Burning Rubber

Set that cold, early-spring water on fire by igniting the bite with soft-plastic swimbaits

Soft-plastic swimbaits have been around for well over 20 years. The differences between what you got in the early days, however, and what you’ll find on tackle-shop pegboards today are staggering. What started out as somewhat fish-shaped, often rigid lures that required an external jighead has evolved into countless varieties of pre-rigged, pre-weighted swimbaits that come in every color, profile, and pattern imaginable. There are also hundreds of unrigged styles in any size you could possibly need. What they all share is an action and feel that many argue is more lifelike than any other style of lure. They have also become far more affordable than they were even a decade ago. While swimbaits can score on almost any species at any point in the year, they are particularly potent in early spring when gamefish can be sluggish and discerning, only biting if they’re convinced they’re getting the real deal. To help you weed through all the swimbait choices, we’ve compiled our favorites and broken down the methods of presenting them that will catch you more monster bass, walleyes, stripers, and muskies this spring than ever before.

Striped Bass

Hot Lure: Tsunami Deep Shad Length: 5 inches | Top Color: Pearl Spot Favorite Setup Rod: 7-foot Penn Carnage II • Reel: Penn Slammer III 3500 Line: 30-pound Sufix 832 Advanced Superline • Leader: 30-pound Seaguar Blue Label

➞ I’ve fished just about every swimbait on the market for stripers, from classic Sassy Shads to new-school herring patterns that look real enough to pickle. My favorite throughout most of the season has always been Storm’s original WildEye Swim Shad, but I’ve come to lean on Tsunami’s Deep Shad to put up my first big bass of spring. Whereas getting deep with other shads means upsizing to a larger bait, the Deep Shad gives you extra weight without the added length. In the early season, lethargic stripers like to hug the bottom, often refusing to feed up on anything moving higher in the water column. Not only does a Deep Shad get down to the fish quickly, but the rounder body and thick tail also produce a wider wobble and stronger vibration than other shads. When it’s retrieved slowly or jigged on the bottom, I’ve found that this combo gets a lot more lazy bass to take a shot.

The extra weight of the Deep Shad is also a ­major advantage in strong tidal flows or when fishing the low end of a river where it becomes necessary to cast upcurrent and give the lure lots of sink time before retrieving. With a standard 5-inch shad, your bait may only be working in the zone for a few beats. The Deep Shad, on the other hand, will hang in the sweet spots longer. To fish an inlet or rip, cast upcurrent and let the swimbait touch down, then give it abrupt hops as it moves with the tide. As it falls back, lower your rod and keep your line tight so the current can keep the tail kicking during the sweep. Let the lure swing behind the boat until the current pushes it up toward the surface. Then retrieve and repeat the drift.

In deeper channels or in the open ocean where current is less of a factor, simply allow the Deep Shad to hit bottom and reel back with the rod tip low to the surface. Crank the shad just fast enough to get the tail thumping, which you’ll be able to feel in the rod and line. If you get bumped and the bass misses, speed up just a touch when you begin reeling again. The objective is to increase speed to trigger a second hit without causing the bait to abruptly rise toward the surface and out of the zone. —J.C.

Walleyes

Hot Lure: Big Bite Baits Suicide Shad Length: 3½ inches | Top Color: Pearl Favorite Setup Rod: 6-foot 3-inch St. Croix Legend Tournament Walleye • Reel: Shimano Stradic 2500 Line: 12-pound Sunline SX1 in Hi-Vis Yellow • Leader: 16-pound Sunline FC

➞ Walleye anglers are quick to dismiss swimbaits because the lure style is so tied to bass fishing, and because most just wouldn’t be caught dead using anything other than live bait. This is a mistake. These lures have quietly been dominating in cold water for walleyes for years. It’s been my experience that in spring when the water is frigid, the action and vibration of a soft-plastic swimbait can actually trigger a lethargic walleye into biting faster than a live bait can. I also think the fish tend to hold on to a swimbait longer than the real stuff at this time of year.

walleye swimbaits
Walleyes hold on to a swimbait longer than the real stuff in early spring. Bill Lindner

A good walleye swimbait should be soft yet durable, and the Big Bite Baits Suicide Shad fits that bill. Most important, the large boot tail connects to the body via a very narrow section of plastic. This allows the bait to create strong vibrations when reeled very slowly, and as big spring walleyes tend to be sluggish, a superslow retrieve is often required to get them to strike. Strong vibration is also critical during spring because the water clarity in lakes and rivers can vary sharply now, with clean stretches of water often found within a few yards of chocolate milk. Swimbaits in light colors and with good vibes will shine in both conditions. In stained or dirty water, fish the bait vertically with slow lifts and drops. In cleaner areas, reel slowly but steadily to entice skittish, boat-shy fish. Regardless of what kind of water body you’re fishing, focus swimbait efforts on shallow reefs and rocky areas where males will stage before the spawn, as well as gravel or sand flats close to deep water where you can find a mix of big pre- and postspawn females. Casting swimbaits in the shallows at night is particularly lethal, as these light-sensitive fish will become much less wary and more apt to chew.

I most often rig my shad on a 3⁄8-ounce Gama­ka­tsu Swimbait Head with a 5/0 hook, which leaves enough gap between the point and the broad body of the bait to avoid missing those fish that hit and spit. The screw-style collar also works wonders for keeping the shad straight and stopping it from sliding down the shank.—R.R.

Largemouth Bass

Hot Lure: Basstrix Paddle Tail Tube Swimbait Length: 5 inches | Top Color: Ayu Favorite Setup Rod: 7-foot 4-inch Cashion Elite Frog Rod • Reel: Lew’s Tournament Lite Speed Line: 14-pound Sunline FC Sniper

➞ When prespawn largemouths go on shad feeding frenzies in spring, it’s hard to beat a swimbait for matching the hatch. The tricky part is figuring out exactly where to cast, as bass staging locations can change daily. As a general rule, I’ll start around secondary points with isolated structure, such as stumps or boulders. Transitions along bluff walls, as well as outside bends in the back of creeks, are also common areas where bass will stack up now. And it’s not uncommon for the fish to lurk in brushpiles or standing timber, under docks, and along juvenile weed edges adjacent to spawning flats, so a swimbait that will perform when rigged weedless is a must.

swimbait bass tactics
Prespawn bass can’t resist the thump of a paddle-tail swimbait. Mike Sudal

The 5-inch Basstrix Paddle Tail Tube Swimbait has been my go-to for years, because it’s small enough to attract average-size bass but also turns on the big girls. These baits have hollow bodies and are made from very soft material. That’s important because the pliable plastic does a great job of keeping the hook flush in the bait’s back so it runs true, and the point will penetrate the material faster when you set. I rig my swimbaits on a 4/0 Gamakatsu Superline EWG hook with a 1⁄4-ounce belly weight, which increases casting distance, helps the bait get down to suspended bass faster, and helps it stay upright during the retrieve.

The presentation is pretty simple. Most of the time, a slow, steady retrieve at the proper depth is all it takes. What I have noticed, however, is that varying the retrieve after a missed strike can be critical. When I don’t connect on a hit, I’ll either speed the bait up or slow it down immediately after the bump. If you can’t get a fish to come back with a change of pace, try stopping altogether and letting the bait fall. Sometimes the bass like to stun the bait and then eat it off the bottom.—D.W.

Muskies

Hot Lure: Savage Gear 3D Pre-Rigged Line-Thru Trout Length: 16 inches | Top Color: Light Trout Favorite Setup Rod: 9-foot Tackle Industries Super “Mega Heavy” XXXH Power Pounder • Reel: Shimano Tranx Line: 100-pound Tuf-Line XT Braid
muskie fishing swimbaits
An extra-heavy rod is a must to throw Savage Gear’s 3D Line-Thru Trout. Mike Sudal

➞ In regions where the season opens early enough, spring fishing for muskies offers anglers a unique opportunity. As large female fish emerge from the depths to spawn in the shallows, they’ll gorge to pack in the calories. Swimbaits produce muskies all year, but they really shine in spring, as they mimic the natural swimming action of forage like walleyes and trout better than many hard baits. This time of year, big muskies aren’t afraid to hammer big meals, so if you want to swing for the fences and trick a true trophy, tie on Savage Gear’s 3D Pre-Rigged Line-Thru Trout. If casting a 16-inch, 24-ounce soft plastic all day seems daunting, it should. This bait is not for everyone, but its huge profile, coupled with its lifelike, lazy swimming action, is hard for a giant prespawn muskie to pass up.

As water temperatures rise into the upper 40s and lower 50s, muskies will begin to stage in the transition areas between the deeper water and the shallows. Look for large, 5-foot-deep flats adjacent to main-lake dropoffs, and work these ­areas methodically. Start by positioning the boat on the flat, casting out into the deeper water, and retrieving into the shallows. Be sure to vary your retrieve style often, fishing the swimbait just below the surface on some casts, and letting it sink several seconds through the water column before reeling it in slowly on others. If you’re not moving any fish working the drop, switch your focus to the flat. Cover as much water as possible by fan casting, keeping in mind that you can work the big swimbait shallow by engaging the reel as soon as the lure hits the water and holding your rod tip high during the retrieve. Sure, the Line-Thru Trout hits the water like a cannonball, but that massive splat can get a hungry muskie’s attention fast.

The trick to casting the Line-Thru Trout is to let the rod do the work. Don’t try to bomb it with all your strength. Let the rod load, lob the bait, and those 24 ounces will go flying. This bait has a lot of mass, so if you get hit, set with all you’ve got. It takes a good amount of force to pull a swimbait this big into the hard jaw of a huge muskie. —M.M.

Smallmouth Bass

Hot Lure: Keitech Swing Impact Length: 3½ inches | Top Color: Black Shad Favorite Setup Rod: 6-foot 10-inch Fenwick EliteTech Bass • Reel: Pflueger Patriarch XT 30 Line: 8-pound Seaguar InvizX

➞ Finding smallmouths in big, swollen spring rivers is relatively easy. Getting them to bite is another story. When spring runoff raises the water and dirties it up, bass head to flooded shorelines, soft-current banks with sharp transitions, and deep, slow eddies behind everything from bridge pilings to logjams. The water is often chilly, and until these prespawn fish get on a hard feed, you often have to coax them into biting. The Keitech Swing Impact is highly effective at tripping cold bronze triggers.

smallmouth swimbaits
A swimbait hopped across the bottom through eddies and along slow banks can wallop river smallmouths during their prespawn staging. Brian Grossenbacher

Versatility is in large part why this swimbait is so effective. Rig it Texas style with the bullet weight pegged in place, and you can swim the Swing Impact through the nastiest flooded cover. More often, I rig it on a simple 3⁄16- or 1⁄4-ounce round Gamakatsu jighead. You can swim the bait, paired with the jighead, through sweet spots at any depth and speed to draw strikes from more aggressive fish. If they’re hunkered down, you can slow-hop or drag the bait much like a tube. This works especially well on soft bottom where the bait can kick up clouds of silt or mud. What makes the Swing Impact stand out from other soft swimbaits is its incredibly tight wobble that matches a live swimming baitfish to perfection. The paddle tail combined with the ribbed body also puts out maximum vibrations, which can make all the difference in cold, stained water.

As spring presses on and the water warms, I’ve had a lot of success throwing a weightless Swing Impact rigged on a weedless swimbait hook over shallow mudflats, gravel points, and rockpiles. I’ll reel with the rod tip held high, making the bait just barely wake and ripple below the surface during the retrieve. Prespawn smallmouths—or any smallmouths that have already moved shallow to bed—will trash it faster than they will your favorite popper. —J.C.

Lead photograph by Dan Saelinger

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