It seems to me that soon after soft-plastics made their spectacular entry onto our fishing scene, a gulf began to develop between the devotees of this new fishing method and traditional bait fishers.
Whilst it has not got to the open hostility sometimes seen between nymphers and wet-liners on the Tongariro, derogatory terms like ‘stinky fingers’ and ‘smelly bait’ indicate that some fisherman have already elevated this new method to a higher realm.
There is no doubt that both methods work extremely well, but not necessarily at the same time and in the same place. The old adage of ‘horses for courses’ also applies to fishing, and the open-minded fisher who keeps his options open will bring home a good feed more often than the one-method specialist. Let’s face it: fishing can be hard enough for most of us without being hampered by a self-imposed obstacle course.
This article is not evaluating the merits between soft-plastics and bait fishing; nor is it trying to bridge the gulf that has grown between the two camps. No, I shall go one step further and try to show how the two methods can be fused with beneficial results.
It all started on my last trip to the Coromandel’s Papa Aroha fishing camp. My wife and I have become regular summer migrants to these sheltered waters, which make a pleasant change from the small, fine-weather windows on our stormy west coast. Not only can we paddle our kayaks on most days, the growing familiarity with the place has also given me a good handle on where fish are and the best time to go after them. The latter relates mainly to the stage of the tide and its direction. In practice I have learnt to target particular channels to take full advantage of strong tidal flows that have proven time and again to bring snapper on the bite.
Even though we get bigger snapper on the west coast, nothing can beat the Hauraki Gulf for its sheer numbers. It is indeed the centre of the snapper universe, at least for New Zealand, if not for the entire world. Snapper are so plentiful in this ideal habitat that they comprise the bulk of most fisher’s catches, regardless of what fishing method is used. I can’t think of a better place to learn the ins and outs of soft-bait fishing than on the snapper of the Hauraki Gulf. It certainly has been my SB training ground, to the point that I now leave all my bait gear – as well as accessories like berley pots and anchors – at home.
On our last trip in late February, we managed to paddle out every day of our stay, and covered a lot of water around the numerous islands nearby the camp.
During travel I always drag a lure, mostly a small diving Rapala, in the hope of intercepting a kingfish. On one trip I caught a small kahawai and kept it for smoking. However, when we returned, the people next door, from whom I was going to borrow the smoker, had left, forcing me to cut it up for bait instead.
Next day we paddled to Goat Island. It was only there that I discovered my wife had put the plastic bag with the kahawai bits in my chillybin to avoid as she said, “contaminating the food in the small cabin fridge with fish smell”.
After a bit of refreshment, we set off to paddle around the island to fish several spots I had previously done well in. After circumnavigating Goat Island and getting back to the channel between Goat and the nearby Whale Island, the outgoing tide was just starting to move. I drifted though the gap, carefully noting on my fish-finder the profile of the underwater reef that connects the two islands.
This reef system rises to within a few metres of the surface, and on the outgoing tide produces a strong flow with quite noticeable pressure waves. In the past I have found that snapper (and probably other fish) line up in this food-bearing current in much the same way as trout do in rivers. It is a soft-plastic bait fisher’s dream, with nearly every cast attracting a strike. Unfortunately, not every strike results in a hook-up and this can be hard on one’s supply of soft-plastics.
On this particular day, I was plagued with strikes that left many of my tails without their appendices. I did catch fish with just the body left on the jig hook, but eventually I ran out of whole tails, with only a few takers in the bin. It was then that I remembered the kahawai bits in the plastic bag. I regretted not having brought hooks and sinkers for bottom fishing, and as an experiment stuck a hunk of bait onto my 1/0 jig head. On the next drift I fired it out much the same as I had done with the tails.
After giving it time to sink, I started the usual jerks and pulls, and almost instantly had a big hit that resulted in one of the bigger snapper of the day. What was left of the bait was quickly replaced with another, and a big cast consigned the bundle across the channel. After removing slack line, I had again just begun activating the jig when my rod tip got pulled down and started nodding under the weight of another good snapper. Hey, something was going on down there that was not mentioned in the rulebook on soft-bait fishing!
However unconventional this method was, it built on the success of soft-bait fishing in that the drifting kayak and the fanned-out casts found new fish all the time, while the jigged bait triggered their aggressive attention. All too quickly I went through my small bait supply in what turned out to be the hottest snapper action of the ten days we were there. Try as I might, I could not catch another kahawai during the rest of our stay, so was forced to use soft-baits and homemade lures instead. I did all right, but never as well as on the day I imparted soft-bait action to natural baits.
About a month later we made another trek north, this time to Martins Bay. I knew the area well, and confidently soft-baited my way around productive channels, reefs and inlets.
I had not forgotten my accidental Coro’ discovery though. After all, once back home I had given this hybrid method some serious thought and concluded that, as with soft-baits, the jigging action triggered the strikes. What had also impressed me was that fish hung on to the natural baits longer, and therefore had more chance to hook themselves. No doubt the familiar scent and taste of natural bait also contributed to the success.
Consequently, I was keen to repeat my natural bait-jigging experiments with a greater supply of kahawai, but at Martins Bay I refined my bait presentation by cutting my kahawai fillets into strips instead of cubes to impart more movement into my ‘natural’ tails. I really can’t say if that attracted more fish, but I did have more solid hook-ups on cubed baits.
To widen the experiment, I bought a packet of small natural squid, which, like the kahawai tails, I attached to my jig heads with Bait Elastic. I would have loved to try some tough octopus, but that part of the trial will have to wait until one finds its way into my cray pots.
Looking back, I caught snapper with all baits I tried, and provided I moved my natural offerings continuously and energetically, I avoided hooking undersized goldfish.
So what did all this teach me? A number of things, really: it confirmed what I have always believed – nothing in fishing is cast in stone. It convinced me that the gulf between natural bait and artificial lure fishing exists largely in people’s heads. It also showed me that unconventional experiments sometimes reap surprising results. It gives me another option if I should run out of SB tails or if the fish are not keen on plastics on the day.
The only thing I failed to work out was whether or not the smell of my kahawai strips left me with stinkier fingers than when handling the ‘400 X’ stronger-scented plastic lures. Even my wife, who has the fine nose of a MoF paua dog, could not come down on one side or the other.
This article is reproduced with express permission of
NZ Fishing News
written by Herb Spannagl - 2011
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited
Originally published in New Zealand Fishing News