THE AMAZING footage of Ecogear creator Norio Tanabe fishing in PNG shows just how effective surface rigged and fished soft plastics can be. The footage shows him pitching large shads to bank and mid-river structure, retrieving them back to the boat, and carefully working them past and through all likely ambush points. The scene showing a spot-tail bass coming out from cover and smashing the plastic is one of the best surface strikes you’re likely to see on the small screen.
We may not have spot-tail and black bass in Australia, but we have plenty of other species that get equally as excited over a little piece of plastic wobbling across the surface. Up in the fish-rich offshore reefs of North Queensland, casting large stickbait-styled plastics around coral bommies is too much for many fish to resist. Bone-jarring strikes and huge surface boils from behemoth GTs test the angler and tackle as much as any demonic bass you’d find in Papua New Guinea.
But the technique isn’t just restricted to these hyper-aggressive species – a delicately presented and worked plastic can be just as effective on wily bream in a cold, gin-clear estuary system. All fish species that are currently tempted by hard-bodied surface lures are just as susceptible to soft plastics, so let's have a look at some suitable plastics and how to use them.
Just as not all soft plastics are made equal, not all are suited to being rigged and fished on the surface. For example, the hydrodynamic properties of some of the large, deep-bodied shad-style plastics makes them largely unsuitable. What you want is something that’s a bit more symmetrical in profile, such as a single-tailed grub or one of the popular T-tails. Both of these styles are perfect in the smaller sizes (smaller than 3”), and all the notable brands such as Ecogear, Atomic, Slider and Kalins have models that fit the bill perfectly.
The most effective way to present these lures is to rig them with just a single hook threaded through them. The trick though is to make sure the hook is rigged dead centre in the plastic. If you don’t pay attention to detail at this step you’re really behind the eight ball, because you’ll likely end up with a lure that won’t swim straight and true – and a lure that doesn’t swim correctly is a lure that is less likely to catch fish.
The way to test whether you’ve got it right is to give the plastic a swim. If it rocks and rolls all over the place rather than swimming straight with a subtle tail beat, you need to have another go at threading it on the hook.
When it comes to the hook to rig the them on, the best model to use is one of the purpose-built worm hooks. These kinked shaped hooks allow you to rig the plastic with the hook point either buried or exposed. If conditions allow, always opt for having the hook exposed as it will greatly increase your hook-up rate.
Once you step up into the larger sized plastics (larger than 3”), the rigging is virtually the same except that it’s on slightly heavier hardware. One of the brands and models that really stands out in this size range is the Ecogear Power Shad. These large paddle-tailed plastics are an ideal choice for fishing in and around heavy structure for big and powerful fish.
The Power Shad hasn’t got the category all to itself though; there are plenty of others on the market. Larger single-tailed grubs provide plenty of action across the surface and, along with some of the stickbait-styled plastics such as the Lunker City Sluggo, are great when chasing larger surface feeding species such as trevally and barra.
In northern Queensland, one species that’s perfectly suited to surface-rigged plastics is the barramundi. One of the real upsides of using soft plastics when fishing the surface for barra is that you can fish these lures tight in amongst cover – the kinds of places you’d likely get hung up if using conventional surface lures.
I recently heard a story that perfectly illustrates the advantage of fishing close to cover for barra. The angler was fishing a heavily structured, oyster-encrusted area near Weipa, and was slowly retrieving paddle-tailed grubs across the surface. His plastics wiggled past and through country that would have been unfishable if he’d been using treble armed lure. The result was boils, strikes, and numerous hookups on fish that in most cases would have gone unchallenged – unless he’d been willing to cast lures that were more inclined to snag up and more willing to hurt the hip pocket if lost.
Down in southeast Queensland, you’ll find few fish more willing and obliging on the surface than Australian bass. There are quite a few ways to trick them on the topwater, and one of the most enjoyable is fishing unweighted plastics around the weed beds. Granted – there aren’t too many weed beds around at the moment, but early last year is was possible to fish Maroon Dam and cast plastics tight up against these weedy structures, retrieving the lures back to the rod tip with a slow, enticing wobble. The response from the bass at these times was almost laughable, with fish continually striking at the lure. Repeated attempts usually culminated in a final kamikaze attack, and a fish soon gliding into the net. One capture that sticks in my mind was a bass taken in water about a foot deep. The fish hit the lure in the same way that a mackerel does, striking it at speed and a direction that saw it arrow straight out of the water, as though it was going to come around on the return lap and clean up its victim left flailing on the surface!
One of the more recent converts to soft plastic fishing is the humble bream. Equally as catchable on the surface as on a jighead-rigged plastic, they can be highly aggressive when found feeding on the surface. One of the best times to find them in this mood is when the prawns are around in large numbers. When these little crustaceans are up in the shallows and packed tight up against the bank, it’s not uncommon to spot individual bream in hot pursuit of a scared prawn that’s frantically trying to escape. Being lucky enough to see this isn’t as rare as you might think, and if you replace that terrified little prawn with a soft plastic skipping across the surface, the end result will likely be a hooked bream hightailing it towards its snag.
Moving out of the mangrove creeks and estuaries and into the offshore realm, you’ll find plenty of species that’ll play the game. Tuna, mackerel, and kingfish will all take plastics, and if you travel further up the coast into more tropical waters there are coral trout and the numerous other reef species that make the place home.
Closer to the mountains and the rainforest of the north, there are two species that’ll eagerly snaffle a surface plastic of the surface. The cagey jungle perch of the cool mountain streams won’t hesitate to throw caution to the wind and bolt from the other side of the pool to inhale a surface plastic, and the other notable freshwater inhabitant of the north, the sooty grunter, will respond just as aggressively. Flipping and working the plastics across the surface will have you fishing a method and locations similar to those you’d encounter when chasing bass in New Guinea. With the rainforest-lined rivers, fast flowing water, and insanely aggressive fish and strikes, the setting is very much like that of our northern neighbour.
So what’s the best kind of tackle to cast these lightweight plastics with? Well, due to the minimal amount of weight in your lure you can’t really get away with anything other than a well-balanced spin outfit. Some of the larger plastics might give you enough weight at the rod tip to allow the use of a baitcaster, but not the smaller plastics.
One of the other factors to consider is rod length. At the moment the trend in soft plastics fishing is for fairly long rods – 6’6” and longer. When it comes to casting unweighted plastics this trend is a good one to follow, but don’t let the desire for a long rod completely monopolise your rod choice. You’ll still need a rod that’s correctly matched to lure weight, line rating and your target species.
There’s nothing difficult about targeting fish on plastics fished on the surface. If you’re already a self-confessed surface junkie, making the jump into fishing the softer versions on the topwater will be a piece of cake. And for those who’ve already been infected by the soft plastics craze, adding the surface version to your quiver of options will just broaden your enjoyment of the world that is soft plastic fishing. But even if it’s all completely new to you, give it a go! That first fish you find to sneak up behind and slurp your plastic off the surface definitely won’t be last. It certainly wasn’t for me!
1a, 1b, 1c) Barra, bass and mangrove jacks are all prime targets for a well-presented surface plastic.
2) The shade offered by horizontal structure is a perfect place to make a surface presentation.
3) The best way to rig surface plastics is on offset ‘worm’ hooks, available from most tackle stores.
4) Surface plastics often work well early in the morning, and were too much for these bass to resist.Reads: 960