Softbaiting For Beginners

Jack Lusk might be described as a ‘late adopter’ when it comes to soft-baits, but he has taken to it like a fish to water. In this article, he describes his journey and the issues he faced…

Three years ago, I switched from bait fishing to soft-baiting. Fair to say it’s been a heck of a ride! I’ve caught trevally, kingfish, pigfish, john dory, triggerfish and even a 24 pound, 10 ounce snapper. I’m still learning every time I fish, but here are some tips and ideas to help you either get started or improve your soft-baiting game.

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Softbaiting For Beginners

And it is not just snapper that find softbaits an easy target - john dory are suckers for a well-presented lure.

The rods

There are hundreds of rods to choose from, and it’s hard to know what’s best. I favour long rods – 8ft – for the extra casting distance. Extra distance means you have your lure in action for longer. However, rods that are long generally are a bit harder to handle, and if they are too flimsy at the tip end it can be hard to set the hook. While you’re getting used to setting the hook when you feel a bite, a shorter, stiffer rod can be really helpful. You won’t cast as far, but you will convert more of your bites. Likewise, when the fish are finicky, a rod with a nice firm action is great. Whatever the length, I recommend finding a rod that – put simply – isn’t too ‘bendy’.

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Softbaiting For Beginners
Many anglers favour slightly longer rods, in this case a Shimano Backbone Elite.

The reels

Most people generally fish a 3000 or 4000-sized reel. You don’t need a huge amount of drag (as you do for mechanical jigging, for example), so a small reel is fine. When you’re making hundreds of casts a session, it’s good to have something small and light – and these small reels are definitely able to handle big fish. I don’t have an unlimited budget, so I go for mid-range (about $150-300) reels from respected brands. If you look after these reels, including a yearly service, they’ll last for years. You can upgrade the drag washers and replace tired bearings at the same time without breaking the bank. It’s worth it in my view – these small upgrades provide a big jump forward in the performance and longevity of your reels.

The line

You need braid! You can go quite light – 10 to 20lb – because braid is very strong. I like to pay a little more for quality braid because an extra 15 bucks gets you a lot more casting performance. Braid isn’t abrasion resistant, so you need to use a two to three metre fluorocarbon leader that connects to the lure. This provides a bit of insurance when you’re fishing over foul ground. I fish 20lb leader, which is strong enough to handle big fish without first scaring them off. I use a simple Albright knot for the connection between braid and leader. There are other knots that are more streamlined and elegant, but I can quickly and reliably tie the Albright out at sea when I bust off – more time fishing, less time agonising over a tricky knot. At the lure end, I tie the Lefty’s Loop to allow the lure to move more freely, but it can be a bit ticklish to learn – practicing on the couch first is the way to go. Some people use a ‘Texas Rig’, which can also be a good way to fish.

The jig heads

Most people will tell you to use a light jig head as your default, but I firmly disagree. In 99% of situations, the one thing you definitely need to happen is for your lure to hit the bottom, especially when you’re learning the new technique. In any current or wind (or when you’re just starting out), getting the lure to the bottom can be very difficult – or even impossible – when using light jig heads. Your lure will be drifting up in midwater when most of the fish will be down below. I like to start with a one-ounce jig head, and then go lighter as I get used to the drift and know that I’m getting to the bottom. You’ll feel the one ounce hit the bottom, you’ll have good contact, and you’ll know when the fish bite. Some situations (like wash fishing or working very shallow ground) obviously require a lighter jig head, but for your run-of-the mill 20-30m depth drift, get some decent weight on and start by feeling the lure hit the bottom. You still catch plenty of fish on the drop, and you’ll feel the bites far more easily. As you get better with line control and managing the drop, you might back off the weight a bit to allow a longer drop time, which allows more time for the fish to see the lure falling towards the bottom. Finally, I favour jig heads with UV: they just seem to catch more fish.

The lures

So many to choose from! Most lures will work in the right situations, but when people are trying soft-baiting I advise them to stick with the classic patterns rather than being seduced by the tackle store wall. Colours like Bruised Banana, New Penny, Nuclear Chicken and Motoroil are all very reliable. When the pilchards and anchovies are around, the lighter lures – like Smokey Shad, Nuclear Pilchard, and Coconut Ice – seem to do well. I like to have a couple of rods set up with different colours so I can quickly see what’s working. In the early morning, I find high-UV lures like Motoroil and Atomic Sunrise are dynamite. I nearly always use 7-inch lures on long shank jig heads because I’m aiming for big fish, and you catch fewer small ones on this setup. When you’re starting out, 5-inch lures are a great size – lots of bites and the pannies can get them in their mouths easily enough. There are all sorts of squid, crab and prawn imitations, and they all work, but when you’re learning my advice would be to stick with the simple fish lures. I prefer the forked-tail versions (classic fish/shad imitations) over the paddle or curly tails in most situations.

The style

The easiest way to fish soft-baits is to drag them behind the boat. This method works well and is great for kids and learners. Sometimes the fish seem to prefer the lure on the drag, so it’s always worth trying. It’s pretty simple: you let line out until the lure hits the bottom and then bounce it along with little jerks of the rod. It’s a good way to get a feel for the fish hitting the lure and it’s definitely productive. The approach considered more ‘expert’ and perhaps more likely to catch bigger models is to fish ‘into the drift’. This method involves casting ahead of where your boat is drifting and trying to keep in contact with your lure as you drift towards where you cast. Once it hits the bottom, you then work it back with small winds and jerks of the rod. Often, the fish take the lure as it comes to a stop on the bottom, so good contact with your lure is important. To fish this way, you generally need a sea anchor (drogue) to slow your drift. You cast out as far as you can, winding very gently (if you need to) to keep contact with your lure. The fish often hit as the lure drops, even coming up a few metres from the bottom to grab it – which is why you need to be in contact with the lure right the way down.

Softbaiting For Beginners
Softbaiting has put the sport back into snapper fishing, using lighter tackle to take on trophy fish.

The spots

Starting out, it’s generally easiest and most productive to fish in 18-25m. Once you get over about 30m, it can be pretty challenging to get your lure down, especially if there’s any current or wind. I look for any bird activity and fish under that – or just pick a nice bottom contour and scope around for some sign on the fish-finder. It’s easiest to start by fishing over sand with not too many snags, which works well in the months the fish are feeding on bait schools or gearing up to breed over sand. In winter you might have to fish closer to foul, but you can normally find some fish over sand at any time of year if you scope around.

Softbaiting For Beginners

Top Tips

Leave the bait at home - It’s hard to do because you know you can easily bag a feed on bait. But, by being brave, you’ll stick to soft-baiting for longer, learn more, and I’m sure you’ll crack the code. And, as an added bonus, you’ll head home smelling a lot nicer!

• Work the angles - On every drift, there will be a perfect cast angle that gets the lure down in the most natural way, with minimal line drag or line bow. Cast on different angles until you feel the lure going down naturally and quickly. It takes a bit of practice, but it makes a huge difference.

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• Change lures often - I’m always a fan of the classic colours, but I cycle through them pretty swiftly to find what’s working. It can change day-to-day, or even several times within a day.

• Move often - Impatience is a virtue in soft-baiting. Have five to ten casts on a drift, and if it hasn’t worked, move. Change depths, change angles, find a spot that’s working and then make hay.

• Use bait scent - These little tubes of goo really work – squeeze it into the slit at the bottom of the lure, or just all over the lure, every few casts. When the fish are tentative, bait scent can give you a better chance of a solid hook up.


August - 2019 - Jack Lusk

New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
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