By Todd Ceisner
Justin Lucas remembers vividly his introduction to the swimbait craze.
He was a 16-year-old working at a tackle shop in Sacramento, Calif., when he heard how well-known California Delta angler Alan Fong had been catching largemouths at the Delta while targeting striped bass.
"He was throwing the Strike King Saltwater Flats jighead for redfish and putting a Fish Trap (swimbait) on it," Lucas said. "And he'd go out there and catch big largemouths while fishing for stripers with a big swimbait in the dead of winter."
It started opening some eyes, especially because any limit of bass in the low to mid teens at that time of year was considered a strong day, according to Lucas.
"It was really hard to catch fish at the Delta in the winter – super hard," he said. "He'd reel it over shallow grass beds in 4 feet on a jighead. Not long after that, it blew up at that tournament and everybody in California starting doing it."
That tournament Lucas referred to was the 2007 Clear Lake Elite Series, which turned into a swimbait slugfest that was won by Alabamian Steve Kennedy, who famously spent thousands on swimbaits during the Western swing that spring to bring back home.
Lucas was hooked and now the 27-year-old who calls Guntersville, Ala., home doesn't hit the water without at least two swimbait rods at the ready. Below, he shares some of his thoughts on when and where swimbaits can be effective and why he has the utmost confidence in them.
When and Where
The swimbait craze didn't take long to migrate across the country – all of the Top 5 finishers at Clear Lake in '07 were casting some sort of soft-plastic paddletail baitfish imitation. Fishing swimbaits has become a staple in most tournament anglers' repertoires and it's made winners out of several tour pros outside of California.
Lucas says it makes perfect sense.
"They catch the biggest fish in the lake because they look like the biggest forage in the lake," he said. "When it's the right conditions, nothing can touch it."
The conditions were just about right at the 2009 Lake Guntersville FLW Tour. Lucas was fishing as a co-angler then and got an up-close look at how effective a paddletail swimbait could be on the Tennessee River.
"It was the last day of practice, I remember getting with my boater and we had like 43 bites by 9 a.m. on a jighead Basstrix," he said. "They'd never seen it. It was like candy. It was unbelievable. And the water was like 46 degrees.
"Everywhere everybody was throwing a (Rat-L)-Trap through the grass, I just thought back to the Delta and how we'd fish in the winter. Instead of there being stripers, at Guntersville they're all bass so you're just sitting there reeling it over the grass beds just waiting for one to inhale it."
Over time, he's learned that it's not just a chilly-water bait. He'll throw it mostly during practice as more of a search bait, but he's found it's joined the ranks of baits that will catch bass from coast to coast.
"I throw it everywhere. It does not matter," he said. "You can throw them on main-lake points, in the backs of pockets, maybe across a point in a pocket.
"Maybe there's some grass out in the middle of a pocket like at Guntersville. You'll have clumps of isolated grass where you can go through and tick the top of that grass in the spring time."
Top to Bottom
While a swimbait Texas-rigged on a keel-weighted hook can lead to good results, Lucas prefers to fish them on jigheads. It all depends on the cover and conditions, though.
"I've caught them at Champlain on it, I've caught them at the Columbia River on it. It works everywhere," he said. "The only place where it's not a big factor is Florida because it's so shallow and a jighead doesn't work in that shallow grass. Other than that, it works everywhere."
He lets the depth of the water of where he thinks the fish may be suspended dictate how heavy a jighead he'll thread through his bait. An assortment of swimbait heads ranging from 1/4-ounce to 3/4-ounce will allow an angler to cover just about every section of the water column.
For baits in the 5- and 6-inch range, Lucas prefers a jighead built with a 5/0 hook, like the Owner Saltwater Bullet. For smaller baits (3 or 4 inches), a 3/0 hook should suffice. The Owner Inshore Head is one example.
"I'll throw a 1/4-ounce for anything 5 feet or less or under floating docks over 20 feet," he said. "The 1/4-ounce is great for skipping under docks or when the fish are relating to shade. Plus, it's something that gets down below the floats and they can look up and see it."
He covers 8 to 15 feet with the 1/2-ounce and ties on a 3/4-ounce version when the fish are 15 feet or deeper.
Swimbaits are like most other baits in that they can be more effective under certain conditions. Like Lucas said, they can be a year-round fish-catcher, but his ideal day for heaving swimbaits would be a sunny day with a mild breeze.
"Everybody's like, 'You need a nasty, cloudy, rainy day,'" he said. "My best days have come on sunny, clear days because a swimbait isn't a bait that makes a lot of vibration or noise like a crankbait. On a sunny day, there's still enough light penetrating the water that the fish can see it from down below."
And that's when bass, whether they're schooled up or holding to cover, can be tricked into biting.
"Fish eat a swimbait from down below. They attack it upward," he explained. "When it's a clear day with clean water, they can see it from a good distance away and they're not afraid to come after it when there's a breeze on the water. When there's less of a breeze, the more followers you'll see."
Lucas prefers soft-plastic paddletails to the hulking, jointed hard-body swimbaits that are also popular out West.
"Your standard 4-, 5- or 6-inch plastic swimbaits are the ones that win the multiple-day tournaments," he says. "The hard baits will win the 1-day tournaments. Jointed hard-bodies have a very small window where they work and it can vary by lake."
While there are dozens of versions on the market, he favors the Keitech Swing Impact FAT 3.8 and 4.8 models along with virtually any paddletail swimmer. Gear wise, he recommends a 7'6" heavy-action Lamiglas rod (to be released this fall) paired with an Abu Garcia Revo SX (6.4:1 ratio) reel spooled with 12- to 17-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line line.
In open-water scenarios or around grass, he'll use a jighead, while around thicker grass or laydowns, a Texas-rigged swimbait is the way to go. Under both sets of conditions, be sure to vary the retrieve.
"Every cast, I'll give it a pop or a jerk, something two or three times," he said. "In my mind, I'm just picturing a fish following my bait just like when I grew up at Clear Lake watching them follow it. That jerk or twitch is when they snap."
Swimbaits have helped Lucas build confidence on the water, whether it's during practice or in the heat of a tournament, and it's an application that can certainly turn a slow day into a great one provided the conditions are right.
"What it taught me about fishing when I was growing up going to Clear Lake and the Delta was that even if you're not getting bites, you'll normally see fish following it," he said. "It'll teach you where they're living. Even if they're not biting it, it's no big deal. I don't need them to bite if I'm practicing. If I have to go back through with plastics or whatever, that's fine. It's one of the best search baits ever made. You just throw it out and reel it in. All of the action is built in. You don't have to work it too much. There are a few little tricks, but you don't have to do much.
"It's the most realistic looking bait out of anything we throw. Fish eat shad all year and it's probably the reason I love throwing it. There's still definitely some trickery, but you want to be throwing what looks most natural."