Softbait techniques - depth control

One of the keys to successful soft bait fishing is controlling your lure’s depth and sink rate. Soft baits are extremely versatile and suitable for many different rigs, but incorporating the right amount of weight for the conditions is vital if you are to catch fish, no matter how you choose to rig your baits.

Jerk shads

John Eichelsheim, softbaitsThe most popular soft bait style is the ‘jerk shad’, available from different manufacturers and called a number of names. In New Zealand, the best selling and arguably the most consistent range of softbaits comes from Berkley, who manufacture Gulp! and Gulp! Alive shads, paddle tails, minnows, worms, lizards and grubs. By far the most popular GULP!s are jerk shads of various colours, sizes and patterns, including Crazy Legs variations.

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Jerk shads are hugely versatile lures, but with the exception of Crazy Legs and similar jerk shad variations, they have little inbuilt action, relying on the angler to give them life. Perhaps surprisingly (until you think about it), jerk shads are often taken when the lure is stationery, or else free falling through the water column. This is so common I suspect 50% or more of my snapper bites on soft baits come ‘on the drop’.

The reason for this is simple: fish are accustomed to sucking in dead or dying bait fish as the flutter down from above and a free-falling, fluttering jerk shad is an excellent representation of a small dead or dying fish.

A jerk shad lying on the bottom, twitched once or twice and allowed to fall back to the bottom must look just like a dying baitfish to a hungry predator, which often sucks the lure into its mouth as it falls back towards the bottom.

Such bites are far more common on jerk shads than are takes on steadily retrieved baits.

Choosing a jighead

John Eichelsheim, softbaitsTo ensure the right action for your jerk shad, the choice of jighead size/weight is very important. Water depth, current, wind and tackle choice (overhead tackle or spinning gear, line thickness and rod action) all have a bearing on jighead selection, but the rule of thumb is to fish a jighead heavy enough to get your lure into the strike zone reasonably quickly and allow it to remain there long enough to elicit a bite.

For snapper and many other species, the strike zone is usually on or near the bottom, so you need to select a jighead with sufficient weight to fish the lure near the bottom in the conditions. Too light and you won’t get down at all – or else you’ll find it nearly impossible to maintain contact with the jerk shad – too heavy and the jerk shad spends too little time falling through the water column where it’s most visible to fish.

In deep water, you need more weight than you do in shallow water and if there is a lot of current or the boat is drifting quickly, choose a heavier jighead. The extra weight allows you to maintain contact with your lure and to reach the bottom before the boat has drifted too far past the lure’s position.

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Big baits also require heavier jigheads. A large seven-inch jerk shad will need more weight than a five-inch model, all-else being equal. Conversely, changing to a larger six or seven-inch shad is sometimes a short term solution when conditions such as drift speed or water depth change and smaller baits are hanging up on the bottom or otherwise no longer fishing effectively.

In very shallow water, less weight is usually better. Unless you want to spend your day constantly snagging your jig on the bottom, choose light jigheads. By light, I mean quarter of an ounce (7g) or less. In shallow water, changing to a large jerk shad (grub/worm or lizard) is one way to ensure your bait spends more time on the drop where it’s visible to fish hunting and hiding in the shallows.

In New Zealand where the primary target is snapper, one of the prerequisites for a jighead is a suitably sized hook strong enough to withstand a snapper’s jaws. Fortunately, reputable brands like Berkley Nitro offer a range of jigheads with strong Owner hooks.

In the larger sizes and heavier weights, it is less of an issue, but finding light jigheads with strong hooks can be more difficult. I have destroyed many a light wire hook trying to drag big fish from gnarly territory. Look for reasonably heavy gauge hooks, even in small hook sizes. Jig heads built by Berkley Nitro on Japanese Owner hooks are hard to beat.

I favour 3/0 hooks for most of my jigheads, although I use 5/0 and larger, especially in conjunction with seven-inch tails. 3/0 hooks are the right size for five-inch jerkshads, leaving more of the lure free to move about and giving a better hook-up ratio than larger hooks.

Smaller softbaits require smaller hooks again, but good quality 2/0 jigheads can be hard to find, especially those with hooks strong enough to deal with snapper and heavy drag settings.

Change the weight to suit the conditions

John Eichelsheim, softbaitsFor most fishing scenarios, a 5/8 ounce (18g) jighead is a good starting point. From there, you can go up or down in weight to suit the fishing conditions: more depth and/or a faster drift, more weight; less depth and/or a slower drift, less weight.

For most of my local fishing in the Hauraki Gulf, I start with a ½-ounce Berkley Nitro jighead. I generally fish a spinning rod using light (2-4kg) braid, so seldom have difficulty getting to the bottom or maintaining contact with the lure, but there are times when I go up or down in weight.

You’ll know when you’re not fishing effectively: if you have difficulty feeling your lure touch the bottom or else you feel it is spending too little time in the strike zone, it’s time to change to a heavier jig head.

Casting further ahead of the boat can help, but if the lure touches down for the first time when the line is already angling away behind the drifting boat, you need to use more weight.


John Eichelsheim, softbaitsWhile I firmly believe lighter is better and that you should use just enough weight to fish effectively in the conditions, there are times when it is better to use slightly more weight than you absolutely need because it allows better contact with the lure and help you to detect bites. This is especially true in windy conditions or when you find yourself fishing in wind against tide conditions.

I also tend to choose a slightly heavier jighead when fishing with overhead tackle. Small overhead reels and baitcasters are great tools for softbait fishing, especially in deeper water, but they rely on the weight of the lure to pull line off the revolving spool. Softbaits tend to hang up in the water rather more than is the case when using spinning/threadline reels because they are not only dragging the line through the water, they have to pull it off the spool. With a threadline reel, coils of line flick freely off the spool, so the lure falls through the water more quickly for a given weight. Therefore, if I use a ½-ounce jighead on my spinning gear, I would use a 5/8-ounce on the baitcaster in the same conditions.

The other main exception to fishing as little weight as is practicable is when dragging softbaits behind the drifting boat.

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In deeper water, there is usually an element of dragging even when you cast your lure well ahead of the drifting boat. You can increase your lure’s time in the strike zone by continuing to fish once the boat has drifted past the lure, dropping it back to the bottom by releasing more line, then giving it a jerk or a couple of twitches and repeating the procedure until the line angle becomes too great. This is an effective technique when using jerk shads and other lure styles as well.

In some conditions, simply dragging the bait behind a drifting boat works as well as anything and it is a popular method for beginners as well as very experienced softbait fishers.

The key to fishing behind the boat is to use sufficient weight to overcome line drag and to keep the lure on or near the bottom. You’ll need considerably more weight for this than you do for fishing in front of the boat.

Other softbait styles

While the same general principles apply to most other softbait styles, some patterns are better fished using more weight that is usual with jerk shads.

Paddle tails and larger grub tails in particular rely on the weight of the jighead to get their mobile tails working. Fish are more likely to eat these patterns when the angler actively retrieves them than they are jerk shads, so paddle tails and grubs are more like conventional lures in this respect.

Compared to a similar sized jerk shad, when using a paddle tail or grub tail, I fish a jighead half as heavy again in shallow water; in deep water, I use perhaps twice as much weight if I’m staying with a jig head, or considerably more when using a Nitro elevator rig and fishing the lure vertically.


  An original article written for The Fishing Website - Ltd 

By John Eichelsheim 2011 
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

Copyright Ltd. All rights reserved.

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