you in place, with the advantage of not having to drop an anchor.
By way of example, we practised these techniques in Moreton Bay on a weekday with less boat traffic and we caught 10-15 snapper per person at times using these techniques.
Another less common technique for fishing with soft plastics is trolling. This is particularly effective during the mid-tide period when the tide can be running too fast for the cast and retrieve technique. There are two main areas you can employ this technique. Both require a boat with a relatively shallow draft.
Firstly, trolling plastics works in calm shallow bays over mud or sand flats in 2-3ft of water. Curly-tail or t-tail grubs are perfect for trolling in these areas. These should be trolled on light jigheads of around 1/8oz, not too light or they’ll skip along the surface. The rods can be left in the rod holders, letting the tails do all the action. This is a great technique in winter and early spring as the shallower water is warmed from the sun.
The other area for trolling plastics is fast shallow water towards river mouths or estuary entrances during the mid tide stage. Soft plastic shads, fish and t-tails are good for this technique. Use jigheads of 1/8-1/4oz depending on the speed of the run and vary the distance of your lures. If you have an electric motor, drop them back as short as 5m, otherwise make it 10-20m back from the boat. Be sure to hold your rod and impart some action with it. If I’m driving the boat, I’ll hold the rod over my shoulder and give it four or five gentle jerks from the horizontal to 90° above my shoulder and slowly drop the lures back again, keeping the line tight.
There is so much more anglers can learn about soft plastic fishing, but I hope this article will get you started or improve your success, if you’re a regular soft plastics user. For more tips, information, reports and giveaways, check out my Facebook page, Ontour Fishing Australia. In the meantime, bag your mates – not your limit!
Landing flatties can be a lot easier if you carry the right gear.
You may be trekking for a while, try to keep your gear load smaller. If your lures have scents, you can pre-rig them and put them back in their bags.
You don’t want to be using the wrong tackle when you spot that monster flathead. Buy reels with a spare spool for tackle changes.
Keep your jighead weight to a minimum for a natural action.
Using a colourful braid won’t scare off the fish, but it will help you spot the hook-up. Use the thinnest braid possible for the location and structure.
Always use jigheads, not a sinker and hook. In-built jigheads are easier to use, but limited in choice.
Use graphite rods for the best action and feel.
Fishing the right tides and locations will keep you a happy angler.
Anglers are sometimes frustrated by results on soft plastics, a few tips can help you maximise your chances.Reads: 992