If a paddle-tail sounds like some sort of waterfowl and you think jigheads are a punk rock band out of the UK, chances are you don’t do much fishing with soft plastics. When the bloke in the tackle store tells you to just “slip a bass minnow on a 1/16th and jig it around the drop-off”, it can sound simple enough… but what’s a 1/16th? And if you’re targeting flathead, why would you want to use a Bass Minnow?
Because getting started with soft plastics can be confusing, here’s a run-down on the basics. It will take a few excursions and a little patience before you start catching fish like the pros, but you’ll be pleased to learn that success with plastics is as simple as following a few basic guidelines.
Jigheads are simply a hook and sinker combined. Not all plastics need a jighead; some are set on a hook and worked on or near the surface. However, for the purpose of keeping it simple, I won’t worry about those in this article.
There are plastics like Storm lures and DOA Prawns that come ready rigged, but for the vast majority of plastics you need a jighead to complete the lure. If you’re familiar with hook and sinker sizes for baitfishing, jigheads are very similar. Keep the size of the fish in mind when you’re selecting a hook and keep weights down to a minimum. Some soft plastics need to have a little weight to get the lure’s tail wriggling as it falls, and this can be used as a guideline by having just enough weight to make the lure look natural in the water.
The weights of jigheads are measured in fractions of an ounce, stemming back from when we imported most of our jigheads from overseas (some Aussie jighead manufacturers have moved to grams, but this has just served to confuse guys like me who have been working in ounces for years). A light jighead for shallow water might be 1/16, an average weight for bass and flathead is around 1/4, and big 5/8 and 1oz jigs can be used for mulloway and huge flathead in deep, fast running water.
Soft plastics come in all shapes and sizes and are categorised by the shape of the lure’s tail [see photos]. When selecting your lures, keep the species you’re targeting in mind and try to imitate the food they eat. Shads are the obvious one that can imitate a baitfish, and they are ideal for flathead, bass, mangrove jacks and trevally. However, for fish like bream and even whiting, a better choice is a grub that’s the same colour as a prawn or a bloodworm.
There are loads of ways to retrieve a soft plastic and they’re all clumped under the name of ‘jigging’, so if you’re told to “just cast it out and jig it” it could mean almost anything. Jigging can be anything from little bumps along the bottom to sinking the lure all the way to the seabed before cranking it back up as fast as possible. Ultimately, your retrieve just needs to be one that will cause your target species to react and hopefully eat your lure.
The main advantage a ‘softy’ has over conventional hard-bodied lure is that it can imitate a lot more than a wounded or fleeing fish swimming in a straight line.
If you watch the way baitfish move you’ll notice they are stationary for much of the time, and when they move it’s usually with a quick flick of the tail and the fish will only move a few centimetres. Soft plastics can be jigged to imitate a baitfish ‘kick’ very well, and it’s a preferred technique with many pro anglers when bream fishing.
This retrieve is best done with an ultra-light jighead so the lure can be twitched a very short distance without sinking like a brick when it is stopped. The type of plastic that’s best suited to this style of retrieve is the stick bait, such as the Berkley Bass Minnow. However, grubs, paddle-tails and small shads are also effective.
When it comes to the retrieve, forget everything you know about using hard-bodied lures. Once you’ve cast the plastic to where you want to fish, let it sink to the depth at which you think the fish are sitting. You don’t have to just fish on the bottom as a lot of fish live in snags, under pontoons or are feeding on bait that’s up near the surface. If you let the lure sink all the way to the bottom will miss most of these fish.
Once the lure is where you want it to be, allow the line that runs from your rod to the lure to have a bow in it. With the bow in the line, quickly lift the rod up until the line comes tight and you feel the weight of the lure. The idea is to bounce the lure slightly using the rod tip. As soon you feel this weight, drop the rod back down to put a small bow back in the line. If a fish hits the lure, the bow in the line will flicker or go straight and load the rod up, so pay close attention to the slack line. Continue to bounce the weight of the jighead off the rod tip until the lure has either been retrieved or is out of the zone you’re fishing in.
Jigging in this manner gets the lure moving a tiny amount, perhaps only a centimetre or two, but it moves very quickly before staying stationary or just slowly sinking. This looks just like a nervous or dying baitfish to predators like mangrove jack, and nothing is more appealing to a jack than nervous baitfish that have entered its lair. Try doing this in shallow water or use a swimming pool so you can see what the lure is doing, and work on getting the action perfect. Change jighead weights so you can see what various weights do to the action of the lure. In a slow current, you can pause the lure for five or even 10 seconds before you twitch it again.
Another retrieve that’s simple to master with plastics, and which isn’t possible with most hard-bodied lures, is the ‘rise and fall’ retrieve. This is when the lure is lifted a few feet from the bottom before being allowed to sink back down again. The lure will often attract the attention of predators as it comes off the seabed, and it’s often eaten as it is falling.
The rise and fall technique is the foundation for a host of various retrieves. It is simply conducted by casting the lure out and letting it sink all the way to the bottom with the rod tip pointed towards the water. Once it has settled, you just lift the tip of the rod so the lure is pulled off the bottom before letting it sink again.
The jighead that you use for this technique must be heavy enough to make the lure’s tail wiggle as it is falling. Stickbaits can be used for the rise and fall but they have to be worked to give them their action. For this reason, they’re not a good option if you are just learning. Shads, grubs and paddle-tails are the best plastics to use, and the trick is to balance the weight so the lure doesn’t sink like a rock but still sinks fast enough to make the lure’s tail wiggle.
Once you have the feel for the rise and fall, you can experiment with adding more to it or variations of the retrieve. QFM scribe David Green uses this retrieve on flathead by ripping the lure off the bottom as fast as he can in two or three short, sharp twitches before letting the lure sink again. Flathead, trevally, mangrove jacks and even bass get agro when they see the lure come firing off the bottom, and they usually smash the lure as it is falling.
Another variation is lifting the lure and shaking it before letting it fall again. This is effectively adding a few quick baitfish kicks to the lure as it is raised above the seabed, and is a great technique for bream anglers using 2” or 3” grub-shaped lures.
These two retrieves are great for anglers new to soft plastics fishing, as they give you a feel for what the lure is doing and allow you to adjust the action for what you see the fish are responding to.
Fishing a rockwall in an estuary in southern NSW, I was getting very little action on plastics but some land-based bait anglers were cleaning up on the bream. After a while, I worked out that by casting 2m out from the wall, doing a rise and fall lift over the drop-off before letting the current take the lure along the edge – without me working it at all – had the bream jumping all over it. It was imitating a baitfish coming out from the rock wall and swimming along the edge with the current. Just letting the plastic drift with the current is called ‘dead sticking’, and adding a dead stick drift to a rise and fall or a baitfish kick can be all that’s needed to get the fish to bite.
Mastering the rise and fall and bait fish kick can make a huge difference to your catch rate on plastics, and as you grow in skill and confidence you’ll start to improvise with other retrieves and vary your tactics for different situations.
Tips for Beginners
1. Always take the time to rig the plastics dead straight on the jighead. Most plastics have a top and a bottom so make sure you have it right. Just like fish, the darker section is the top and lighter on the bottom.
2. Match the jigheads to the retrieve. If you’re fishing in strong wind or current that requires a heavy jighead, you may not be able to do the baitfish kick so you’ll have to learn to compromise.
3. Try a few different colours before you give up on a location. Once you’ve been at it for a while, you’ll get to know what colours work with different locations and species.
4. Use braid or fused lines like Fire Line so you can feel everything going on at the business end. For the baitfish twitch where you are watching the bow in the line for bites, use fluoro-coloured line for better visibility.
5. Have a few different styles of plastics and sizes so you can experiment to find what works.
6. Change lures and retrieves when the fish are biting as well as when they are not, so you can learn what works and what doesn’t. Don’t think that just because you’re catching fish on a particular lure that there isn’t a better one.
7. For a better action to your plastics, always keep them in the bags that they come in to keep them moist and soft, as well as retaining their scents.
8. Use a rod length of fluorocarbon leader in the lightest breaking strain that you can get away with.
9. Always buy quality jigheads with hooks that will stand up to the line class you’re using. Hooks need to be razor sharp.
10. Use rods that are designed for using braided lines and soft plastics. These rods have come down in price over the last couple of years and are now very affordable.