Targeting Lake Trout with Soft Plastics

Steve Steer
Introduction: In August 2003 I fulfilled one of my life long goals, to move from suburban Melbourne to the greener fishing pastures of Tasmania. I had been traveling to Tasmania since I was 12 years old on holidays and had spent many hours over the years chasing one of my favorite species, the wily Tasmanian trout. Having been a soft plastic lure fanatic for many years and now only living 10 minutes from some of the best trout waters in the world, has given me the incentive to refine my skills at catching this species with soft lures. What follows is a detailed description of the rigs and techniques that I have found to be extremely successful when targeting trout in Tasmanian lakes. I have also used similar methods in the past with good results in both VIC and NSW trout waters and I feel confident that these techiques will perform equally as well if targeting trout in other locations.

Attention to detail
Anyone can go out and catch a trout or two on soft lures but I believe that to be able to do it efficiently and consistently in a wide range of waters and conditions takes a degree of attention to detail on the anglers part. This is a finesse style of angling that in a lot of ways is similar to fishing for trout with the fly and in most cases it is the angler who is responsible for imparting the right movement/action to the lure to trigger a fish to strike. As with fly fishing, consistent success with soft plastics will come to the angler that pays extra attention to detail with regards to the equipment they use, the presentation they make and to the lure movement/retrieve that they employ.  

Maintain lure contact
If there is only one piece of information that you take from this article in relation to fishing with soft plastics for trout, then let it be this "if you do not want to miss fish then stay in direct contact with your lure at all times'. Trout like many other species of fish are experts at hitting/picking up your offering when you least expect it or when it is just drifting or sinking on a slack line. The strike of a trout can be so subtle at times that if you are not paying attention or are not directly connected to your lure, you can miss the strike and not even realize you have missed it. I cannot over emphasize the importance of staying in constant contact with your lure (i.e. minimize the slack line between you and your lure at all times).

Having now established the importance of feel/feedback and the need to stay in constant contact with your lure, it should be noted that your choice of fishing equipment can go a long way towards providing you with some of the feel/feedback that is required for this style of angling.

Rod selection
I would recommend the use of a high quality graphite rod (graphite is light and provides superior feel) that incorporates a fast to extra fast taper blank (faster taper rod blanks provide better casting accuracy and give the angler more direct lure contact), with full cork grips (cork provides superior feedback/bite detection) and quality line guides (to handle the constant passing of gel spun/braided lines and leader knots that are associated with this style of angling). In my opinion, the slow to medium taper rods that are traditionally used for targeting tout with bait and hard body lures are not ideally suited to fishing soft plastics as they are too soft in the tip/mid sections and do not provide the angler with the instant feedback and direct lure contact that is required.  

Main line selection
When it comes to selecting a main line for targeting trout on soft plastics, I would have to say that it is very hard to go past one of the new breed of "Gel Spun Superlines" that are all the go these days. The low/zero stretch properties of these lines provide you with exceptional feedback and give you direct contact with your lure at all times. Personally, I find it hard to go past "Berkley Fireline" for hassle free performance on light spin gear and find that the bright "Hi-Viz" colors (i.e. Flame green, Pink and Smoke grey) that this line comes in, helps me to visually see a strike even before I have felt it through the rod. At times this split second of advanced warning can make all the difference to my results at the end of the day. I find that 4lb breaking strain is more than adequate for most of my trout fishing situations and I will only switch up to 6lb or 8lb breaking strains when I choose to fish for big fish in heavily timbered waters.

Leader selection       
When fishing with gel spun/braided lines it is important to tie a short length of clear leader material to the working end of your mainline as trout can see gel spun/braided lines if they are run all the way down to your lure. I recommend the use of a 2-3 metre length of high quality "Fluorocarbon" leader material in breaking strains ranging from 2lb to 10lb. Personally, I find that a quality fluorocarbon leader in the 4lb to 6lb breaking strain range is more than adequate for most of my trout fishing situations but at times I will adjust my leader strength in accordance with the size of the fish being targeted or to suit the fishing conditions at hand.    

Leader knot
There are many knots that can be used to tie your leader to your mainline but the one I like the most and have found the best for all round performance when tying monofilament or fluorocarbon leaders to gel spun mainlines such a Berkley Fireline, is called a "Seven twist Surgeons knot'. This knot has proven itself to me many times in some very tough fishing situations and I have come to rely on it heavily and feel confident that it will serve you well also.
Surgeons knot directions
1.Lay your mainline line and leader parallel to each other so that they overlap by 6 - 9 inches.
2.Moisten the two over lapping line sections to help them stick together then form an overhand knot, pulling the entire leader through the loop.
3.Leaving the loop of the overhand knot open, pull the tag and whole leader through the loop again another six times making a total of seven twists in the overhand knot.
4.Hold both lines on both sides of the open loop, pull all four lines together and evenly to close down the loop tightening the knot. Trim tag ends off a short as possible to avoid fouling in rod guides.
(insert seven twist surgeons knot diagram here)   

Terminal knot
The terminal knot that I prefer for this style of angling is the "Uni knot" or sometimes referred to as a "Grinner knot'. The benefits of this knot is it strength and its ability to be pulled back up your leader to form a small swim loop after the knot has been pulled down tight onto the hook. By carefully using your fingernails to pull the knot back up the leader a bit (i.e. 2 - 3 millimetres) you form a small swim loop which allows your lure to swim freely and look more natural to the fish. Just remember to pull the knot back out again after each fish or snag so as to maintain the small swim loop.
Uni-Knot Directions
1.Run line through eye of hook at least 6" and fold back to make two parallel lines. Bring end of line back towards your hook or lure forming a loop.
2.Make 4 - 6 turns with the tag end around the double line and through the loop. Hold the double line where it passes through the eye, moisten loop and turns and then pull on tag to snug up turns.
3.Now pull standing line to slide knot up against eye. Pull until knot is tight against eye.
4.Trim tag end off close to knot. Using finger nails under the knot, slide the knot back up the mainline to form a small swim loop.
(Insert 5 twist unit knot diagram here)

Stickbait or minnow patterns
There are literally thousands of different soft lure styles on the market and many of them will catch a trout or two in skilled hands but the ones that I have found to be the most consistent fish producers are the "Minnow" and "Nymph" patterns. Minnow style lures closely resemble the natural slim profile baitfish that trout prey on such as the galaxias, para galaxias, smelt, jollytails, whitebait, etc that are commonly found in our lakes, rivers and estuaries. My preferred minnow pattern soft lures for trout at this time would have to be the "Berkley Bass Minnow" range in the 2", 3" and  4" models followed by the "Lunker City Fin-S Fish" and "Berkley Gulp Minnow" range of lures in similar sizes.

Nymph pattern lures
Some of the nymph style lures that are currently available (if doctored a little by the angler) closely resemble the larval/nymph stage of insects such as mayflies, damselflies, dragonflies, stoneflies, etc, nymphs that form a big part of a trout's natural diet. My preferred nymph pattern lures for trout at this time would have to the "2" Berkley Bulky Hawg's" the "3" Lunker City Hellgies" and the "1" Berkley Micro Nymphs'. All of these lures can be fished successfully for trout in their "as supplied by the manufacturer" state but I have found that by trimming them up with a pair of scissors (to suit my requirements), my strike/catch rates on trout have improved. Study the pictures that show how to go about trimming up this style of lure into some non-descript nymph patterns that I have found to be very productive on trout.

Jig head selection
There are almost as many different jighead styles as there are soft lures and selecting an appropriate jighead to suit your lure can be a daunting task for some anglers. To make this job easier for you, I have listed below the size and weights of the jigheads that I use for targeting trout and those that I have found that best suit the minnow and nymph type lures I have described above.
(Please Note: The hook/jighead sizes stated below are based on "Nitro" jigheads which are built on super sharp Gamakatsu and Mustad Aberdeen hooks and appropriate hook sizes may vary slightly if you are using other brands of jigheads or lures)
The jighead sizes I use for targeting trout are as follows:
For rigging 3" Berkley Bass Minnows, I like a size 1 or size 1/0 hook/jighead.
For rigging 2" Berkley Bass minnows or 2.5" Lunker City Fin-S fish, I like a size 2 hook/jighead.
For rigging 4" Berkley Bass Minnows, I like a size 2/0 or 3/0 hook/jighead.
For rigging 1" Berkley Micro Nymph's, I like a size 4 or size 6 hook/jighead.
For rigging my cut down version of the 2" Berkley Bulky Hawg's, I like a size 2 or size 1 hook/jighead.
For rigging my cut down version of the 3" Lunker City Hellgies, I like a size 2 or size 1 hook/jighead.
As far as the weight of the jigheads goes, I mainly fish with each of  the above mentioned hook sizes in 1/24th oz, 1/16th oz, and 1/8th oz jighead weights with the 1/16th oz jighead being the most versatile and my most widely used jighead for targeting trout in the lakes. At times, I will fish a lighter 1/24th oz head in shallower water and in calm/clear conditions and a 1/8th oz jighead in deeper water and windy conditions but for the majority of the time a 1/16th oz jighead matched to most of the above mention lures will do the job nicely. Personally, I prefer to fish with "Nitro" jigheads and there are good reasons for this; they are Australian made, they are built on super sharp/strong hooks of the highest quality available, they hold onto your plastics well, they come in a huge range of sizes and weights and they have a unique head shape which gives them an excellent natural profile and a stand up quality which provides superior hook exposure. So give Nitro jigheads a try, you will not be disappointed!

Rigging soft plastics
How well you rig your soft lures onto a jighead can have a big effect on how well that lure will perform for you. It is extremely important that you practice threading your lures onto a jighead until you can consistently get the hook centered and running perfectly straight along the body of the lure. It is also vitally important that the hook exits the body of your lure at the correct point and does not leave the lure all bunched up or too stretched out along the shank of your jighead. A lure that is not centered or sitting nice and straight or is not spread evenly along the jighead will tend to swim with a repetitive unnatural action that will spook a weary trout. The best way to test if you have your lure rigged correctly, is to give them a little flick beside your feet/beside the boat before you fish with them and if your lure swims straight and sinks on a slack line in a head down/forward glide type action, it is generally ok. If the lure looks as if it wants to roll over to one side or dart off in one direction (even slightly) then it needs re-rigging to get it straight. I cannot over emphasize how important this can be to your success, so practice rigging your lures until you can get them rigged perfectly first time, every time!   

Target areas
The most successful areas to target trout with soft plastics are many and varied due in part to the versatility of the lures themselves. Soft plastics can be effectively fished at any depth of water at any retrieve speed and they are quite snag resistant. They are also best fished on a light, short spin rod and reel combination which allows accurate casting in tight areas, areas that would be difficult to target using other popular angling methods such as trolling or fly fishing. Therefore, some of the best areas to use soft plastics for lake trout are; around and amongst submerged and semi submerged trees, along the edges of and over/amongst weed beds, in the tight back waters of small bays, along the edges of deep rocky shorelines, around rocky points and islands, along the edge of drop offs and old river beds, along foam lines, wind lanes and along the windward shore.  

Drift Spinning Approach
One of the best ways to cover a lot of water and to locate productive areas is with the use of drift spinning. In a similar fashion to the successful loch style fly fishing approach now widely adopted in the highland lakes of Tasmania, drift spinning involves the use of a boat and the wind at your back to help push you along a likely looking shoreline or stretch of water. Wind direction typically determines the direction of your drift but with the assistance of an electric outboard or the intermittent use of your main outboard to help correct your drift direction you can accurately cover a lot of water. At times when the wind strength is quite strong it can push you along at a too fast pace to allow you to fish the water thoroughly and a drogue or sea anchor can be beneficial to help slow your drift in these situations. Once you have your drift line and drift speed worked out, the idea is to keep your boat side on to the wind and with the wind pushing into your back, you cast your lures out of the down wind side of the boat (i.e. casting directly with the wind). This approach allows you cast long distances with the wind and to cover a lot of water until you locate feeding fish, once you have located a fish or two it pays to motor up wind and repeat your drift back over the productive areas to maximize your results. Remember the idea is to stay in direct contact with your lure at all times and casting across or into a strong wind will create a belly of line between you and your lure making it almost impossible to feel any subtle strikes and should be avoided if at all possible.    

Fishing leeward shores
Leeward shores (i.e. the shore that the wind is blowing directly onto) are always a good place to locate a trout or two as the wind tends to blow insects and surface born food scraps towards this shoreline. If the wind has been blowing in this direction for many hours/days it is common to find fish feeding on the food scraps that will have congregated along these shorelines. A good approach to fishing these waters from a boat is to position your boat a little over a cast distance out from the shoreline and motor slowly along parallel to the shore (an electric outboard can be excellent for this task). As you motor along slowly, cast you lures with the wind/towards the shore and work them back out towards the boat, you may be surprised at what you find in this turbulent wind swept water!

Hit to hook-up ratio
Trout are opportunistic feeders and if presented with something that looks and acts like a natural prey item they will typically have a go at it rather than let an easy meal pass them bye. When I first started targeting trout using the equipment and techniques I am describing here, I was astounded by the number of subtle strikes I was getting but I was still not that impressed with my catch rates and became frustrated with the ratio at which I could convert these subtle hits into solid hookups (especially when fishing the minnow style lures). With a lot of on the water experimentation, I have discovered that I can now convert a lot of these subtle strikes into hook ups and my catch rates have improved dramatically because of this. The "hit/drop/wait/lift" hook set technique that I now employ, requires a fair degree of concentration, constant lure contact, heightened feel, good timing and some on the water practice from the angler to be highly effective but it is well worth the effort.

The "hit/drop/wait/lift" technique
If you have seen the way a trout feeds on a school of baitfish, then you will understand that at times they will actually smash into the baitfish school at speed using their body/tail to hit and injure as many baitfish as possible, they then turn around and pick up the fish they have injured. I believe this "smash, turn and grab" style of attack also happens a lot when trout prey on individual baitfish. If you are in direct contact with your lure and ready for this first (sometimes very subtle) hit and you immediately adjust your retrieve accordingly to make your lure look as the trout expects to see it (i.e. injured), then eight times out of ten the trout will come back and take your lure as an easy meal. With this is mind, I now adjust my retrieve/hook set technique so that whenever I feel a slight hit but no connection, I immediately drop the tip of my rod to just above the waters surface giving my lure 2-3 second to sink on a slightly slack line (this gives the trout time to turn and pick up my lure). After waiting for 2-3 seconds, I start to lift my rod tip slightly, feeling for weight on the end of my line, if any weight is felt I continue with the lifting action to smoothly set the hook into the fish. If no weight is felt, I immediately stop the lifting of the rod and just give the rod tip a couple of tiny subtle twitches (i.e. to mimic the body spasms that injured baitfish typically portray) and I then drop the rod tip again to the water waiting another 2-3 seconds before lifting to feel for weight again. I will repeat this lift/drop/lure twitch process until I am sure that the hit that I felt was either my lure bumping over a snag or a fish that has decided not to come back for another go. This process takes a lot of concentration and good timing but once mastered will dramatically increase your hook up/catch rate. So far, I have had trout hit  my lure up to six times before I have come up tight to the fish using this technique.

Basic retrieve
Through extensive trial and error, I have now come to rely on two basic retrieves when targeting trout with soft lures. Both of these retrieves are designed to give me the same/very similar lure movements but with one retrieve being better suited to fishing in a shallower water depth range and/or windy conditions and the other retrieve for covering deeper water and for searching a greater range of water depth. The retrieve that I use for searching a deeper/wider water depth range involves a straight up and down, lift and drop type rod action (Please Note: I described this "two short/one long lift and drop retrieve" in detail in the previous addition of this magazine).
The retrieve that I use for shallower water and windy conditions involves a low to the water rod tip and a sweeping rod type action to impart a similar movement to the lure. Both of these retrieves are based on the one basic lure movement that I believe creates a natural "Instinctive Attack Response" from trout and other fish species. The natural darting lure movement created by these retrieves tends to draw fish in for an inquisitive look and then teases them into attacking buy timely alternating between offering the fish an easy stationary/sinking meal and a darting away/escaping meal.
The shallower water/windy conditions "Two Short Sweeps/One Long Sweep" retrieve goes as follows:
Cast your lure as close as possible to a likely looking area and flick the bail arm over as soon as your lure hits the water.
Allow your lure to sink to the target water depth on a taught (not slack) line by dropping your rod tip down towards the waters surface at the same rate as your lure is sinking, watch/feel for subtle strikes on the drop. Keeping your bail arm engaged allows you to maintain a taught line and stay in constant contact with your lure as it sinks.
Holding your rod in front and to one side of you, with the tip low to the water and pointed directly towards your casting position;  start your retrieve by smoothly sweeping the rod tip back towards you, moving the rod tip parallel to the surface of the water for approximately 400mm, then pause the sweeping action for about 1 second and then continue the retrieve with another short rod tip sweep of about another 400mm (i.e. "Two short sweeps'). (Note: you should not be winding the reel at this stage just pulling your lure through the water via the sweeping action of the rod tip)
At the end of this second short rod sweep action, smoothly move your rod tip back out toward your lure (keeping the tip low to the waters surface) and moving the rod tip the full 800mm or so back to where you started the sweeping action from. As you are moving the rod tip back out to towards your lure, smoothly take up the slack line by winding your reel. Remember that it is vital to stay in constant contact with your lure at all times so try to wind up the slack line at the same rate as you are moving the rod tip forward.
Having now moved your rod tip all the way back to its forward position and wound up all of the slack line, continue the retrieve by again sweeping the rod tip back towards you, only this time smoothly sweeping it a full 800mm or so this time without the 1 second pause in the middle (i.e. "One Long Sweep')
Continue to repeat this "Two Short Sweeps/One Long Sweep" rod action until your lure is retrieved all the way back to your feet or to the side of the boat.
(see diagram below for a visual image of this retrieve technique)

This low to the water "Sweeping" rod tip type retrieve keeps your lure within a smaller depth range than the "Lift and Drop" retrieve I described in the previous issue of this magazine, allowing you to fish shallower water or target a narrower water depth range. It also keeps your line low to the water helping to minimize any slack belly of line between you and your lure when fishing in windy conditions.

Like any other form of angling, to become consistently successful at catching trout on soft plastics takes some perseverance and practice from the angler. I hope that the techniques that I have described above work as well for you as they do for me and I wish you all the best on your journey to become a consistently successful soft plastics angler. If you find you are having trouble mastering any of these tequniques or you require some assistance to help select appropriate tackle for the job, then do not hesitate to come in or call and have a chat with me on Fridays at the GOT ONE Tackle store Launceston and I will be happy to help you out!

Good fishing to you all!- Steve Steer    

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