The news, when it happens, is nearly always the same: a 15- to 20-pound bass, caught in California, on a swimbait.
Now, however, the news may be changing, because fishermen throughout the country are quietly discovering what has up until now been California's secret: swimbaits can work very, very well almost anywhere you fish them. Manufacturers are responding, too, for today there is a greater selection of these lures than ever before. Even some tournament pros are starting to use them on the CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail."I know some Western tournaments have been won with swimbaits," notes Tour veteran Denny Brauer, "but I think the fact that we fish a lot of weedy, stumpy, shallow, or dingy water has probably discouraged a lot of pros from using them. The common feeling has always been that swimbaits only produce in clear water."I know swimbaits will work at lakes like Guntersville, Toho and some others, and I also know some pros will definitely try them this year, at least in practice to perhaps help them locate fish."
Although swimbaits have been around in various forms for many years, most non-California anglers picture them simply as heavy chunks of soft plastic 8 to 12 inches in length and painted to look like a rainbow trout. The lures aren't cast, but rather lobbed as far as possible and then simply reeled back in and lobbed again.
In truth, swimbaits are much more sophisticated. They come in many different forms, and today the swimbait family includes not only the soft plastic imitation trout, but also models with hard plastic heads and replaceable soft plastic bodies, hard resin baits, and even wooden ones. Some are as short as 4 inches while others are a full foot in length. Many are jointed with two or more body sections, and there are floaters, sinkers, and divers made to look like practically any forage fish a bass might eat. Prices range up to $150, but some individual swimbaits have actually been sold for $500, and one sold on eBay for $1,200.
"In the last couple of years, swimbaits have become much more well-known and popular because of the publicity generated by giant bass caught on swimbaits," explains Art Berry, a Bassmaster tournament pro and trophy bass guide in the San Diego area who specializes with swimbaits. "A lot of my clients now call and request a day of fishing specifically with swimbaits."
Swimbaits are productive for a number of reasons, continues Berry, especially in the lakes where the lures do very closely imitate rainbow trout, a favorite forage of big bass. Some of today's swimbaits, such as Jerry Rago's 13-inch Bass Tool or Ken Huddleston's Huddleston Deluxe, are so anatomically correct and have such a realistic action that when presented properly, bass seemingly can't resist them.
During the first six months of 2004, for example, Butch Brown caught more than 100 bass topping 10 pounds from Lake Castaic with the Huddleston model, while in December at Lake Casitas, angler Mike Vergini brought in 10 bass over two days that weighed 96 pounds with one of Rago's swimbaits.
"My theory is that a heavier largemouth will instinctively try to consume the highest-calorie meal while expending the least amount of energy to do it," explains Ken Huddleston, one of the sport's best-known swimbait manufacturers. "In California, we use swimbaits to imitate a rainbow trout, one of the highest-calorie meals available, and we make the lures as large as 12 and 13 inches. Now, if we retrieve the swimbait very slowly or float it on the surface, even one that size, we make it very easy for a bass to attack."
"What's happened among manufacturers," adds Mickey Ellis, whose 3:16 Lure Co. makes both hard and soft swimbaits (including the Mission Fish used by Jed Dickerson to catch his 21-11 in 2003), "is that the swimbait manufacturers are literally working overtime to outdo each other with new and better lures. Most of us are good friends, but we're also in stiff competition, and the ones who benefit the most are the fishermen.Today's swimbaits are light years ahead of the swimbaits of just three or four years ago."
Just how popular are swimbaits?
Extremely popular, regardless of their cost, according to Pete Skarda, owner of Tackle Warehouse (800-300-4916; www.tacklewarehouse.com) in San Luis Obispo, Calif., one of the country's best-known swimbait retailers.
"Right now the most expensive swimbait we have is the Waking Hard Bait by 3:16 Lure Co., which sells for $150," says Skarda. "I sold my first order, which was substantial, in about a week, and my second order was sold out before I had it in stock. What was interesting is that many fishermen who bought baits in the first order bought more in the second order.
"Another lure, the Castaic T Series wood bait, which sells for $129, has also been popular. We sold hundreds of them in less than two weeks.
"There is no question swimbaits are popular, and that they form a pretty significant part of our business."
Swimbaits are selling well in other parts of California, too. During a tackle show at Anglers Marine (714-666-2628; www.anglers marine.com) in Anaheim, 210 Huddleston Deluxe swimbaits ($29.95) were sold in 30 minutes. Because the lures were initially hard to get, someone bought 12 of them and then tried to resell them to Skarda at Tackle Warehouse for $50 each.
The popularity of these lures doesn't end there. An original Castaic wooden swimbait sold for $1,200 on eBay, and one of the 3:16 Lure Co. swimbaits sold for $500.
Another manufacturer, Jerry Rago, has $200,000 in preorders for a 13-inch swimbait that isn't even in production.
Swimbaits can be fished several different ways, depending on whether the lure floats or sinks and the type of water being fished. Whatever the technique used, however, the basic rule everyone agrees on is achieving the most action at the slowest retrieve speed. Essentially, all you have to do is cast and wind a plastic swimbait; you fish it as slowly as possible, then slow it down some more, but you don't do any stop-and-go or speed-up/slow-down maneuvers."This is how you separate the soft plastic swimbaits," says Berry. "You give them the 'tail test' by holding them upside down vertically by the head. If the lure's tail flops over and nearly touches the body, then it's a good swimbait. If the tail doesn't bend very much, it simply won't provide the right action at slow speed."The problem with many swimbaits is that the tail's swimming action does not match the lure at all. Some tails literally outswim the bait, meaning they wobble so much they don't appear natural. Others don't wobble until you reel them fast, which is not the way you normally fish a swimbait."
The cast-and-retrieve technique can be used for both soft plastic and hard plastic swimbaits that either sink or dive. You fish them in many of the same places you use regular crankbaits, such as along the edges of riprap; across points; down a row of pier pilings; or over the top of submerged vegetation. In short, you swim these lures through ambush zones just as with any lure.In most cases, a diving swimbait (one with a lip) will rarely go deeper than 8 to 10 feet (most only reach 3 to 4 feet), but this doesn't mean you can't fish it in water that's 15 or 18 feet deep. One of the first things you'll notice with swimbaits is that they attract bass, and you'll get bass that follow your lure practically to your boat.
When you get a follower, the worst thing you can do is stop reeling," emphasizes Berry, "because that's not how a baitfish or trout acts. It usually does something pretty erratic, like speeding up or making a sharp turn, and that's what you need to do with your swimbait. Jerk it to one side or start reeling fast to try to make the fish hit."
When he's fishing water deeper than 15 feet, Berry suggests using a sinking lure and letting it fall completely to the bottom. After letting it lie motionless for a minute or two, he will start reeling it slowly along the bottom, up the slope rather than down if he's fishing structure, so he can stay in contact with the bottom. He doesn't hop the bait, stop it, or do anything unusual; he just starts reeling very slowly, literally crawling the swimbait along the bottom or just above it.
Trolling these lures also produces big fish, and has the added advantage of being able to cover more water than casting. Again, the best speed is slow and over structure, but sometimes trolling fast works, too."Overall, a slow retrieve probably works best," notes western BASS pro Bill Siemantel, who's caught bass to 19 pounds on swimbaits, "but you should not completely ignore a fast trolling or casting retrieve, particularly if slow isn't working. If bass are active, and especially if you see them schooling and feeding on the surface, then a fast retrieve will often work very well."
Surprisingly, one of the most effective techniques used to catch the California giants is known as deadsticking, and for it, the floating swimbaits are used. The swimbait is cast and simply left behind the boat to float motionless; you don't do anything to move the lure. In fact, because it may take 20 to 30 minutes for a bass to decide to strike, more than a few big bass have been caught while the angler is sitting reading a book!
"The best conditions for deadsticking are clear water but with a breeze that drifts both your boat and the swimbait across a point or along a channel breakline," says Berry. "Deadsticking targets suspended bass, and for that reason it's probably an underutilized technique, but I guarantee it's absolutely deadly."On a perfectly still day, you can let the lure float motionless, or you can just barely twitch it from time to time," Berry continues. "Really, you don't need to do anything, except have the patience to leave it out there for a long time.
"The first time I took Gabe Bolivar (another Bassmaster Western pro) out to try it, he caught a 14-1. It was the first fish of the day, and until he caught that bass, Gabe didn't believe the technique could be so effective, either. He made me give him the swimbait, too."
The swimbait company, Castaic Soft Bait Inc., recently introduced its T-29 series of handcrafted mahogany swimbaits ($129) that have quickly become popular as deadsticking lures because they float high and thus can be more easily watched by fishermen. Huddleston makes a floating version of its soft plastic Huddleston Deluxe swimbait that is also popular for deadsticking.
While most think of swimbaits as large soft plastic lures, there are also a number of excellent hard swimbaits, constructed either of wood, foam or plastic. Most of these are jointed to provide swimming action when retrieved, and various sizes of floating, diving, and sinking models are available.
"Hard swimbaits do have the advantage of durability over soft plastic lures," laughs Greg Silks, a trophy bass guide and maker of the Flexbait, a shallow diving hard swimbait with seven separate jointed sections plus a plastic tail. The lure has taken largemouth topping 20 pounds and stripers over 50 pounds.
"The main key to using a hard swimbait is the same as with a soft one," Silks emphasizes, "which is to fish the lure slowly in places big bass will see it. I spend a lot of time looking for baitfish and when I find them, I start fishing for bass.
"The second key is spending time on the water. Swimbaits are designed for big fish, and big bass simply are not as active as smaller ones. You have to be willing to throw one of these big baits all day for just a few strikes, but if you do that, a couple of those strikes should be from big bass."
Swimbaits can be used in dingy water, says Berry, but when they are, they probably lose their sight appeal. Instead, action becomes their most important attribute, so deadsticking on the surface doesn't work. In dingy water, working close to cover and using a lure that has plenty of wobble at slow speed become the crucial elements.
"You also can fish swimbaits in shallow water," the California pro continues, "and in fact, at least one swimbait, the 5 1/2-inch Baby E (California Custom Worms) has small planing wings on each side that help keep it shallow. I've caught big bass in water less than 3 feet deep with that lure."
Swimbaits have played a role in several Western Division Bassmaster events, including not only Byron Velvick's record setting 83-5 (for three days) at Clear Lake in 2000, but also Aaron Martens' 67-15 win in 2002, also at Clear Lake. It was Berry, in fact, who talked Martens into throwing swimbaits during that event.
"We were paired together the final day, and I had been catching my fish on swimbaits, but Aaron didn't have any with him and he didn't want to do it because he had taken the lead by fishing a plastic worm. Finally, at 1 p.m. he agreed to take me to my fish and throw a swimbait."In just one hour he caught 27 pounds with a swimbait and I caught 24, and the only reason we didn't catch more was because I was in the bottom of the boat trying to glue broken swimbaits back together before we ran out of time."That's how good these lures can be, and that's why future news of big bass being caught on swimbaits won't be limited to California much longer.