GAME & SPORT FISHING WITH SOFT PLASTICSBy Starlo & Bushy*
* This feature article is based on extracts from Starlo & Bushy's great how-to book "On Soft Plsastics", published in 2005 by AFN Publishing of Melbourne.
At first glance, fast-swimming pelagic species such as tailor, salmon, trevally, tuna and mackerel might seem to be the least likely candidates for successful soft plastic fishing. In actual fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
This fact came as something of a revelation to me. I guess my eyes were first opened on trips to Cape York and other tropical locations. I really enjoy chasing surface-feeding schools of longtail (northern bluefin) tuna and kawa-kawa (mackerel tuna) on both fly and lures in these warm, northern waters. When using hard lures, best results were typically obtained by throwing reasonably small, thin-profile slugs and metal slices in front of approaching schools and then cranking them as quickly as your arm and reel would allow. On these high adrenalin, go-fast fish, speed definitely kills. Or so I always thought-
A few years ago, more as an experiment than anything else, I began throwing some of the soft plastic Squidgies that Bushy and I had designed at these same fish. The results were nothing short of extraordinary. Not only did strike and hook-up rates improve, but the need for speed diminished significantly.
By throwing a 6 to 8 cm natural baitfish-coloured shad or fish-shaped tail on a 7 to 10 g jig head in front of a school of tuna and simply rolling it through the water at a medium pace with an occasional lift and drop of the rod tip, I found I was almost guaranteed a hook-up. Often, it wasn't even necessary to retrieve the lure at all and tuna simply ate it as it sank on a semi-slack line! It was almost too easy.
Even more exciting was the fact that if I let the lure sink well under the passing school (assuming it wasn't eaten on the drop), then commenced a lift-drop-lift retrieve in mid-water or down near the sea bed, I began connecting with all manner of bonus prizes, including the likes of big trevally, cobia, Spanish mackerel, fingermark, cod and even significantly larger tuna than the "schoolies" typically associated with frantic surface feeding activity.
Transplanting these same tactics to cooler southern waters produced equally impressive results. Not that this should have surprised me. Switched-on sport fishers had been making the move to rubber on fickle schools of salmon and yellowtail kingfish, in particular, for quite a few years. Often, when nothing else (even cunning little fly patterns) would pull a bite from these fish, a lightly weighted or completely un-weighted soft stick bait tweaked or even fished dead stick in front of their noses would do the trick.
At other times, a reasonably large Slug-Go style soft jerk bait fished un-weighted on or near the surface with a fairly brisk, jerky retrieve was the next best thing to a live squid for unlocking the jaws of hard-pressured urban kingfish in heavily-fished locations such as Sydney's Broken Bay, Harbour, Botany Bay and Port Hacking. (I can't see why it wouldn't work in Tassie, either!)
In retrospect, none of this should have been too surprising. Quality plastics fished intelligently work for exactly the same reasons on pelagics as they do on nearly every other critter that swims; because they look edible, behave naturally, taste and smell right and feel like food when a predator grabs them. Again, it's what the Yanks would call a "no-brainer'.
SALMON AND TAILOR
The two most popular inshore pelagic targets in southern waters are Australian salmon and tailor, and both respond with extreme enthusiasm to suitably sized and presented soft plastics. In fact, on many days, plastics are the most successful of all artificial offerings and even hold their own against natural baits, regardless of whether they are being cast and retrieved from the shore, from a boat or even trolled.
Best results are typically obtained by "matching the hatch'; in other words, by choosing tail sizes and colours that closely mimic any baitfish which are present and being preyed upon by the bigger fish.
Effective retrieves usually involve a mix of medium-paced straight rolling (simply cranking the reel), interspersed with and occasional lift and drop of the rod, the odd pause and a bit of "burn and kill" (a few fast cranks of the reel followed by a sudden stop). Mix it up until you discover what's working on the day.
Of course, tailor and soft plastics are not a great mix in terms of lure durability and more often than not it's a case of one fish, one tail, although you'll be surprised how often it's possible to score a second or third tailor, especially if you use some of the tips from Chapter 8. Anyway, if they're decent-sized tailor, does it really matter? Besides, when was the last time you caught more than one or two good tailor per pilchard, whitebait or garfish bait?
SKY IS THE LIMIT
While we've focussed mostly on the more popular light to middleweight pelagics here, don't get the idea that this is as far as you can take soft plastics in offshore waters - because it's definitely not.
Much larger game fish will happily tackle a rubber lure, and the next big mackerel, dolphin fish, wahoo, heavyweight tuna, billfish or shark taken on one certainly won't be the first, particularly as more specific blue water models and sizes come onto the market, Because, when you stop and really think about it, what is a big soft-headed pusher or a latex flying fish or gar if it's not a soft plastic?
BLUE WATER BAITS
It makes sense that many larger soft plastics - especially big shads, fish, swim baits and stick baits or jerk baits - can readily be used to target sport and game species offshore; either trolling, or by casting and jigging. This has certainly been done historically and, with the advent of more specialised large plastics, we are likely to see a lot more of it happening in the near future.
In particular, large softies are very popular as hookless teasers when attempting to attract and excite billfish (marlin and sailfish), tuna, kingfish, samson fish, amberjacks, trevally, dolphin fish and the like for light tackle or fly rod shots. Soft or semi-soft teasers are more convenient and durable than natural baits in this role, but also feel real enough for attacking fish to hold on to, or come back to repeatedly. Classics in this genre include offerings such as the ubiquitous rubber squid, plastic garfish and the like.
Figuring that if big softies make top class teasers, they should also make effective lures, some anglers and lure manufacturers have been putting hooks in big rubber "teasers" for quite a few years now, and catching some great fish on them in the process. Bushy knows a lot more about this caper than I do, and has devoted an immense amount of time over the past few years to attempting to create the ultimate in blue water softies, so I'll hand you over to him again:
You're right, Starlo, there have already been some pretty good blue water baits made from soft plastic. The Yo-Zuri Flying Fish with its adjustable clear plastic wings is a ripper of a lure that has caught quite a few large tuna and marlin over the years. The greatest drawback with this lure in Australia was always its hefty (make that scary!) price tag. There have been various other soft plastic blue water lures around, too, and just about all of them will catch fish to some degree. The thing that has stopped them from becoming truly mainstream has been that they are all fairly difficult to rig and are easily destroyed by toothy critters. The destruction part is not so serious because some of these soft lures are comparatively cheap (at least compared to all the other expenses involved in offshore sport and game fishing). It's the fact that you need to be in the genius engineer bracket to rig so they'll swim properly them in the first place that has been the real killer.
Over the last few years, I've been deeply involved in the design work on a series of new Squidgy Bluewater Livies and I hope we have finally addressed the problems of price and rigging, even if we can't do much about durability, specially where wahoo, mackerel, barracuda and sharks are involved. Trials to date had been very successful at the time of writing on three sizes of rigged trolling lure in the shape of slimy mackerel or scad, and the simple garfish imitation with it's novel rigging method and internal "flexi skeleton" was already catching game fish, including the likes of blue marlin, dogtooth tuna and big longtail tuna. I predict we'll see a lot more in the way of large, sophisticated soft plastics on the offshore trolling scene in coming seasons, and they may even end up giving both skirted resin heads (pushers and the like) and rigged natural baits a serious run for their money. Only time will tell.