Soft plastics have revolutionised how anglers target surface schooling pelagics. I’ve written about many pelagic techniques over the years, from jighead rigged straight-tailed shads (such as 4” Assassin Twitches) for tuna, to twitch-and-pause soft jerkbaits (like 6” Gene Larew Sluggers) for Australian salmon. The key to most of these techniques is mastering a little bit of rod and retrieve action.
Even more straightforward is the use of large 7” (18cm) plastics that provide their own action. This technique is the easiest to master, as the retrieve is a standard straight and medium-paced cadence with no rod work required.
Everybody knows that you need casting distance if you want to successfully target surface feeding tuna. Well, if you choose the right lure, such as one with a dense thick body yet a super thin tail, they’ll cast further than jighead rigged plastics. True!
You might be curious about hook penetration if you’re fishing with a dense plastic. Fear not – just make sure you choose a soft plastic that has hook pockets that go about halfway through the lure. These pockets are designed to fold out of the way, allowing the hook to penetrate. Also, as half of the body depth is removed at this point, the lure body can’t choke the gape of your hook, and you get better penetration.
Let’s get back to the technique itself. It’s as simple as can be, and it all happens right in front of your eyes so you can see everything that happens.
Using an unweighted large stickbait or stick shad straight-tailed soft plastic, you simply employ a ‘steady as she goes’ retrieve and use them in place of a high-speed retrieved slant-nosed popper or large cup-faced blooper.
Slant-nosed poppers and cup-faced bloopers are hard-bodied lures that require a lot of effort and energy to keep working through the water. Many anglers take a breather after six or so casts when using these lures! Don’t get me wrong, they’re great lures and awesome fun, but it’s a lot easier to steadily skip a large soft plastic stick shad across the surface. It’s sort of a medium swing support to a popper and metal pace attack.
Obviously a 7” soft plastic is much bigger and heavier than a standard shad, which typically measures in at around 4” to 6”. Consequently, 7” shads cast much further than a typical 5” shad rigged on, say, a 3/8oz jighead. And this massive advantage comes in a lure that floats rather than sinks (because you’ve rigged it unweighted).
Additionally, the high quality soft plastics are very supple. When you slowly retrieve the lure across the surface the long tail of the plastic snakes and wiggles across the water. This enticing action is one that longtail tuna find nearly impossible to resist. All this action at a slow speed… truly awesome.
The whole technique is so simple: just approach a school of tuna with your boat, the same as you normally would. Then cast the unweighted rigged softie across at least (hopefully) an area where three or four fish are working and then steadily retrieve the lure back to the boat. We’ve found the small pods become competitive with each other, with the fish racing their fellows to see who’ll eat the lure first. If one tuna misses a strike at the surface soft plastic, this riles it up even more, the others fire up too and the second chance is competed for much more vigorously.
That’s about all you have to do. Follow the photo sequence hereabouts to rig your lure, heed the notes in the tackle fact box and you really can’t go wrong. Grab your mates and go find a tuna school!
It is also part of surface lure lore that the action pumps more adrenalin through your veins than any other type of fishing. Surface lure junkies can be heard whoopin’ and hollerin’ across the water, and it’s common not only for the angler on the rod to vocalize but the others on the boat to yell as well.
If you want to get some idea of how effective this technique is, let me cite a recent example. In a typical ten-hour day in Moreton Bay, you could normally count yourself pretty effective if you maintained an average of three longtail boated. In comparison, in a recent eight-hour day in March 2007, using this technique, Steve Bain and Eric Grell hooked 18 longtail, dropped the hooks out of one, had one taken by a shark, boated and released 10, and released (sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally) a further six at the boat.
Meanwhile, a bunch of other boats working the same schools with metal lures did not average even one fish per boat!
All you really need to do is a slow, steady retrieve. Alternatively, you can cover a bit more water and coerce more tuna in on the chase if you step up the pace to a medium speed retrieve. Just see which works best on the day.
Now, I’m not saying you should ditch the high speed techniques. However, if you want to be able to keep casting and retrieving long after you are too tired to keep up the high-speed retrieve, it’s certainly worth trying an unweighted large soft plastic straight-tailed lure.
Put yourself in the picture. Your lure lands on the far side of a randomly busting pod of tuna – a broken school of about three or four pods with up to four tuna in each one. As your lure lands the splashdown immediately attracts the attention of a lone tuna from the pack.
With the bail arm clicked over before the lure lands on the water, you start winding the wind belly out of the line. A millisecond after the lure parts the water’s surface, you’ve got that reel handle turning steadily to pop the plastic back up on the surface and get it wiggling its way back to the boat.
As it wiggles along it seduces another tuna, so there are now at least two longtails wanting to make a meal of it. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and other tuna notices this pursuit. The competitive instinct of all three fish takes over as they race to beat their brothers to the lure. One tuna comes in from the left and misses the lure. Strikes from the side can be like that! Another launches itself from the right flank and it, too, misses. The soft plastic survives to wiggle on.
Not for long. Like a torpedo, half in and half out of the water, a big dark back pushes a bow wave directly behind the lure, closing fast. The lure approaches the boat, the tuna chases the lure, miniscule adjustments of its pectoral fin act like wings and the tuna is airborne. Its mouth opens to engulf the hapless soft plastic, but the fish’s timing is slightly out; a dip of the wings gets the bottom half of the tail back in the water.
Two quick beats and up to warp speed again, fully airborne now, angle the pectorals again, crash diving on the lure. Momentum carries the tuna forward, almost crashing into the side of the boat at which point it veers laterally, turning in its own body length and then racing out to sea. Line strips from the spool and the drag screams. Yeah baby! Now this is tuna surface luring!
Now the fight begins, and your own competitive spirit takes hold. The fight may take 10 minutes, more likely half an hour. It’s you versus the fish… gotta love it!
Regular readers will know that I like the tackle to be part of a system. In these times tackle must allow the use of braided line between 20lb to 30lb so you can put enough stick on a tuna to turn its head and get it to the boat as soon as possible.
The typical Moreton Bay spin stick of years gone by simply doesn’t have the power down low to red-line 30lb braid, and you’ll be hard pressed to find any rod with such power that also has a finesse tip to cast an unweighted soft plastic.
For the longtail Eric Grell designed the S10 H blank, the heavy version of the S10. This 2.1m rod is designed for bigger plastics and bigger fish, yet it still has the crisp Egrell casting tip.
When you get your hands on one of these rods to test the feel, you’ll note that just as much casting power seems to be generated from a simple flick of the wrists compared to the ‘big wind up’ that you’d traditionally expect. This concept allows quick, snappy casting with accuracy while still achieving distance, and it’s well suited to low trajectory punches into the wind. When casting with the wind, the low trajectory helps reduce the wind belly and the low trajectory cast option assists in skipping the lure a few extra metres if you apply a skip cast technique (just like skimming a stone).
These blanks have the attributes of fast tapered rods yet they still bend and load up all the way through to the butt. In contrast, many old style fast taper rods lock up and don’t bend any more, and because of this they don’t actually offer you much more power in the rod – instead the power is generated by (or sapped from!) your arms and back.
This new style rod design is the best for casting and also the best for fish fighting. You’ll see something similar with the action in state-of-the-art deep jig rods as well. Some hi-tech high modulus low power baitcaster rods deceptively offer the same qualities. Maybe in the future these rods will be called ‘fast taper fighting action’.
A metre and a half of 40lb fluorocarbon leader connecting the braid to the hook via a standard Albright knot (not the improved one). The old Albright is where you put the mainline through the loop, start at the top , wrap back down towards the loop, he wraps it 25 times. He does this because he uses a single strand of braid, not doubles. This reduces the size of the knot, which is better for casting. This leader does the trick and up to six tuna have been landed on it in our tests before we decided to retie.
To the S10 H rods, Eric attaches Daiwa Certate 4.9:1 ratio spin reel, rather than one of the 6:1 reels that were once synonymous with tuna spin outfits. The 4.9:1 reels, with their hi-tech gear cuts, are significantly more powerful, great for fish fighting and great for winch grinding fish when you have the rod locked up and bent all the way through. In these cases, especially when tuna are into their circling routine, vertical pumping may only serve to let the fish get its head down again. The answer is to do a bit of winch grinding with the reel handle and apply sideways ‘down and dirty’ rod pressure to both steer the fish and reduce the rod to water angle so that you deliver the power without high sticking.
When I’ve fished this style I’ve used 20 to 30lb Platypus Braid either Bionic (in purple/pink) or Super Braid (in yellow). I like the coloured line because you can see it clearly in the water and this helps immensely when you need to sort out crossed lines such as might occur when you score a double hook-up (or a triple even).
As far as the lures, go Eric and Steve did all the testing and evaluation using the Saltwater Assassin 7” Shad as seen in the accompanying photos. The Assassins are made from a superior plastic that is both durable and supple. Understandably Assassin are very proud of their plastisol compound and the Moreton Bay tests found that the performance of the lure and its fish catching successes were directly attributed to the lure’s large amount of action as it worked across the surface layer. Lesser plastisols were too stiff, and zero action or reduced action meant no fish. Additionally the Assassin plastics landed a number of mackerel between the tuna bites and quite often the plastic would withstand a couple of spotty macks before it was too slashed up to continue. Assassins can withstand more than most of this razor toothed torture without loosing their action.
I experienced similar soft plastic action fishing longtails with Dave Donald and my father Steve in Weipa about six years ago. But in those days we used the 5” and 6” lures from the marketplace. Little could I have guessed that the step up to a 7” lure would be a quantum leap ahead in castability and fish catchability. Moreton Bay is the most demanding test bed for longtail tuna that exists anywhere. If it works in Moreton Bay then it will work all over.
Regular readers will have seen the unweighted Texas rigging method before. The rig for the 7” Saltwater Assassin shad relies on the Mustad MegaBite 5/0 hook. This larger gaped hook; a larger gape than the gape of a treble on a lure and a larger gape than a standard jig head, seems to lock around the jawbone of the tuna and gives a very secure hookup. You’ll need good pliers to get the hook out quickly. To rig, follow the sequence in the photo and you should be right. Enter the barb into the centre of the lure, and exit on the underside of the nose approximately 10mm down. Push the hook through, twist it around and push the point back up through the body so that everything is straight. Ensure that the ‘Z’ bend of the hook locks in at the nose as this is what keeps the lure fixed in place on the hook during the retrieve.
Steve Bain with the first tuna on the surface Assassin – Eric Grell's EGrell S10H rod, Eric's Daiwa Certate reel and the Assassin 7" stickbait produced the goods. A very important aspect of the successful technique is that the 5/0 sized Z bend worm hooks lodged very nicely around the tuna's jawbones and stayed secure throughout the fight.
Rigging the Assassin 7” Shad Texas Style – for more detail see the rigging tips in the main text.
Eric Grell was in the thick of the action too; here he puts a side-loading bend into his own EGrell S10H Bear series rod.
Steve Bain with the spoils of one of hottest tuna days of recent times.
5 & 6
Steve Bain with a longtail tuna caught on a 7" Assassin straight tailed shad surface stickbait which was rigged unweighted.
Steve Bain with one of a flurry of longtail captures (16 in one day) that cemented big topwater soft plastics as fantastic tuna presentations.
At a seminar he did recently Eric Grell was asked about having his lure bitten off while targeting mackerel with soft plastics. Well, take a close look at this plastic. It has survived multiple sets of mackerel teeth – in fact three mackerel were caught with no bite-offs. High quality plastics like the Assassins will often survive the mackerel experience.Reads: 5551