By CAPT. MEL BERMAN, 970-WFLA
Most fishing enthusiasts are weird. They drag around gargantuan tackle boxes, packed so tightly with lures they can hardly get the darned thing closed. Yet, if subjected to a reality check, I could put our most used artificials in a tackle box small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. So why do I show up for fishing trips lugging a tackle box loaded with every possession I own that is related to our waterborne diversion? My theory is that I anglers have an insecurity. It’s a basic instinct that’s even more compelling than Sharon Stone’s. I want to be ready for the fish with exactly the right lure, in the right size, in the right color, in the right shape, in the right depth of operation, making the right noise, with the right wiggle, the right castability, the right action, and all the other variables that go into the “right stuff” of artificial baits. Never mind that, before the trip is over, I retreat to that old “sure thing” lure after a few impatient throws of the new stuff.
Yet I insist on spending those sweat-earned dollars for an endless array of what I perceive as “silver bullets” — baits that will ostensibly transform us into burgeoning Bill Dances.
Most seasoned fishing experts, however, always advise starting off with the time tested favorites… lures that have earned their place in most tackle boxes on the simple premise that they consistently catch fish.
Therefore, I present for your consideration a series of flats fishing lures that, when worked properly and under the appropriate conditions, will produce gratifying results. I also will describe specifically how to work them so that you can achieve optimum results. For your convenience, they have been categorized into specific groups of lure types. Each product has been extensively field tested by this writer, and are only included when they pass muster as a consistent fish-catcher. Just remember though, the other dimensions of Iather, tides, and other conditions could very Ill be an inhibiting factor in your success rate even with these proven lures.. Nevertheless, I believe that if you persist with these winners, give them half a chance, I feel confident that you should soon be hitting “fishing home runs.”
THE GOOD OLD JIG
To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “a jig is a jig is a jig.” In fact there is nary a jig that won’t catch fish. It is undoubtedly one of the most effective all around fishing lures. Though there are countless variations of this basic design, all are basically worked in the same manner. One simply flips it out, lets it drop, twitches it upward, lets it drop again. This procedure is repeated several times until it is retrieved back to the angler’s fishing position. Some fishermen enjoy a great measure of success by simply casting the jig out and slowly reeling it in, without jigging. This is especially effective using shad and curly tail style tails, which tend to have their own action. Others like to work a jig in mid-water column, twitching it as you would a plug.
Subtle differences in jig head design and color is one way manufacturers trump their competitors. The Cotee “Liv Eyes’ jig head has a slightly flat profile that imparts an enticing “screw-tail action,” To this day, it is ranked a favorite with legions of experienced anglers. Yet, there are other fishing enthusiasts who sIar by the more traditional “cannon-ball” shaped jig heads, like those offered by Bubba, Love’s Lures and 12-Fathom Jigs.
There are several tail styles, including the shad, eel, swirl, and the grub tail. The later has a unique spiral drop, and when slowly walked across the bottom, looks uncannily like a shrimp. Shad tails have their own wiggle, and require minimal jigging on the part of the angler to catch fish, and are great “starter lures” for the novice. The same could be said about the swirl tails, which are basically a grub-shaped tail, with a curl of plastic attached to its rear.
Many old hands recommend that you set aside the urge to buy those bright, blazing colors. Experience has shown that the drab motor-oil or root beer colors are the most prolific producers. Gold or silver metal flake tails work Ill under bright, sunny fishing conditions. The darker colors, like green, root beer, etc., excel in dark water or low light, overcast days. Some fishing enthusiasts will doggedly stick with a white or pearl tail, with red jig head. Why? Because it could look like a bleeding bait to the target species and, of greater import, they always seem to catch loads of fish with this combo.
A favorite with snook fishers is the 12-Fathom’s tiger-striped jig tail. Available in silver, gold, green and red, these striped tails apparently emulate chubs or kilifish, one of the snook’s favorite forage species. Worked slowly across the bottom of deep passes and canals, these striped plastic tails can also be irresistible to reds, trout and most other shallow running sportfish.
Another favorite is the “The Bubba Silver Flash.” Here is a clear curly tail grub, loaded with an overdose of sparkling metalflakes. This wiggly, sparkly jig tail, gyrating and flashing through the water, has proven irresistible to most species, especially snook. Bubba also markets some unusual colored tails, like “pumpkinseed,” brown with dark flecks in it… “green tomatoes,” green with a red core, and an interesting variety of other colors. Bubbas are all made of a softer texture that seems to be irresistible to most fish.
The popular Love’s Lures Tandem is the epitome of a “user-friendly” jig. It is an ideal lure for fishing beginners, because it will catch fish with minimum effort. Comprised of twin 3/32 ounce heads, fitted with either a specially designed grub or swirl tail, the Love’s Lures tandem comes in a great variety of colors. Each jig head is so light, it drops very slowly, permitting its use over the shallowest of grass flats, yet it has excellent castability. The Love’s Lures Tandem is an outstanding “starter lure,” but will frequently be found in the tackle boxes of seasoned anglers.
The tandem jig is not the only successful Love’s Lures bait. A few years ago, Bill Love and his son Steve, took that same 3/32 ounce, light I jig head, added a small cork, about 15 inches of the leader, and dubbed it the “Float ‘N Jig.” Because of this unique design, the Love’s Lures Float ‘N Jig can be worked conveniently in the “skinniest” of water Definitely not a finesse bait, Steve Love works it with such a violent action, you’d swear he’d never catch anything. Yet, he’ll invariably outfish most everyone with his unorthodox action.
Here’s how to work the Love’s Lures Float ‘N Jig. Flip it out… wait a moment or two as the jig drops. Then, with a sharp upward movement of the rod, the cork makes a loud slurping sound. Steve Love claims it is that sound, like a hungry fish feeding frenzy on the surface, that entices most species. Steve and his dad have landed numerous seatrout, including several “gator-sized” lunkers up to 29 inches. The Float ‘N Jig is also quite effective for snook and redfish, but it seems to be one lure that seatrout absolutely can’t resist.
VARIATIONS ON THE JIG
Some years back, Mark Nichols of Stuart invented an artificial shrimp that really worked. The “DOA” not only looked like a shrimp, but emulated an action that, from a fish’s perspective, appeared to be the real McCoy. The original DOA Shrimp did produce good results, but many anglers simply didn’t care for the excruciatingly slow retrieve it required. Then last year, Nichols Int back to the drawing boards and re-engineered his DOA Shrimp. He
made it slightly heavier, added a standard single hook and impregnated the plastic body with real, pond raised shrimp. The result is a bait that’s far more user friendly, and catches fish with even greater competence. As a matter of fact, many anglers now grade the new DOA Scented Shrimp as their most effective lure.
Many anglers catch lots of fish by walking the DOA Shrimp across the bottom, employing an occasional light twitch to emulate a shrimp dodging a predator. The favorite color by far is the natural, light beige that looks so very much like a real shrimp. Others have also had good success with gold glitter and white. There are also darker colors, including root beer, and various shades of green and chartreuse.
Many of my expert fishing friends would say that, were they restricted to just one lure, they’d choose a simple ¼ oz gold spoon. Many of us concur with this selection. Most agree that there is no more effective “redfish finder.” Their design is quite simple, comprised of a traditional 1¾” blade, fitted with a split ring and treble hook. Love’s Lures has added a split ring and barrel swivel to the top of their “Lovin Spoonful.” This gives it a bit more buoyancy, enhancing its shallow water use. It also adds an enticing side-to-side wiggle, and helps minimize annoying line twist. Most other brands can be fitted with this split ring/barrel swivel set-up and modest cost.
Though I favor the ¼-ounce variety I do not want to denigrate all other small spoons on the market. There is a huge cadre of successful anglers who have made their reputations landing fish with such favorites as the Johnson’s Silver Minnow, Bubba, Gator, and Hobo Spoons, plus many others brands.
Spoons are also among the easiest of lures to use. Simply cast it out, and retrieve slowly as possible, keeping it just below the water’s surface. In shallow water, it is best to close the bail before the spoon lands, and start reeling immediately. Even a novice, who’s not familiar with the use of artificials, can easily entice a fish to strike with this highly productive, basic lure.
Harold LeMaster was a genius. When he invented the original MirrOlure 52-M in the 1950s, he came up with what many consider the quintessential plug. Most MirrOlures share a unique design feature that sets them apart from the other hard baits. In order to emulate the brilliant flash of a forage fish, Harold LeMaster added a silver or gold foil inside their plastic body. As they are worked, MirrOlures pick up the sun and glint in the same way the scales of a baitfish might. Over the years, this design has proven to be a highly effective. Unlike plugs which have their own wiggle when reeled in, most MirrOlures require the angler to twitch the bait, providing a wide range of actions that can be tailored to the targeted species and fishing conditions. Once mastered, most anglers tend to eschew the use of crank-type baits in favor of these versatile twitch baits. There are many other equally effective twitch type plugs, such as the Bagley Finger Mullet, Trader Bay’s teakwood plugs, Bomber Mullet, the Dalton Special, and dozens of others. I’m certain you could add a number of your own favorites to the list.
Here’s how most experienced anglers get work these twitchers. Flipping the plug out, take up most of the slack, and with a slight wrist movement, twitch the lure with the rod tip. With most topwaters, the twitch pulls the lure slightly below the surface. After the twitch, lift the rod tip to provide a measured amount of line slack, allowing the plug to rise to the surface. Repeat the whole process several times until the bait is finally to the boat. For the most part, the reel is used exclusively for taking up line. It is the rod tip that imparts the action.
Recently there has been a great deal of crossover between fresh and saltwater artificials. Most significantly are the so-called soft baits. Among the first to make the journey was the Culprit Jerkworm. This was followed by the Cotee Reel Magic, the 12-Fathom Flats Floater, DOA Baitbuster and several others.
These soft twitchers have proven to be irresistible to virtually every back bay sport fish. The majority are “Texas rigged” using a large worm hook hidden in the body cavity. This creates a major advantage for those who frequently fish through grass or other potential snags.
The down side for these soft twitch baits is that the fish must bite through the soft plastic before it is snared. In most instances, the enthusiasm of a strike, the fish will clamp down on the hook through the plastic. On those occasions when they bite with less vigor, many anglers let the worm hook dangle along side the soft plastic body, or rig it on an ordinary jig head.
The DOA “Baitbuster” is already set up with a husky 6/O hook which protrudes from its finger mullet shaped, scent impregnated plastic body. The Baitbuster is worked with short twitches, separated by pauses and straight reeling. Many anglers achieve good results twitching it violently across the water’s surface.
The 12-Fathom “Flats Floater” could very Ill be classified in the Jig category, but it also shares some of the characteristics with the soft twitch baits. It’s basically comprised of a very light head with a large jig tail attached. It is highly effective for shallow grass flats fishing, staying right on the water’s surface as its worked. The angler simply casts it out and gently twitches it in. The Flats Floater darts back and forth across the water, emulating a wounded baitfish.
Stick baits are a variation of the twitch bait. The main difference is that they are fitted with weighted tails causing the plug to sit upright, or “stick” up. Worked across the water’s surface, stick baits switch back and forth… what a lot of seasoned anglers call “walkin’ the dog.” This erratic action and the accompanying splashing is quite intriguing for most species and fish become either curious or even angry at this wild “wounded bait” that invades their line of vision. Most strikes are vicious and it is not uncommon for the fish to be hooked along the side of its head as it angrily attacks the lure. Among the most popular stick baits are the venerable Heddon Zara Spook, Norman Rat’lure, MirrOlure 97 M and 95 M, Rebel Jumpin’ Minnow, and the Ozark Woodwalker.
For the most part these stick baits are twitched with the rod tip held high, using a rapid wrist action, dancing it violently across the water’s surface. A light, longish rod works best. Toss one of these stick baits at the base of a mangrove or near a school of tailing redfish. Then walk that lure crazily on the waters surface. Crank slowly so that the splashing, walking action is sustained as long as possible and the fish gets a good bead on it. Other expert fishers have also had considerable success with an opposite technique, twitching slowly, working it similar to the standard twitcher type plugs.
When one refers to “crank baits,” most generally picture the bulbous, big lipped plugs, ala the Rebel-R, Rapala Fat Rap, Norman’s Deep Baby, Bomber Model A, etc. However, I have taken the liberty of broadening the definition of crank baits to include many of the plugs which have their own action when “cranked” in by the angler. Admittedly, Ire I to be true to this definition, the entire array of spoons, mentioned earlier, would fall into this general category. Yet, most would agree that spoons rightly deserve their own special classification.
By far, the most popular “crank bait” in the country is the Bill Lewis Rattle Trap. There is one cogent reason why this rattling lure and all its first cousins from various manufactu
rers, are held in such high esteem… most fish go nuts when one wiggles and rattles by. There are several versions of this popular type of bait, including the Rattlin’ Rapala, Strike King Diamond Shad, Cordell Super Spot and Rattlin’ Spot, Bagley’s Chatter Shad, etc. Yet, the champ in this category is the widely used Rattle Trap. It’s not just a tribute to Bill Lewis Lures marketing prowess, it’s simply that Rattle Traps perform better than most crankers. All brands come in a great variety of styles, from deep sinkers to shallow rattlers, to fresh and salt water versions, in a tremendous array of colors.
It’s not brain surgery to effectively work this bait type. Simply toss it out and wind it back in. Many anglers like an extremely fast retrieve. Other like it “low and slow.” It’s your call as to which technique produces the optimal results. Then there are those with twitchy fingers, who can’t resist giving it a kick or two upon retrieving. All techniques seem to work. It’s basically that loud rattle and the shiny wiggle of the lure going by that suckers the fish to bite. Of course, for flats fishing, I would choose the shallow running salt water versions. Just one word of caution however… even though these rattlers are designed for shallow water usage, they’re not topwater plugs. When you cast it out in 2 feet or less, you’d better click the bail shut before the lure hits the water. Then, keeping the rod tip up, start working it immediately before it grabs a clump of grass. With these precautions in mind you’ll find the widely used Rattle Trap type lure to be an outstanding and productive crank bait choice.
Around the west coast of Florida, the most popular self wiggling lure for flats fishing is the Bomber Long-A series. Suncoast anglers prefer the mid-sized 3½-inch 14-AX, or 4½-inch 15-AX series. It too comes equipped with rattles that are designed to emulate the sound of fish feeding or bait busting the surface. The rattles have a remarkable impact on the lure’s effectiveness. As for colors, virtually everyone gravitates toward the red head-silver body or gold color plugs. Bombers have the ability to draw violent strikes from big reds, snook, cobia, outsized trout, and other flats species.
There are many variations of the Bomber Long-A. The Bill Lewis “Slapstick” is a stick-type crank bait that sits upright in the water, and has an action that, as the Bill Lewis ad says, “drives the fish slap crazy!”
Other longish lipped bait sharing similar characteristics include the Bagley Bang-O-Lure and Top Gun, Rapala Balsa Minnow, Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue, Rebel Windcheater, and a host of others. All are worked the same. Deploying all these lipped baits in shallow water, you must close the bail just before it drops down to the water’s surface. Then begin reeling without delay. Again, a slight twitch every few cranks is also an option with these plugs.
I trust you won’t mind, but here is a classification that I’ve taken the liberty of naming. The designation, “slurp” bait, pretty much describes how they work. Splishing and splashing their way across the water’s surface, the lures are said to emulate fish in a feeding frenzy, a wounded bait, a terrorized school of baits, or whatever your own speculation conjures up. These slurp baits seem to arouse the curious attention of most species. Generally speaking, they strike more with anger than with hunger.
There are two basic versions of slurp baits. One is the “chugger” type plug with a flat surface on the front that chugs through the water as it’s worked. A typical example is the the MirrOlure 12-M or Rebel Pop-R plug. Others are designed with spinner blades on the tail and/or the nose. These include the the new MirrOprop, Bagley Bang-O-Lure, MirrOlure 5-M and 26-M, and Smithwick Devils Horse. Many of these slurps are a combination of both features, like or the Bagley Chug-A-lure and Luhr Jenson’s “Jerkin’ Sam.” To be sure, there are dozens of other spinner blade/chugger slurp baits that are equally as effective.
Generally speaking, these baits are worked in a hesitating patter. Cast it out.. slurp it… then retrieve slack… slurp… retrieve slack… and so on. Somehow larger seatrout, redfish and snook are suckers for these splashy lures. It takes a bit of practice, but with patience, you should be able to make these slurp baits talk to the fish.
A Few Final Thoughts and Suggestions
In 98% of your fishing activities, especially with artificials, there is no need to use barbed hooks. Most of us are heavily into catch and release fishing, and, with mashed-down barbs fish can be released with very little harm. Barbs are basically essential for keeping live bait on the hook. On artificial baits, this is not required. Therefore, I would urge you to crimp the barbs on all hooks. So long as you keep a good tension, you should not notice any drop in production. Many anglers, myself included, also try removing one or two of the trebles on plugs, or replacing them with single hooks. Each plug performs differently, and you’ll have to do a little experimentation with these alternative hook configurations. The main mission, however, is make sure that the fish I release will live to fight another day.
Finally, I have a serious confession to make. Given the choice between using artificials or live baits, I will invariably choose those multi-colored imitations every time. Now I know what you’re about to say, one can land more fish with the live stuff. Nevertheless, I will have a much more interesting and challenging day of fishing with my ersatz baits. I can “broadcast” the lures, covering a wider range of a given area than you can “drowning a shrimp.” Because of this versatility, I believe that I can frequently outfish live bait anglers. Try the techniques described above for the various categories of lures. Give them a reasonably decent chance to do their thing. Once that big lunker crashes on a topwater your days of live bait fishing could very Ill be numbered.