Tips for Catching Trout and Redfish on Soft Plastics

By Daniel Nussbaum, Z-Man Fishing Products
from The Fishing Wire

All along the Southeast and Gulf coasts, redfish and spotted seatrout are primary targets of most inshore anglers, and for good reason, too. They are relatively abundant most everywhere, can be targeted year-round, and are accessible from land or boat. Redfish are dogged fighters that never seem to give up, and sight fishing for reds or watching them run down a well-presented bait is an absolute hoot. While targeting trophy trout is a borderline obsession for some, for most, speck fishing is more about action, numbers, and aggressive bites, which they willingly seem to provide throughout their range.

Most importantly, both reds and trout can be consistently targeted using soft plastic lures. While live bait can often be more effective, that isn’t always the case, and most would agree that casting lures and tricking a fish into eating something fake is simply more rewarding and fun. That said, there are a few mistakes that we see inshore anglers making time-and-again.

Getting a handle on some simple technique and gear-related missteps will definitely help you put more redfish and seatrout in the boat. Fishing Too Fast. As one of the best inshore fishermen I know once told me, “If you think you’re fishing too slow, then slow it down some more.” Whether simply reeling too fast or working the bait too quickly with the rod, most folks would be well-served by slowing down their cadence a bit. For starters, gamefish are looking for an easy meal, not a tough one; they’re wired to expend as little energy possible to run down their prey. Fishing baits at a slower pace often garners more strikes for this reason, particularly when fish are pressured, lethargic due to very high or low water temperatures, or stingy due to bluebird conditions.

Many types of forage that artificials mimic – shrimp, crabs, worms, and baitfish – spend most of their time on or close to the bottom. Gamefish themselves often stick close to the bottom to maintain a stealthy profile for ambush feeding, avoid predation, and consume less energy by staying out of high water flow zones. Fishing baits slower mimics bottom crawling forage and keeps them in the strike zone for longer rather than zipping by quickly overhead. Sure, there are times when rapid retrieves generate reaction strikes from passive fish or accurately mimic baitfish moving quickly at mid-depth or on the surface. But perhaps more often, simply dragging and dead-sticking baits along the bottom will consistently get bites. To this point, one mistake anglers make is not letting the bait work for them.

With buoyant baits made from ElaZtech, the tails float up off the bottom at rest, coming to life and drawing strikes even on the slowest retrieves. Poor Line Management. Line management is a concept that is difficult to explain and takes time to master. While a straight retrieve can be effective, more often than not, inshore anglers find success by imparting some kind of action to their lures by working their rods. Giving the bait an erratic, rising and falling motion that imitates an injured baitfish or fleeing shrimp and can trigger aggressive strikes. On the period immediately following the jerk or twitch, the bait is allowed to settle to the bottom, and most strikes occur at this time—on the fall.

The key to line management is allowing the bait to fall naturally, while still maintaining enough tension so that light bites can be detected. Some of the biggest fish are the lightest biters, as they strike by simply opening their mouths, creating a vacuum and sucking in the bait without aggressively striking it. If there’s too much slack in the line, you might never even feel the bite. Conversely, if you apply too much tension on the fall, the bait may look or feel unnatural, and the fish may not strike or could spit the hook when it feels pressure. This is a difficult line to walk and takes time on the water to master. Line management is particularly important on the initial cast and descent. The small ‘splat’ that a softbait makes when it hits the water can be like ringing the dinner bell for a hungry redfish or seatrout. In many cases, strikes occur on the initial descent before many even engage the reel. If you allow the bait to fall freely to the bottom and allow too much slack in the line, you may be missing bites. Instead, try to allow the bait to settle to the bottom naturally while maintaining a bit of tension on the line so quick strikes can be detected. Using Tackle That Is Too Heavy.

When many think of saltwater fishing, they envision using big, stout rods and reels capable of horsing in sea monsters. As far as technology has come, this certainly is no longer the case. Nowadays, the best inshore rod and reel combos are more akin to freshwater tackle than saltwater tackle of yesteryear. The advent of microfilament braided lines, carbon fiber drags, composite reel bodies, lightweight rod guides and reel seats, and resin infused high modulus graphite rods allows saltwater anglers to tackle some pretty hefty fish on featherweight gear. Keep in mind that the lighter the rod and reel, the easier it is to feel light bites, and the less fatigue you will experience from continuous casting throughout the day.

Superbraid lines have changed inshore fishing for the better as the thin diameter and lack of stretch allow for a more natural presentation and far greater sensitivity. The smaller the line diameter, the further you can cast light weight lures. Being able to reach fish from longer distances allows for a stealthier approach in shallow water, and longer casts allow you to cover more water. Due to the incredibly thin diameter of the 10 to 20 pound test line used for inshore fishing, line capacity is no longer a concern, allowing you to use small, lightweight spinning and baitcasting reels. Nowadays, my entire inshore arsenal is comprised of 1000 and 2500 size spinning reels or baitcasters in the 70 to 100 size range mounted on medium light or medium power, fast or extra fast action rods in 6’6″ to 7′ range.

Rods with fast or extra fast tapers are critical, as their light tips provide sensitivity and help sling light lures long distances, while the stiff butt and mid sections offer the backbone needed to turn stubborn fish. Don’t skimp on a quality outfit either; it’s amazing how well high quality graphite rods cast and how sensitive they are, and a decent sealed saltwater reel will provide years of service under normal use, even when subjected to blistering redfish runs. Unless you’re fishing around structure or for larger fish, there’s simply no need for heavier tackle for day-to-day redfish, seatrout, and flounder fishing in the backcountry or marsh, as long as you’re using quality gear. Limiting Bait Selection. Without a doubt, everyone has their favorite confidence bait—the one that you’ve caught more or bigger fish on than anything else and that you always seem to have rigged up. Undoubtedly, you will catch the most fish on whatever is tied onto the end of your line, and more often than not, you’ve got your go-to bait tied on. Do you catch more on that bait because it works better or because you use it more often?

There is no doubt that certain bait profiles and colors are consistent producers, but on any given day, the best bait profile, size, or color likely varies based on a variety of factors, including water clarity, forage, weather conditions, tidal flow, water temperature, and who knows what else. Pigeon-holing yourself with one particular pattern is simply a mistake. On every inshore trip, I set out with an assortment of softbaits in various shapes, sizes and colors.

My typical selection consists of 4″ and 5″ Scented Jerk ShadZ, 3″ Slim SwimZ, 3″ MinnowZ, 4″ and 5″ DieZel MinnowZ, 4″ Scented PaddlerZ, 3.5″ EZ ShrimpZ, 5″ TroutTricks, and some Ned Rig baits like the Finesse TRD or TRD TicklerZ, along with a variety of Trout Eye and NedlockZ Jigheads and ChinlockZ swimbait hooks. These baits and hooks will cover just about all of your bases, from shallow to deep.

Reading conditions is critical to selecting the right bait for the situation. If terns are swooping down overhead and baitfish like glass minnows or fry are flickering the surface, then a smaller profile bait like the 3″ Slim SwimZ gets the nod. If herons are picking off shrimp on the shoreline, tying on an EZ ShrimpZ makes perfect sense. If mullet pods are running the banks, match the size of forage with a swimbait with aggressive swimming action, like the 3″ MinnowZ or 4″ or 5″ DieZel MinnowZ.

If the water is clear, the sun is high, and fish are laid up or not aggressively feeding, something super subtle like a Ned Rig might be the best approach. And perhaps most importantly, if you feel like you’re around fish and what you’re using isn’t working, change it up and try something different. Going Crazy with Colors. Yes, you are reading this correctly: a lure company is telling you that you don’t need to run out and buy every color we make. That said, having an assortment of different colors for varying situations is definitely important. The fact that companies offer literally hundreds of colors seems to complicate things, but following a few simple rules will help get your tackle selection dialed in. First and foremost, matching the hatch is always a good rule of thumb. If mullet are the predominant forage in your area, colors like Mulletron or Smoky Shad are good to have on-hand. If fish are feeding on shrimp, some natural looking shrimp colors like Greasy Prawn, Houdini, or Laguna Shrimp are good matches.

If reds are rooting around for crustaceans, earthy tones that blend in with the bottom, like The Wright Stuff or Redfish Toad, are solid choices. One of the key factors in color selection is water clarity. In clear water, I usually opt for more translucent and natural tones, like Opening Night or Smelt. In stained or tannic water, darker colors with a little bit of flash like Gold Rush or New Penny seem to perform well. In muddy water, brighter colors, particularly those with chartreuse like Space Guppy or Sexy Mullet are good choices, as are luminescent glow in the dark colors. Through fishing a number of locales from the Carolinas to Louisiana, a few other solid color trends have emerged.

First, Pearl (or some close variant like Pearl Blue Glimmer or Slam Shady) seems to produce in a variety of situations and water clarity scenarios. White shows up well in dark or muddy water and isn’t too unnatural or loud in clear water. Most baitfish have white sides, so it appears natural most everywhere, and it stands out against dark mud bottoms while still creating a natural silhouette over light sand.

Second, baits with chartreuse tails simply work. A lodge owner in Louisiana once explained to me that this is because shrimp ‘light up’ in a chartreuse hue when chased, and I have personally noticed tails of baitfish like menhaden exhibiting a yellowish tint. I feel that part of this is the contrast between the body and tail and believe that gamefish key in on this contrast. Baits with bright tails work in both clear and muddy water. In clear water, I prefer a color with a clear body like Shrimp Po Body, while in stained water, a bait with a darker body color like Rootbeer/Chartreuse is a good choice. In the muddiest water, the Glow/Chartreuse color seems to show up best.

Finally, wherever you go, redfish like the color gold. Everyone knows that a simple gold spoon is a redfish staple, and for good reason. Having some baits littered with gold flake, like Golden Boy or the new Beer Run color, is always a good idea when reds are the target. The bottom line is that while colors matter, having a few different options for different water conditions, along with a few other favorites, is really all that’s necessary. Again, if what you’re using isn’t working, don’t be afraid to switch it up and try something different.