The Soft Touch

20 tips for fishing pliable plastics.

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Outdoor Life Online Editor

It's been more than 50 years since Ohio fisherman Nick Creme invented the plastic worm as a substitute for live night crawlers. Today, soft-plastic lures dominate the freshwater fishing market. They're the favorite artificials of bass, crappie and bluegill anglers, and they're rapidly gaining ground among fishermen who target walleyes, pike, muskies and striped bass.

Savvy anglers recognize the benefits of soft-plastic baits. They look real in the water and they're soft, as fish food is supposed to be. Lifelike action is built in. Soft-plastic lures can be made to hop, crawl, twitch or slither like a live critter, simply by manipulating the rod tip.

As a material, soft plastic lends itself to creativity. It can be molded into whatever form the lure-maker envisions: a worm with a corkscrew tail, a creepy-crawly centipede, a bogus trout that looks real enough to eat.

There's a soft-plastic lure for every conceivable fishing scenario: bass holed up in hydrilla, crappies spawning in brush piles, walleyes staging along a gravel bottom or stripers prowling the turbulent water below hydroelectric dams. Add up all of the body styles and factor in size and color options, and soft-plastic baits number in the thousands.

With this bounty comes confusion. Many anglers don't know which soft-plastic lure to choose. Even if they tie on the right one, they may not know how to fish it properly.

The following guide is designed to deliver the goods on soft-plastics. Read it. Tear it out and keep it in your tackle box. And start catching more fish.

Easy Does It
Many anglers retrieve soft-plastics with way too much moxie. Don't rear back and jerk the rod; instead, simply bump, twitch or shake a soft-plastic bait with gentle movements of the rod tip. This will give soft-plastics a natural look and draw more strikes.

Stiff Sticks Rule
Most soft-plastic lures require a firm hookset. A wimpy rod just can't sink home the steel. For most applications, a rod that is rated medium/heavy (MH) will have the right blend of sticking power and shock absorption. Long rods (61/2 to 7 feet) move more line when you swing at a fish and exert more winching power on fish buried in heavy cover.

Guard Against Nicks
Many soft-plastics are fished around cover, which can be tough on line and might cause line failure at the worst time-when you're trying to get a fish in the boat. Use abrasion-resistant monofilament and check it frequently for nicks in the high- contact zone, which extends 18 inches up from the lure. Retie as needed. Get to the point Veteran bass pro Ron Shuffield of Arkansas "skin-hooks" his Texas-rigged plastic worms for faster, surer hooksets. Instead of burying the hookpoint dead center in the worm, he sticks the point in the outer layer of plastic on the side so it has less material through which to pass.

Toss Tandem Tubes
When slabs are spawning, tie a one-ounce bell sinker to the end of the line and two or three tube baits above the sinker. Space the baits 18 inches apart to find the right fishing depth. Lower the tubes into a brush pile until the sinker touches bottom and then reel up the rig slowly. You may hook two or three crappies at once, depending on the size of the school.

Give hooks a twistWhen fishing tube baits, current B.A.S.S. Masters Classic champ and FLW Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam uses pliers to twist the point and barb of his Mustad Mega-Bite hooks about a quarter-inch to either side. "The bigger, salt-impregnated tubes have thick plastic and often ball up on an unmodified hook when you set it," he says. "Putting that little twist in the hook increases my catch ratio dramatically."

**Dazzle With Color **
Stock up on a good variety of colors and experiment with various combinations in the different lakes and rivers you fish. Ineneral, dark colors work best in stained to muddy water; light or translucent colors get the nod for clear water. Lure dyes are available; try dipping the tail of a worm or lizard in chartreuse dye to increase the lure's visibility.

Pack A Sting
Many anglers complain of missing bass or stripers on soft jerkbaits. Increase hookups by hanging a small treble "stinger" hook from the shaft of the worm hook. Insert the point of the worm hook through the eye of the treble and then push the point of the worm hook up through the soft jerkbait and out the top in "Texposed" style. Stick one of the treble's hooks into the belly of the lure, or just let the treble dangle.

Slow Down
Sometimes a subtle approach works best. If fish are ignoring a bait, jazzing up the lure's action may be the wrong tactic. Instead, try reeling in a twist-tail grub or finesse worm slowly and steadily to trigger strikes, especially from highly pressured fish.

Go For The Legs
Soft-plastic lures with multiple appendages (legs, pinchers and antennae) imitate live crayfish and usually work best in murky water. Conversely, those with few or no appendages (finesse worms, french fries) mimic baitfish and work better in clear water.

Peg The Weight
Pegging the sinker in a Texas rig with a toothpick is a good idea when fishing worms, lizards, soft craws and creatures around thick brush or weeds. Don't peg a tube bait-it will inhibit the lure's spiraling action, which bass find so appealing.

Apply Leader Logic
Varying the length of a Carolina rig can make a presentation more effective. In tall aquatic vegetation, use a leader up to four feet in length with a lightweight hook and a buoyant soft-plastic to suspend the bait near the top of the cover or just above it. When the bass bite is slow, a long leader usually works well because it positions the lure higher in the water, where bass are likely to be suspending. When the bite is active, shortening the leader keeps the lure tighter to bottom, which probably is where the fish are. In heavy cover, it might be better to use a mono leader that's lighter than the main line, because if you have to break off the leader, you probably won't lose the sinker.

Throw A Changeup
The next time a bass boils up on a buzzbait or topwater chugger but misses it, immediately lay that rod down, pick up one rigged with a weightless plastic worm and cast it to the same spot. The slow-sinking crawler will usually draw an immediate strike from a persistent fish.

Mine The Mats
Matted surface cover in the form of hydrilla and hyacinths, including debris and floating leaves, represents a safe haven for bass. Flipping or pitching a pegged worm, or tube bait, through openings in the mat often results in a strike. If the lure won't drop through the surface cover, shake the rod tip vigorously until the bait wiggles through.

Go Noiseless
Some bass fishermen think that if their plastic worm isn't chattering like castanets, it's not going to catch fish. "I'm a lot more cautious about using rattle inserts than I used to be," says former BASS Masters Classic champ Woo Daves. "Bass can get overexposed to noise just as they can to certain colors, and it makes them warier. A quieter presentation often catches the biggest fish." If the water is extremely dingy or muddy, make a racket; otherwise, give 'em the silent treatment.

Downsize Baits
Three- and four-inch twist-tail grubs and soft-shad swim baits are among the deadliest lures for trophy smallmouth bass and wall-hanger walleyes. Compact lures are especially deadly in river current when bumped along gravel bars and around rock piles. Rig them on 1/8- to 3/8-ounce jigheads-you'll often outfish other guys using bigger baits by a wide margin.

Serve A Mouthful
Stripers grow huge in some reservoirs. Most anglers use live bait to catch linesides, but a 6- to 10-inch shad- or trout-pattern swim bait is more exciting to fish. Cast this beefy bait with a medium-weight saltwater rod and matching reel loaded with 14- to 30-pound-test mono. Use the same tackle and rig for big pike and muskies in weedy lakes.

Add Some Sizzle
Pieces of a Styrofoam packing peanut will make a tube float high on a Carolina rig. And a section of sponge soaked in fish attractant turns a tube into a scent dispenser. Pieces of an Alka-Seltzer tablet or "Pop Rocks" candy crystals poured inside a tube will bubble and fizz, causing the lure to pulsate.

Be Different
Soft-plastic lures come in various lifelike colors that match prevalent forage, but sometimes you'll trigger more strikes by using a bright, outrageous color such as Mercurochrome orange, bubblegum pink or neon green. Amazingly, these super-intense colors often work even better in clear water than they do in murky water.

Salt 'Em up
Many soft-plastic baits are made with salt added to the other ingredients. Some lure manufacturers claim salt enhances the taste appeal of the lures. Others say salty lures are less buoyant, and therefore less lifelike, than sodium-free baits. Try both types, then stick with whatever works for you. >Serve A Mouthful**
Stripers grow huge in some reservoirs. Most anglers use live bait to catch linesides, but a 6- to 10-inch shad- or trout-pattern swim bait is more exciting to fish. Cast this beefy bait with a medium-weight saltwater rod and matching reel loaded with 14- to 30-pound-test mono. Use the same tackle and rig for big pike and muskies in weedy lakes.

Add Some Sizzle
Pieces of a Styrofoam packing peanut will make a tube float high on a Carolina rig. And a section of sponge soaked in fish attractant turns a tube into a scent dispenser. Pieces of an Alka-Seltzer tablet or "Pop Rocks" candy crystals poured inside a tube will bubble and fizz, causing the lure to pulsate.

Be Different
Soft-plastic lures come in various lifelike colors that match prevalent forage, but sometimes you'll trigger more strikes by using a bright, outrageous color such as Mercurochrome orange, bubblegum pink or neon green. Amazingly, these super-intense colors often work even better in clear water than they do in murky water.

Salt 'Em up
Many soft-plastic baits are made with salt added to the other ingredients. Some lure manufacturers claim salt enhances the taste appeal of the lures. Others say salty lures are less buoyant, and therefore less lifelike, than sodium-free baits. Try both types, then stick with whatever works for you.