Getting the best from Soft Plastic Lures - 06-01-2009
Soft plastic lures were about years ago when I was only a beginner at pike fishing. I remember seeing the French "Plucky" lures in the window of the local fishing tackle shop. I do not think I ever owned one; I certainly never caught anything on such a lure. I probably couldn’t afford to buy one anyway. How times change, these days. Any pike angler worth his or her salt will have a soft plastic lure in their collection.
As long ago as the early 1990s rubber shads started to appear. They were usually about 5 or 6 inches long and you had to rig them up on your own hooks, I’m sure they had been in use in North America and Europe prior to that, but my memory doesn’t go back that far. I caught a few pike to 14lb on them and I thought they were pretty good. I tried them out on Lough Mask and I managed to get several follows in shallow water from what looked like a good fish. Unfortunately it did not oblige by taking the lure. The next day I had two twenties from the same spot on deadbaits. My confidence took a bit of a hit after that and soft baits took a bit of a backseat. As is so often the case with my fishing I took the wrong turning and though I carried on catching good numbers of big pike I could probably have done better. I think most specialist anglers will have come across super confident anglers who never seem to make any mistakes. Well I personally think that they are putting up a front in most cases. No-one gets it right in fishing all the time.
A number of our most proficient lure anglers then got onto the new soft plastic lures from the States. These included the Bulldawg marketed by Muskie Innovations and the Castiac Swimbait. The Bulldawgs attraction was its rippling tail while the Castiac had the shad type paddle tail. Both started to catch a lot of pike and the pikers in the know tried to keep these lures close to their chest. All good things out in the end and I got onto them in about 1998. It never ceases to amaze me how slow some of us supposedly experienced pike anglers (and I include myself here) are to understand what makes a pike take a lure. Because most of us have had years of catching pike on lives and deads we miss out completely on anything else that will make a pike respond. We all understand that a simple lure sure as a Big S catches pike because its diving vane makes it wobble and throb as it moves through the water. Pike not being over bright attack things that move through the water sending out erratic vibrations, you only have to be a match angler fishing the Shannon in April to understand this. Start winding an 8oz roach in and as sure as eggs are eggs a pike will take it. The pike is responding to the erratic sounds caused by a roach struggling. Something about the Bulldawg and the Castiac duplicates or at least resembles this. The result has been a whole pile of pike caught on lures (the Bulldawg in particular) which didn’t really resemble a real fish. The Castiac though looking like a real fish sends out a signal that is not the same as a real fish going about its day to day routine. Instead it sends out a distress signal and that is why they work.
Initially when I started with soft baits proper it was on Ladybower. Now I’m pretty sure I’d have caught on there using an erratically retrieved sausage. The situation that presented itself was in the anglers favour. By mid winter trout stocks had declined and some very fat pike were wondering where the next meal was going to come from. Drag anything vaguely fishlike past them and they would take it. Interestingly follows, the bane of pike anglers on some waters, particularly Rutland Water were a rare event on Ladybower. The pike either took the lure within a few seconds of starting to retrieve it or the pike nailed it just as you were about to pull the lure out of the water. This was all with Bulldawgs and Springdawgs (the smaller version of the Bulldawg). It was hardly necessary to bother with other lures though just to avoid dieing of boredom I cast other lures such as spoons and Super Shads and these caught pike just as readily as the soft plastics. I really wish I had experimented with lots of other lures, but it is difficult to do it when your boat partner is intent on catching everything that swims for five miles!
So many of the 40 twenties I caught from Ladybower fell to soft plastics. That didn’t make me a lure expert overnight, but it did make me more successful big fish wise than 90% of the lure anglers in the UK. Being level headed I wasn’t going to let that go to my head, I knew how unique the situation was and that back in the real world it was going to be a lot harder.
I started to try the Springdawg in particular in different situations. I nobbled a 22 from a Fen Drain and a 25 from a local sandpit. All in all things were going very well. Up to then though I knew about the Castiac Swimbait, I’d never used one. At about £13 I wasn’t really interested. Then Fox bless them came up with a Castiac look-alike called the Replicant at a lot less money and I soon realised that this was probably the best all-round lure of all of the softbaits.
I first started to use the Replicant on the Trent and it was almost embarrassing the number of takes I was getting on it. Pike after pike, one zander and an insane 20-12 catfish which I’ve mentioned umpteen times before. Mind you I should be able to dine out on that catfish for years because it was a bit unusual. I’m waiting for a barbel or a chub on a Replicant to complete the score sheet. There wasn’t much to the fishing, just cast out counted 10 and wound in. A brace of twenties twice and I was pretty sure that I was the new all singing all dancing lure king. Unfortunately I couldn’t keep that sort of catch rate up and I was soon brought down to earth. It was fun though while it lasted.
The big snag with the Mark 1 Replicants was that they were not wired from the big single to the bottom treble. This meant that after a couple of fish the bottom treble and the lead tore out of the bottom of the lure. This was obviously not a great selling point for the lure because in those days the 8 inch jobs cost just over a tenner each. A bad ten minutes with jack pike could set you back £40! It was Dave Kelbrick that provided the answer. Using a cable tie it was possible to loop it around the big single and through the split ring holding the bottom treble. This stopped the lure disintegrating and certainly allowed myself and many other anglers to catch a lot of pike per lure casualty. This did not stop the pike biting the tails off, but usually this happened by the boat. The priority was to net the severed tail before you bothered with the pike. The tail floats so if you are quick it is dead easy to get the tail back for later Frankenstein type surgery.
The Mark 3 Replicant turned up just as the available Mark 2s started to get hard to find. Some daft prices were being paid on EBay, not by me I might add. Luckily I still had plenty left. The new Replicants have a narrower wrist to the tail, but the plastic is tougher. This makes them as far as I can see work better at slower speeds. The sizes are similar to the previous ones at 5.5, 7 and 9 inch. The only snag is that many of the waters where they were such effective lures have had a bit of a lure catching lull. Chew for example has not been good on lures for a couple of seasons. However note this, a few big ones came out on flies last spring and the last time this happened the following autumn was good with lures. So I’ll be taking my lures this October. I love my deadbaiting on Chew, but lures cover far more water and have to be a good bet when you are not sure where the pike are.
Returning to the subject of tailless lures, repairing these soft lures is dead easy. Most of us have gas stoves for coffee or food. It is dead simple to heat a knife up and use it to weld the lure back together. I prefer to have a mass resurrection at home and for this I opt for the standard modeler’s soldering iron. Using this it is dead easy to reattach tails, weld up tooth slashes and generally give the lure another lease of life. Usually you get three repair jobs out of a lure before they are beyond help, but even at a tenner a lure they are relatively cheap. After all deadbaits can cost a pound each and livebaits when you work out the effort involved in catching them work out at least that.
There are now a lot more soft lures about and every major tackle company has some in its catalogue. All will catch pike but of course the problem is that life is too short to be able to use all them. Daiwa do their sonic tails which are a cheaper version of the Bulldawg and Springdawg. Savage Gear have produced Bulldawg look-alikes. Hand made lure maker Alex Prouse brought in his range of soft plastics under the Zoota lures banner. Alas Alex has ceased to produce these lures.
The one lure I would never be without is the 10 inch Castiac slow sink. It’s a lump of a lure and rather fragile. One pike usually the first take on it can fillet it, but they are fairly easy to repair. On the other hand if you are lucky you can get away without any major damage. Graham Slater told me how to avoid serious damage. We attaches the bottom treble with a strong snap link and leaves the hook hanging. When you get a take this helps keep the soft body out of the pikes mouth. Sometimes you need a stringer hook further back as well and you do this with a short trace from the treble attachment point. The slow sink is a big lure with a very seductive action and I’ve had a few twenties on them and also dropped a thirty off on one, but least said about that...
The lures that I now find the most useful are the hybrid lures. These have a hard body, but have the wriggly tail which is I’m sure the key factor. The hard body is obviously much more resistant to attack from pike and tails are in many cases easily replaced.
I cannot of course leave the subject of hybrid lures without mentioning the Squirrely Burt. Now that’s a daft name for a lure, but by golly they work. Again it’s the tail that does the trick, but there’s more to fishing them than just winding in. it is quite satisfying getting the retrieve technique right. At rest the lure rises very, very slowly. If you draw the rod to the side, the lure dives down a few feet. Then wind in while bringing the rod back to pointing at the lure. The number of takes you get as it slowly rises is amazing. Unfortunately you really have to be quick because pike tend to hit them and let go when they realise that the lure is about as fishy as a warm day in the Sahara Desert. I’ve missed quite a few takes on them simply because I’ve used them in situations where takes are few and far between. Your concentration lapses and often it is too lake to react. When you are getting a few takes or at least offers you soon get "on the ball" and start to convert takes into fish on the bank.
I know I have made it appear as if catching on all these lures is just a case of casting out and winding in, but a little more thought needs to go into it. For example you can troll with most of the sinking soft plastics and they catch very well indeed. I like the big 10 inch Replicant because you can troll it slowly at about 1mph near the bottom which is the going method on some trout reservoirs. I check how the lure is working by using a hand held GPS to work out at what minimum speed the lure starts working. When casting you can opt for bottom crawling or you can wind high and fast. It all depends on what the pike in a particular water want.
Each season I now catch a fair proportion of my pike on lures and it is a method well worth the effort of learning. I still think the full time lure anglers are ahead of the part timers such as myself, but these days spare time is harder than ever to come by. I keep catching pike on soft plastics resorting to livebaits when the situations require. Lure fishing can be boring and yes when you are not catching or not destined to get a take on your lure it can be mind numbingly dull. However if the odd offer or follow is coming along it is actually more exciting than other forms of pike fishing.
For those who want to learn more about lure fishing Pike and Predators magazine usually runs a few articles from our more successful lure anglers each year.