You get what you pay for Cheap baits catch fish, too, but there is a reason the majority of successful swimbait anglers are using more expensive baits. They are expensive because they are well made and reliable. My first big swimbait fish came on a $20 Spro “BBZ”. It will catch the heck out of fish, but they don’t last very long and won’t produce as many fish as a well-made bait. If you want to go cheap, find a well-made injected plastic bait in the $20-$30 range. Buying those $10-$15 bulk imported baits is essentially like rolling down the window and tossing out a handful of singles - just don’t do it. That $60 price tag includes years of R&D, thousands of hours of tweaks to designs and swim patterns, and thousands of bass caught in testing to build a perfect fish catcher. Expensive swimbaits will catch fish for five or ten years and stand the tests of time. I have Bull Shads that have logged over 100 fish and have been bounced off bridge pilings, docks, rocks, tree stumps and landed countless massive striped bass. Yes, you can cast off an expensive bait if you tie poor knots, use bad line, and don’t retie, but you can also spontaneously combust driving to the lake. Life is too short to use inferior tackle.
Proven baits are proven for a reason Matt Peters (from the single best swimbait tutorial DVD Southern Trout Eaters) says to start off swimbait fishing by buying a few proven baits. Don’t buy an assortment of random, affordable swimbaits to see which one catches fish. Identify quality baits that have a proven track record of landing big fish - Huddleston, Triple Trout, Bull Shad, MS Slammer, Deps, Mattlure - then find the model that best fits your needs and applications. I, like so many do, started off reluctant to buy that $50 swimbait, and wasted a lot of time and money with cheaper baits. When I finally bought that first 5” Bull Shad, I immediately began to have success, and am still catching them on that same bait five years later. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel or discover the next hot bait. The pattern is there; seize it and apply it to your needs.
Leave it at home If you have a swimbait tied on and don’t get a bite for a couple of hours then your trusty spinnerbait or crankbait starts to look really, really good. Most can’t resist the temptation to go back to safe, dependable lures and get in on some fish catching action. When I began swimbait fishing, I only carried one setup and a handful of swimbaits. This forced me into early success because I had no other option than to grind it out.
Taking a knife to a gun fight My first swimbait rod was an ultra-stiff jig rod, which cracked at the handle trying to lob 6” baits. I needed an upgrade, so I decided to buy a true swimbait rod. I was torn between a setup that could handle 1oz – 3oz baits in the 6” range, or a larger rod that could accommodate up to 6oz. I decided to opt for the smaller rod since I currently used 6” baits. Huge mistake. I greatly regretted it when I tried to jump up larger baits. You will have the same thing happen to you. Be insightful when making gear purchases and plan ahead so that your equipment can keep up with your growth. In layman’s terms, buy a rod and reel setup bigger than what you think you will throw, because you will quickly jump to larger baits. A 6” swimbait sounds huge, but isn’t much larger than a Heddon “Super Spook”. It is better to have an overpowered rod than an underpowered rod. Also, it is better to have a reel that has more line capacity than less.
Find your line There is a huge debate over the effectiveness of monofilament, fluorocarbon, copolymer, and braid amongst swimbait fishermen. I have used all of them and will say that any line type can work for swimbait fishing, but there are a few things to consider. I have used 25lb monofilament for the vast majority of my swimbait fishing, and have done quite well with it. Monofilament is tough, cheap, and dependable, but has a ton of stretch which means limited hookset penetration when that bass strikes on a long cast. Fluorocarbon is very resistant to abrasion, has low stretch and low visibility, but is very expensive and can be brittle. Copolymer is a great compromise between the stretch of monofilament and the toughness of fluorocarbon, but is very stiff and prone to coiling up and being unruly on the spool. Braid offers phenomenal hookset power thanks to its zero stretch,which is a huge asset on a kayak and lasts for a very long time, but can easily break when suffering abrasion on rocks or wood and it is highly visible. Each of these lines can work; you just have to find the one that works well for you. I usually use 65lb braid on my smaller swimbait setup (Dobyns “Fury 795” and Daiwa “Tatula HD”) for baits up to 3oz. On my larger setups I use 25lb monofilament or 30lb copolymer where spool size on larger reels is not an issue.
The hooks matter A huge temptation for beginning swimbaiters is to cut corners with terminal tackle: hooks, split rings, and snaps. Do not do it. I realize that after spending $35-$60 on one lure, the last thing you want to do is spend $10 getting new hooks. However, I cannot stress how important it is to invest in superior hardware. The hook point determines if you stick the fish, land the fish, or just have a nice “One that got away” story. Gamakatsu and Owner hooks are very expensive, and $8 may only replace the hardware on two or three baits. I despise having to drop $40 in hooks for upgrading swimbaits, but it is just something you have to do. Think about it: if you invest all the money, time, and dedication to hunting that one trophy fish, you want to put all the odds in your favor. Upgrading to premium hooks is a small price to pay if it means landing the fish of a lifetime.
Attention to detail Check your line every time you hang up your lure, drag it across a tree branch, or come in contact with a piece of cover. If you feel or see any sign of abrasion, cut it off immediately and remove any distressed segment of line. Be sure to run your fingers up the line several feet and don’t be afraid to remove ten or even twenty feet of compromised line if needed. Also, make sure to check each individual hook point by sliding it along your thumbnail. If it bites into the surface of the nail, you are good. If it skids along the slick surface of your thumbnail, then it is dull and can’t be trusted to hold a trophy fish. I always carry a hook file, and will touch up hooks after a major snag on wood or rock.
Stay in Focus After several fishless hours, you naturally begin to lose focus - to simply cast and wind without looking at your lure and thinking about your retrieve. That is exactly when the biggest bass of the trip will break your heart. I can’t tell you how many fish I have lost by momentarily losing focus. You have to stay focused on the sight and feel of your retrieve at all times. Some strikes are violent and the fish pretty much hook themselves, but many more come as subtle taps, lighting-quick swipes, or fish mouthing the bait and swimming right at you. You will land very few of those tricky bites if you aren’t focused on that lure. Stay vigilant at all times and you will put more big fish in the boat.
Failure to grind One of the simplest mistakes I see beginners make is simply not throwing it enough. There are days where you catch tons of fish on swimbaits, but the norm is to get only a handful of opportunities at fish. It can be a real drag to watch your buddies load the boat with numbers on regular lures, but you are fishing for only a couple of bites from those true trophy-class fish. My buddy Corey is a great example. His two fishing partners caught probably forty bass between them on regular lures, but he stayed dedicated to the grind and was rewarded with a trophy-class 21” spotted bass that whacked a line-through swimbait.
Spending your way to success We are all guilty of seeing that huge bass landed on a new bait and think that is what we need to land big fish. It isn’t false advertising when Butch Brown puts up a 50lb stringer on a Deps 250 or Huddleston, but know that it isn’t the bait that is doing the work, but the angler finding the fish and putting the bait in their strike zone. When you get your swimbaits you will experience highs and lows and many days of frustration. If you have purchased a “proven bait” then you know it will work, you just aren’t getting it in front of the right fish. Don’t fall prey to the temptation of buying new baits to catch fish. Buy a few staple baits and go find the fish. Spend time on the water looking for fish, not money on new baits to catch fish.
Avoid as many of these mistakes as you can and you will speed up your learning curve in the swimbait world. In the upcoming articles in this swimbait series I will be sharing my thoughts on gear selection, technique, and tips and tricks. For now, avoid the rookie mistakes so many of us have made along the way and you will go farther, faster.