Words: Matt Perdrau Images: Matt Perdrau & Dean Norbiato
Well, it was inevitable: it was only a matter of time before we caught up with the rest of the world and started realising the potential of swimbaits. From the outside looking in Australia boasts one of the largest selections of big predatory fish that are the perfect target for swimbaits.
Murray cod, barramundi, mulloway and snapper are the prime target species that come to mind but rest assured many other common species, such as trout, bass, golden perch, saratoga, bream and flathead, will all avidly hit a swimbait. Although swimbaiting has been something of an underground method here for many years, tapped into by only a few confident enthusiasts, let me assure you it’s about to go mainstream and you’ll want to be a part of it because it’s highly effective.
So what is a swimbait?
A swimbait has its own physical attributes and forces that make it ‘swim’ with a very fish-like action. Where many lures only imitate a fish, a swimbait tries to replicate it; think of it as impressionism verses realism. A swimbait can be any size and work anywhere (floating, suspending and sinking) in the water column. A swimbait is almost always multi-segmented, being three or four (and sometimes more) pieces hinged together with metal or sometimes fabric, such as Kevlar. After all, it’s this design that is responsible for providing its unique full and tight S-shaped swimming action. It’s not ‘tripped’ by, or reliant on, a bib (lip or bill) for action … that’s a crankbait if it dives, or a wakebait if it’s super-buoyant with a high bib angle. Even if it’s jointed, if it has a bib, it’s not a swimbait.
What isn’t a swimbait?
Other groups of baits that often get labelled as swimbaits are glidebaits , wakebaits and jerkbaits. Glidebaits are generally the closest in appearance to a swimbait, being the shape of a fish (whether it be long and slender like a mullet or trout or deep-bodied like a carp or bony bream/shad), but the action is still quite different. Glidebaits do exactly that: they work wider and glide and generally have a longer swaying action under a steady retrieve. Almost all glidebaits have a single joint, which gives it its action. If it had more than one joint its action would narrow and look more like that of a swimbait. So while they do look similar, the defining feature of any bait is its action and the difference between glidebaits and swimbaits is very different and instantly noticeable. However, they are both very effective baits. Also, just because a bait is big doesn’t mean it’s a swimbait.
Any soft bait, regardless of whether it’s pre-rigged or un-rigged, whose action is determined by its tail isn’t a swimbait. It’s a paddle tail, boot tail, curl tail or wedge tail soft bait. Physically the tail makes it swim and that’s no different, in my opinion, from the bib on a crankbait – take it away and the bait doesn’t swim. So, in a nutshell, bait types are best defined by their action under a steady retrieve, not their physical appearance.
Why swimbaits work
Let’s face it, even a small swimbait is bigger in profile than your average crankbait or spinnerbait so their initial appeal is size. But it’s not just about length; swimbaits generally have more dorsal height and girth, giving them more ‘presence’. More presence equals greater visibility, so a bigger bait has the ability to attract fish because it is better seen and better detected via the fish’s lateral line.
Big swimbaits, in the 8-14in range, have the ability to engage fish in all moods. We know fish will smash any bait when they are active, but when they are passive or shut down it’s a lot harder to entice a strike. However, when you consider the territorial and competitive nature of our large predatory fish, there is no way a big swimbait is going unnoticed when it enters a big fish’s zone, regardless of the environmental conditions or its belly contents. Also, in a piscatorial world that assures survival of the fittest, wouldn’t you rather expend less energy on one big meal than lots of energy on several small meals?
Swimbaits also exhibit an action that is arguably the most realistic of any bait. They swim like a fish when retrieved but the weight distribution of a swimbait also makes it look far more natural on the pause ensuring it’s effective throughout the whole retrieve. Also, remember that most predatory fish will actively feed laterally or upwards as opposed to downwards. This is obviously due to eye location on the head (fish can see sideways and upward more easily than downward). It therefore makes sense that a bait that works above the fish, and suspends or sinks slowly and naturally towards it, will be far more appealing.
Another advantage of a swimbait is that it can be made to about-turn and face a following fish. Let the bait come to a pause during a slow roll retrieve and just as it loses momentum and comes to rest, give the reel handle a quick half-turn. Most swimbaits will pivot 180 degrees and face the fish, which will almost always result in a strike. Once you get this down pat you can incorporate it into any retrieve, regardless of whether you can see the bait or not.
Swimbait-specific gear can also be used to fish most glide, jerk and soft baits, and generally cross over pretty well. There is a misconception that swimbaits are all big, but they can be as small as 100mm and 14g. For these mini-sized baits, your standard heavy 6ft to 7ft baitcast outfit will be fine; however, when you start getting into the true big swimbait varieties – commonly 150mm through to 350mm, and anywhere from 28g to 280g and sometimes bigger – you need to step it up in every dimension.
The length and power of specifically designed swimbait rods will really startle most anglers. The rod is the most important part of the swimbait system and what is required to cast swimbaits, particularly big ones, effectively.
The four main attributes you want to consider when buying a swimbait rod are overall length, handle length, rod action and rod power. Each of these attributes changes depending on the blank and components used, and rarely are the action characteristics of any two swimbait rod brands the same. For this reason try before you buy – go to a retailer and hold a few rods, match them up with different reels and even hang the baits you’re looking to cast on the end of the rod. It will surprise you how different the weight of a bait can feel on the end of a rod as opposed to in your hand.
Reels for swimbaits
For most fishing, reels are seen as the pinnacle of your set-up and while a good reel is important for the swimbait technique, look past the glitz and glamour and focus more on the mechanical attributes and component strength when choosing one. The most important things to consider are physical size, line capacity, main gear/pinion material, handle length and retrieve ratio.
Physical size and line capacity generally increase together – the bigger the reel, the more line it will hold. However, for the equivalent model size, an overhead (or barrel type) reel will always hold more line than a low-profile bait caster. Overhead reels in the 200 to 400 size range are suitable for fishing swimbaits. A 200 size will suffice on lighter set-ups, and it’s even better if it has a deeper spool, while a 400 is perfect for that big bait set-up. A 300-size reel is a great all-rounder and will generally have the attributes to match up with several different rods and throw a wide range of bait weights. Don’t be too focused on drag pressure, any reel can boast a high drag pressure but that’s useless unless it’s released smoothly.
Swimbaits work best at a slow to medium pace but you’ll want a reel with a medium to high retrieve rate. A reel with a retrieve rate of 70-80cm per crank is ideal for working swimbaits but also provides the speed to skip over dead water or get a wayward cast back in quickly.
Back to mono
For more than a decade, braided or PE lines have been the go-to when spooling up any outfit. However, I believe its benefit is debatable with swimbaits. After extensively using braid, monofilament and fluorocarbon mainlines over the last 12 to 18 months I believe mono (especially a low-stretch variant) provides the best all-round performance.
Braid is great for sensitivity in and around structure and its near-zero stretch provides great hook-set on long casts but that’s about it. At close quarters it tends to pull hooks and when using bigger swimbaits it can be prone to backlash, even with the best reels. And if you’ve experienced a backlash when casting a 3oz-plus bait then you know it doesn’t end well. Usually you hear a loud crack and see your expensive bait touch down a long way from you … no longer connected to the end of your line! I’m not going to say braid doesn’t work with swimbaits but if you do want to use it then opt for a slower-actioned rod, use a long leader and spool up with a larger diameter braid (65lb minimum) to ensure good line lay on the spool (so it can’t dig into itself).
Straight-through fluoro isn’t bad for bigger swimbaits but I found it didn’t handle as well as mono. In lighter breaking strains, fluoro tends to be quite supple and lacks memory but I found the opposite when using heavier breaking strains. Its harder outer coating is great for combating abrasion but it is liable to increased coiling and can become brittle over time (I suspect from going in and out of the reel repeatedly). Additionally it’s expensive, hard to find in long spools (100m-plus) and sinks, which can drag your bait down on the pause.
Monofilament: I know what you’re thinking, but, honestly, it’s not that bad. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was sold on mono for swimbaits after my first trip. It’s cheap, you can get it in any colour, breaking strain and length, and it floats. As long as you remember to really set that hook home when you get a hit you’ll be fine; with an 8ft-long rod you can move a lot of line in one fell swoop. It gives you plenty of stretch on the cast and really eliminates the backlashes and cast-offs associated with braid. I believe the best-performing monofilament is Platypus Lo-Stretch. It has reduced stretch for increased sensitivity but enough to make casting heavy weights with long rods more effective. With about half the stretch of standard mono, it is the perfect mainline when using swimbaits. Platypus Super 100 is another great performer if you’re after a super-clear line with a slightly thinner diameter. I use 8kg on lighter outfits and 15kg on heavier outfits, with 10kg being a good all-rounder.
I’m not going to re-invent the wheel here. If you’re using a braided mainline then you need not know about any other connection knot than the FG. If you’re not using it then get on YouTube and learn it as it’ll solve all your casting and bust-off problems associated with other knots.
With mono, I’ll generally fish straight through unless I’m targeting fish where I’d normally use a heavier leader than the breaking strain of my mainline. And even when I use a heavier leader it’s only to act as a bite leader, being 10in to 20in long and simply connected via a triple surgeon’s knot. Sure, it’s a big knot, but it’s never intended to come through the guides so it won’t present any casting issues.
No excuses to not go big
Even in Japan and the US, where the swimbait technique has been mainstream for almost a decade, anglers who specialise in throwing big swimbaits exclusively are still considered a niche breed. In Australia, swimbaiting isn’t going to be for everyone. In comparison to what most anglers are used to, the baits are big, the gear is big and the effort needs to be big – it’s also comparatively quite expensive. But with the right set-up the perceived chore and expense of fishing swimbaits is worth it for the amazing results. Whether it’s trout, barra, cod, jewfish or flathead, the results speak for themselves.