— By Chris Nelson
A swimbait isn’t a lure you pick up and chuck for a few casts when nothing else is working. It’s a lure that requires commitment and, dare I say, patience. But, it’s an absolute assassin.
I started using swimbaits the mid-1990s after watching a buddy, who wasn’t a great fisherman at the time, spank walleyes and white bass with them in a backwater of the Missouri River. He gave me a few Mister Twister Sassy Shads, and I was off and running.
Since then I’ve logged tens of thousands of casts with them and caught almost every species of fish naturally inclined to strike such a lure. Here’s a snapshot of what I’ve learned along the way.
Why Swimbaits Work
I’m not a fish, but I assume swimbaits work because they look and feel like prey. This, along with my belief that fish are opportunists looking for easy calories, is why swimbaits are so effective.
Some swimbaits resemble narrow prey, such as river shiners, while others have a wider profile and mimic shad, bluegill or other baitfish. Depending on what the fish are eating, there’s a swimbait body type to match it.
A swimbait not only looks like a small fish but also displaces water like one. Fish can sense through their lateral lines the bulkiness of the swimbait as it pushes through the water and the vibration of the “paddle” or “boot” tail. When fish see and feel a swimbait, I’m guessing millions of years of evolutionary adaptation tell them lunch is served.
Finally, I think the squishiness of a soft-plastic swimbait adds to its effectiveness. When a fish inhales it, the body compresses like a real baitfish would, possibly convincing the fish to hold onto it longer. I question whether you get that kind of a commitment with a hardbait.
I divide swimbait variables into five categories: length, color, ribbing or no ribbing on the body, tail type, and width. Because I throw mainly smaller baits in the 3- to 5-inch range, I don’t use hollow-body swimbaits very often, so for this discussion I’ll exclude them as a variable.
Length depends on the size of the fish you’re after. Assuming you’re chasing eater-size walleye or smallmouth, it’s hard to go wrong with a 3.75-inch bait. This is the go-to size that I throw 90 percent of the time, give or take a quarter-inch (which can vary by name brand).
The 3.75-inch bait has three major advantages. First, it’s a great size for casting. It’s light enough to cast on spinning tackle yet heavy enough to throw on a baitcaster. Second, it’s the correct size to work on a variety of jighead styles. Finally, it’s right-sized, meaning it’s not big enough to dissuade a 15-inch walleye from striking but big enough to make it worthwhile for a 30-incher to give chase.
When it comes to color, as far as I’m concerned there are way too many out there. I use three colors: white, white/grey and white/black. Of these, I throw white most of the time. If you fish clear to moderately stained water, it’s hard to beat these basic baitfish colors.
When it comes to ribbing or no ribbing on the body, I opt for ribbing. I believe it puts out more pulse for a fish’s lateral line to pick up. I think this helps, especially for smaller swimbaits. I’m not as concerned with ribbing on larger baits, as the bigger paddle tail already puts out plenty of thumps to garner attention.
Tail type is sort of misleading, as all the swimbaits I’m discussing have paddle tails. What I’m talking about isn’t the actual paddle at the end of the tail, but the length of plastic connecting the paddle to the swimbait body
Some connectors are longer and/or thinner than others. This is one of the factors influencing how the bait swims or wobbles when you retrieve it. This is similar to how crankbaits run. For example, a Shad Rap has a narrow wobble compared to the wide wobble of a Wiggle Wart or Hot-n-Tot.
Another factor is the consistency of the plastic. Some plastic is stiffer than others, resulting in a tighter wobble. A looser density of plastic allows the paddle tail to wiggle more, creating more action at the end of the bait.
In my experience, 3.75-inch Strike King Rage Swimmers and Keitech Swing Impacts strike a nice mid-range balance in tail action, when paired with a jighead of an appropriately sized hook shaft (more on this later).
The final category is width. Swimbaits vary from a bluegill shape to a narrow minnow profile. In between are bodies that mimic shad and shiners.
Once again, I like the profile of Rage Swimmers and Swing Impacts. They’re a good middle ground to represent the forage found in most bodies of water. I don’t necessarily select a swimbait due to its width, but I keep in mind that width or bulk will influence the bait’s action.
Speaking of action, I want a swimbait that will swim at the slowest retrieve rate possible. I don’t want a lure that I have to burn to get the tail wobbling. All of the factors discussed above, along with hook-shaft size and jighead weight, influence this action.
Swimbaits can be rigged on regular hooks, weighted hooks, underspin hooks, Scrounger heads and jigheads. Of these, the jighead is the most versatile. However, all jigheads are not the same.
Jigheads for swimbaits are specialized and a little different than the standard live-bait jigheads that dominate tackle aisles in most stores. Yes, a run-of-the-mill 1/4-ounce jighead pulled out of the bottom of your tackle box will work, but a specialized jighead will work better.
Jigheads for swimbaits have thicker and longer hook shafts. The longer shaft allows the point of the hook to ride farther back on the swimbait, greatly increasing the hook-up ratio. Because the shaft is longer, it also needs to be sturdier than the lighter-wire hooks found on standard jigheads.
Jighead shapes vary. Round, darter and conical-shaped heads molded to look like the face of baitfish are popular. I don’t believe head shape makes much difference. I’m more concerned with hook-shaft thickness and length.
I use a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce heads most of the time, though smaller and larger sizes can come in handy. The ubiquitous plain round head is my favorite, though I also use white Missile brand heads. Missile heads have long hook shafts, which work well with longer swimbaits. VMC also makes a variety of swimbait jigheads I like.
It’s important to match your jighead and swimbait correctly. Jigheads that are too short will cause you to miss fish, while jigheads with hook shafts that are too long can negatively impact the bait’s action.
If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: rig your swimbait correctly. For a swimbait to run as designed, the jighead and soft-plastic body must come together perfectly.
Threading on a swimbait body takes practice. You don’t want the hook coming out the top of the body too short, or it will pull away from the jighead. If the hook comes out too far back, the body will scrunch up and not run correctly. A good idea is to lay the swimbait next to the jighead and mark where you want the hook to come out before you start threading on the body.
You also want your hook to come out dead center on the back of the body. If you miss left or right, gently pop the hook back inside the swimbait and try again. If you miss too many times a tear will develop. This is bad because your hook will slide around in the gouge and mess up the bait’s action. If this happens, start over with a new body.
If you follow the above tips, your swimbait will run as intended and catch more fish. That’s a fact I bear out with experience.
I want to mention one exception to the your-swimbait-must-run-perfectly-all-the-time rule. If you come across a school of feeding fish, perfection doesn’t matter. As long as the swimbait tracks reasonably well through the water, it will catch fish. No use replacing a beat-up swimbait if you don’t have to. I do this a lot, for example, if I’m busting up a school of white bass for fun.
When I run low on swimbaits, I mend the used ones with a lighter. Or at least I try. Swimbaits typically tear where the hook comes out and where the body snugs up to the jighead keeper. Heating these torn up sections congeals the plastic and will occasionally allow you to reuse the swimbait.
You can fish a swimbait on any rod-and-reel combination, but some setups work better.
I use an Abu Garcia Revo baitcasting reel with a 6:4:1 gear ratio. I pair this on rods slightly over 7-foot long. I spool up with 10- or 14-pound Fireline.
I prefer baitcaster setups. First, I like the winching power a baitcasting reel has over a spinning reel. Second, I can usually find a baitcasting rod that has a limber tip (for casting) and a strong backbone (for fighting) at a reasonable price. Finally, I usually fish swimbaits 3.75 inches or longer, and baitcasters are designed to handle larger baits.
I like the 6:4:1 gear ratio because it offers a naturally-slower retrieve, which suits my style. I’ve read that some anglers prefer a faster reels, such as those geared 7:1:1, that allows them to take up slack quicker when a fish hits. This has merit, as fish often surge upon a swimbait from behind and slack your line. However, I catch up with the fish by using a long rod, which I can swing back a long distance if necessary. Another disadvantage of the higher-geared reels is that you have to be very disciplined to wind them slowly.
I use spinning tackle, too, when fishing smaller swimbaits. My preferred reel is a Lews Speed Spool with a 6.2:1 ratio. This reel has a quicker line pick up than many spinning reels. Unlike baitcasting reels, I prefer a faster line pick up on spinning reels. I find I need that extra help to catch up on the hookset when using spinning tackle. I spool up with 8-pound Fireline.
A Revo reel will run about $100, while a Lews about $40. I tend to spend more money on reels than rods. My two favorite baitcasting rods are 7-foot Shimano Convergences I picked up at Walmart for $8 apiece 15 years ago.
When I’m looking for a swimbait rod, I want a rod that has some backbone, but a little flex in the tip to help launch the bait when casting. Also, because Fireline doesn’t stretch, I want a limber tip that allows the fish to choke down the swimbait with as little resistance as possible.
The last thing I look for in a baitcasting rod is a long butt. This gives me leverage when casting. I place my left hand on the bottom of the rod while my right hand is on the reel. This allows me to launch the bait with distance and accuracy.
There are rods made specifically for swimbaits, but they’re expensive. I contend that cheaper rods work fine. Do a little rummaging at Walmart or Runnings and see what you can find.
I use Fireline because it’s strong, has no stretch and casts well. The lack of stretch allows me to drive the hook home. Swimbait hooks are thicker than a standard jighead hook, meaning it takes more force to lodge them in a fish’s mouth. No-stretch line paired with a baitcasting rod that has some backbone gets the job done.
Fireline is more visible underwater than monofilament and fluorocarbon. I don’t think this matters most of the time when casting swimbaits, and, if it does, Fireline’s other advantages outweigh this drawback.
However, if I’m fishing really clear water, I’ll add a 6-foot fluorocarbon leader. I’m not convinced it matters, but it helps my confidence. And confidence is important in fishing. I attach it with a back-to-back uni-knot. I’ve used this knot for years to connect lines. and I’ve never had a problem with it. Like all knots, I do retie this connecting knot often.
How to Fish a Swimbait
There is no wrong way to fish a swimbait, but there are better ways. Many times a straight reel is deadly. I usually start with a straight reel at a constant speed. I’ll increase or reduce the velocity in subsequent casts until I find what the fish want that day.
Swimbaits are designed to be reeled in on a straight retrieve, but that doesn’t mean you can’t throw in a slight pause or jerk. Sometimes, that’s what it takes, but you don’t want to overdo it. Swimbaits are made to impart their designed action, not that of the angler.
When casting, try to set up a cast that keeps your lure in the strike zone the longest. For example, throw a cast parallel to the bank in an area where the water depth is fairly uniform. Casting into deep water and bringing the bait up into shallow water can work, but often the fish are only holding in a specific depth.
When to Throw Swimbaits
Fish them anywhere and anytime you can find open water is the answer. But, they will work better under certain conditions, in my opinion.
I think swimbaits work best in slack water or areas with slow current. This allows the intended action of the bait to shine.
To use the Missouri River as an example, I like to throw swimbaits in marinas, along shorelines with slow currents and in eddies that form behind points or wing dams. The key is to find an area where the current won’t negate the bait’s action.
As far as water clarity, I’ll throw a swimbait in every condition. My only thinking here is that I’ll upsize the bait in dirty water to put out more vibration and downsize it in clearer water for a more subtle action.
I do prefer a little wind, but not so much to put a bow in my line and make casting difficult. I also like to fish as shallow as possible. If I can make a parallel cast along a shoreline and crank in 3 to 4 feet of water, I’m confident I’ll pop a walleye, white bass, catfish, pike or smallmouth if I’m fishing the Missouri River.
This should go without saying, but I’ll mention it in case you’re wondering. Swimbaits work great in low light, such as dusk and dawn. Not a huge revelation, but something to remember.
Fishing a swimbait isn’t a hobby — it’s a lifestyle. Sound dramatic? Perhaps. But swimbaits are that rare class of lures capable of forever changing your approach to fishing.
Swimbaits will catch fish when other lures fail, and their reputation as “big fish” lures is well-earned. However, they’re equally deadly on average-sized fish and woefully underused, at least here in the North country.
Do yourself a favor and give swimbaits a try. I’m betting you’ll become a fellow believer and embrace the lifestyle along with all that comes with it.
About the Author: Chris Nelson is a freelance writer from Pierre, S.D.