Softbaiting For Snapper - Rods, Reels, Line, Jigheads and Softbaits

  • HTC - Snapper

Softbait fishing for snapper is a very effective technique and it’s generally accepted that on average, softbaits tend to get larger fish and you’re less likely to get the small ‘pickers’, or under-sized specimens.

Having the right gear is important and outfits should be compact and light yet reasonably grunty, offering: increased comfort over prolonged sessions; an ability to manipulate the lure effectively; and the capability to control hooked fish.  

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Softbait reels

The reel is the most important part of the Softbait outfit equation, so buy the best you can afford.

Both spinning and baitcasting reels can be used effectively, and each has advantages and disadvantages, but most anglers settle on spinning reels, as they’re easier to use.

Whatever brand you choose, a suitable softbait reel should possess the following attributes:

At least 200 metres line capacity (but 250 to 300 metres is even better) with an actual breaking strain of 8-10kg – which can be hard to determine as braid notoriously over-tests by quite some margin. Generally, if you choose braid labelled as 4-6kg it’s usually pretty safe if your knot-tying capabilities are okay.

A powerful and smooth drag system. If the reel cannot smoothly exert at least 3kg of pressure, then you won’t be able to make the most of the thin, strong lines typically used.

Good quality, corrosion-resistant ball/roller bearings: When put in the right places for the right reasons, these components will help ensure a much smoother and longer-lasting performance. However, poor-quality bearings simply rust and seize up. Generally the price of the reel indicates the likely ball bearing quality.

Choosing a Softbait rod

The three most important characteristics of effective softbait rods are good length, lightness and power/stiffness.

Rod length: A rod around 2.1m-2.4m (7’-7’10’) enables anglers to cast well away from the boat, work the lure more attractively, and then remove any slack line and set the hook when a fish bites.

The lighter the rod the better: Over the day – or even just a few hours – it’s surprising how even the lightest gear can take its toll when you must constantly hold, jiggle and strike it – as well as battle all the fish hooked! Nothing beats graphite as a softbait rod-blank material, especially as it also offers a surprising amount of power.

Sufficient grunt: Without enough rod power at your disposal (which should ideally be distributed along much of the rod’s length), hooking fish becomes much harder to achieve – after all, you’re often trying to set a decent-sized hook into tough jaws from some distance away. And then, of course, you need to battle and successfully overcome your opponent!

A good reel-seat: The reel seat also needs to hold the reel ‘foot’ securely and not become loose during use. As reel-seat designs vary considerably, it may pay to try placing your reel in the prospective rod’s seat before buying it; sometimes they are not compatible, with the reel’s ‘foot’ sliding around despite the reel clamp being screwed down as tightly as possible. Those reel seats fitted with plastic/graphite-composite cushions inside their hoods help to protect the coating on your reel’s ‘foot’ and make a snug fit more likely.

A well-positioned and realistically sized foregrip: Many current rods – including some otherwise superb models – have foregrips that are too small and/or too far back on the rod, reducing the leverage and your ability to fight big fish after hooking up. So test them by holding them in front of you, the butt against your upper thigh, and see if you can generate reasonable lifting pressure when holding them at the foregrip, ideally with an assistant pulling the rod tip down for you. If your arm seems too bent and cramped in this position, the rod’s foregrip is probably not far enough up the blank.

A hook holder: Previously the domain of freshwater rods, a hook holder on Softbait rods allows the jig lead-head to be held securely while underway, whereas on rods without them, anglers are forced to attach the hooks to the guide frame or a part of the reel, which wears away protective coatings over time and leads to premature corrosion.

What braid is best?

As a tackle item, braid might seem pretty straightforward. After all, it’s just a single, long, thin strand. Why then, can choosing the right one be such a difficult task?

As usual, much of the confusion stems from the mind-boggling selection on offer, the widely varying thicknesses and diverse characteristics being the result of myriad manufacturing processes that incorporate a variety of materials and mixes.

In order to successfully catch fish, GSP lines need to be knotted to 2-3 metres of trace material, which might be nylon or fluorocarbon, which, like the super-lines, are made using different processes to provide specific properties. The net result of so much diversity is that not all trace lines can be tied to all super-braids using exactly the same knots – and even those knots that work with one line weight might not work with a heavier or lighter breaking strain. So if you find certain super-lines and trace materials that produce strong connections when knotted together, it often pays to keep on using them! 

Also, you should choose a braided/fused line that’s brightly coloured – a bright – usually fluoro – line is easier to see and keep track of, allowing better line control during the initial descent, as well as to detect more bites. In much the same way as better nymphing flyfishers watch their flyline for any suspicious bumps, speed-ups and hesitations that alert them to potential customers before a tug actually transmits along the line through to them, competent softbait fishers can detect fishy interest by paying close attention to how their line behaves during the lure’s descent. Very often it will jerk, jiggle, go prematurely slack, or tear away, so if the angler doesn’t see these actions in time – or at all – these are wasted opportunities.

Spooling tips

Tie your line onto the spool with a Uni Knot, as it can be snugged right down against the spool with your thumbnail. Having a firm anchorage point is important or the whole slippery line load can spin around the spool when placed under pressure later on, especially if insufficient pressure has been applied while initially spooling the reel.

Load the spool to within 1.5-2mm of the spool lip, but other, less well-designed models may require 2.5-3mm to be safe; you don’t want wind-knots, especially as snarl-ups in braid are hard to untangle.

The trace

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. That’s why fluorocarbon rather than nylon trace is the obvious choice.

However, the less flexible nature of fluorocarbon (relative to nylon) means it doesn’t always tie up easily – especially to your mainline – so make sure you know at least one or two of the following joining knots…

Which leader?

Whatever leader material you settle on though, it can’t be too heavy or you’ll interest fewer fish. But nor can it be too light or you’ll simply break fish off. Consequently, most anglers rarely go below 7kg breaking strain – it’s simply too risky and means having to retie the knots too often during hot bites. Always use a net to boat your fish as lifting your catch in using the leader will often end badly.

Around 20lb (10kg) is a good option most times, but if the terrain’s rugged and the fish are perhaps a bit bigger than usual, go up to 25lb (11.5kg) – and plenty of anglers won’t hesitate to use 30lb (15kg). The only problem with these stronger strains is that you almost always lose everything if you get snagged and must break off – double, trace and lure – and have to start again from scratch.

As for the length, two to three metres will generally do the job – long enough to take any punishment dished out by fish and the terrain, as well as keeping a good separation of your bait from highly visible mainline, but not so long as to hold the bait up in the water column.

Attaching leader to braid

The FG knot: Arguably the strongest and most streamlined of the options but can be tricky to tie well and some practice is generally needed.

The Yucatan knot: This strong, streamlined and reliable knot is best tied when the mainline’s double is intact; around ten rotations seems to do the job pretty well, with five turns going up and five down being better still than the ten going upwards. Requires a double to be tied in your braid for best results.

A back-to-back Uni Knot is an option if you don’t want to tie a double but double over a 50-60cm section of braid, as a single strand won’t distribute the pressure effectively enough.

The No Name Knot is also pretty good, but doesn’t suit every line-trace combination; in all cases, give the knot a really hard, steady pull before using it.

Selecting a jig-head

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 lightly weighted jighead - around a quarter ounce is about right. Such conditions are also ideal for softbaits incorporating internal weights, as their less streamlined shape causes them to sink more gradually, allowing anglers to retrieve them more slowly without snagging up too often, and they remain in the ‘hit-zone’ for longer.

As the water gets deeper and currents become stronger, progressively heavier jig-heads are required, but unless fishing in windy conditions, very deep water (over 40-50 metres say) or west coast harbour entrances, more than an ounce is rarely required if you employ the right techniques. 

The type and size of hook incorporated in the lead-head is a vital component in soft-bait fishing. Hooks need to be very sharp and thin enough to set easily using comparatively light rods, yet strong enough structurally to resist the power generated by the fish’s tail – as well as its crushing jaws! You’ll also find that, provided that the hook’s gape isn’t overly choked by the softbait tail, the smaller hook sizes are set more easily. This is especially true when dealing with ‘pannies,’ which are harder to hook due to their relatively small body mass; they’re easily hauled 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.

3/0 is a good compromise - as this size hook sticks out enough to provide clean hook-ups, yet its point remains close enough to the tail to be engulfed along with it when the fish bites, resulting in more hook-ups. For 7-inch Softbaits 5/0 is probably a better option.

Attaching the softbait

A Uni Knot does this quite adequately, although 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 after each fish. A Rapala Loop Knot, also known as Leftie’s Loop, is a good option. This knot is reasonably simple to tie, super-strong (no need for a doubled-over length of line here) and also remains open-looped regardless of the pressure. The hardest thing to initially master is the size of the loop, which should be as small as possible otherwise a lead-head can occasionally slip through the loop and snag. Mustad market the Fastach swivels with attachment for jigheads and they are very strong and enable quick changes of jigheads without continually shortening the leader.

Choosing and fitting tails

While unscented tails do catch fish on many occasions, when the snapper aren’t really hungry, a tasty scent can make all the difference. And the fishy smell doesn’t have to be that clever, either. The Gulp range of softbaits comes with a special fish-attractant and other plastic options can be spiced up with various gooey delights such as ‘Secret Sauce, Butt Juice and others. However, while these can be initially attractive, the smell or juice may be washed away after some time in the water, diminishing their effectiveness.

What shape?

The shape and size of the Softbait tail you use will have a big bearing on the amount of success (or frustration) you experience.

For example, a large, bulky Softbait will descend more slowly through the water column than a smaller, slimmer tail on the same-sized lead-head, especially in a current.

Both scenarios can be used to the angler’s advantage. For example, by casting a reasonably substantial offering out into the reefy shallows, its bulky form will hold it up clear of the weed for longer. Or maybe the fish are taking lures on the way down, so the longer they drift down the more likely they will be taken – ideal for schooling season or when probing beneath baitfish work-ups.

However, sometimes smaller and slimmer is preferable, enabling the lure to cut through the water more efficiently and get down deeper quickly. No point having that monster ‘Nuclear Chicken’ tail if it’s unable to reach the fish!

Also, when given a jiggling motion with the rod, the slimmer profile tails rise and fall more quickly in response, creating a more erratic motion that sometimes proves more attractive to sly old snapper than something larger but more sluggish.

As for whether the preferred Softbait has a paddle or grub tail, or is a more straightforward jerk or stick bait, such things are often a personal thing and the result of experience. All can be effective if worked properly.

The roles of colour, fluorescence and luminescence

While virtually any colour will work at times, at others it can be very frustrating to watch your mate catching all the fish because he has a colour combo that you don’t have. Consequently, it pays to have a range of well-proven colours amongst your Softbait repertoire, which should include the more natural colours as well as the brighter, more fluorescent hues.

Colours are also a personal thing but some work better than others at different times. brown-tan (‘New Penny’), along with more brightly coloured fluorescent colours - pink-white (‘Pink Shine’), pink-green (‘Electric Chicken’), red-green (‘Nuclear Chicken’), yellow-red (‘Curried Chicken’) are all well-proven. As fluorescent colours stand out vividly against the surroundings, they offer a big advantage when the lures end up in dark or murky water that masks the presence of more naturally-coloured prey, or when they are amongst work-ups containing thousands of other potential food items. Getting noticed means getting attention and a reaction.

That’s why luminescence is a big advantage, too. Having a lure that gently glows in dull or dark conditions makes it much more visible, so, the same as fluorescence, it’s more likely to get eaten.

Tails on heads

Good rigging starts by mentally gauging where the hook point should emerge before starting. This an acquired skill for most anglers, and although it’s possible to readjust the hook if you don’t get it right first time, this tends to weaken the tail structurally, making it more likely to slip or be pulled down the jig hook’s shank to the bend. So, to make the process easier and more accurate, hold the tail alongside the hook beforehand to get some idea of where the hook point should come out.

Next, carefully position the hook’s point so it pierces the middle of the tail’s circumference and is threaded up along the body’s length as centrally as possible throughout the process (otherwise it can get ‘the wiggles’ – not necessarily a completely terminal problem, but not a desirable characteristic either, as the lure’s action will be affected to some degree). Upon nearing the point where the hook point should emerge, try to accommodate the curve of the hook’s bend by smoothly angling out towards the exit spot.

The end result should be a tail that sits nice and straight along the hook’s shank and doesn’t choke the hook’s gape too much. 

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