Softbait Fishing - Selecting and Tying Traces

Softbait Fishing - Selecting and Tying Traces

Whenever I land a big fish on typical soft-plastic tackle from unforgiving territory, I wonder how the relatively light trace managed to stay in one piece. So when it occasionally doesn’t, I’m not that surprised, either.

With a breaking strain between 7 and 15kg and measuring just two to four metres in length, there’s plenty of potential for trace disaster, especially as two knots are required – one to the lure and one to the mainline. And anglers being anglers, these knots tend not to be renewed for far too long.

Choosing the best possible trace for the circumstances will always be a balancing act: we need a material that’s hard to see but also thick and tough enough to help guard against wear, abrasion and teeth. Fluorocarbon trace seems the obvious choice; theoretically it is more abrasion resistant and harder to see underwater than monofilament – two big advantages in a soft-plastic trace material.

However, it also tends to be less supple, making it a potential liability when tying knots that involve the trace pulling up nice and tight to form a base preventing the slippery braid from slipping through. And this same stiffness can also hinder the soft-bait’s natural action. These qualities are particularly true of some fluoro brands in the heavier poundages – over 24kg say. But this doesn’t mean fluoro is out – far from it – provided you find brands (and line classes) of superline and fluoro that are compatible, and take care to pull the knots up correctly and very s l-o-w-l-y, you have a very durable and effective weapon at your disposal.

But I must emphasise, the trace and mainline must be compatible with one another. It’s surprising how the various trace materials and types of superlines in different diameters perform (or don’t) when attempts are made to knot them together. Indeed, for some time I struggled to find a single joining knot, tied exactly the same way on a wide variety of different line brands, types and weights, that didn’t occasionally slip through or cut the other line when tightened up or placed under pressure.
Until I discovered the Yukatan knot, that is.

This strong, streamlined and reliable knot is best tied when the mainline’s double is intact (see last month’s issue for instructions on tying a Bimini Twist double), but you may still need to experiment with the number of turns required to get the most from it – around ten to twelve rotations seems to be about right for most.

However, if the double is broken, or you want to do without the recommended Bimini Twist double because it looks too daunting, you might try using a Back-to-back Uni knot instead – although those without a double will still need to double over a 50-60cm section of superline first, as a single strand won’t distribute the pressure effectively enough.

In all cases, give the knot a really hard, steady pull before using it.


By now some of you may be wondering, “Why bother with all this crap? It’s making it all too hard. Surely you don’t even need a trace when the line is so thin?”

This seems a valid point, especially as there are products out there that are reasonably translucent and can realistically be tied straight to the jig-head or hook without sacrificing many bites. But in most cases I wouldn’t recommend this path. All soft-bait anglers will catch more fish by using high-visibility (coloured) braided or fusion lines, as they make it easier to detect bites when the line is slack while the lure descends, especially in low light conditions. If you cannot see the line jerking, abruptly slackening or racing away – signalling it is time to quickly react – you’re missing valuable opportunities!

And even thin lines in more neutral or natural tones are surprisingly easy to see underwater, reducing the number of hits and bites attracted. Far better to use a leader, despite the hassles this entails.

Leaders of the pack

Exactly which brands of leader will suit your needs best I cannot say, as they vary so much in compatibility, but up till now I have been well served by Black Magic Fluorocarbon Leader, Berkley ‘Vanish’ and Seaguar products. More recently, the Stren ‘Tinted’ Leader has impressed me with its tremendous toughness and knotting capabilities.

As for those who prefer nylon – after all, it’s easier to tie some knots in, offers more suppleness (giving lures more action), and is usually cheaper than fluoro – I’ve been using Maxima Big Game for many, many years and don’t see any reason to change.
Whatever trace material you settle on though, it can’t be too thick or you’ll interest fewer fish. But nor can it be too light or you’ll simply break fish off. Consequently, I rarely go below 7kg breaking strain – it’s simply too risky and means having to retie the knots too often during hot sessions (even well-tied knots bite into themselves when placed under pressure, particularly when anglers lift struggling fish into the boat by hand rather than using a net).

I mostly use 20lb (10kg) trace, but if the terrain’s rugged and the fish are perhaps a bit bigger than usual, I’ll go up to 25lb (11.5kg) – and plenty of anglers I know won’t hesitate to use 30lb (15kg).

After selecting the appropriate weight and type of leader, and then knotting it securely to the mainline, you’ll need to decide on its length. Basically, you should make it as short as is practicable, because although it performs an important function, it holds up in the water more than the mainline and is much more elastic, so the longer it is, the harder it becomes to set the hook.

I find around three metres is about right – long enough to take any punishment dished out by fish and the terrain, as well as divorcing it sufficiently from the highly visible mainline, but not so long as to hold the soft-bait up in the water column. It may even be a little on the long side, but that suits me, as a little extra length enables the knots to be renewed a few times when the action is torrid (especially the one tied to the soft-plastic head or hook) and for lead-heads to be replaced without having to renew the whole trace.

Now all you need to do is select an appropriate lead-head or ‘worm’ hook.

The end game

As with all things fishing, try to use a rig that incorporates just enough weight to get the soft-bait out or down to where the fish are. Too much weight makes it harder to impart an attractive action and leads to more snags.

When casting into the whitewash and surge around the coast and exposed reefs, or around the weedy shallows at the change of light, it’s best to use a very light – or even unweighted – soft-bait. I find lead-heads around a quarter ounce are about right. Such conditions are also ideal for soft-plastics incorporating internal weights, as their less streamlined shape causes them to sink more slowly, allowing anglers to retrieve them more slowly without snagging up too often, so they remain in the ‘hit-zone’ for longer.

As the water gets deeper and currents become stronger, progressively heavier lead-heads are required, but unless fishing in very windy conditions or west coast harbour channels, it is still a rare day that more than an ounce is required – providing you employ the right gear and techniques. 

The size and type of hook incorporated in the lead-head is another vital component of soft-bait fishing. Suitable hooks need to be thin enough in gauge to set easily using comparatively light rods, yet strong enough structurally to resist the power generated by the fish’s tail – as well as by its crushing jaws! You’ll also find that, provided the gape of the hook isn’t overly choked by the lure tail, the smaller hook sizes are set more effectively.

This is especially true when dealing with ‘pannies,’ which are harder to hook due to their relatively small body mass; they’re easily lifted up through the water when anglers strike, making solid hook-ups less likely, whereas bigger fish stay put, providing anglers with solid resistance to haul a hook into.

I find 3/0 to be a good size for 5-6-inch (13-16cm) tails (even 7-inch if necessary), as such a hook sticks out enough to provide clean hook-ups, yet the point remains close enough to the tail to be engulfed with it when the fish bites, resulting in more hook-ups.

I generally stick with lead-heads fitted with Gamakatsu or Owner hooks as they are sharp, resist corrosion well, and have proven to be thoroughly dependable. VMC is also worth considering, as the shorter-shanked hooks used allow the tail more movement, but the heads don’t suit some small-diameter tails.    

As for the ‘worm’ hooks (Mustad, Gamakatsu and VMC, amongst others, produce good ones), these allow anglers to fish soft-baits without weight if desired, or with a small ball or bean sinker (or two), added to the trace above the connecting knot to get the soft-plastic down deeper. The advantage of such a rig is that you can readily change the size of sinker above the hook to suit the changing circumstances, and as the hook is almost completely embedded in the soft-bait, you can cast or work it through some pretty gnarly territory and not snag-up too often.

The end of the tunnel

Having arrived at the likely weight needed, it is now time to tie the lead-head or hook onto the trace.

You will probably be relieved when I tell you a Uni-knot does this quite adequately – although the knot is stronger when tied with a doubled-over piece of trace, as this spreads the load more effectively, reducing the problem of the knot biting into itself.

However, the lure will move more freely if the knot stays open-looped rather than pulled up hard against the connection point. Uni-knotters can achieve this by tightening the knot up hard against a finger and thumbnail. However, a decent fish will pull the knot tight against the hook or lead-head, so it may need to be opened up again or retied.

For this reason I prefer to use a Rapala Loop Knot, also known as the Lefty Kreh or Harrison’s Loop Knot. This knot is reasonably simple to tie (once you know how), super strong (no need for a doubled-over length of line here) and it also remains open-looped, regardless of pressure. The hardest thing to initially master is the size of the loop, which should be as small as possible, otherwise the lead-head can slip inside it and catch up.

Now all that remains is to select and fit the best soft-plastic tail onto the hook as attractively as possible.

 This article is reproduced with permission of
New Zealand Fishing News

Oct 2007 - by Mark Kitteridge

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