Soft Plastics for Big Bass
— by Steve vonBrandt
The variety of soft plastic baits for bass is mind boggling. The choices available just in worms alone, are enough to cause confusion with the novice angler, and hours of debate among the more experienced. What size? What color?, straight tail? curly tail?, salt or no salt?; what rig to use them on; Drop-Shot? Carolina Rig?, Weightless?, what are the best times to use each one? Then add in the endless variety of lizards, grubs, Jerkbaits, freakbaits, tubes, and creatures, and you end up with more questions than answers. In the following article I will try to list the most effective plastic baits and presentations that catch not only numbers, but big bass as well, whether it is in a lake, pond or river, just about anywhere in the country. There will always be a new type of bait that one person or the other claims is better than the others, but the following baits and techniques will cover most any situation that you are likely to encounter.
The original artificial worm manufactured by Nick Creme, in 1949, was a standard straight tailed worm, but it spawned generations of worm companies and hundreds of soft plastic lure designs that are the mainstay of modern bass fishing.
Straight tailed worms are just that--straight, with no bends or kinks in the middle, no curly tails, paddle tails, no air pockets, no flotation, nothing special at all, just a worm. Regardless of their plain appearance, many times straight tailed worms are much more effective than other fancier styles. This was proven to us first hand one day in a New York tournament on Lake Cayuga. The bass absolutely refused to hit any other style of worm except a 6 inch straight tail in black, with a tiny bit of blue fleck in it. If you didn't have that particular style of worm, you were out of the money that day. Straight tailed worms are often at their best when bass are suspicious of anything out of the ordinary, such as in highly pressured tournament lakes. Many times in these situations the bass are put off by a curly tail waving in the current. But the opposite can be true for the same fish, in the same lake, when they are on their beds during the spawn. Many times, the movement of a curly tail will cause the extra enticement you need to catch them. Plastic worms aren't at their best in cold water, but then nothing is. When the water is cold, bass will feed only occasionally, and whether it is spring, fall, or winter, the slow, slightly twitchy retrieve with a straight tail worm will work wonders. But the key to this is working the worm slowly, only twitching it occasionally, allowing the worm to stay in the strike zone as long as possible, where the sluggish bass will notice, and possibly hit it.
These worms also work well for bedding bass, but don't hesitate to put on a small curly tail worm if the bass won't pick up the straight tail. The fact that most straight tail worms are not floating models can be an advantage. While floating worms have a lot to offer in terms of waving around just off the bottom, bass are in the habit of searching and feeding off the bottom. Eels, worms, crayfish, nymphs, frogs, and other prey are often found there. Smallmouth in particular make a habit of routing in the rocks and gravel to find a meal. Plastic worms, rigged weedless, and worked slowly across the bottom, look more like natural prey trying to hide and escape than something floating off the bottom and waving around.
To accomplish this, the standard Texas rig with a bullet weight is best. The Texas rig keeps the worm from getting hung up, and the weight gets the worm to the bottom and keeps it there. The Carolina rig is another option for the straight tail worm. This type of rig allows for a deeper, slower, even retrieve. The straight tail worm, and even retrieve, make this rig resemble an eel, although in smaller sizes, the bass may see it as a slim baitfish, or even a large dragonfly nymph.
We found that these straight tail worms are excellent for fishing in the river. We cast them across the current, using a high rod technique, to minimize drag and allow the worm to drift with the current. Often a little twitch will provoke a strike, but the twitch should be subtle, just enough to move the worm a little bit. We also cast the worm straight upstream, which works very well in the rivers since they require less weight to sink naturally and can be fished dead with the current to resemble a dead or dying shad or other baitfish. Both Texas and exposed hook riggings work, but the Texas seems to be the best if there are any snags or it is a rough, rocky bottom. Tackle is important when fishing straight tail worms, since much of the fishing depends on slow techniques. I like to use a real sensitive rod, such as a G. Loomis, with the reel spooled with a sensitive line, such as Stren Sensor, or any other sensitive line. Using an outfit like this makes it easier to detect strikes, but you should always maintain contact with the worm, even when Deadsticking it. I like to use a small weight to accomplish this. Cross-stream casts in the current will usually maintain some tension, but upstream casts require a retrieve as fast as the current to keep slack out of the line, and make sure that you detect all the strikes.
Straight tail worms are also great for deep jigging. The jigging action makes the worm seem alive without a curly tail waving around in the water. Again, the key here is sensitive tackle, as the bass will often hit the worm on the fall. Straight tail worms are serious bass takers. If a bass follows another type of worm but doesn't take it, then try a straight stick of a worm. They may not look like much, but can take serious limits of bass when they are off their normal feed.
Worms/Floating Worms, and Critters
First, almost all plastic worms float. Usually, just adding any hook to the worm is enough to sink it. This allows a variety of bottom presentations, but they are not that great for working on the surface as a topwater. True floating worms have air blown into the PVC mix to create enough flotation to keep them on the surface. Many times over thicker cover these worms shine. When the bass are active, and would be hitting a buzzbait, or other topwater bait, but the cover doesn't allow it, these floating and curly tail worms, can be fished right on the surface, and worked quickly over thicker vegetation like a buzzbait. This has drawn some tremendous strikes throughout lakes and rivers all over the country. Most of these floating worms will float with a hook up to about a 3/0. Some of the more popular companies that manufacture these worms are Riverside, Bass Pro Shops, Culprit, Bass Assassin, Creme and others. Carolina Fish and Fur offer some great hand made floating worms. Most of the companies also make other floating baits, such as Mann's, who calls them Floating Creatures, and they come in frog and lizard shapes.
Air pocket worms have a bunch of pockets of air, such as the Riverside Air Worm, and others have single large pockets, like on the Culprit Burst worms. Bass Pro Shops sold some worms a few years back that we had a lot of luck with, that were called Caterpillar worms. They have a prickly or spiny exterior that holds air bubbles. Most of these worms not only take numbers of bass, but also take big bass. We have been in many tournaments where the big bass was taken on a small worm or creature bait. These floating baits also work well when rigged to work over deeper structure such as brushpiles or weedbeds. A lot of these worms are designed to hold different scents also. Some are designed to have the scents injected right inside of the worm. All floating worms vary in their flotation ability with various hooks, so some experimentation is necessary to produce the desired results. One problem with floating worms is that they look no different than standard worms. Keep your floaters in a separate bag or box in the original bag to keep them from getting mixed up with the regular worms.
The "critter" baits such as the soft plastic crayfish, lizards, frogs, and hellgrammites, also catch a lot of big bass. The craw type baits often have air pockets not only in the main body, but in the claws as well. Claws with air pockets float up off the bottom, putting it in a defensive posture that triggers strikes from bass that are fooled into believing it is a real crayfish. Experiment with different rigs, scents, and rattles in these baits until you find the most productive in that particular area. The floating worms and critters don't replace the old standbys, but they add another dimension to your fishing.
There are as many different tube baits as there are worms, and more and more variations arrive each year. Some of the best tube baits we have used for catching bedding bass, and bass that are holding in tight to cover, are listed below.
Many bait manufacturers have incorporated rings into their tube designs. Rings add bulk, trap air bubbles, and feel soft and lifelike to the bass. They allow for better hookups by reducing the amount of plastic that the hook has to penetrate. The first tube we ever bought that had this feature was a 4 1/2 inch tube made by Larew. These baits are made with an injection-mold, rather than a dip process, which is what you need to do to make a ringed bait. A lot of manufactures are now adding a skirt to the ringed tube, which gives it even more bulk and a slower fall. The pulsating motion of the skirt and tail seem to come alive when rigged Texas or Carolina style, or used a jig trailer.
The first solid head tube was introduced right after Denny Brauer won the classic. It is made by Strike King, but now there are many more manufacturers. This was a great innovation, since it gave standard worm hooks enough plastic in which to gain a firm hold. The main problem with finesse tubes is that the thin noses won't stay put on worm hooks.
After these tubes came out, many other new innovations followed, such as longer and fatter tubes. Now there are many tubes in the 4 1/2 and 5 inch sizes. There are even bigger tubes than that, they are Saltwater tubes, which we have used successfully in the California Delta for BIG bass. Oversized tubes also are easier for bass to find in cover or muddy water.
The 5 inch "Sala" tube from Mister Twister, features a solid head and a body shaped like a salamander. This bait also has eyes. This is part of the "Exude" line of baits, which contains a water soluble scent that gives the plastic a slimy feel when wet. These baits work very well on bedding bass in lakes all over the country. Because it has a lizard type shape it produces a stronger reaction from bedding bass than a regular tube does. We like to use this tube in heavy cover also, on 20-25 pound test line. When we fish real nasty cover, we use it on a jig with braided line, such as "Spiderline."
Another new type of tube is the tube craw. This bait mimics a crawfish well, and can be worked in all types of cover. Another craw type tube bait is the "Yum" Craw Bug. The tail of this bait is curled under like a crawfish on the move. We always use this tube when fishing for bass that have
received a lot of pressure. It seems to get strikes from heavily pressured bass that you wouldn't normally get. We usually rig this bait on a 3/0 or 4/0 Gamakatsu hook, with a 3/16 ounce bullet sinker, and 14-20 pound test "Spiderline" Mono. They make a small 2 inch craw now also, which we use for drop-shotting. I like to use the craw tube in muddy water, because it is more buoyant than regular tubes and moves more water. Rattles can also be added to this tube to increase it's effectiveness in muddy or stained water. There is also a tube now called a "Fork" Craw, which I like to use when fishing grass. It is thinner and slides through vegetation more easily and presents a smaller profile which is great for clearer water.
Another new type of tube is the Double-tail tube, which has two curled tails that appear as wings. Luck "E" Strike also makes a new tube called a "Ring Daddy." It was designed by Rick Clunn who believes the rings give off a hydrodynamic signal that appeals to bass. I have used this bait effectively when pitching and flipping. When we need to skip a tube under docks, we like to use Strike King's new baits called the "Tube Craw", "Wild Thang" and "Tube Lizard". They have smooth bodies which make them ideal skipping baits. I use them on a 4/0 hook with a 5/16 ounce bullet weight. The "Wild Thang" is a great bait for after the spawn. It is 5 inches long, has a hollow body, and a shredded tail. I always use this bait when I believe the bass are looking upward. I like it in the summer months, and I have fished it with a swimming motion very successfully. The tube lizard is a great bait for the spawn through the post spawn period.
Soft Jerkbaits like the "Zoom Super Fluke" are great substitutes for a hard Jerkbaits when the grass is too thick to use a hard bait with treble hooks. This bait was the best producer for the top ten finishers in the "REDMAN" finals at Lake Gaston. We had tried many other baits that day, but the Fluke was the winner, hands down.
There are a variety of different rigging techniques for soft plastic Jerkbaits, but I want the maximum action I can get with this bait, so I use a really large offset hook made by Eagle Claw. This hook is bigger than what most anglers use for the Fluke, but the bigger hook not only adds casting weight, but it shifts the weight to the rear of the bait and causes an exaggerated "walk-the-dog" action on the retrieve. It's a great bait for bass in weed pockets, or in deeper, thinner grass like the situation we ran into on Lake Gaston. This bait definitely gave you an advantage that day. I use a light/dark pattern with these baits, but occasionally go to colors like watermelon and green pumpkin, in the clearer water sometimes. I use this bait a lot in place of a surface bait like a rat, and if a bass blows up on it and misses, which happens a lot in heavy scum and grass, then I just maneuver the bait to the hole created by the bass and let it sink. Most of the time the bass will still be there and take the Fluke on the drop, something I can't do with the rat.
All of these baits and more can be very effective for big bass at times. At night I use a 10-12 inch worm for some huge bass. But none of these baits will work for the beginner or intermediate angler unless you are fishing in the right spot. Some of the best advice I can give is: fish slowly, when you think you're fishing slowly, slow down some more. Fish some of the smaller lakes and rivers. With emphasis on tournaments, many anglers forget about the great fishing in some of the smaller lakes and rivers that you can't fish in a bass boat.
Don't make your fishing too complicated. Use a few basic baits to start, then expand after you have learned how to use those starter baits. Find the right depth; You can't catch fish if you fish above them or below them. Learn how to use the electronics on your boat properly.
Fish as often as you can, nothing can replace the knowledge you get from being on the water a lot. The first few years I started fishing, we spent at least 8 hours a day, 3 or 4 days a week fishing. Get out on the water as much as you can, nothing replaces hands on experience.
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