Casting lightly-weighted plastics well away from the drifting boat over and around shallow reefs, sand banks and even tidal flats, can be highly effective. It’s my favourite way to fish year round and can produce some great fishing for a wide variety of species, including snapper, trevally, kahawai, kingfish, gurnard, john dory and other species, too.
Where I fish in northern New Zealand, snapper are the main target, but the same technique will also net blue cod and trumpeter, along with the odd moki or tarakihi in more southern waters.
There’s no sense in dragging soft-baits behind the drifting boat in rocky territory – unless you want to be continuously tying on new ones. Instead, fish by casting ahead of the moving boat, adjusting the casting angle and jig-head weight to compensate for the effects of wind and tide. Mark Kitteridge is a master of casting angles and he has written extensively about this aspect of soft-plastics fishing.
I liken this style of soft-plastics fishing to hunting: seeking out places I hope will hold fish, based on a combination of research, prior experience fishing the area, and what I can see with my eyes, under and above the water, as well as on the fish-finder screen.
You can explore a lot of territory this way, slowly prospecting along a shoreline, casting as you go. Depending on the area’s potential, the time you have available, and your patience, you can move fairly quickly, casting only to those locations that look the most promising, or take your time to thoroughly pepper the area with soft-plastics.
It’s surprising where you will hook fish. Often it’s not from the best-looking possies; sometimes fish are taken from totally nondescript stretches of coastline, like small coves or broad, shingle-filled bays.
Some parts of the coast definitely hold more fish than others. Sometimes you’ll fish a point, a bay or a sunken reef that is loaded with fish; at other times you can cover a lot of coastline for little or no return.
Success or failure is often related to the season; many places produce much better at certain times of the year than at others. The quality of the marine habitat plays a part too, as does the amount of fishing pressure a stretch of coast receives.
It’s always a buzz to fish somewhere that doesn’t see too many anglers; such places can produce spectacular results. But this type of shallow-water prospecting using-plastics works just about anywhere. Just don’t expect the results to be quite the same when fishing off Eastern Beach or Browns Island, say, as they might be at the Hen and Chickens Islands or fishing along the back of Great Barrier.
Wherever you fish, the key is to present your soft-bait in a way fish find difficult to resist. Some of that comes down to the baits you choose, including colour, pattern and, to a lesser degree, scent, but mostly it is about presenting plastics in the right place in the right way.
I like jerk shads, curly tails and paddle-tailed soft-plastics for this style of fishing. Each can be fished slightly differently, though the general principles are the same. Of the three styles, I use jerk shads most often because they imitate a broad range of food items and do a superb job of mimicking a dead or dying bait fish while descending. I mostly stick with 5-inch tails, but sometimes a smaller or larger model does the trick.
Since I’m often fishing in shallow water, which can also be clear, I tend to use light fluorocarbon traces, sometimes as light as 10-pounds (4.5kg). It’s a bit of a trade-off between bites and bust-offs: heavier traces don’t get as many bites, but they offer some insurance if a big snapper finds the weed. I usually fish 15-pound trace, but may go as heavy as 20-pound if the water’s a bit deeper or it’s an overcast day.
When fishing a rocky shore, I like to toss soft-plastics into rocky channels and guts, and work my lure close to the reef edges, boulders and rocks I can see deeper down, or in amongst the white water close to shore. It’s exciting, visual fishing, where you need to pay close attention to your line to detect bites and then react quickly enough to prevent fish from burying themselves in the reef.
In shallow water fish don’t have much time to examine a soft-plastic as it descends through the water column. Nor can they see a soft-bait from as far away, so in three or four metres of water you need to land a soft-plastic reasonably close to the fish for it to be seen. In water that’s shallower still, it needs to be right on a fish’s nose. It can take a lot of casts to cover an area properly.
On the other hand, without much time to examine a soft-bait before it ‘escapes’ into the kelp, snapper tend to bite first and ask questions later. You’ll often get a bite moments after the soft-bait splashes down, and you can expect a bite at any stage while it’s falling.
In shallow water, light jig heads ensure the soft-bait sinks slowly. Some baits, like the Z-Man range, are naturally buoyant so sink more slowly for any given jig weight, which can be an advantage in the shallows.
When conditions allow, I’ll fish using jig heads weighing 1/4 ounce or less. To cast and work such light jigs requires a fine-diameter braided main line, thin trace material and a sensitive rod.
Many anglers use longer rods rated at the lighter end of the soft-bait tackle spectrum, say 3-6kg. The extra length helps to increase casting distance, maintain better contact with the lure, and make long-range hook setting easier.
With such relatively light tackle, smaller hooks get a better hook-up rate. For shallow water fishing using 4- to 5-inch soft-plastics, I prefer 2/0 to 3/0 hooks, reserving my bigger hooks for larger baits. Lightweight jig heads tend to have smaller, lighter-gauge hooks, so bent hooks can be a problem: it pays to buy good quality jig heads with strong hooks.
Adopting these aspects will see you get plenty of bites, and although big fish will be a handful on such light gear, they provide a welcome challenge.
Although you’ll catch fish while retrieving your soft-plastic, most of the bites occur as the bait wafts downwards.
Good anglers take advantage of the way snapper bite ‘on the drop’ by regularly pausing during the retrieve following a jiggling uplift, providing plenty of opportunities for their soft-baits to fall. For snapper, slow retrieves with plenty of twitches and lifts, interspersed with long pauses so the lure falls back towards the seafloor, work best. Sure, you can change things up by giving the lure the odd hard jerk, a technique I’ve seen visiting Aussie anglers use with success, but a slower, more gentle approach generally seems to work better.
Since so many bites occur while the soft-plastic is falling, anglers need to be alert. After casting, try to stay in reasonable contact with the lure as it drops. This involves having the the reel in gear with the bail arm closed and the rod pointed down, along the line.
Avoid having too much slack or belly in the line, which make it hard to feel and respond to bites, but also try and avoid too much tension: you want the soft-bait to fall through the water as naturally as possible. This is especially the case with curly-tail baits and jerk shads , which seem to catch more fish if allowed to drop with a tiny bit of slack line between the rod tip and the bait. But watch that line like a hawk and strike the moment you see it move.
Having said that, a bit of line tension sees paddle-tailed soft-baits working better, especially when combined with a slightly heavier lead-head weight to really get their tails waggling.
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