Along the inshore estuaries of the Gulf of Mexico there are numerous venues that harbor healthy populations of seatrout, redfish, tarpon, snook and more. Across all of these bait-rich bodies of water soft plastic imitations are an absolute staple in every angler’s tackle bag. No sane backcountry guide or weekend warrior would dare leave the dock without an assortment of these synthetic sensations, which presented and fished properly perfectly mimic the most prolific forage species. Yet achieving consistent success with soft plastics, even with fake baits enhanced with fish-catching scents, requires anglers follow a proven set of standards.
Soft plastics can be classified into different categories, with slow moving baits like imitation shrimp some of the most popular and versatile of all backcountry lures. Truthfully, everything you want to catch in the shallows eats shrimp. With this one lure you can score a wide variety of prized game fish of all different shapes and sizes under both the heat of the sun and the light of the moon.
...no soft plastic scout bait covers wide swaths of water as effectively as a simple shad tail...
Soft plastic shrimp bodies are sold unrigged, or in ready-to-fish versions with hook in place. Either can be worked around docks and dock lights, alongside bridge abutments and shadow lines, over grass flats and around current swept points, and anywhere else you find moving water. These areas and defining features are notorious ambush points where predatory game fish wait for unsuspecting prey to be swept their way. Anglers need to take into account the goal of mimicking the real deal, so sharp twitches followed by short pauses will impart these fantastic fakes with the natural flickering action shrimp are famous for.
Soft plastic jerkbaits are also highly effective and tend to trigger impulse strikes from hungry predators as they erratically dart up and down and side to side with every sharp twitch of the rod. Sweep the tip from the 10 o’clock to the 12 o’clock position while retrieving slack on the down swing. It’s important to note that in nearly every venue jerkbaits with bright colors like neon pink and chartreuse regularly upstage natural baitfish patterns.
Often the go-to when specifically targeting speckled trout around deep cut creek bends and healthy grass beds, jerkbaits should be fished with a more erratic and faster retrieve than you would impart when fishing an imitation shrimp.
Completing the trio of favorite fakes is a famous design that literally put soft plastic lures on the backcountry fishing map—a shad tail. Often called paddletails, no soft plastic scout bait covers wide swaths of open water as effectively as a simple shad tail, which requires little more than a steady retrieve to entice vicious strikes.
As you meander your way through secluded pockets by skiff, kayak or on foot, canvas the area by fan casting with a shad tail. When you hook a few trout or a couple of redfish in the same general direction or vicinity, transition to a soft plastic shrimp or jerkbait and work the area intensely and with renewed focus. You’ll find this is a great way to maximize your time on the water. You’ll also find that plastic shrimp entice certain species that tend to shy away from soft plastic finfish imitations, like prized pompano.
In any case, soft plastic baits are extremely versatile and can be fished during any season. They can be rigged to accomplish numerous techniques and presentations, including weedless with the use of a standard or weighted wide gap worm hook. Additionally, soft plastics can be impaled on various size and style jigheads in order to accommodate changing environmental conditions and target species. In fact, to beat the breeze anglers often transition from 3- to 4-inch, or even 5-inch shad tails, which provide added weight and greater castability, not to mention a larger profile for game fish to zero in on. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find few things in life more exciting than working a shad tail across a shallow flat, only to have a hungry red or snook blow up on the bait just a few feet in front of you.
Vital to any soft plastic presentation is your terminal tackle, with 10 or 15 lb. test braid running line a major benefit for achieving the ultimate in sensitivity, maximum line capacity, and definitive hook setting power. That said, a 30-inch fluorocarbon leader in 20 or 30 lb. test will complete the stealthy approach and add a level of elasticity to help reduce pulled hooks. If you aren’t sure how to connect line to leader, double the braid with a spider hitch and attach the fluorocarbon with a low profile no name knot for a reliable, streamlined connection.
Medium-action, 7-foot graphite spinning outfits are the go-to for effectively and easily fishing a wide variety of soft plastic lures up and down the Gulf, with moderately fast 3000 size reels outfitted with a silky smooth drag system equally important when setting up the perfect combo. With your choice of equipment in hand, stand square to your cast and feel every move of the lure as you work it back toward the boat with the rod tip in the 10 o’clock position. A strike may be as obvious as smashing into a solid brick wall, or as subtle as a barely noticeable tap.
Fishing moving water is also important. Rarely will you achieve extraordinary success working soft plastics in a slack tide situation, especially during July and August when we’re blessed with steamy, stagnant conditions. If at all possible, focus on the last half of the incoming tide and first half of the outgoing when game fish tend to be most active. If these periods fall early or late in the day, then your odds of becoming an angling hero are greatly enhanced.
Now just in case you aren’t fully picking up what I’m throwing down, let me reiterate that fishing soft plastics like a pro means you can’t just throw the bait out there a few times in the middle of nowhere and rapidly retrieve it straight back to the boat without giving your efforts any additional foresight. Achieving consistent success with these types of fakes requires repeated casts, while paying full attention to your surroundings and employing a level of finesse in everything you do. Only when you are one with the lure will you truly achieve success. It’s also critical your tackle and connections are up for the task so you are ready when the opportunity arises. Bypass any one of these important components and you’ll be watching me catch fish!
Soft PLastic Imitations
Bass Assassin Sea Shad
Rigged on a 1/4 oz. jighead, this proven paddletail creates irresistible tail action and is often engulfed on the fall.
This incredibly realistic shrimp imitation comes pre-rigged and features lifelike appendages that accurately mimic the real thing.
The Airhead features a unique tail design and larger than normal hook cavity that provides enhanced buoyancy and enables the lure to be fished throughout the water column.
Carolina Lures Sand Flea
A must have for serious surf casters, this soft plastic sand flea entices strikes from pompano, whiting and more.
Pass the Ketchup
How do you take a proven lure and make it more productive? Pro-Cure Bait Scents! Believe me, adding a dab of this flavored smear to your soft plastic as needed makes a noticeable difference not only in the number of strikes, but fish tend to hang on to the lure with more determination.