In the first instalment of this two-part feature, Kim discusses some techniques for using soft plastics around the subtropical estuaries and bays of Australia’s east coast.
SOFT plastics are the lure of the moment for catching a variety of estuarine species. So why are these lures taking the Aussie angling scene by storm?
Well, when a fish inquisitively bumps a soft plastic, rather than getting a mouthful of a rigid material he gets a natural, more lifelike response. And if the fish doesn’t hook up on the first bite, he’s more likely to have a second chomp on a soft plastic. The likelihood of maintaining the fish’s interest is even greater if the soft plastic is salt- or scent-impregnated.
For decades US tackle stores have been devoting large amounts of wall space to soft plastics, for this simple reason: soft plastics catch heaps of fish! In the past few years these lures have finally been proven on a wide variety of our Aussie species, and I recommend that you add the following scenarios to your databank and give them a try on your own patch.
Many snag dwellers can be taken on soft plastics. Simply casting to the snag and retrieving the lure with a ‘rod tip upwards’ steady straight retrieve works well, as does `tea-bagging’ over a fine twig. It’s just like the ol’ Lipton’s Jiggler ad on TV – dangle the lure in the water and jiggle it around!
When using the straight retrieve, cast in and slowly walk the plastic through the tangle of twigs and branches if the opportunity offers itself. Pause the lure after it bumps and then clears an underwater object to let it flutter down to induce a strike. After a brief pause of up to a few seconds, recommence the retrieve. In such a heavy structure situation, it’s recommended to Texas rig (hook point hidden inside the plastic) your soft plastic and peg the weight. This reduces the risk of an exposed hook catching on a twig, or a loose swinging weight wrapping around a branch.
I’ve found that you’ll often get a jack on the first cast, so be ready and make it good. Fingermark will often stay on the bite for longer, especially with plastics.
The Prawnstar is the latest ‘must have’ item to be displayed on the trophy wall of every jack lair. This lure is rigged with two underbelly weights and two trebles, but you may prefer to upgrade the rear hook to a chemically-sharpened treble to give the lure extra ‘pinning’ power. My preferred Prawnstar colour is the very natural and clear ‘Honey-pot’, but it depends on the water clarity. In dark water, one of the fluoro hues can be a better choice.
One way to fish the simple-to-use Prawnstar is to cast out to the snags – paying particular attention to fallen trees, shady spots, deeper holes and forks in submerged branches – and let the lure sink momentarily. The sink rate depends on the number of removable weights in the Prawn. With two weights the lure sinks more quickly, and with one weight removed the Prawn has an erratic freefall that’s perfect for mid-water fish.
Once the lure is at the required depth, commence the retrieve with a few slow cranks of the reel handle, give the Prawnstar a flick with a gentle snap (lift) of the rod tip and pause. Repeat this technique until the lure is out of the strike zone. If the strike zone is small and tight, after about two hops, retrieve the lure back to the boat and cast it in the snag again. It's important to fan casts along the bank, covering water and concentrating on fishy-looking areas.
To target fish holding deeper in the snag, you can let the Prawnstar sink right down and work it through the zone. Letting the lure sink amongst a tangle of submerged branches may sound crazy, but the Prawnstar is relatively snag-proof for a treble-rigged lure. This allows anglers to productively fish the cover where predators are waiting in ambush.
Often there are lots of underwater structures deep in the water column, like rock bars and timber. Local knowledge and use of high quality sounders helps paint the picture. To fish these structures, let the lure sink all the way to the bottom. Next, slowly retrieve the Prawn and stay in contact with it so that you can feel the lure ticking the bottom.
You may get a hit at any time, so fish the lure all the way back to the boat and don't lose concentration. When the hit happens, it happens quickly! Once I was watching a fellow angler land a fish while my Prawnstar was wafting around beneath the boat. Unbeknownst to me, the lure had enticed a big bruiser from the snags to come out and investigate. My rod doubled over, catching me by surprise, and the line sizzled from the reel. Unfortunately, that fish found his way back to the snags.
Sometimes you can even let your Prawn lay on the bottom. Jacks will scoop up the lifelike lure, just like the real thing. Mangrove jacks taken off the bottom often expel plenty of mud, indicating that they’ve scooped the lure up off the creek bed.
If there is activity around mid-river and on/near the surface, you may choose to match the behaviour of a slowly swimming prawn by retrieving the lure back to the boat a foot or two below the surface. You can do this by just turning the reel handle at a cautious pace.
By jigging soft plastics shads on and just off the bottom around man-made structures such as channel markers (often where deep holes are created), you can regularly catch grunter, fingermark, queenfish, trevally, squire and many others. A basic hop or jigging action has proved dynamite for me on many occasions.
We’ve enjoyed results in these situations with a number of soft plastic styles, including curly tail shads, straight tail shads, split tail shads, T-tailed grubs and paddle tail shads. All have worked well, whether rigged on lead-heads tied with a loop knot, Texas rigged or ‘Texposed’ (rigged with the hook point exposed for open country).
Smaller lures of 50mm or less will put you in with a chance on bream if you take a really subtle approach. The best results I’ve seen have been when the lure is allowed to rest on the bottom and gently lifted just a centimetre or two. Such a method has resulted in many successes on deepwater bream, and also on the squire at the mouth of the Brisbane River. Prime colours seem to be brown pumpkin, and the latest craze is hot pink T-tails.
The following are some good techniques for working the bottom for flathead and other species.
When using soft plastics amongst the weeds, my favourite colours include motor oil during sunny days when the water is clear, and pearl/white in the low light of early morning and late afternoon.
I’ve found the 1.5" grubs and 3" grubs to be ideal for flathead fishing when the lizards are settled amongst the weedbeds in very shallow water over yabby banks. Such water is difficult (if not impossible) to troll through without spooking these wary predators, as well as having your lures foul with weed.
The ideal approach is to use an electric motor to position the boat in the deeper water off the weedbeds, and to cast lures up onto the bank and then work them at a slow, steady pace back to the boat. A straight retrieve with a steady winding of the reel handle and the rod tip held at 45 degrees will generally be successful in ‘swimming’ the grub or shad just off the bottom so that the flathead can have a good go at it. Also work structure such as fallen timber and bankside trees – anything that holds bait or causes eddies.
Scott Lyons of Southern Sydney Fishing Tours likes to fish the shallows between the weed and sand patches where the flathead like to lie in ambush. Scott’s best results have come when using a weighted soft plastic with a slow wind retrieve followed by a sharp lift of the rod tip. He then allows the lure to sink to the bottom before repeating the slow wind and lift movement. Scott emphasises that it doesn’t matter how far the lure comes off the bottom as long as you allow it to freefall back after every lift of the rod tip.
Try deep jigging on a run-out tide in the deep channels beside sandbanks and mud flats, as this is where the lizards lie in wait for baitfish leaving the soon to be exposed shallows.
One option is to jig heavy-headed double rubber tails below the boat as you drift along. If you’re not impressed with the tails fouling on the hook you can go for a heavier grade of plastic or some of the designs that have tails of different lengths. Good places to vertically jig include deeper areas with gravely bottoms and/or structure on the seabed. Use your sounder to find these spots.
Another option, similar to the first one, is to locate a good area with your sounder and then use an electric motor to hold your position while you vertically ‘yo-yo’ your lure near to or onto the bottom. On lighter heads the double tails will glide. It’s a little like the action of an ice jig (or Rauhala).
Scott Lyons also likes to fish the deeper water for flathead. He insists that the action of a slow wind with sharp lifts of the rod tip works better than bait on flathead holding in deeper water. Scott likes to use his sounder to find drop-offs where he can work his lure along the edge, and he prefers to fish in water around three to five metres deep when working lures around a sandy bottom.
In water less than 1.5 metres deep and with good visibility, cast out a 2” to 3” shad on a 1/8oz to 1/4oz jighead, and gently hop your lure back to the boat with easy lifts of the rod tip.
In deeper water go for bigger 4” to 6” shads on heavier heads of 1/4oz to 1/2oz. Cast out and freespool your lure to the bottom, and aggressively snap the rod tip upwards – pulling back sharply a couple of times to hop the lure off the bottom. This is a similar rod action to jerkbaiting on the surface over shallow reefs for snapper. Scott explained that the angler who pioneered this retrieve for lizards spent a lot of time underwater watching the behaviour of the fish while his kids jigged soft plastics from the boat above. This active retrieve is also a viable option for dirty water.
One option that’s often overlooked is to rig the shad bodies on smaller jigheads – say, 1/16oz shad heads. While such a light head may not be heavy enough to give the lure its tail throbbing action during freefall, the torso of the bait will shimmy from side to side. I prefer quality skinny shads rather than the generic pot-bellied product when body action is required.
As water starts to flood across the sandflats, the flathead lie in wait in the slightly deeper depressions on the down-current side of ridges in the sand. To tempt these fish as they lie nose into the current, I prefer to cast upcurrent and then work my soft plastic back with the flow. As the lure bounces across the wavy sand ridges I pause the retrieve to let the lure tumble around in the agitated water before recommencing the retrieve. This is the time when you’re likely to get a strike.
In next month’s instalment Kim will discuss how to target bream, reefies, kingfish, surface-feeding pelagics and tarpon on soft plastics, as well as some productive ways to fish plastics at night.
1) This mangrove jack was taken on a stickbait flipped into a heavy tangle of mangrove roots.
2) Fishing guide Scott Lyons caught this flathead on a shad worked around the shallow sand and weed flats of Botany Bay.
3) It’s great fun to fish heavy cover with Prawnstars for Bundaberg jacks.Reads: 5215