Fishing soft plastic lures successfully depends a lot on tackle and technique. As Brett Mensforth explains, choosing the right gear and fishing it effectively isn’t at all difficult – nor is it as expensive as you might think.
While it might be overstating things to say fishing soft plastic lures on nylon monofilament is impossible, there can be no doubt gel spun polyethylene line makes the job far easier and much more efficient. The coming together of braid and plastics is now very significant in many styles of fishing, and it’s quickly becoming the combination of choice for an ever-growing army of anglers.
I was sceptical about braid when it was new to the market. Gradually, however, I began to recognise its many benefits, and these days I have very few reels spooled with nylon. There is no shortage of brands when it comes to polyethylene line, but choosing quality is something I can’t stress enough. The price may be a bit more than you would prefer, but the end result and life expectancy are generally well worth it.
Changing to braid demanded a modified and expanded repertoire of knots, as well as a general upgrade of rods and reels, but there’s no doubt the transition has changed the way I go fishing. There are countless numbers of dedicated polyethylene knot tying books, as well as handy videos available on You Tube. I recommend the Geoff Wilson books to anyone who is seriously looking at braid as their preferred method fishing line.
About the only styles of angling for which I still prefer monofilament these days are gamefish trolling and surf fishing. I’ve found that the inherent stretch of nylon results in fewer pulled hooks, particularly on bluefin tuna. The bluefin’s mouth offers less reliable holding points than most other fish, and unless the hook finds its way immediately into a secure area like a jaw hinge, it will often wear a hole during the course of the fight and drop out. The cushioning effect of nylon between lure and rod tip definitely reduces this wear factor and makes for more permanent connections. I have found that braid is very unforgiving with overheads and ‘big effort’ casting in the surf. One little slip up and you can kiss any rig attached to the end goodbye. The use of monofilament in surf conditions allows me to cast much further, mostly due to the mono being able to stretch when heaving the big bait or metal lure out.
I now use braid for whiting, braid for jigging and, most significantly, I use braid exclusively when I’m fishing soft plastics in any situation. Its advantages are many, and these have been well documented in countless articles by experts, so there’s no need to go into the whole braid versus mono scenario here. For me, and I dare say thousands of other keen soft plastic enthusiasts, the most significant advantage offered by braid is the ability to remain in direct contact with the end of your line at all times. It really offers the ultimate in sensitivity, which helps detect any subtle bites or hits.
My top five soft plastics targets these days are mulloway, snapper, bream, flathead and salmon – probably in that order. I also dabble with yellowfin whiting, trevally, snook and, when the opportunity presents itself, yellowtail kings and samsons. I’m not narrow minded enough to say that soft plastics will outfish live bait in all situations, but if you’re clever enough, they will come pretty damn close.
A major part of the equation when getting seriously into soft plastics fishing is selecting the right tackle. These lures are incredibly lifelike when presented correctly, and presenting them correctly can only be accomplished with the right rod, reel, line, trace and the most important part, neat rigging of the lure on the jig head. Get your gear sorted and you’re more than halfway there.
In practically all soft plastic fishing situations it’s what I refer to as ‘flutter time’ that’s most important. This is the period during which a lure sinks, rises and then sinks again during the retrieve. Most predatory species, and in particular mulloway, bream and flathead, often grab a soft plastic as it sinks. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but I reckon at least nine out of every ten estuary mulloway I’ve hooked on plastics have eaten the lure on the way down. Consequently, the rate at which a lure sinks is very significant. Using a heavy jig head will cause your soft plastic to drop quickly and generally that is unnatural, so I always tie on the lightest head practical, taking into consideration the tide and wind strength. Again referring to mulloway in the estuary, I’ll use heads as light as a 1/8 of an ounce if possible, and rarely go beyond half to ¾ of an ounce.
This means the rod and line I use have to be light and responsive enough to cast such miniscule weight, but powerful enough to put the brakes on a 50 pound fish if my luck is in. This combination of power and lightness is only possible (or should I say practical) with good quality braided line, a threadline reel and an upmarket rod to match. This combination used to cost an arm and both legs, but these days you can pick up a quality medium weight soft plastic outfit for under $400 that can be used on snapper, mulloway, salmon and school kingfish. The same applies to lighter gear, with bream and flathead easily targeted using a combo worth around $200 to $300. Naturally, this figure can blow out dramatically if you opt for true top shelf equipment.
Let’s take a look at some options in rods, reels and line before moving on to the wonderful world of soft plastic lures, jig heads and leader material.
For larger fish a 4000-5000 size threadline is ideal. You’ll need something with a spool capacity of 300 metres or so, particularly if you intend to play with kings or smaller tuna. 20 pound braid is fine for most heavy estuary or mid-weight blue water situations; keep in mind that most braids will break at least 25 per cent higher than their marked figure, and occasionally as much as 40 per cent more.
Most of the big names in tackle now offer several choices in mid-sized threadlines that will do the job nicely. My personal favourite in the more affordable price bracket is the Shimano Sustain FG 5000. These reels offer super smooth gearing and flawless drag performance. There are few opposition reels that can match the Sustain for value and all-round quality.
For those who are seriously into braid/plastics that work on larger fish and have the budget to buy the best, Shimano’s brilliant Stella is simply the ants’ pants. I’ve been using a Stella 4000FE now for three years, and can say honestly it’s the best reel in its class I have ever fished with. The 4000 holds plenty of 10 kilo braid and offers the sort of all-round performance that justifies the price tag. My Stella has caught mulloway to 24 kilograms, countless big snapper, bluefin to 23 kilos and yellowtail kings to 30. You could say it has been both used and abused and it keeps coming back for more.
I use the Stella on several rods, most often Shimano T-Curve T-Series 701. The 701 fishes 20 pound braid nicely and casts smallish jig heads a country mile. They are also light enough to fish with all day, which is important when you may be casting repetitively for hours at a time.
For estuary bream and flathead fishing I use a Shimano Sustain FG 1000. It’s a small reel that offers the ultimate in performance. 1000-3000 size reels are ideal for light braid and small soft plastics, and they balance nicely with today’s crop of 2-4kg threadline rods. My personal favourite stick for throwing miniature plastics is the Shimano T-Curve TK3G 691. It’s 2.06m long and delightful to use, both on plastics and small hard bodies.
Most of the modern crop of gel spun polyethylene lines are first class. When braid first popped up in the 1990s, it varied enormously. Spider Wire was one of the original lines to hit the Aussie market, followed by several other styles and brands. One factor that didn’t vary much between brands in the early days was an exorbitant price tag; a 300 metre spool of braid cost up to five times as much as equivalent monofilament, which put most of us off for quite some time. Happily, this has now changed; braid is still expensive stuff, but it’s now far more affordable, particularly in longer lengths.
I’ve had the same Power Pro braid loaded on my Stella now since the reel first came into service, and it’s still as good as the day I spooled up. The top 50 metres or so receives a rinse off in fresh water from time to time, but that’s about as good as it gets.
There are three characteristics you need to look for in the braid you choose for soft plastics fishing – below average diameter for breaking strain, high knot strength, and a colour that suits your fishing location. I used to opt for line that blended in well with the surroundings, but now feel this is unnecessary; in fact, I’ve done a complete 180 on this issue. Because a lot of soft plastic fishing depends heavily on being able to see the line and detecting subtle takes as a lure sinks (particularly in bream fishing), high-vis’ line can be a decided advantage. I really struggle to keep tabs on dark braid in, say, the Port River, where water colour usually varies between mid and dark green, so I now use yellow or orange braid, which makes life a lot easier.
Provided you use a reasonable length of neutral-coloured leader between your braid and lure (6-10 feet in length is generally sufficient), brightly coloured main line has no detrimental effect. Yellow braid is easy to see at all times, enabling me to detect any ‘bites’ as the lure descends, and also to know when it has hit the bottom. About the only time I would steer clear of brightly coloured braid is if I were throwing tiny lures at wary trout in crystal-clear water.
Leaders are an integral component of the soft plastic fishing system. Happily, there is now plenty of choice, with either good quality nylon or fluorocarbon readily available. It pays to carry a good selection of different breaking strains just in case the fish are touchy. 30-50 pound leader is ideal for large mulloway and big snapper, 20 for salmon, 10 pound for flathead and 2-6 pound for bream and yellowfin whiting.
Due to the quality of line these days, I have parted ways with swivels when lure casting. There are several knots that work well, but by far the easiest to tie is the back-to-back uni knot. This is basically a pair of standard unis – one in the leader and the other in the braid – tied a few centimetres apart, then drawn together until they lock. The strength is excellent and the knot’s reasonably low profile ensures it passes smoothly through rod guides on the cast.
The array of soft plastic tails currently on the market is truly mind-blowing. I’ve tried most styles available, and have enjoyed success with a good cross section. However, if I had to fish with just one type of soft plastic for the rest of my days and for all my favourite target species, the Squidgy Flickbait would be my unequivocal choice. Next would come wrigglers and third on the list would be shads.
The 145mm Squidgy Flick Bait has proven itself as a great mulloway catcher. A couple of years ago Dad and I caught some thumpers in the Port on the Pillie colour, and it’s still prominent in our plastic collections whenever we venture out with jewies in mind. Flick Baits have minimal inbuilt action – certainly nowhere near the action provided by a shad tail, and rely totally on rod tip work to get them moving and imitating a gar or mullet. However, provided you know how to get the best out of a Flick Bait, it can be deadly.
Squidgy Shads – those plastics with paddle tails that vibrate strongly on the drop – have caught me more big snapper than any other single plastic in my tackle bag. The 130mm Squidgy Shad is right up there with the best, particularly in the White Lightning colour combination. This has a silver/black top over a pearl lower section that replicates a bait fish nicely.
Big reds generally aren’t fussy about tail colours, although the Pillie coloured Slick Rig seems to be a consistent winner in most situations. Slick Rigs in Drop Bear and Yakka are also worth stocking up on if you’re keen to try snapper on plastics this season.
At the smaller end of the scale, say for bream and flathead, the soft plastic choices are virtually endless. My go-to tail for bream in most of the estuaries I fish is the Squidgy Pro Lobby in the Dusk colour. Others that have long track records as efficient bream catchers include the 50mm Squidgy Wriggler in Bloodworm and the 70mm Squidgy Flickbait in Pillie or Evil. These are generally fished on jig heads of between 1/32 and 1/8 of an ounce; again, lighter is nearly always better with head selection to maximise ‘flutter time’.
Speaking of heads, apart from weight, it’s vital to choose only those with good quality hooks. When tossing soft plastics began to re-emerge as a super effective way to go fishing, there were quite a few sub-standard jig heads on the market. Their hooks were often suspect, even on light tackle, and many nice fish were lost as a result. These days, however, jig heads have improved markedly in most areas. You’ll still find some cheapies with hooks you can bend with two fingers, but most are now reliable enough to be used with heavier braid on big fish.
Squidgy jigheads are right up there with the best. They are super strong, sharp and well suited to the likes of big snapper and mulloway – species that can expose inferior hooks if given half a chance.
It’s important to choose the right hook size, of course. I like 4/0 to 6/0 for the fish varieties mentioned above, and carry a range of head weights between 7-28 grams (1/4 ounce to one ounce) in those sizes. For flathead I drop down to 2/0 hooks, and for bream down further to size four.
Many of the jig heads I used to fish with were adorned with eyes, gills and fancy colours, but these days I opt for plain lead heads. It’s the tail that catches the fish’s attention, not the head, so there’s no real need for anything more than a lump of lead cast around a strong, sharp hook.
With your rod, reel, line, leader and lures sorted, the only missing part of the soft plastic fishing system is technique. As mentioned earlier, soft plastics can be incredibly lifelike and devastatingly effective, but they do demand a slightly more thoughtful approach than most other lure styles.
In most situations, and particularly in the estuaries when targeting bream, mulloway and flathead, I like to use a double or triple twitch retrieve. This involves casting the lure into a likely strike zone, allowing it to sink naturally to the bottom, then cranking it back slowly with intermittent twitches of the rod tip. More often than not, I’ll allow the lure to sink to the bottom before commencing the retrieve, then bring it back as slowly as practical. Every so often I’ll give the rod tip three quick flicks, then allow the lure to touch bottom again.
This is where braid once again becomes a vital component of the system. If you move the rod tip 20-30 centimetres with each flick, your lure will move exactly the same distance down there in the strike zone. Apart from a miniscule amount through the leader, there’s no stretch at all, and that’s exactly the way things need to be for ultimate ‘feel’ and bite detection.
I like to have the lure rest on the bottom for two or three seconds between twitches, particularly when fishing estuary systems. I’ve had several strikes from mulloway with the lure stationary on the bottom; presumably the fish have spotted the plastic on its way down, followed it to the seabed and picked it up before it could get away. Others have grabbed it as it fluttered downward, and only the odd one has intercepted the lure on the ‘up stroke’ of the retrieve.
Slow is definitely best in practically all estuary soft plastic fishing, and it’s important to keep a constant eye on your braid throughout each and every retrieve. Even bigger fish like mulloway can be subtle when taking a soft plastic, so watch for any irregular movement or change in line direction during the retrieve. The natural texture of a soft plastic tail often means a predator will keep it in its mouth longer than a metal or hard body lure, giving the angler a little more time to react. However, the quicker you can recognise a bite and set the hook, the better your chance of a solid connection. Effective soft plastic fishing demands total concentration with each cast, from the moment the lure hits the water to the conclusion of the retrieve.
Away from the estuary and into deeper water, similar rules and principles apply. Most of the snapper fishing I do in St Vincent’s and Spencer Gulfs takes place in water between 15-30 metres deep, and often with strong tidal influence. I still like to use the lightest jig heads possible, but this often means going up to 30 grams or a little more to have my lure reaching the bottom. The same double or triple twitch retrieve works nicely, and again the majority of strikes occur as the lure is falling.
Big snapper are tough on plastic tails, so it pays to carry plenty of spares. In the overall scheme of things they are pretty cheap; $50-$60 will buy you enough heads and tails to get you going, and if you’re unsure about exactly what to choose, seek the advice of a knowledgeable tackle salesman. Most of the guys behind the counters of reputable tackle stores will steer you in exactly the right direction.
My final word on the braid/soft plastic scenario, particularly for those new to the combination, is to persist. Once you have your tackle and technique worked out, fish them with confidence and don’t give up if you draw a blank from time to time. I can guarantee you’ll eventually find success, and when you do, there are few more enjoyable ways to catch the fish you’re after.