One of the questions I get asked all the time is “if you could only use one lure, what would it be?” In fishing, one thing that I’ve learned is that there is no one answer to every situation. Every lake is different, the weather can influence lure choices each day and different species require different presentations. The most universal “do-everything, catch-everything” lure is a jig. Jigs come in every size imaginable and can be tipped with live bait, soft plastics or even hair. They catch everything.
Because of the wide array of soft plastics available to anglers today that are life-like, scented and durable, I seldom find myself using live bait anymore. Of course there are situations where live bait is the best choice – pressured fish and cold fronts come to mind – or if I’m guiding and I’m taking people who might be inexperienced. That being said, I can count the days on one hand over the course of a season where I’m using live bait on my jigs.
Over the past decade or so, three to five inch straight-tailed jerk shad style minnow imitators have been my go-to soft baits to thread on a jig. I have caught thousands of walleyes, pike, lake trout and smallmouths on these baits over the years. You can cast them rigged on a lighter jig and swim them back to the boat or rig them up on a heavier jig for fishing vertically under the boat. A four inch Z-Man Jerk ShadZ rigged on a 3/8 Smeltinator jig head from Lake of the Woods Sports Headquarters was the bait that I used to win my first pro bass tournament earlier this year in Tennessee.
In more recent years, small swimbaits have started to take a larger role on the deck of my boat. A swimbait is a minnow-bodied soft plastic with a “boot-style tail” on the back of it to give it a natural swimming action. These are excellent baits for casting. They are very natural looking and they are great for covering water. My typical setup includes a ¼ ounce jig head with a three inch Z-Man MinnowZ swimbait.
Because of the explosion of rusty crayfish in Lake of the Woods and to some degree in Rainy Lake, my experience has been that more walleyes are staying shallow throughout the summer where artificial lures like swimbaits shine. The same can be said for smallmouths. These soft plastic lures do a good job emulating a crayfish as well as a small bait fish like a shiner or perch. That is part of the reason why swimbaits are so effective.
A few tricks to keep in mind for swimbait fishing include using a dab of superglue to hold the plastic on the jig head. This prevents the bait from slipping down on the jig after catching a few fish or missing a bite or two. You also want to use swimbaits that are straight, without any unnatural kinks or bends in the plastic that will cause the bait to look unnatural. These imperfect baits can also cause line twisting. Usually I’m going to choose a natural minnow imitating colour but crayfish imitating or brighter “shock” colours can be effective as well. Play with different colours on every outing and see what works best.
When it comes to choosing fishing locations, the wind is your friend. Shorelines, points and coves where the wind is blowing into are usually areas where active fish will be pushed up into shallow water where they are feeding. If you find a “mudline” where cloudy water is meeting up with clear water, those are the most high percentage, yet overlooked fishing locations on our lakes. They always have walleyes, smallmouths and pike around them. These predators hide in the cloudy water waiting for unknowing prey to swim into their personal space, making for an easy meal.
The typical retrieve is to simply cast out the swimbait, let it sink in the water column so it stays just above the bottom and reel it in slow and steady. You’ll know when you get a bite. Give swimbaits a try this summer.