You certainly can’t beat those days when the fish are literally jumping on the hook, providing a soft-bait fishing experience that’s extremely satisfying. But such fishing doesn’t happen all the time.
Soft-baits are perfectly suited to fishing from a kayak, yet this method is still overlooked by a large percentage of kayak anglers. This might be because they lack confidence in the method over traditional bait fishing, or because they experienced poor results with soft-baits when the fishing was slow anyway.
It’s true that even the best soft-bait angler can be put to the test during slow fishing periods, but there are tactics to employ that greatly improve soft-bait success.
One of the most common mistakes made while fishing with soft-baits is failing to staying in touch with the lure during its descent to the sea floor. Staying in touch starts with the rig and the purpose-designed jig-head, with its weight playing a critical role.
Firstly, the rule of thumb is to use enough weight so the soft-bait can get down to the strike zone, but at the slowest speed possible. As a rule of thumb, a three-eighths-ounce jig-head works well in depths as shallow as five metres, right up to 30m if conditions allow (i.e. the current/wind aren’t too strong).
The sink rate with this weight is around a metre per second when fishing four-inch grubs and minnows. This is slow enough to allow fish time to see the soft-bait descending towards them. Species such as snapper have eyes that can look up, so are particularly well suited to this strategy; it’s not uncommon for them to swim up and meet your soft bait-on its way down.
In shallow water up to 10 metres deep, a quarter-ounce jig head can be used to give a sink rate of half a metre per second. This size is also perfect for targeting species such as trevally feeding on the surface, as well as fishing inside mussel farms, especially when a barge is working. In both these situations the fish are close to the surface, so it’s crucial to keep the soft-bait hanging higher in the upper part of the water column for as long as possible, because that’s where the fish are.
Small soft-baits have advantages in these situations, as they also match the baitfish being preyed upon. ‘Small’ can be anywhere from 2.5–4” baits, depending on their shape and type. Two-and-a-half- inch Gulp Crabbys, for example, are an excellent alternative when the fish are feeding over sand, but slow on the bite.
The potential of three-inch minnows/jerk shads has been realised in New Zealand during the last few years. They are yet another morsel that can make a fishing day worthwhile when the fish aren’t playing ball.
It’s important to match small soft-baits with the correct hook size and shank length. If using the Nitro Saltwater Pro jig head for example, the hook gape remains the same throughout the range, but the shank length gets longer. This makes the 1/0 size best suited to 2.5-3” soft-baits, while four-inch sizes match up with a 2/0 hook, and the five-inch jerk shads a 3/0 hook. It is possible to also use the 1/0 hook size with larger four- and five-inch soft-baits to create extra tail movement.
Lure colour is always an area of fascination for anglers visiting a new location, so getting this right can make the difference in their success. Years of experience has taught me that the most consistent fish takers are natural colours such as brown and green with lighter shades incorporated.
It’s important to have as many fishing advantages as possible during slow days out on the water. Those soft-baits incorporating scent have a real advantage (lures that are also bait!) over silicone-based soft-plastics, with Gulp! product currently being a popular choice. Now, with an assortment of effective soft-baits in various shapes and sizes in hand, we need to use the right methods to make the most of the potential on offer.
First up, we need to figure out what the fish want or prefer, which can require a number of different techniques to determine.
It all starts once the cast has been made. After following through, the rod tip should be kept down close to the surface of the water. This allows the line to lie better on the surface and provides a direct view of what is happening to it. By watching the line’s progress, you can stay in touch better on the drop, but even so, detecting interest can be hard sometimes, especially when the wind is joggling the water’s surface.
In deep water, let line out as required, counting in seconds so you are aware of the soft-bait’s approximate position in the water column. With depths of 25 or 30 metres (but little current/wind), use a three-eighths jig-head to allow the bait to sink down nicely, letting line out as you go until the lure gets to around five metres above the sea floor. Then put the reel into gear/close the bail and let the line tighten up for the remaining descent.
In shallower water to 15 metres, engage the gears (or close the bail) as soon as the soft-bait hits the surface so you stay in direct contact with the lure all the way to the sea floor. In every case, keep a sharp eye on the braid line while the soft-bait descends. Look for anything unusual, including disruptions in the descent rate or a sudden tightening in the line.
Teaching soft-bait fishing from kayaks has allowed me to observe other anglers fishing over many hours. As a result, my senses have become so tuned that I often detect fish bites on someone else’s line before they realise it’s happening.
It takes time to understand what to look for, but once you get it, your reaction times will become much faster. If in doubt, just strike by lifting the rod and making a slight turn of the reel handle at the same time. Consequently, it’s imperative to keep your hand on the reel’s handle throughout the descent and retrieval process, as this allows you to react quickly if a fish grabs the bait.
Another tactic that can increase your chances on slow days is to vary the way the soft-bait is worked. As a free-diver who enjoys watching fish, it’s possible to get an understanding of how fish move, and this allows me to think like a fish when working a particular type of soft-bait.
It’s all about making the bait move in a way that fools predators into eating it. To figure out the best possible retrieval movements, lower the soft-bait into the water so it’s in view just below the surface beside the kayak. Now move the soft-bait around to see how it swims. This can be followed by various twitches of the rod tip to create erratic motions, which can be varied until the desired effect is created. Ideally though, you want it to look like an injured or dying fish, as this movement really presses the right predatory buttons.
If the fish seem to only be taking the soft-bait on the drop, vary your technique during the descent by occasionally lifting the rod tip and twitching the rig. This not only pauses the soft-bait, but also attracts the fish by sending out vibrations. The degree and amount of twitching required can vary from day to day and may require some figuring out. The same applies to movements imparted when down on the sea floor.
The most common method of moving the soft-bait involves lifting the rod vertically while twitching it, yet this can also be done by moving the rod in a sideways motion. After all, small 3” minnow-type soft-baits replicate tiny baitfish, which can dart erratically in all directions when under threat. Working the soft-bait so it behaves as predators expect it to, make it more likely to be eaten.
Using ‘crabby’ type soft-baits requires a different approach. These should be worked using less erratic motions so they remain close to the substrate. These baits are particularly useful when fish are feeding over the sand and only taking what is sitting on the bottom.
Some days the fish will only take a soft-bait while it lies on the sea floor. To accommodate this, let the soft-bait slowly sink so any fish close by will likely see it before it hits the bottom. Then, when it reaches the sea floor, wait for around 10 seconds, or longer, before tightening any slack line, taking care not to move the soft-bait on the bottom. Once the line is taut, lift the rod and be ready to strike, setting the hook, as it’s quite likely a fish will already be on the soft-bait. This technique is best used when fishing over sand to avoid getting hooked up on the sea floor.
Most importantly when the fishing is slow, be prepared to try different things than you normally would, lsuch as putting your soft-baits in locations that are often overlooked. Calm, shallow bays are often left alone by anglers, yet they can deliver some surprising results.
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