Softbaits - fishing the drop (Pt I)

The best thing about soft-plastic fishing is that new possibilities and techniques keep opening up.

For example, just recently I've been concentrating on 'fishing the drop', the period of time following a cast during which the lure sinks down towards the bottom. And, if that isn't producing for some reason, I'm working on improving the seemingly artless form of 'dragging', simply trailing soft-plastic lures along or near the bottom behind the boat. (But note I say 'seemingly'.)

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The main testing ground for uncovering the possible potential of these specialised aspects has been that amazing - yet often much maligned - JAFA resource, the Rangitoto Channel.

Last season was arguably the best for many years - perhaps not in terms of record fish numbers (although at times they have been thick throughout the passage, from the shallows to the depths), but certainly in terms of size, with fish averaging 1.5-3.5kg in weight and reports of double-figure fish common.

Without discounting the positive effects of particularly suitable weather and unbelievable numbers of baitfish in the channel last summer/autumn, I believe the fact we've been using soft-plastic lures is largely responsible for such improved results, as they are particularly effective at provoking the naturally aggressive and opportunistic snapper into action. After all, what self-respecting snapper is going to ignore a lonely and seemingly injured fish jiggling into its personal space, even if it is bizarrely coloured and turns out to be plastic?

Interestingly, the larger snapper are actually easier to hook than the smaller ones, with the extra body mass providing a more solid base to drive hooks into. That's why the juveniles, which lack much physical mass, tend to be flipped up or over by the hook's sudden upward pressure when the angler strikes. And another reason anglers might feel just a couple of wriggles and then nothing, is because the small mouths of juvenile fish often bite just the tail and not the hook as well. So hook-ups, if they occur at all, are regularly on the outside of the face.

Throughout the season my friends and I had our ups and downs. The hero of last weekend's trip sometimes caught nothing the next time, while previously unsuccessful mates hauled gleefully on regularly loaded and bucking rods. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason. One trip the snapper would only be taking an actively worked 'Lime Tiger' soft-plastic on a 5/8oz head, the next they'd keep nailing a gently jiggled 'Nuclear Chicken' tail trailed behind the boat using a two-ounce sinker and worm hook. And some trips they'd really cause chaos by dramatically changing lure preferences and demanding different fishing techniques all within a single morning's session.

That's why I now go out with at least two rods rigged in very different ways, enabling me to swap over to a different strategy at a moment's notice. And this really began to pay dividends as the season wore on.

One outfit, which we will concentrate on this month, is set up for casting a soft-plastic well out - mostly up ahead or to the side of the drifting boat - and then working it back along the bottom towards the boat. Initially I used a small Daiwa Certate 2500 spinning reel holding 8kg (actual breaking strain) braid, paired to a 2.38m (7'10") 'Reel Rods' custom rod, with a Nitro lead-head attached. This combination was, and is, an absolute delight to use - pure sex on a stick.

However, I began noticing more and more that my lure was getting nailed by decent snapper while still dropping towards the bottom, especially around work-ups or on the first jiggle or two after touching down. This last occurrence was not much of a problem, as the extra-long Reel Rods rod often hooked up efficiently, but bites on the drop were. This is because a lot of loose line spills off a spinning reel's spool with the bail arm open - especially if there is wind present - and this ends up 'floating around' in the sea and air. Unfortunately, while taut superbraid line is very good at transmitting bites, a limp one is particularly inefficient - so if I was still noticing good numbers of bites on the way down, it was highly likely that I was missing many, many more!

Using scented or flavoured tails can buy the angler a little extra time to feel the bites in such circumstances and react, as the fish usually hang onto these for longer. But this does not address the slack line problem. Consequently a different strategy was necessary, especially as snapper that bite 'on the drop' tend to be the larger, bolder specimens.

The obvious solution involved clicking the bail-arm closed before the bait reached bottom, helping to straighten the line and slightly slow the descent - both good attributes when fishing soft-plastics for snapper.

However, it is a rather imprecise science, especially in deeper water, as I never really know how close the lure is to the bottom when I close the bail. I just figure that provided I have cast further up-current than the water is deep, my lure must reach the bottom at some stage. Even so, closing the reel's bail-arm too prematurely means my potential retrieval distance is much reduced, reducing the likelihood of potential candidates being encountered on the retrieve. And I also wonder if the action assumed by the lure after closing the bail-arm is less attractive to the snapper than when free-falling (even though it may actually be better!).

So I tried experimenting with running the braid gently through my fingertips, which again helps to keep the line straighter and tighter to the lure, allowing me to detect more bites. But I was still missing too many of them, as the process of flicking the bail-arm across, winding and then striking took too long. This forced me to react by grabbing the line firmly with my bare hands and striking - a rather risky manoeuvre with the super-thin braid - and while this proved surprisingly effective on numerous occasions, due to the potential for some nasty line cuts long term, it's not the ideal answer.

Then, very reluctantly - after all, I do love using my spinning rod and reel - I switched to a freespool outfit when fishing deeper water, in this case a Shimano Calais baitcasting reel attached to a slightly battered but well-proven Daiwa Firewolf 7'(2.14m) rod. And when a dramatic increase in my success rate followed, much of the initial pain of separation subsided.

As I suspected, despite the slightly shortened cast (as most lead-heads are borderline in castable weight for freespool reels), the fact that I can keep in closer contact with the lure as it descends means bite detection is greatly improved. Consequently, I'm able to react much more quickly, generally by instantly clamping my thumb down firmly on the spool and striking. Then, with the rod well bowed, keeping the pressure on the fish and perhaps with line already smoking off underneath my thumb, I engage the reel's gears and hang on.

Obviously a reel armed with a Flippin' Switch/Bar or similar would greatly improve matters. Such a device allows the reel to release line while depressed, so if at any time you want to strike, simply take your thumb off the bar so the reel re-engages, and you're in business.

However, baitcaster-type reels are not everyone's cup of tea and can be expensive, so if committed to using spinning-type tackle, I suggest sticking with the first suggestion of closing the bail-arm before the bait reaches the bottom - and this can be just after the cast has been completed, especially if the water is shallow or casting into an active work-up. (In fact, in the latter two situations, spinning outfits probably remain the best option.)

To help with bite detection and reaction speed, point the rod along the line exiting the tip and watch it for any bumps and jerks as the lure descends. Or, if the line is being blown and bowed by a crosswind, making bite detection harder, point the rod tip down even more so the line enters the water earlier and is less affected. Also, if the wind is quite strong, blowing the boat onto the lure quickly, try casting out further and then winding in just enough line to keep the slack line to a minimum. The odd rod jiggle during the descent can pay dividends here. And finally, try lightly holding the line just ahead of the reel in your fingertips; this often enables you to detect bites a second or two before the rod tip registers anything significant. There's nothing better than feeling the pressure suddenly coming on and being able to strike instantly in response. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!

But, of course, this is just part of the equation; the rest involves choosing the right lead-head weight and tail shape.

The weight of the lead-head can play a huge part. Although simply getting to the bottom may be the only criterion necessary for success in some instances, other situations require exactly the right amount of weight, with as little as a handful of grams proving the difference between catching fish after fish or struggling to attract a single bite. This is because too much weight may cause your lure to descend through the most productive part of the water column too quickly or, when jiggled, to assume an action that is not attractive to fish at the time. On the other hand, use a jig-head that's too light and the lure may take too long to get down or not even get down at all. Or maybe the slightly slower up-and-down action assumed by the lighter lead-head won't 'wriggle the snapper's fins'.

Consequently, I tend to start off heavy (typically 5/8 oz) and, if unsuccessful, or a companion is doing much better, I'll 'casually' ask what weight jig-head they're using. Chances are, just ¼ oz will make ALL the difference!

Line choice, no matter what type of reel you use, is simple. A line that actually breaks around 8-15kg will suit most applications, and should always be brightly coloured, even though it's likely to fade in short order. Being able to see what the slack line is doing prior to disappearing into the water provides good indications of fishy interest: a sudden acceleration - strike! An abrupt stop or strange jerks - strike!

Then there's the type and size of tail used with the head. Although my 'jerk' and 'stick' type tails have brought about the downfall of many fine fish 'on the drop', there's no denying that paddle- and curly-type tails can rule in this situation. After all, it's hard to beat a tail that wiggles enticingly as it sinks (and while being retrieved!).

The Berkley Gulp! representatives from Australia were the first to open our eyes to the potential of this style of soft-plastic tail after casting their 'Pogeys' around the whitewashes of various exotic locales, kicking big snapper butt in the process. And, more recently, Stephen Tapp got my interest going with his deeper-water paddle-tail theories - especially as they married up with my own more limited experiences after experimenting in similar circumstances. Both these alternative routes have ended up providing better and more exciting fishing for me.

The reason why Pogeys work especially well in the shallows is due to their shape. In addition to that life-like tail, their bulk causes them to sink more slowly, so they remain suspended in mid-water for longer, keeping them out of the weed and rocks, and making them vulnerable to predation. This same solid construction also helps them to withstand the bites and nibbles of reef ooglies better.

However, I prefer slimmer, more lightly-built paddle tails when fishing deeper water, particularly around work-ups. Although I sometimes pay dearly for this by hooking endless kahawai, I can usually avoid them by casting well past and then allowing my lure to sink below the action, all the while remaining alert for strikes on the way down. The slender and very realistic Basstrix baitfish versions - often just 3-4" long - have been devastating in such circumstances, from mere seconds after they splash down, through to while they are being retrieved for another cast. Yes, snapper mostly, but also kahawai, kingfish, trevally and john dory.

This section would not be complete without discussing the role of colour; while every colour catches fish, specific colours or colour combinations will definitely catch more at certain times. As I mostly use Gulp! tails, I'm more familiar with this product's colour range, and I try not to go fishing without four of them - specifically 'Lime Tiger', 'Sapphire Shine', 'Pink Shine' and, somewhat reluctantly, that crime against nature, the 'Nuclear Chicken'.

As time has gone on, it seems that certain brightly-coloured tails attract more attention, but as preferences change over the season and sometimes even throughout the day, it pays to have a reasonable selection at your disposal. This is especially true at times of low light, when tails incorporating luminous properties become very productive; fortunately, lures such as the 'Nuclear Chicken', 'Lime Tiger' and 'Pink Shine' are also luminous, so can work in all situations.

The reason why these bright colours often work best is probably because they stand out so vividly against their surroundings - a big advantage for anglers when casting into work-ups containing thousands of other potential food items, or when sinking down in dark waters that mask the presence of more naturally coloured prey.

However, should I ever run out of 'the' colour, I remain secure in the knowledge that my 'Sapphire Shine' Sand Eels will carry on the good work. They might not catch quite as many as the 'flavour of the day', but they are certainly very consistent and fly the flag strongly for the more naturally-hued tails.

But sometimes, inexplicably, the fish shun the lures as they descend and are then jiggled back towards the boat. These fish want their soft-baits 'dragged', and this technique - starring my second soft-plastic outfit - is the next month's topic.?

 

 This article is reproduced with permission of
New Zealand Fishing News
August 2008 - written by Mark Kitteridge
RE-PUBLISHING ELSEWHERE IS PROHIBITED

 

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