Soft Plastic Fishing Lures

Story and Photos By Lenny Rudow

The number of options in the soft-plastic-lure category is staggering. Here's how to narrow down your choices and get fish on your hook.

Vudu shrimp lureSome soft plastics, like this shrimp, are molded to closely resemble a specific prey species.

Since their introduction 50 years ago, soft plastic lures have taken over tons of territory in our tackle boxes. But with literally tens of thousands to choose from, how will you make the best pick?

Flipping through a catalog of soft plastic lures is like reading a laundry list of the creepy-crawly things nightmares are made of: Leeches, lizards, maggots, and grubs fill those pages. There are even some lures merely categorized as "creatures," with names like Crazy Legs Chigger Craw, Twister Mite, and Hyper Freak. Cabela's lists more than 625 different styles and brands of soft plastic lures, which are available, on average, in 12 different color patterns and three different sizes. That's about 22,500 total choices! Bass Pro Shops lists 776 different styles and brands, Amazon posts 8,079 choices, and eBay shows a shocking 54,513 listings for "soft plastic fishing baits." How can you possibly know which ones to buy?

True, some obvious parameters will pare down the list. Even though soft plastics are effective on virtually all species, you'd never choose a 2-inch tube jig designed for 8-inch crappie when your target species is a 40-inch tuna swimming in the ocean, for example. Nor would you use a foot-long plastic squid intended to fool tuna while in pursuit of those crappie. So tens of thousands of choices may realistically boil down to a few hundred.

Berkley Gulp lureScrew tails, like this Berkley Gulp, corkscrew through the water as they move, providing plenty of action without any additional input from the angler.

Still, how in the heck can any one angler be expected to know which soft plastic will be the best choice on any given day? Truth be told, he or she can't. But that's one of the beautiful things about fishing — there are very few hard-and-fast rules, and you never really know for a fact what the very best lure du jour is going to be until the fish start chowing down on whatever you've decided to hitch to the end of your line.

There are, however, some rules of thumb that savvy anglers keep in mind. These soft plastic facts won't prove true 100 percent of the time. But if you apply them to your future fishing trips, it's a sure bet that overall, your catch rate will soar.

Size Matters

Picking out the correctly sized soft plastic lure boils down to an old saying you've surely heard before: Match the hatch. If the fish are feeding on 6-inch bunker, a 3-inch and/or a 12-inch offering may well go untouched. But there's more to this story. Beyond simply offering the fish a lure that's similarly sized to what they want to eat, you also have to take four important size-related factors into account: the depth of the fish, the speed of your retrieve, sink rate, and hook size.

The first three of these factors are related, because the depth your lure probes will be affected not only by its size and weight but also by how long you let it fall and by how quickly you reel it back to the boat. So you need to consider each of these factors both individually and taken together.

Assuming we start with a neutrally buoyant plastic, size matters because larger baits will have more water resistance. Thus they sink more slowly — and when retrieved, will rise more quickly — than smaller plastics fished with an equal amount of weight. Shape also has an effect in this regard, because long, narrow, pencil-shaped plastics weighted at one end with a jig head or a split shot will sink faster than lures with a fat or broad body. So when fish are sitting dead on bottom in 40 feet of water, a large, fat plastic will be more difficult to keep close to the strike zone than a small, slender one. Conversely, if the fish are feeding at the surface (again, with the weight being equal) a fast-sinking lure may fall below their level too quickly to be noticed.

Sassy shad lureThe Sassy Shad from Mister Twister — one of the oldest soft plastic lure makers around — is a classic paddle tail.

Then consider the speed of your retrieve. If water temperatures are high and fish that are down deep want a fast, active offering, choosing a slender lure that stays deep longer becomes all that more important. Otherwise, as you crank your reel to create the fast action the fish want, the lure will rise quickly through the water column and leave the target area that much faster. A lure with a rapid sink rate will help in this situation, too, since you can pause from time to time to allow the lure to get back down deep.

Now let's talk about sink rate. Wait a sec — didn't we just do that? Well, yes and no. We've delved into how sink rate affects the amount of time your lure spends at the depth you're targeting, but we haven't considered the visual appeal of that lure as it falls. And in many cases, fish attack a lure as it sinks rather than attacking it as it streaks through the water.

Boone squid lureFish of all species fall for soft plastics.

Some fish in some places at some times will hit a quickly sinking lure, others want one with a slower sink, and in some cases, they strike best at lures that flutter erratically down through the water. So you need to think about how a plastic's sinking qualities will affect both the depth at which you're fishing and also the likelihood of a fish being attracted to the lure by the way it sinks.

Finally, we need to add hook size into the equation. In many cases, this is a variable you can easily control simply by choosing the hook or lead-head size. But not always. Many modern soft plastics are molded with a hook, sometimes weighted and sometimes not weighted, inside the plastic itself. This allows you to tie them directly to your line as opposed to using a jig head or rigging a separate hook, and often, these lures are a good choice. But if their hooks are inappropriately sized to the jaws of the fish you're trying to catch, you may suddenly discover that a large number of the soft plastics in your tackle box are poor choices for the situation at hand.

The solution is simple: While these prehooked plastics do have a place in your arsenal, you shouldn't depend on them for complete coverage. Every angler who uses soft plastics should have a selection of tails, hooks, and jig heads or split shot that allows you to mix, match, and even semi-customize your offering so they can be adapted to different situations on the fly.

Shaping The Debate

Along with size and color patterns, the shape of a plastic lure has a huge impact on where and when it will prove effective. Setting aside plastics that are molded to mirror a live creature, like worms, crickets, or leeches, there's a number of standard-issue plastic shapes with which you need to be familiar: paddle tails and fish tails, designed to "swim" through the water when steadily being retrieved; screw tails, which corkscrew through the water as they're retrieved; and straight tails, which "swim" when the angler adds action by jerking the rod tip a bit.

The first two types don't need much added input from the angler and are ideal for use by beginners. Simply hand them the rod, teach them how to cast out and reel in, and they have a good shot at hooking up. Paddle tails may have an advantage in that many anglers believe the thrumming that the tail creates as it wigwags back and forth generates vibrations that fish can home in on. The downside to paddle tails, however, is that if you try to impart added action by working your rod tip, many of these lures will turn sideways or wobble in an unnatural way.

In some circumstances, screw tails have a different advantage in that they not only create some action merely by moving through the water but that you can also add a lot of action by jerking the rod tip as you retrieve, with no ill effects.

Bass Kandy Delight lureStraight tails, like this Bass Kandy Delight, require some added input from the angler to be effective — but they're among the most versatile soft plastics on the market.

Straight tails, however, require some serious finesse on the part of the angler. If you simply retrieve these lures at a steady pace, they'll look more or less like a stick moving through the water; the angler has to give the rod tip rhythmic pumps and twitches to make the lure come alive. Done properly, the extra work is worth the effort. It's possible to make a straight tail swim, dance, and look completely animated underwater. And thanks to its long, slender, fast-sinking shape, it's more versatile than many other soft plastics.

Beyond these three basic shapes and the plastics molded to look like living creatures, there are a plethora of plastics that have unique and rather wacky shapes and appendages. Remember those "creatures" we mentioned earlier, like the Crazy Legs Chigger Craw? They most certainly resist easy categorization. That's not to say that they won't be effective at certain times, in certain places. But for most anglers, when they're armed with the knowledge above, trying to choose the best soft plastic lure won't be such a nightmare.

The Color Conundrum

Floures green lureSimple solid and two-tone color combinations are generally effective.

We hope that back in the December issue you read "Lures From The Fish's Point Of View," which delved into the best practices for choosing the proper color of lure on any given day. While all the factors discussed in that article hold true, when it comes to soft plastics, there's an added twist: Many are molded with radical color variations, flecks of glitter, and other visual enhancements embedded in the plastic.

How should this affect your choices? For starters, remember that the vast majority of fishing lures are designed first and foremost to attract fishermen, not fish. Lure companies exist to make a profit, and if they can sell more lures by inventing some zany-looking color pattern and giving it a catchy name like Electric Chicken or Pepper Frog (both real examples), they will. Don't be taken in by these wacky creations, and remember that what grabs your eye in the tackle shop isn't necessarily what will fool the fish into striking.

That's not to say that some crazy-looking lure with bubblegum pink swirling through black and red checkers will never prove effective; you never know what's going to work. By all means, give Electric Chicken a try. (Though we note that different manufacturers use this name to describe color patterns ranging from pink and green to red and blue to solid lavender with polka dots). But as a rule of thumb, solids and two-tone color combinations that look more or less normal, often coupled with jig heads that add contrast, are more likely to be effective than the wacky stuff. 

— Published: June/July 2017

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