One of the things I love about soft baiting is that it is all about the right gear and technique. If you get those things right, you have as good a chance as the experts of getting your share!
It would be fair to say many people have struggled to come to terms with soft baiting. New tackle and techniques required to get consistent results when our traditional bait fishing is so different requires some commitment to learning about the elements that will make a difference to your success.
Tying braid, putting baits on jig heads or worms hooks, striking and hooking fish is so different to traditional bait fishing but practice will pay dividends. Here are some key things I’ve discovered over several years teaching softbait fishing techniques.
Because our traditional bait fishing tackle is so heavy we have tended to fish with the rod tip up and pivoted the reel and rod butt off the hip. The butt was for the most part lower than the rod tip. Even going to lighter 6-8kg tackle we naturally and probably quite rightly carried on this method and played fish from the hip. If you place your soft bait rod butt on your hip and get someone to pull on the tip you can pull about 1-1.5 kg or thereabouts. (When the rod is bent don’t let them move towards you as it can cause tip loading and possible breakage). Now put that same rod under your armpit (tuck it right up and change your feet and body position to get comfortable, and so that winding is unimpaired) and you’ll find you can exert about 3 to 4 times more pressure. Softbait rods are strong in the base section and very flexible in the tip. Not lifting the rod so high at the tip and being able to exert more pressure over the fish will pay dividends on larger fish and in shallow water or over reef and foul. Fish being released are much greener and more likely to survive.
With traditional bait fishing, striking the fish was a lifting of the rod upwards, generally with it in against the hip. A softbait retrieve generally starts with the rod often level or pointed down at the water and then we tend to lift the rod arcing it back towards our body so that the tip progressively ends up higher above the reel. As we know, trying to set the hook on a tip pressure of 1-1.5 kg may explain why we are not setting the hook more often.
To overcome this problem point the rod at where ever you intuitively feel the jig head or soft bait is. Use the reel handle to wind in line or get motion to the bait (if required) but bring the rod down sooner than you would normally. You are lifting and lowering more often in shorter strokes not necessarily quicker unless the situation requires it. The object is to keep the rod low so that when the take comes you have an almost direct pull from the bail roller or at the least you are hitting the fish on the bottom third of the rod. Have your arm extended but comfortable and pull the rod towards you rather than lifting. If you’re not super strong hold the rod in such a way the butt will come under and against your forearm.
At times your rod tip is high when you get a bite and when a fish hits the lure we instinctively lift and tighten the wrist automatically which in turn means the tip is the main area being applied to setting the hook. As a more effective option, try this technique and keep practicing it till you get proficient (I have nearly lost my outfit a couple of times, that damn multi-tasking). Grip your rod firmly with your palm and opposed by your fingers securely wrapped around the rod grip. With spinning reels you should have two fingers behind the reel stem, and two in front. As you are retrieving, keep your wrist slack. This way when the strike comes the fish will pull the tip down quickly reducing the angle and again you’ll be setting the hook on the bottom third of the rod. I discovered this by accident when looking the other way assisting in landing a fish but oh what a solid hook up. Use it as and when the situation requires. I do not use it all the time and it takes good reactions to bring it into play.
Monofilament can have up to 20% stretch where braid has about 2 % creating a whole new dynamic.
You need to ensure your drag is set for the lineweight you’re using. Braid can be confusing as the stated ‘lineweight’ often doesn’t reflect the actual breaking strain of the line itself. For instance 6lb fireline has been shown to break at up to 7kg. That means you can wind the drags up on your reel more than you might expect. A good reel with a smooth drag is critical if you are going to fish with higher drag settings however as a large fishing hitting and hooking up instantly can bust you off if the drag isn’t in perfect working condition and you’re fishing near the upper limits of the actual breaking strain of the line.
Get a buddy to help you set the drag. Place the rod under your armpit and point the rod at about his or her waist height and get them to use cloth or glove take a few wraps of line and pull line off like a fish running. You will see it is quite easy for them to take line, making you wonder if in fact you can have the drag setting even higher and often you can. With higher settings, even larger fish will struggle to take line and come to the boat much quicker. Remember to use team work when netting fish as they are often quite green with this method. Use suitably heavy hooks. Berkley Nitro 3/0, Jig Star 5/0 most Squidgie Jig heads or equivalent in other brands.
You should always cast to the direction of drift not necessarily the angle the boat is pointing, unless they are the same. Conditions/depths will mean some adjustments to direction of cast and I normally cast wider for shallower depths with faster drifts. A simple rule of thumb is to cast a couple of metres further than the depth you’re fishing. This will give you a couple of meters of line to wind up and prepare so that you know your soft bait is doing a U, just above the sea floor as the boat passes.
You need to consider sink rates of the line (thicker line sinks more slowly and has more resistance in current than thinner lines). Thicker braids also don’t show the relaxing of the line to the degree the thinner lines do when they hit the bottom and this is especially important when fishing the shallow foul. Yes the bigger diameter lines will do the job but have some downsides as well.
Cast at 45 degrees to the direction of drift. The critical thing here is the 45 degree angle as by the time your bait is near the bottom and getting hit it is roughly in front of you and with your rod down you should be straight with rod and line and get a good solid hook up. If your soft bait is on straight and attached with a Genie clip allowing more action often you don’t need any type of retrieve. If you’re hitting the bottom too soon then adjust your angle of cast accordingly. When you hook a fish, quickly lift the rod under your armpit and with the tighter drag your fish will come in square in front of you or towards the back corner. Avoid trying to hook fish with too steeper line angle as mentioned earlier.
Predator fish will generally attack the tail to immobilize their prey. Their next move is to totally engulf this now inert bait fish. And here’s a potential problem. What we often do on that first bite is give the rod a good jerk/lift which can result in the tail being bitten off. Try and avoid a heafty strike. There are circumstances where certain fish bite the tail off and one option for dealing with that is to just speed up your retrieve. With the tail gone, another lift and wind the bait is far enough away for the striking fish to lose interest. If you have a bite and fail to hook up, let the bait drift back down and often you will get a good solid take. Also having the slack wrist or a softer tension with your rod arm helps eliminate tail loss.
Most softbaits work, though the three main baits I use in no particular order are Gulp, Slam, and Squidgies. There are plenty of others that are just as good. Experience has shown it’s actually the angler and their techniques, the equipment and fishing to the conditions that are probably more important considerations. Bait presentation, size, scent and ‘matching the hatch’ are possibly important contributors on any given day. Most baits are rendered useless if you put them on crooked as they rotate and don’t work properly (you often won’t be aware of the problem as you automatically slow down your wind as you get closer to the boat). Rotating baits can cause line twist and guide wraps on the tip or top two guides. Twisted line can cause problem with casting and line breakages. The gut cavity is the stomach on jerk shads so should be on the bottom.
I use genuine Genie clips from Tackle Tactics or Big Red Tackle (watch out for cheap imitations!) to attach the jighead to the fluorocarbon leader. They are high quality English sprung steel and allow you to make rapid changes to either colour, size or action if things are slow especially with vinyl baits. They allow rapid weight changes if drifting in offshore winds over drop offs that are close to the shoreline. Also unrigging at the end of a session or keeping protein baits juiced up when moving on hot days is a quick and easy option. The metal to metal loop and hook eye means a freer swinging system as opposed to metal to nylon which closes slightly when you pull on the retrieve. It’s simple physics.
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