Words & Images: Dave Seaman
With any sort of fishing there is scope for diversity when it comes to techniques for targeting a particular species. While there are very few things new in fishing, there is always room for improvement and fine-tuning to extract the most from our time spent on the water. In fact, perhaps the only thing new in fishing is the anglers themselves. Youngsters and late starters who have discovered the joy of angling see even the oldest techniques as new and exciting ways to catch fish.
Soft plastics may seem like a relatively new form of catching bass but have been around in Australia for more than my half-century of fishing. The Americans have been doing it since Nick Creme invented the rubber worm almost 70 years ago. Since then the industrial evolution has produced materials that have been developed and borrowed to mould all manner of supple silicone and biodegradable baits. My earliest recollections of soft plastics were the Blue Fox Vibrotails and Mr Twister Sassy Shrimps I used to use as a pre-teen in the Nepean River for bass. While my understanding of technique was lacking, the fishing success was bolstered by the sheer amount of time I spent chasing the bronze fish.
Not much has changed since the early days with the exception of the diverse choice of plastics and a better understanding of the need to target bass and refine the delivery of the lure. This knowledge and diversity has helped to condense the success of several youthful trips into a single session with the increased possibility of a trophy fish. I don’t know a bass angler that wouldn’t swap a dozen 35cm fish for a genuine 50cm fork-length fish on any given fishing trip. It’s what we strive for and soft plastics, and the way that they can be fished, can certainly provide greater opportunity of such fish.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of soft plastics fishing is to be able to deliver the lure to where the fish are hiding out during daylight. The ability to fish all day for bass, and not just the low light periods, extends the opportunity of big fish and makes for a challenging day. Being a little photophobic, bass tend to avoid the deep penetrating light of the day by tucking in under snags, overhanging vegetation, deep undercut banks and shadows. Conventional lures such as suspending hard-bodies and even spinnerbaits will coax the odd fish from cover to hit it but, to fish an area to full effect you need to go deep.
With soft plastics there are two meanings of deep; one is the deep pools where the water is cooler and the depth filters the sun’s rays from penetrating to an uncomfortable level for the fish, and then there is deep into cover. Many rivers have overhanging foliage or logs that are twisted and deformed from decades of flooding. The result is a debris trap that holds sunken limbs and timber, making a network of cover the bass use as protection.
To fish the deep cover you need to be confident with accurate casting. It is often a matter of posting your lure through a slot in the draping foliage, in and under the shade, to the edge of the bank.
The more practice you have with, say, a skip cast, the less likely you will have a lure ricochet off the water and into the overhanging branches. Then there is the headache of lure recovery, not to mention ruining your chance of a fish from that spot. Half the battle with accurate casting is affording yourself the confidence to do it. Commit to the cast and follow your instincts but be aware of the power and make sure you are positioned with the best shot at the cast.
More often than not, when fishing from a canoe you are either rushed to cast, due to the flow of the river, or the wind is pushing you out of position. One method for halting progress, or even just slowing down, is to make a gumboot anchor. It’s something I’ve used since my teens and is a godsend on windy days. Mates and I also used to use them if we wanted to fish narrow, faster-flowing stretches of river or for freshwater and bully mullet in the open pools.
Simply get an old gumboot and cut it off mid-shin, place a short length of chain into the toe of the boot and fill it to within 40mm of the top with some concrete mix, ensuring at least one link of the chain is exposed. Let it set and tie a cord or rope to the link and you have a cheap anchor that is relatively quiet. The rubber boot absorbs any impact on rocks, reduces the risk of scaring fish and won’t make too much noise or damage in your canoe.
What to look for
The diverse range of soft plastics is incredible these days. From small nymphs to fish patterns, it is a matter of what to use, when and how to rig them to gain the most advantage. I have always maintained that it isn’t how many casts you make in a day but rather what you make of every cast. Fishing soft plastics can be painfully slow process. It is often necessary to dead-stick baits and let them drift with the current or hop them in deep pools with long pauses. If you ever put on a mask and dive around the snags in a river you’ll notice the abundance of potential food. Free-swimming shrimp, smelt and aquatic insects would be easy meals for the bass should they choose to flash from cover and eat them. So why should they eat your lure? Bass are very curious creatures and will often pick up a plastic drifted in front of them but remain ambivalent to other moving or hastily retrieved lures and that is what makes soft plastics so deadly when fished properly.
Often the take (rather than a strike, as the fish merely picks it up) on a soft plastic comes after it has rested on the bottom for a little while and the curiosity of the fish gets the better of it. It also helps if there are a few fish residing in the snag because competition can generate a more positive reaction.
By far my favourite spot to fish soft plastics is the tail of a rapid that has small eddies that lick the foliage of overhanging tussocks and bottlebrush trees. The constantly moving water brings food with it and the shade affords a comfortable place to ambush a meal. The eddies provide rest areas, and floating debris that accumulates provides another layer of protection for the fish. By casting slightly up-current and allowing your lure to drift into the eddy, you’re delivering the plastic to where the fish will be waiting.
Another often overlooked spot is the gap in rafts of weed that often choke shallower pools towards the end of summer. Pockets of clear water and channels throughout the weed hold fish, as do the edges of weed beds that draw the line to any channel of deeper water. Bass use even thick weed beds as a refuge and by targeting the pockets of clear water the fish are easily fooled into striking. If they feel threatened they simply dart back into the weed, so long casts and a stealthy approach is needed.
The type of soft plastic is down to the angler’s choice and seasonal changes. My favourite is the Gulp 2in Camo-coloured Shrimp. It is a great early-season fish finder when the post-spawning bass are feeding heavily on shrimp. Other Gulp products, such as the Jigging Shrimp or the 3in Grubs, will put you onto fish, as will the Z-Man Grubz or Squidgy Bugs. Perhaps the most important part of extracting bass is how to rig your chosen bait. Any stretch of river will require a couple of different rigs and for that I’ll rig two rods. If they both happen to be Gulp I’ll hang the lure I’m not using from the rod tip so it is submerged in the water and doesn’t dry out. Alternatively, have a small container of water in the canoe to put the rig in while not in use.
I’ll generally run a 1/40 or 1/24oz jig head to cover moving water and light flow where I want the lure to sink slowly with the current, or where there is a heavy build-up of snags. They will allow your bait to drift under debris traps or logs where there is a likelihood of fish. One thing you don’t want is the lure to plummet to the bottom in among the tangle of timber, so lightly weighted plastics are the best option. The lure needs to sink down quicker than other flotsam, such as weed or leaves in the water, to attract the attention of the fish. If it’s heavy cover or weed edges you have to fish, rig the plastic weedless on a jig head or an unweighted worm hook. There will be missed strikes rigging weedless but if you are snagging up too often it is the compromise you need to make.
In open water or a deep pool a 1/16oz to 1/8oz jig head is all you need to use, and with it a bit more patience to wait for it to touch the bottom. With any jig head you use, try to avoid light wire hooks for bass and use a hook size that suits their mouth – a No.2 or No.1 is preferred. Owner makes a great weighted worm hook that is ideal for rigging worm or fish profile soft plastics. The Flashy Swimmers have the added attraction of a spinning willow blade on a short wire hanger and come in a 1/0 or 3/0 model, which is ideal for bass. A more compact jig head similar to the Flashy Swimmer is the trusty pony head, which has a willow blade on a swivel moulded into the head. The flash of the blades add a hint more attraction when you may be moving through an area and don’t have all the time in the world to fish slowly.
A loop knot to the jig head allows the lure to swing on a leader of 14 to 16lb line. Bass are not that focused on the leader size so heavier leaders help drag fish from what can be some pretty intense snags. When fishing in such close proximity to the snags where the fish live, it is important to pull hard from the strike. It may seem like an odd thing but a light 2.1m rod of 2 to 3kg gives you great sensitivity to detect the subtle bite; once hooked up, you need to use the rod as a lever to put as much pulling power into the retrieve as the rod will allow. Fishing soft plastics deep into cover extends your session and the potential for trophy bass. They allow you to fish confidently throughout the day and hopefully increase your catch. It can be intense but it is a technique worth mastering for any keen bass angler.