Around the state, shallow estuaries provide the ideal habitat for a variety of adolescent game fish to mature. Along with juvenile redfish, tarpon, trout, snook, snapper and grouper, shrimp are also reared in the same shallows—the likely reason for the lifelong attraction of game fish to shrimp. And just in case you didn’t know, shrimp is also the most popular seafood among U.S. consumers.
Most shrimp spawn offshore in deep water from early spring through early fall. They reproduce rapidly, with females releasing thousands of eggs that hatch within 24 hours. Hatchlings are carried by prevailing currents into coastal estuaries where they mature in the warm, nutrient rich waters. As the baby shrimp grow, they gradually move seaward and ultimately return to the open ocean to spawn. This entire cycle takes less than a year, which explains why the average life cycle of a shrimp in the wild is just over 12 months.
To be brutally honest, the soft plastic shrimp market is over saturated with extremely effective fakes, impressive knock-offs, some not so worthy baits, and a number of alien-like imitations that don’t even exist in Florida waters.
While nothing can perfectly imitate the natural appeal of a live, flickering shrimp, today’s soft plastic replicas look, feel, taste and move like real shrimp. Some are even impregnated with natural stimulants, shrimp scents and strike-enticing pheromones. What they all seem to have in common is some sort of flexible body, a number of legs, a pair of eyes and a tantalizing flake color pattern. But where did the artificial shrimp first originate? As far as we know, Mark Nichols of D.O.A. shaped the first shrimp imitations more than 30 years ago on his own kitchen table. To be brutally honest, the soft plastic shrimp market is over saturated with extremely effective fakes, impressive knock-offs, some not so worthy baits, and a number of alien-like imitations that don’t even exist in Florida waters. We’re really not certain if they exist at all, or if they’re simply a figment of someone’s imagination. Sampling the industry’s best and worst attempts at shrimp mimicry, read on as we deconstruct Florida’s ultimate inshore offering.
For the sake of this editorial, lets classify counterfeit crustaceans into two categories—pre-rigged, ready-to-fish and unrigged bodies, which obviously require the addition of a hook or jighead. Both variations are offered in numerous sizes with 3 and 4 inch variations the most popular choices. All are available in countless color combinations ranging from subtle natural and glow patterns, to eccentric colors better suited for Hollywood fashionistas than your favorite flats. Which of the two types you prefer to fish is really a matter of preference with each offering key benefits.
Pre-rigged, ready-to-fish shrimp are just that…ready to fish. Simply take one out of the package, tie it on using your favorite loop knot and BAM—you’re fishing. This is an ideal option for ease of use and simplicity. This is especially true if you are a novice as the bait is rigged with the correct size hook and weight, leaving no room for error. Pre-rigged shrimp come equipped with a single or treble hook, with no real use for the latter. Pre-rigged shrimp may be impregnated with shrimp flavor and/or scent and they are generally of the dry variety, meaning they are easier to store and less yucky to handle than soft scented baits drenched is some sort of secret sauce. The downside to pre-rigged baits is the fact that the bait is rigged one way, offering limited versatility. Additionally, if the bait gets slashed, torn or ripped apart, you will need to tie on an entirely new offering. There are exceptions with pre-rigged shrimp that are offered with spare parts, but that’s the exception and not the norm.
Unrigged bodies require you rig the shrimp with either an appropriate size jighead or maybe Texas rigged with a weedless worm hook. Truthfully, rigging variations are practically endless, which lends to the unrigged bodies overall versatility. Having the option of varying the weight of the jighead allows the user to penetrate deeper into the water column. Bodies can also be rigged to swim and flicker backwards. They can be rigged with circle-hooks for precious game fish intended for release and can even be enticingly dangled on a drop-shot rig.
Perhaps what is most appealing about soft plastic shrimp are the many ways the baits can be fished and the many different species of fish they will entice. Inshore and along area beaches, EVERYTHING eats shrimp. Artificial shrimp can be fished by bridges, jetties, along the beach, on the flats, anywhere in the backcountry, along current swept points and around any area with irregular bottom contours. However, unlike baitfish that swim one way—forward—shrimp walk and swim, dance and skip, and drift and flicker in many different ways.
For backcountry anglers plying Florida’s fertile inshore waterways, the most popular approach is simply tossing a weighted shrimp toward a dock, alongside a fertile grass bed or directly into an appealing pothole. Bridge abutments and jetties are also likely areas. You’ll want to allow the bait to sink before twitching it with a hard snap of the rod tip. Think, twitch…twitch…pause. However, this isn’t the only effective way to move your tempting critter.
When shrimp are moving long distances they typically take advantage of moving current and leisurely drift near the surface. Inshore anglers can mimic this lazy movement by simply raising their rod tip and slowing retrieving the bait, leaving behind a subtle wake and inviting silhouette that hungry game fish can’t resist.
Another effective approach often overlooked is simply crawling the bait along the bottom. Toss the shrimp as far as you can and let it sink. Then drag it across the bottom as slowly as you can possibly turn the handle. Believe it or not, sometimes doing nothing at all is the best trick of all. Heavily scented and flavored baits can be tossed toward likely targets like tailing redfish, but they really shine when allowed to sit motionless on the bottom where hungry game fish sniff them out.
Perhaps one of the most effective tactics is the plastic shrimp/popping cork combo. While quite simple, it’s deadly effective. And while it’s a perfect approach for novices and youngsters looking to keep a bend in the rod, professional redfish anglers have won tournaments with this deadly combo. Tie your favorite soft plastic shrimp 24 to 36-inches below a popping cork with a length of 20 lb. mono. Flip it out over rich grass beds and snap the popping cork across the surface. Intermittent twitches and pauses will entice strikes. The splashing and surface commotion invites interest from nearby predators who see nothing but a lone shrimp swimming for its life. What do you think the end result will be?
However you decide to rig your crustacean concoction you can count on one thing—connecting! If we can leave you with a final tip it would be to fish imitation shrimp on the appropriate tackle. Two basic setups will typically cover anything you’ll encounter. A light action 7′ graphite or composite spinning outfit loaded with 10 lb. braid and a medium action 7’6″ spinner loaded with 20 lb. braid. Thirty-six inches of fluorocarbon will complete the natural presentation.
Slice of Life
Like their name implies, soft plastic shrimp are relatively soft and supple. That’s what gives them their lifelike attributes, but with this enticing ability comes an offering that is susceptible to damage from unrelenting predators. PRO’s Soft~Bait Glue is a specially designed and formulated adhesive that will greatly extend the life of your soft plastics. Perfect for repairing tears, nicks and slices, PRO’s Soft~Bait Glue works even when your bait is wet. Simply put some glue on the damaged spot, apply a bit of pressure and you are back in action.