The Plastic Revolution
That said, saltwater fishing lures have taken a giant leap in the last ten years. Soft plastic, which first entered tackle boxes as the "rubber worm" a long time ago, has now evolved into an incredibly effective family of artificial baits that imitate everything saltwater predators eat.
For years my go-to-lure was a yellow bucktail jig. It is still an effective lure on a wide variety of fish, but it is no longer accorded first choice status. That honor currently belongs to RipTide's 6-inch jerk bait in pearl color, which has proven to be a snook and redfish slayer. It looks something like a plastic worm with a fantail, but it's a stiffer, more durable plastic. I fish it on the surface in shallow water, bouncing the rod tip and fishing it with enough slack line to make it "walk the dog." This bait is simply a lot more versatile, because you can fish it slower.
I still fish jigs in deeper water, but most often they are rigged with plastic tails. The soft plastic tails are economical and effective. You can change the size and shape of your lure without having to retie the jig, and the price of soft plastic tails is so easy on your wallet you can afford to have a wide selection of tails in different sizes, colors, and shapes. If catching fish is about feeding them what they want, soft plastic baits provide the best opportunity to search for that perfect combination of color and size.
The effectiveness of soft plastic baits is not such that it makes other lures obsolete. I still enjoy fishing bucktails, surface plugs, and spoons. But I would not feel comfortable approaching any inshore habitat without my favorite selection of soft plastic lures. And if you are wading, you can carry and impressive array of soft plastic lures in a very small package.
The jerkbait became my go-to lure because it catches snook and redfish in very shallow water. Peak flats fishing occurs when the water is warm. Warm water means weeds and algae too thick for any exposed single hook, not to mention trebles. Texas rigged jerkbaits have enabled me to fish weed choked waters that nobody else bothers. There is so much stuff floating on the surface where I fish in summer, that even live bait fishing is nearly impossible. Jerkbaits have crossed this hurdle so effectively, that I seldom fish anything else in weedy water. Sure, even this bait will pick up some algae now and then, but I have pulled fish out of holes that resemble a bowl of spinach. The jerkbait lets me cover this water faster because I don't have to spend much time picking vegetation off the bait.
Soft plastic baits will not only approximate the size and weight of the live baits they imitate; they also make an enticing sound when they hit the water. Redfish that spook on a one-quarter ounce jig cast too close might swirl on a low impact, Texas rigged bait. And once the fish puts the scented, flavored bait in it's mouth, it often turns and runs with it, just as it would with live bait - a governor's pardon if you have some slack in your line. This won't happen with hard baits.
To cover the most water, I employ four basic types of soft plastic baits on and around the flats; jerkbaits, shrimp imitations, crab imitations, and grub tails used with jig heads. The jerkbait sees most use. But when the fishing is hard and the bite is slow, it means slowing down your presentation. This is where soft plastics really excel - you can fish them agonizingly slow - and that is often what it takes in cold weather with sleepy fish. I use a shrimp imitation in cold water, and there are some great options. There is the DOA shrimp, a lifelike imitation with just the right amount of weight built into the lure body. This shrimp is scent and flavor impregnated and is well suited to the snail-paced retrieve that's wanted for winter fishing. For plastic bait it's pricey, but not when compared to buying live, select shrimp. The way to buy DOA shrimp is in the bulk pack they offer for about $30. Tampa Bay guide Craig Richardson is a redfish specialist who swears by DOA shrimp, but cautions that it must be crawled back on the retrieve.
RipTide offers two shrimp baits. One is used with conventional saltwater jig heads - it works for me on the flats for snook, flounder, redfish, and trout. RipTide also offers a weedless system with a specially designed jig head that is great for fishing turtle grass and weeds. The bait has reference points on it in the form of raised plastic tits that show you where to bring the hook point through, which makes rigging a snap. The jig heads come only in red, but the tails come in a variety of colors that are bound to satisfy anglers and fish alike.
DOA also offers a softshell crab imitation that the crustacean eaters find hard to resist. It is particularly effective on black drum. Unfortunately blowfish find them irresistible too, and can chew a plastic crab to shreds in a matter of seconds. I use these baits for sight fishing black drum, redfish, and cobia. It is a great bait to throw on a big stingray's back if you suspect a cobia is trailing. I haven't yet had a chance to throw one at a permit, but it's the bait I would reach for should on show.
Plastic tails for jigs offer a world of versatility. You can readily change size, color, and shape to match local forage. You can buy these baits in bulk for the price of a single topwater plug. This means you can keep a smorgasbord of color and shape in your tackle box to match any given situation, without breaking the bank.
One of the most effective baits on sea trout is a tiny jig with a plastic tail fished beneath a small float or popping cork. The float serves as an attractor, and trout can't seem to resist the rocking action it imparts to the jig.
Recent tackle innovations further enhance the performance of soft plastic baits. A trend toward longer, lighter, and more limber rods means that you can now cast these baits much farther. Reels are constantly being improved and can cast and retrieve the life-like soft plastic baits with new high tech fishing lines that have little memory or stretch, and great sensitivity.
Between the line and the hook, anglers can tie in a length of flourocarbon leader material. Flourocarbon has the same refractive light index as water, making it very hard for fish to see. Every angler I talk to says it makes a difference. Small wonder that fishermen are catching wary redfish in shallow water on artificial baits.
Add to this mix of high tech sophistication, a super strong, chemically sharpened hook and you have the complete modern arsenal to approach fish that become ever harder to catch due to increased angling pressure. Learning how to hook the plastic baits so that they have the right action and look good in the water is mostly a matter of keeping the hook parallel to the lure body.
Trial and error is the best teacher. There are lots of different style hooks to choose from, so it is merely a matter of finding a hook that works for you. FYI, I use True Turn 4/0 Offset Worm Hooks in my jerkbaits - mostly for their good points and overall strength -- very important traits in a saltwater hook. Jig hooks need to be just as strong, and just as sharp.
Jerkbaits can be weighted by inserting a finish nail into the bait to make them sink faster and cast farther. After lots of casting or catching a couple fish, the head of the bait will start to tear out. I bite a half-inch off the head of the bait and re-rig it when that happens. You can repeat that until the hook point is backed out of the pocket, then the bait should be replaced. Save the short tails for use with jigs.
Not a good idea to mix baits of different colors, as some colors will run. For example if you mix red tails with white tails in a bag, they may all turn pink. Also be careful about storing soft plastic baits with certain hard plastics. Sometimes there is a chemical reaction between the two plastics that can cause the hard plastic to melt. Styrofoam floats are susceptible.
This array of plastic baits allow me to cover just about every situation imaginable inshore, and cover it more thoroughly and effectively than is possible with live bait, or hard lures. This is not to say that fish will jump in the boat just because you rig some soft plastic, but these baits sure give you advantages other baits and lures do not.
There are lots of other plastic baits out there, and I am sure they all have their fans. The lures I mentioned here are merely what I have been using that catch fish. Bottom line is, if you like the way a bait looks and you gain confidence in it, it's going to work.