Saltwater Swimbait Tactics
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Tap-tap-tug. The tell-tale take of a tarpon was unmistakable, but not unexpected. After all, fishing partner Danny Torres and I had been pinning swimbaits in the maws of 3- to 4-foot tarpon for over an hour at this point. However, seconds after setting the hook on this particular `poon, I realized this was no 4-footer.

As 12-pound test poured from the spool, Danny jumped behind the console of my skiff, cranked the engine and gave chase. Since we had been fishing for juvenile tarpon and snook, I was woefully undergunned on this 6-foot-plus fish. The lengthy - and exciting - fight culminated with the inevitable parting of the line and the fish swam free.

Unfortunately, the last swimbait I had on my person was still stuck in its jaw.

This scenario is typical of what I've come to expect while throwing swimbaits in salt water. We had already tempted a mixed bag of jack crevalle, kingfish, small tarpon and snook with our 3 1/2-inch swimbaits before my massive tarpon struck, proving once again any species that counts small finfish among its dietary needs will strike swimbaits.

At times catching fish on swimbaits involves little more than casting and reeling. Other times, a more deft touch is needed. However, even at times like these anglers can still score big on swimbaits, provided they have a few tricks up the sleeves of their casting shirts.

Many days, catching fish on swimbaits really does involve nothing more than casting and reeling. And, since this simple technique is so often effective, it should be considered the `go-to' means of retrieving swimbaits. The simplicity of this approach also makes a swimbait as close to a `no-brainer' bait as one is likely to find in salt water. For this reason alone, swimbaits are ideally suited for children and inexperienced lure fishermen.

Of course, even the tried and true `pitch and catch' method allows for some variance. Anglers have two basic means for varying this retrieve - the speed they crank the reel and the amount of time they allow the bait to fall before beginning to reel.

The primary principal of this technique is that the retrieve is at a constant speed. That speed, however, can vary. In a nutshell, reeling faster will cause the bait to swim higher in the water column, while slowing the rate of retrieve will cause it to swim closer to the bottom. Anglers should begin with a medium speed retrieve and vary from that point until it is determined what speed produces the most strikes.

Anglers can also adjust the retrieve by varying the time they allow the bait to fall before beginning the retrieve. In order to be effective, it is handy to know how fast a plug falls. Some baits are factory rated for a certain decent rate in either inches per second (IPS) or feet per second (FPS). Most baits, though, are not.  One of the simplest ways to determine this with a new plug is to drop it directly below the boat in a known depth of water. Simply count how long it takes to fall this known distance, then apply that scale to your casts.

Although this technique may strike some as `too simple,' it is extremely effective. In fact, for some species, such as tarpon, this steady retrieve is absolutely the odds-on means to make them strike.

Very similar to the `pitch and catch' retrieve, slow rolling is a technique utilized by bass anglers for years. This approach is particularly productive when the water is off-colored or the fish are slightly sluggish.

To execute the `slow roll,' simply cast the swimbait and allow it to fall until it contacts the bottom or the top of structure such as oyster or grass. From there, crank the bait just fast enough to keep it slightly above the bottom and/or structure.

Slow rolling is even more effective when a paddletail swimbait such as the Creme Spoiler Shad is employed. The back and forth `kick' of the paddletail produces fish-attracting vibration, which helps fish locate the bait in low visibility conditions.

Also meant to utilize a paddletail swimbait, `boiling water' is “the same, but different” from slow rolling. In this instance, the retrieve should begin as soon as the bait hits the water. The angler should reel at a speed that causes the bait to `wake' just below the surface. If done properly, the tail will also `boil' water behind the bait as it moves through the water.

This technique is most productive when fishing over grassflats. Redfish and seatrout that are buried in the grass often can't resist taking a swipe at this noisy bait as it passes overhead. It is also effective for covering water filled with aggressive fish. Whether it,s jacks or reds, bluefish or Spanish mackerel, if the fish are feeding the sound and feel of a bulging, boiling swimbait will draw them from an impressive distance.

When fishing tight to cover - vertical or horizontal - it is often helpful to `bang around' a bit. Just as the name implies, the hit and run retrieve involves hitting the structure with the lure, then causing it to `run away' by reeling quickly.

To bang horizontal structure such as jetty rocks or oyster beds, allow the bait to drop behind it by dipping the rod tip. Then, sweep the rod parallel to the water, which will result in the bait contacting the structure. Immediately lift the rod to a `high stick' position and reel the bait safely above the object. The fish will most often hit the bait as it rises above the structure.

In order to ram vertical structure such as bridge or dock pilings, simply direct the bait with your rod tip. Once the lure has made contact with the structure, reverse the direction of pull so that it swims away from the object.

This particular retrieve is extremely useful for anglers targeting snook, mangrove snapper or other cover seeking species.

Another retrieve that is useful for tempting fish that are holding tight to cover is the `sliding down the pole' retrieve. Actually, this retrieve involves doing very little other than taking advantage of the lures' ability to plunge nearly vertically through the water column.

In order to effectively employ this technique, anglers should choose thin profile, straight-tail swimbaits. To execute this retrieve, pitch the bait as close as possible to a piece of vertical structure and allow it to fall on a semi-slack line.

The goal is to allow the lure to fall to the bottom without swinging away from the structure. However, the line cannot be completely slack, as suspended fish often hit the lure during the descent and some tension is necessary in order to detect the strike. But beware, too much tension will cause the lure to pendulum back toward the angler, negating the desired effect.

Another simple, yet effective retrieve. Again, the name says it all. This technique is essentially vertically jigging with a swimbait. It can be effectively used to take a variety of species when they are suspended in relatively deep water.

To be effective, all the angler must do is drop the lure straight down from a drifting or anchored boat. Allow the lure to hit the bottom, then reel it back up to the depth the fish are thought to be holding. From that point, a methodical up-and-down lifting motion is all that's necessary to entice strikes.

This technique is effective both in open water as well as when fishing tight quartered vertical structure.

When fishing marsh drains, bayous or creek mouths, inshore anglers can employ a retrieve similar to a freshwater fly fisherman's nymphing technique. To execute, cast across current and raise the rod tip to a `high stick' position. Allow a belly to form in the line. Eventually, the belly will begin dragging the lure down-current, giving it the appearance of swimming out with the water flow. This is an effective retrieve for striper, snook, tarpon, redfish or any species that routinely stages at the opening of such outflows awaiting an easy meal.

Though it is no more glamorous than the name implies, dredging the bay floor is sometimes necessary - especially when targeting flounder. If flatties are the subject of your angling activities, select a heavy (1/2-ouce or larger) swimbait, cast it out and allow it to fall to the bottom.

Since most swimbaits are `keel weighted' - meaning the weight is concentrated in their `belly' as opposed to their head - they tend to slide across the bottom in an upright position. When drug over a soft-bottom, they will also kick up a fish-attracting mud trail.

In order to be effective, anglers should be slow and methodical with their retrieves. And, especially when fishing for flounder, it is helpful to make many more casts than you think may be necessary, essentially covering as much bay floor as possible.

Obviously, these are not the only ways in which swimbaits can be retrieved. And, although each of these techniques has served me well, I continue to experiment with other methods. So, next time you find yourself questioning your lure selection following repeated empty casts, rather than clipping the line on one of the most versatile salt water lures available, try a little experimentation of your own. You just may be surprised to see what swims over to swallow your swimbait.

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