The Florida Everglades has been called "The Sea Of Grass." But, as any angler who has spent time on Florida's other waters can attest, the moniker pretty much applies statewide. In fact, if there is a single defining characteristic to Florida bassing, it is that anglers will spend a considerable amount of time tossing lures to targets that bear a stronger resemblance to a well-manicured lawn than to open water.
That has produced more than a few cases of "culture shock" among visiting anglers, who quickly discover that the lures that proved so productive at home do little more than harvest weeds in Florida. Even some lures normally considered to be "weedless" can prove disappointing when they tangle with soft, clinging, algae-coated eelgrass or hydrilla.
That's one reason a Texas rigged plastic worm is a staple among Florida anglers. It can slither unscathed through even the slimiest cover. But savvy anglers have found more innovative ways to use it than just as a bottom banger.
"Using an unweighted Texas rigged worm as a swimming bait is something we've been doing for years," says Jacksonville pro Peter Thliveros. "As a kid, I used to wade the eelgrass beds in the St. Johns River with one of the old original Ding-A-Lings (short worm with a paddle-shaped tail), just casting them out and reeling them right across the top of the grass. It was a perfect solution to thick grass because they would come right through it without any problems. We caught a lot of fish doing that."
Like most "proven" tactics, it still works today, although it is often overlooked by anglers concentrating on the newest lure techniques. Thliveros cheerfully admits to being guilty of that. But he has a good excuse.
"As effective as those old swimming worms were, and still are," he notes, "the newer soft plastic lures are even better at handling heavy grass. And they're a lot more versatile.
"In fact, with just a few different soft plastics and a couple of rigging techniques, you can duplicate the action of a buzzbait, spinnerbait, jerkbait or topwater plug; and do it with a bait that's superweedless but still hooks fish."
Here's how Thliveros uses the newer soft plastic designs to fight bass, not the grass.
The Ding-A-Ling paddle-tail worm was one of the first plastic worms to be used as a quick stepping surface lure, and its success prompted a number of makers to offer the paddle-tail. They still work in that role, but Thliveros has found a way to make them even more effective.
"I take a 5-inch Zoom Speed Worm and cut a notch in the paddle-tail," he says. "Just take a pair of scissors and make a diagonal cut from one side of the base of the tail to the midpoint on the paddle, stopping about 3/16 inch from the end. This opens up the tail and gives it more action and surface commotion, while allowing me to work it at a slower speed than would be needed with an unaltered worm."
The result is what Thliveros calls "a soft plastic buzzbait that I can fish right across the surface at a steady pace, and it draws the same types of strikes as does a metal buzzbait. This really pays off in the late spring and early summer, when soft algae start to form on submerged grass. This stuff will wrap all over a metal buzzbait … especially between the front ball and the blade opening … and it may only take a few casts before the blade gets so bound up it won't turn. You'll spend a lot of time picking that slime out of there to get the bait to run, and waste a lot of fishing time. The notched Speed Worm doesn't pick that slime up, so you get a lot more casts in during the same amount of time."
Rigging is important in getting the proper action. Thliveros favors either the 3/0 Eagle Claw HP hook, or Eagle Claw's offset No. L7013BP in a "Tex-posed rig," and he fishes the bait without additional weight. It's important to make sure the hook shank is in line with the "parting line" (mold seam), with the notched side down. This allows the notched tail to fully extend in the water for maximum surface disturbance. Tex-posing is similar to Texas rigging, but the hook point is pushed all the way through the lure and skin-hooked so the point lies parallel to the lure.
"This is really a double duty bait," Thliveros states. "I start using it in the late spring, when postspawn bass hiding in shallow grass might need something extra to trigger a reaction strike. I continue using it all the way into the fall to take feeding fish in late summer submerged grass. It doesn't make much difference how deep the water is — if you have grass coming to within a half-foot of the surface, and the fish are positioned near the surface, they'll eat this. Just keep it coming right across the top of the water at a steady pace."
When it comes to colors, Thliveros finds that he only needs a few — lighter shades, like white or silver, and darker hues, like June Bug or black with red flake.
"I like to either make a silhouette they can zero in on, or throw something bright and highly visible that they can see," he explains. "This is a bait that fish hit because of its movement and surface commotion; if they are going to take it, they'll hit those colors."
While color selection is not critical, rod position and the hook set can be. Bass can blast this bait with as much gusto as they would a metal buzzbait, but the Tex-posed rigging does pose its own harsh realities.
"I fish this bait on 7-foot casting rods (the American Rodsmith 610 Jig & Worm or its medium action PTCM model) on Pinnacle reels with 14- to 17-pound Stren line," Thliveros says. "That lets me cast the unweighted Speed Worm a long way."
Rod position during the retrieve is important, he adds. "I hold my rod at a 45 degree angle to the water so I can keep the nose of the bait riding up. When a bass nails it, I have to resist the impulse to set the hook on the strike. That fish has to get hold of the bait first. When it does, I drop the rod slightly, let the fish turn downward and then hammer him.
"It's not easy to remain calm when your lure disappears in a big boil, but you've got to delay the strike. One thing that helps me is to not look directly at the bait on the retrieve — just watch it out of the corner of my eye. That builds in a split-second delay that helps me hook more fish."
While Thliveros generally uses the Speed Worm as a surface bait, he acknowledges there are other uses.
"A lot of anglers working deeper grass, especially hydrilla," he notes, "will add a ¼-ounce bullet sinker and fish the bait submerged, just like a spinnerbait. Lake Seminole is noted for this tactic, and fishermen there do very well with it."
Not just a fluke
Although the Speed Worm and similar lures can work well submerged, Thliveros normally opts for a different bait when he needs to get down to the fish.
"Soft jerkbaits, like the Zoom Super Fluke I use, can be very effective substitutes for hard jerkbaits where the grass is too thick for treble-hooked lures," he states. "It generates the same reactive strike response the hard bait does."
There are a number of rigging techniques for soft plastic jerkbaits, but Thliveros wants the maximum in erratic action from his Super Fluke. He uses an unorthodox hook to achieve it.
"The 4/0 Eagle Claw No. L7095BP I use is a large offset hook " he explains, "It's bigger than the ones many anglers would use for a lure this size.
However, that big hook not only adds casting weight, it also shifts the weight to the rear of the bait and causes it to produce an exaggerated 'walk-the-dog' action on the retrieve. It's an excellent reaction bait for postspawn bass in weed pockets, or in deeper, thinner grass."
The resulting lure is heavy enough to cast on the same rods he uses for the Speed Worm. If additional weight is needed to get it down in deeper grass, he adds a small barrel swivel about 8 inches ahead of the bait. That is also an excellent idea for anglers who opt to fish these lures on spinning gear. Without the swivel, they will produce line twist with fixed-spool reels.
Thliveros sticks to his light/dark color scheme with these baits, but he also includes laminate shad patterns, along with watermelon and green pumpkin, on the theory that bass do get a better look at this bait than they do at the Speed Worm, and may be a bit more color conscious at times.
Although the Super Fluke's primary purpose in the world of weeds is to replace a jerkbait, there are times it can make a very effective topwater lure.
"I'd fish the Fluke as a surface bait just about anywhere I would use a Rat-type lure," Thliveros says. "That wide wobble makes it perfect for scum, duckweed and other thin surface matted cover, and the big hook takes a big bite. One advantage to this lure is that if a bass blows up and misses it — which happens a lot in scum — I can just maneuver it into the hole made by the fish's strike and let it sink. Most of the time the bass will still be there, and it'll often take the Fluke on the drop. I can't do that with a floating bait."
While the Speed Worm and the Super Fluke are versatile enough to handle most heavy-duty weed chores, Thliveros frequently keeps a straight-tail Zoom Trick Worm on hand for "special" situations.
"I've always considered the Trick Worm to be a subtle reaction bait," he explains, "and although the Fluke works that way, I tend to use this worm in clearer water than I would the Super Fluke. If I can stay in visual contact with this bait, it gives me more retrieve options to trigger a strike when a fish follows it. I can work it in subtle twitches, or more quickly and erratically; a lot of times, you have to find the right 'trigger' to get that fish to hit."
Thliveros says the Trick Worm performs better when cast to specific targets than when it is used to cover broader areas.
"I prefer this bait on shallow flats with a lot of scattered grass clumps, or areas where grass mixes with wood — like laydown logs, stumps or docks," he explains. "I can dance the bait over and around a specific object that I feel ought to be holding a fish, and keep it there long enough to draw one out of the cover. Or, I can use it as a fall bait. It's not a lure I would spend the majority of my time with. But if I've got a spot that I feel should hold a bass, and they don't respond to the other two lures, I'll definitely work it again with the Trick Worm before I move on."
Color selection on this lure is a little more complex than the others. Light and dark colors are certainly carried, but more garish hues see plenty of use.
"Really obnoxious colors will often get you a reaction strike with this bait," he says. "I like yellow, Merthiolate, pink, orange, chartreuse and combinations of those colors. Sometimes you've really got to get offensive with the bass, and these colors will do that. And they're much easier for me to see."
Rigging for this worm includes a barrel swivel ahead of the bait, with the Eagle Claw No. L7013BP hook (in 2/0) rigged Tex-posed to let the worm hang straight. Although Thliveros can toss this on casting gear, he frequently uses a 6 ½-foot medium-heavy spinning rig with 10- to 12-pound Stren Easy Cast line, especially if there is any wind.
While three soft plastic lures may not sound like much of a tacklebox, Thliveros doesn't feel undergunned.
"There is no grass too thick for these lures," he has found, "and just these three bait types will provide enough versatility to take bass from places where most lures won't work. If anglers will work these baits long enough to develop confidence in them, they'll find they've got effective tools to catch bass from areas that a lot of other fishermen are ignoring, or can't fish effectively."