Retrieving Lures

By Lenny Rudow

Catching a fish is a lot more nuanced than merely casting out a lure, then reeling it in.

Fly fishingPhoto: RBFF

One of the most beautiful things about fishing is that there's no hard-and-fast "right" or "wrong." There's just what works and what doesn't. And what works one day may not work the next. So how are you expected to learn what to do to become a better angler? Trial and error and years of experience are the two main ingredients you need. Research comes in a distant third, but it's also the one area where we can help — in this case, when it comes to retrieving lures.

The 'Golden Rule'

Watch any two anglers fishing side by side, and you'll notice numerous differences in the way each performs a retrieve. Some go fast, some go slow. Some twitch the rod tip, others jerk it. Some bring in the lure erratically, others bring it in smoothly. And sometimes you'll see one angler try all of these things, changing up his or her retrieve on each and every cast.

Keep your eye on that angler.

Despite all the variables, regardless of which species you're after or with what lure you like fishing, that angler obviously knows the one hard-and-fast "right" in the world of fishing, one golden rule to always keep in mind: If you're not catching fish, change what you're doing.

This may sound simplistic, yet it's a rule that countless anglers violate every day. Maybe they caught a lot of fish in a hotspot one time, so they keep going there, even though it's been barren in the recent past. Perhaps they had success using a particular color, so they use that color day in and day out, even though the cooler remains bare. And it could be that they always retrieve at the same speed or rhythm because it's worked for them in the past.

Fish strikeWhat gets a fish like this to strike? The right retrieve, at the right depth, at the right time. (Photo: Lenny Rudow)

Fish change their minds. Their primary prey changes, too. Conditions change. To catch fish on a regular basis, you need to constantly adapt. When slow and steady doesn't work, try fast and erratic. When jiggling the tip doesn't work, try swinging it. If you're not catching fish, change, change, change.

Active Measures

The golden rule notwithstanding, there are some relative constants to retrieving a lure to always keep in mind. One of the most important is the activity level of the fish. As a general rule, the more lethargic the fish are, the slower the retrieve you'll want to use. Conversely, the more active they are, the faster your retrieve should be.

While there are countless factors affecting the fish's activity level, the most significant is water temperature. Note: If you don't have a good temperature gauge on board, you're lacking a vital piece of fishing information every time you shove off. Fish are cold-blooded, so generally speaking, the cooler the water, the more lethargic they become. Different species have different preferred temperature ranges, so to find out what will make the species in your neck of the woods lethargic, you'll need to do some more research. That said, whenever the water temperature is on the low end for the species you're casting to, slow things down.

When water temperatures are on the high side, naturally, the opposite becomes true. Not only should you speed up your retrieve; you should also add in more twitches and jiggles with your rod tip, mimicking the more active behavior of prey species in the given conditions. How fast is too fast? Unless you're using a lure that mimics a very slow creature (a worm, for example), it's unlikely you can turn the handle on your reel fast enough to discourage a predator. Don't even think about making your lure outrun them — that isn't possible.

You don't believe me? To find out just how fast you can reel a lure in, all you need is a fishing rod and a little help from Google. Measure out 100 feet in your back yard. Now tie a weight or a hookless casting plug to the end of your fishing line. Standing at one end of your measured distance, drop it on the ground. Then open the bail of your reel, and walk to the other end of your measured 100 feet. Have a friend hold a stopwatch, then time you as you reel in your weight as fast as you can. If it takes you 10 seconds, you're faster than most people. Now use your friend Google to pull up a feet-per-second/mile-per-hour converter, and plug in 10. You'll find that you were reeling in your lure at 6.8 mph. If the predatory fish you're after can't put on a speed-burst of more than 6.8 mph, they aren't very good predators. Naturally, some reels are geared to retrieve faster than others, and some anglers can spin the handle faster than others. But I'm sure you get the idea — when fish are highly active, it's virtually impossible to retrieve your lure too fast for them to catch it.

Reeling it inYou think you can outrun speedsters like this by reeling faster? Not likely. (Photo: Lenny Rudow)

The level of the fish in the water column is another factor you'll need to take into account when retrieving. As fish move deeper or shallower, you have three ways to get your lure to the appropriate depth: retrieve more slowly (to get deeper) or more quickly (to stay shallower); add or subtract weight; or modulate depth with retrieve style.

How do you know the depth of your lure in the first place? Lures fall at different speeds depending on weight, shape, and how they're "dressed" (with hairs, feathers, and so on). Even the size and type of line they're tied to can have an effect. So you need to use the countdown method to establish a baseline. The countdown method is simple: Drop your lure overboard and count how long it takes to hit bottom. Then do some simple math to figure out where your lure is after X seconds of sink time. Let's say you're in 30 feet of water, for example, and the fish are at mid-depth. If it takes your lure 20 seconds to hit bottom, you'll want to cast out, allow 10 seconds of sink time, and then begin your retrieve.

The key to catching more fish is to use the method that allows your lure to spend the most time at the appropriate depth and at the appropriate speed. Adding or subtracting weight is the least desirable alternative, because it forces you to re-rig and possibly use a lure that wouldn't otherwise be your first pick. Changing speed is also less than ideal, unless the fish coincidentally happen to be at just the right depth for the specific speed that just happens to be ideal for their activity level. That leaves us with modulating retrieve style, which may or may not work particularly well depending on how receptive the fish are to a rising/falling motion — because that's the retrieve style that will allow you to cover the widest range of depth.

Founder and lure in netWhen fishing for some species — flounder are the perfect example — the ability to get your lure to run at the right depth is imperative. (Photo: Lenny Rudow)

A rising/falling motion can be as minor-league as a rod-tip twitch that causes the lure to rise and fall just 6 inches, or it can be a sweeping lift of the rod tip followed by a drop of the rod, which causes the lure to move 6 feet up and down through the water column. Whichever you need to employ, always remember that most fish will strike a lure as it falls, but few will strike one as it zips upward. As a result, it becomes imperative that you don't drop your tip too quickly (or reel too slowly) and cause slack in your line as the lure sinks. Keep tension at all times so you'll feel the fish strike and know when to set the hook; allow slack to get into the line as that lure falls, and fish will grab it, then spit it back out without you ever knowing the lure was attacked.

Motion Of The Ocean

The final part of the retrieve we need to address is the action you give the lure to make it lifelike. The rod tip jiggles, twitches, and jerks make that piece of plastic or metal seem to be alive. We've already talked about twitching or jiggling your rod tip to modulate depth, but at the same time, you need to envision how those twitches and sweeps make the lure look in the water. Lots of erratic twitching can be employed to make a lure look like an injured minnow, scared for its life. Steady, subtle motions can be used to make the lure appear to be unconcerned, but very much alive. And with some lures, we should note, using the rod to impart action isn't just unnecessary — it can be detrimental. This is true of lipped swimming plugs, for example, which get a lifelike wobble from their lip, and it's often true of bladed baits and spoons, which give off steady vibrations (that fish home in on) as they move through the water.

Which type of action will you want to use on any given day? First, watch how your lures move through the water as you work your rod and reel. Then take the fish's activity level into account. Consider how your retrieve will affect depth. Now, we're right back to the golden rule; try it one way, then another, and keep varying your retrieve until you figure out what works. If the bite slows up, remember that the effectiveness of retrieve style can change due to changes in tide, current, light levels, pressure systems, and a number of other fish-affecting factors. As time goes on and your experience builds, you'll notice patterns: Speckled trout often like a crazy-erratic retrieve as the tide changes, but once the current drops out, they like it slow and steady. The crappie in Lake X like a steady retrieve with an occasional twitch of the rod tip, but in Lake Y they prefer a lure that yo-yos up and down. The examples are endless — as are the different styles you can try, as you perfect your artful retrieves. 

— Published: June/July 2017

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