Wakebait Fishing – The Time is Now
by Steve Pagliughi
Swimbaiters have a large selection of swimbaits to choose from in today's swimbait market. Some swimbaits have proven themselves through time by consistently catching fish and having excellent customer service support. Other swimbaits have showed promise but haven't stood the test of time and other fly-by- night swimbaits have failed miserably both in catches and customer service support. Regardless of manufacturer and style, swimbaits generally fall into one of three categories (surface, subsurface, bottom) based on the portion of the water column a bait is designed to be fished. Wakebaits are designed to be fished on the surface and are arguably the most enjoyable, and probably easiest, style of swimbait to fish. By definition a wakebait is a surface bait usually having a diving lip (although many don't) designed to be slowly retrieved on the surface such that a wake is created. This article will focus on the basics of fishing wakebaits including bait selection and on-water strategies. I want to stress that the information below is by no means the only way to fish wakebaits or the only logic that should be used when deciding which baits to use under certain conditions. However, the information does provide a strong foundation that can and should be modified and built upon.
Time of Year
Wakebaits work year-round. However, at least for me and the way I fish, post-spawn through fall is the best time to fish these baits. In winter, I'm usually throwing large plastic baits in deep water. But, if unseasonably warm weather arrives for a few days, or a nasty storm rolls in, Ill break out wakebaits to see if I can get something going. As winter transitions into early spring, Ill start checking the wakebait bite more frequently. The bite picks up right about the time spawning begins. The wakebait bite gets wide open once the first wave of spawners vacate shallow water and start thinking about recuperating. The bite continues to be strong throughout the summer and into fall.
Buying the Right Wakebait
We could drive ourselves crazy, and cause our bank accounts to plummet, if we tried to fish every wakebait out there. I don't have the time or money to field test each available bait, so here's how I approach which baits I choose to fish. I'm skeptical about every new swimbait that hits the market. I will not buy a new bait until 1) its proven through time it can consistently catch fish, 2) its shown it will not break under normal fishing conditions, and 3) the manufacturer has shown that if something does break they will be reasonable and timely in fixing the problem. I rely on the internet and the group of friends I regularly fish with to figure out which baits meet these criteria. The internet is an excellent resource for perusing reviews of available swimbaits. Swimbaitnation.com, tackletour.com, and calfishing.com are three sites that provide us all with a foundation of good, usually unbiased, information. However, the internet can only get us so far. It's kind of like trying to buy pants or shoes over the internet; it's usually best to try those things on in person before you buy them. This is where your group of friends comes into play. I'm lucky to have friends that just have to buy everything, so every time on the water is like spending a day in the best swimbait shop in the world that has a testing tank! This is where I can hold a bait, I can cast it, I can watch the action, I can look the way it's built and I can make the final decision if it's a bait that I absolutely have to have. In many instances I have been convinced a bait would not fit in with my style only to find that once I actually held the bait and casted it there was no doubt I needed to buy one.
So with that said, which baits are best? Well, based on the three criteria I've provided above, I primarily fish 316 Lure Company baits. MS Slammers will always be in my boat, and the Wood Tail is slowly making its way into my routine (this bait is made by Joe Adams from the New England area and I'm not certain that he actually sells these baits at this time, or ever will). 316 currently offers a wide selection of wakebait style swimbaits in every size you need. The Baby Wake is the smallest of the bunch (6” 2.1oz), has a tight, fast wiggle, and can be fished a little faster on the surface then the other 316 wakebaits. The Wake Jr. is the mid-class sized bait (7.5” 3.1oz) that has the perfect combination of side-to-side movement and noise production. The Real Deal is an interesting bait (8” 3.6 oz) and it does not have a diving lip. It's a fairly large, wide bait that can be worked any way imaginable and its retrieve potential is only limited by the fisherman who fishes it. Surprisingly, the Real Deal seems to work best for me as a subtle twitch bait when the wind is light to moderate. However, I'm still learning this bait and I'm sure Ill find many situations and retrieves where is shines. One of my favorite retrieves with the Real Deal is to lower my rod tip and give short but hard jerks in a cadence that causes the bait to walk the dog. The kicker is that when you do it just right the head of the bait will come out of the water each time it changes direction and when it does the mouth will open up. The retrieve closely mimics a trout swimming on the surface rolling on insects. The Armageddon and the Wake Bait (both approximately 10” and 6.9 oz) are large baits. They both have incredible action, excellent drawing potential and enough noise to fish in the windiest conditions. Consider yourself lucky if you have one of these baits because they have been discontinued. However, Mickey Ellis is in the process of engineering fresh, cutting edge designs that will replace both baits. For those of you east of the Rockies , Mickey takes his Baby Bass (similar in size to the Wake Jr.) and makes an absolutely sick version of a yellow perch. The yellow perch has the finest paint job and realistic representation of any swimbait I've seen. They really are a work of art.
Cost to Benefit Ratio
Cost is definitely a factor for the swimbaiter, especially those that are new to it. Many people who are new to swimbaiting fall into a trap, and the trap is trying to save money. Most of the baits that are worth buying are relatively expensive. When I first started I made every mistake you can think of, and it cost me many fishless days and frustration. Looking back on it I get fairly upset because I didn't take the advice of those that have much more experience than me. I bought a bunch of "cheap" baits that either fell apart or didn't catch fish. Those baits were a waste of my time and money and I've either thrown them all away or thrown them in a corner never to be fished again.
Think of it this way. The learning curve with swimbaits can be steep because you typically don't get that many bites so you really aren't certain if you are fishing them the right way. It can drive you crazy because you start second guessing everything you are doing and you are struggling to acquire confidence. If you aren't getting feedback (bites) from the fish it's impossible to know if you are doing the right thing. Cheap swimbaits usually don't get very many bites. So when you are starting out its very important to buy baits that are proven fish catchers. That way you put yourself in the best position to get the most feedback (bites) and learn what you need to learn quickly, and build your confidence quickly. I've seen way too many people start out trying to save money. They buy cheap baits that don't catch fish and/or fall apart and they quickly deem swimbaiting a waste of time and money. They never gave themselves a chance.
Here is another way of looking at it. You spend $100 for a quality hard topwater swimbait from a manufacturer that has proven they provide good customer service. You also buy $100 of senkos throughout the year. At the end of the year your swimbait has produced many more quality fish than the senkos (probably not as many fish but who cares because you are after bigger fish when swimbaiting). You no longer have the senkos, you used them all. But you still have the swimbait, its still producing and it will continue to produce for a long time. Plus, if it ever breaks during normal use (using a hammer to remove the bill doesn't count!) the company will fix it for you. In the long run buying the $100 swimbait is more cost effective and you are putting more big fish in the boat. Seems likes sound logic to me.
My advice would be to save your money and buy a proven bait from a company that has excellent customer service. Save your money until you can buy the best swimbaits available, and this is more important when just starting out than at any other time. Give yourself the chance to unlock what swimbaiting has to offer. Fisherman that don't get past the first 6 months or so likely will never become accomplished swimbaiters. Once you figure things out and develop confidence you can experiment with other baits. Confidence comes largely by fishing the right baits.
I throw my smallest swimbaits on a Daiwa Heartland 7'9” rod. Better rods are available but for the money you can't beat it ($65.99) and I don't feel I need a specialty rod with the smaller baits. The rod has lots of tip for surging fish and enough backbone to bury hooks. I don't recommend throwing baits as big or bigger than the Wake Jr. on this rod but its great for 7” MS Slammers. Plus, it's a great utility rod. You can throw Hammerheads and Basstrix type baits on this rod and in a pinch it works for flippin or cranking big crank baits. I have it paired with a Shimano Cardiff 400 which is also affordable ($109.99). For the mid-sized wakebaits, like the Wake Jr., I use a G-Loomis BBR965C ($265) paired with a Shimano Calcutta 400 ($219.99). The rod is very light, has the perfect combination of tip and backbone and just feels good in my hands. It can also be used for smaller swimbaits but be careful. Do not throw the heavier baits, including Hudds, on this rod. I did and it cost me a couple of toads. The next rod I'm going to buy for the mid-sized swimbaits will be the G-Loomis 955 swimbait rod ($240). I can't say enough about this line of rods, they are sweet. For the larger wakebaits I use either a G-Loomis 956 swimbait rod ($245) or the Shimano Crucial CRC-S711H ($149.99) and both are paired with Shimano Calcutta 400's. I use the Crucial when my retrieves require lots of arm movement on my behalf, such as walking the dog, because the Crucial has a much shorter rod butt making such retrieves easier and more comfortable. I use 20lb P-line CXX for small and medium sized baits and 30lb Berkeley Big Game for the larger baits. The 30 lb line seems to detract from the action of the smaller baits. When using 20 lb test (especially where there are big stripers) I try to maintain the sense of mind that I may have to get to the star drag quick (I have all my drags locked down) if I hook a large fish.
Conditions and Bait Selection
The key here is to match the bait with the conditions. Main factors when deciding which bait to choose includes size, water displacement and noise production. The one condition I look for when wakebait fishing is wind and typically the more the wind blows the better the fishing gets. I've seen posts on several forums where people have recommended fishing wakebaits in light to no wind but I can honestly say I've never experienced a good wakebait bite in such conditions. If you take just one thing from this article and apply it to your fishing its this: when the wind starts blowing its time to tie a wakebait on and start covering water . Many factors need to be considered when choosing the appropriate bait to use (like water color, type of fishery, etc.), but here are the basics. I choose the bait I use according to how hard the wind is blowing. In light winds I usually opt for a bait that displaces less water and has a softer clack. In strong winds the opposite applies. In light to moderate wind my first choice is always a Wake Jr. I prefer to fish this bait in a stiff wind, but it's a good starting point. If the wind is light and I'm not getting bit, or the fish are just following or slapping at the bait, Ill usually switch to a more subtle bait like a 7” MS Slammer. The small slammer has a smaller profile, produces a softer clacking sound and doesn't displace as much water. Ill also throw the Real Deal under light wind conditions and play with retrieves to see if I can get something going. The Wood Tail also seems to work well in this situation. As the wind increases I transition back to throwing baits having a stronger presence. If the Wake Jr. isn't getting bit in moderate winds I may try a 9” MS Slammer just to give them a different look and sound. I really start getting excited when the wind gets to the point where I'm struggling with boat control. Ill continue to throw the Wake Jr. but Ill also start throwing the biggest, loudest baits I have. One of the neatest things about fishing these baits in big waves is just as the bait crests a wave you will see groups of fish in the face of the wave just under your bait (we have all seen photos of surfers where there will be a shark in the face of the wave just behind the surfer), then your bait disappears in the trough and next thing you know water is flying everywhere! Fish on! There has only been one time that I can remember that the wind and waves were too strong to throw wakebaits, or any surface bait for that matter, and that was during the HBC-1 on Lake Casitas . The combination of wind and waves just overpowered my baits.
One thing I want to touch on is water clarity. The drawing potential of wakebaits increases with increased clarity. But this doesn't mean I can't get the attention of a fish that's on bottom in 30 feet of muddy water, it just means that I should probably make adjustments. In this situation I would choose a big bait that creates the most disturbance (noise and water displacement). The visual aspect of the drawing potential is minimal in this situation and I am relying more on sound and vibration. Wakebaits should always be worked around shoreline cover (wood) and this is especially true in stained to muddy water.
Learn the characteristics of each bait you use in terms of size, water displacement, and noise production then apply that knowledge to choose the right bait based on the conditions at hand. However, if standard logic isn't producing fish don't be afraid to experiment. You never know what you might stumble upon. If I had to choose one bait to fish for all conditions and all types of lakes it would be the Wake Jr. This bait bridges all gaps. It consistently catches all sizes of fish, all species of black bass and is effective in all types of waters. I originally bought a Wake Jr. thinking it would be an excellent bait for quality fish. And I was right. What surprised me was the number of trophy fish this bait puts in the boat including spotted bass and smallmouth bass.
In my opinion, wakebaits are the easiest type of swimbait to fish. The standard retrieve is nothing more than slow and steady. The key is that there will be one retrieve speed where you maximize the side to side motion and clacking sound while still keeping the bait on the surface. Each bait is different but it's easy to figure out. I've had lots of people tell me they can't catch fish on a wakebait and I really don't understand this. Casting out and reeling back in is pretty easy to do and that's about all it takes. The other type of retrieve I like is slow and steady interspersed with pauses and light twitches. The length of pause and number of twitches is dependant on the fish. Let them tell you what they want. Recently I was fishing a lake where the standard slow and steady retrieve usually works. But I wasn't getting bit. On one cast I noticed I had a nice follower and I instinctively stopped the bait. After about 5 seconds I softly twitched the bait and the fish ate it. Over the next hour this happened over and over, always within 10 feet of the boat. Well, the light bulb finally went off (I know, sometimes I'm a little slow), and I started pausing and twitching the second my bait hit the water. It worked and I started sticking fish well away from the boat. The point of the story is to experiment with retrieves until you find what works on a particular day. You can also walk the dog nicely with wakebaits, and if you have the patience you can dead stick them. The last standard retrieve is to crank them down just like you are fishing with a crankbait. I know lots of people that do this but it's not a retrieve that I frequently use. I usually catch fish doing this when I don't like my cast and am just trying to get my bait back in. For some reason this seems to happen on the Delta more than other waters, but it's a retrieve worth experimenting with on any lake. If you are getting bit but not hooking up, try a different retrieve or tie on a different bait. Sometimes that's all it takes.
In general, I fish wakebaits on main lake structures including flats, points, ledges and humps. Occasionally I will work through shorelines or backs of coves quickly, but I definitely tend to stay on primary main lake structure. Regardless of the type of structure, I almost always cast from shallow water to deep water. Here's how I approach my target area. I shut the big engine down a long way away from the structure, keep the electronics off and quietly ease into the spot I want my boat. I cast in front of the boat while doing this to make sure I'm not missing an opportunity. Once I've “cleared” the path for my boat I position in shallow water and begin making very long casts into deep water. On the types of lakes I fish (steep and clear), this usually puts my bait over very deep water. And that's exactly where I want it. Wakebaits have excellent drawing potential (I have no idea how far up a fish will come to get a wakebait but my feeling is that it's a long ways) and they are deadly on suspended fish. In my opinion, it's the suspended fish that account for the bulk of my catch. It's tough to convince yourself there are good fish roaming around in the middle of nowhere over deep water but you just have to have faith that they are there. Action tends to come quickly so I don't spend much time on each spot. I keep my eyes open for followers. If they don't bite I return later and try again (if I KNOW good fish are on a spot I will fish that spot many times during the day). Sometimes the fish will bite on the shallow part of the structure, sometimes in deep water close to the breaklines and sometimes out in the middle of nowhere. Many times you will drag a fish out of deep water and they will crush the bait close to the boat. Once I've fan casted the area with maybe 10 casts I leave. It's very common to catch a fish or two quickly before the fish lose interest, then return a little while later and stick a few more. You can repeat this all day long. Without a doubt the fish lose interest quickly so make the most of the first few casts. When I'm fishing flats I tend to concentrate very near the breakline but occasionally throw shallow onto the flat and out over real deep water. If I get bit in those areas then I investigate. You just never know where they will be. If a flat has submerged vegetation from the shoreline to the breakline I make sure I efficiently fan cast the whole flat. A flat with a good breakline and submerged vegetation can be spectacular at night.
Fish can be anywhere on any given day. But there's not enough time in one day to cover all options. By systematically and efficiently fishing main lake structures you increase the potential of encountering active, quality fish. Stick to the game plan and you will be successful.
In general, I don't modify my baits much. 316 baits come standard with excellent hardware. However, the hardware does need to be replaced on an as needed basis (one fish can dull your treble hooks). I always use Owner Hyperwire split rings and Owner and Gamakatsu hooks for replacement purposes. Size depends on the size of bait and the size of fish I think I can catch. I tailor the hook size to the type of lake I'm fishing. For example, if I'm fishing Lake Shasta I will remove the standard hooks from my Wake Jr. and put either #1 or #2 round bend Gammies on. If I'm fishing Clear Lake or the Delta the stock hooks (or heavy duty Owners sized #1 through #2/0) get put back on. Sometimes I put different sized hooks on the front and rear. I do this because it helps keep the hooks from snagging on each other during the cast and retrieve, and because sometimes I feel that I increase my hook-up to bite ratio by offering two hook sizes.
A Day on the Water
Here's how I approach wakebait fishing during a typical day in June on a relatively clear highland type reservoir. I usually try to be fishing as early as possible but it's not that important because the wind is the important factor (it's important to note that the best bite usually happens at different times on different lakes and I fish accordingly). If the wind is blowing my confidence is high and I move quickly from spot to spot because you never know when the wind will stop. It's a run and gun affair as long as there is a good wind. If it becomes obvious that only a few spots are holding fish I just start rotating through those spots. Now lets say I arrive at the lake and there is little to no wind. My confidence is low but I'm going to give it a go anyway. After about an hour I probably know if it's worth throwing wakebaits or not, and chances are good I've had numbers of followers. More than likely I haven't been bit and its time to make a decision. I can either force the wakebait issue or I can go have fun fishing regular techniques. I usually opt for the latter and almost always go back to the places I had followers or know are holding good fish. This is also an excellent time to go throw the wakebait in new water. I probably won't get bit, but in calm water good fish love to follow wakebaits and if this occurs I now have new spots to fish when conditions are right. Conditions change (usually water level) from year to year and so do the good fishing spots. Searching for new water during less than optimal swimbait conditions allows me to stay on top of the game and continue to be successful. Sometimes it's tough to force yourself to search for new water but it's something that you just have to do no matter how painful it is. So lets say there's little to no wind and I'm dartheading or looking for new water and the wind suddenly comes up. I don't hesitate and will immediately switch back to throwing wakebaits with a run and gun approach. When the wind picks up the wakebait bite can turn on instantaneously. Its one of the few sure things in swimbaiting. As long as the wind is blowing I'm running hard and fishing hard because you just never know when that wind is going to die back.
Fishing wakebaits at night is probably my favorite way to fish these baits. Everything I've described above also applies to night fishing, there really aren't that many differences. My experience has shown that the best night bite occurs when the weather turns unbearably hot and stays that way for several days or more. Once again, wind is key. Also, I prefer fishing during the new moon and try real hard never to fish during the full moon. However, the best time to go fishing is always whenever you have a chance.
Fishing wakebaits in my opinion is the most enjoyable style of swimbaiting. It's easy, it produces big fish and it's a thrill to watch bass smash the baits on the surface. However, you have to be persistent and stick to your game plan. Buy the right bait, persist through the slow periods, have a positive attitude and don't be afraid to experiment and I guarantee you will be successful.
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