A look back at soft baits

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Michael Marris

The soft bait revolution changed inshore fishing forever, and as it is still an experience most fishermen apply an individual approach. For one Auckland fisherman it opened up a whole new world.

This is the first of a series of articles on successful techniques for soft bait fishing. Over the next few issues I will be sharing my best experiences, I will reveal the techniques that work for me, and I will guide you through the many simple but important little subtleties that will make your soft bait fishing experience not only a hugely successful adventure but also deeply rewarding and satisfying.

Aspects I shall cover in detail include gear selection, casting and retrieving techniques, hooking up and bringing the fish in, fishing different environments and the most effective use of soft bait lures. This information will reflect my own real life outcomes fishing in the Hauraki Gulf and will lead you into the most effective and satisfying use of this new fishing experience.


Well......there have been all these years of smelly pillies, messy berley and clag all around the boat. Not to mention heavy duty rods, large reels and sophisticated hook systems. And especially not to mention the domestic issues about what happens in the freezer, with all my fishing baits competing for limited space with the frozen vegetables and all the other items of food store that wives like to keep in cold storage.

Now there is the no fuss soft bait revolution: no smell, no mess, easy on the arms and easy on the boat. And most importantly of all, easy on my wife, which in turn means easy on me.

So what is this all about? I’m just your average fisho – nothing too flash, modest gear, and fair weather focused, usually looking for a couple of meals of fresh snapper, maybe a kingfish or two, or some john dory and generally indifferent to kahawai, except for the thrill of the catch.

When using soft baits, the fish are predominately hooked in the corner of the mouth.

We have a house on Kawau Island– that magic jewel of the Hauraki Gulf – and so opportunities for me to get out on the water come up most every weekend. I’m a Queen Street boy at heart so during the week I’m in the city and I’m never surprised, during many boring moments, to find myself hanging out around Sailors Corner looking for something to buy. I always believe that Dean sees me coming from about 10 blocks away and I can hardly walk in the door without being bailed up by him in his invariably helpful and knowledgeable manner, offering me something new to satisfy my boy-toy needs.

And that was exactly how I came to the startling world of soft baits. Not of course that I bought the set-up for myself – oh no. I told him that I really needed something for my wife who periodically complains that I never invite her to go fishing. To be true I am a somewhat solitary creature and rather enjoy being out on the water on my own, which of course she well knows. So this was bit of a test; given the opportunity with a manageable and non-messy setup would she actually come onto the water with me? Well as it happened she never quite has had the chance for, as I have repeatedly explained to her, I have really had a big need to totally test out the new system to ensure that it might be right for her. Not that she believes any of this of course.

Much like any bait, it is important to regularly check the softbait is on the jighead correctly. This situation negatively effects its action.


First, you need the right gear. Expectably, cost drives quality but having said that I have now purchased two complete ready-to-fish sets for around $200 each. This means a carbon fibre rod, which is very light and very flexible, and a matching eggbeater reel spooled up with 6 or 8 kg luminous braid. This runs onto about a metre of fluorocarbon leader and a specially moulded, weighted hook. At the end of the line, literally, comes the piece de resistance - the magnificent, slinky, squishy and usually multicoloured fluorescent soft bait lure.

Over the past couple of months I have been using a very lovely Daiwa Procaster rod, a 7-foot, two-piece set matched with a Daiwa Viento reel. The reel is very swish in its ergonomic design, and has a very effective anti-reverse system to stop over-running and the nasty bird’s nesting tangles which that can cause. It also has a rather nifty, although perhaps not hugely functional, twitch bar which allows you, with repeated thumb movements, to retrieve your line while sending signals down the line to jerk your soft bait lure into action so that it mimics baitfish and allows you the luxury of one-handed fishing - that is at least until you get a hook up when you require both hands and lots of focus!

My go-to set-up

Secondly, you need the soft bait lures. The baits I use come with the marvellous trade name of Gulp, made by Berkley out of the USA. There are bright ones, dull ones, big ones and small ones; all designed to mimic the actions of the real bait fish. They are economical when compared to a freezer full of pillies and berley and no mess. They are squishy to the touch, have a slight but not unpleasant odour and obviously are designed to attract fish. Importantly, they are totally biodegradable.

These protein baits are loaded with a fish attracting scent which diffuses into the water and, over time, causes each little bait to melt away. That is if it has not been consumed by a big fish in the meantime, or nibbled to bits by small ones. In fact, and as an aside and more about this in another article, most times the baits are retrievable. They come in a variety of styles and shapes and some brilliant colours, not to mention some interesting names. When watching them dance around on the end of the line you quickly realise how incredibly clever their design is. They look for all the world like those small fish in the Kelly Tarlton aquariums darting and diving in the water. Even the most minimal action at the rod tip translates itself down the braid line and causes the plastic bait to look like it has just been on the receiving end of a 240-volt bare wire.

Thirdly, you need a good understanding of technique. The basic technique is simple: from your boat, off a dock or from the shore simply choose your bait, attach it to the weighted hook and cast. You will be amazed. This little lightweight set up will sail through the air maybe 30 or more metres trailing its brightly coloured braid line behind it, before plopping into the water and starting its magic. The trick of the retrieve is to keep the rod tip wiggling so that the protein bait at the end of the line continues to dance, bob and weave its way through the water, giving out its scent and attracting your quarry. I have experimented with a variety of techniques to retrieve the line, and in further articles will talk about different options. Generally however I simply keep some constant movement going on the rod as I gradually retrieve the bait.


Soft baits come in many shapes and sizes. I have been fishing with different kinds and so far have not really been able to distinguish which ones work better than others. They all seem to me to work magnificently well. Of this much I am sure - if there are fish there to be caught these soft baits will catch them.

I must say that from a pure naming preference I can’t go past the classic Nuclear Chicken, a massive 18cm of fluorescent red and green protein bait with a fabulous swimming action in the water. You can test this for yourself simply by dangling your line over the side and jiggling the rod and watching the dancing of the lure. What a handle! The guys at the tackle shop tell me that simply on the basis of name alone the Nuclear Chicken outsells all other baits! I guess that is the real hunter gatherer in us blokes coming to the surface. Other favourites for me are the slinky Sapphire Shine baits and I must say that the Black Catalpa has been pretty successful with snapper.

I do change baits when I’m fishing if one is not working for me. Often the substitution produces a rapid hook up, and the pleasant economics of soft bait fishing ensure that it is much more cost effective than the traditional frozen fish and burley blends.

It is important to remember that these baits are water-soluble, and being protein-based they are not harmful to the environment. They come in handy zip-lock packages, so reseal the bait when you take one out. Equally it is important not to put an old one back in. The water is likely to create an action on the baits that you have not used. When I have finished fishing for the day I either wrap my soft bait in a piece of Gladwrap or I simply leave it on the hook and when I come to go fishing again I soften it up by dangling it in the water for a few minutes.


Just how successful is this approach, you may well ask. Let me tell you that as an initial sceptic it has turned out for me to be absolutely magnificent. Without being too scientific about it, I have tried fishing with the old bait and burley method off one side of the boat and having a friend with the protein soft baits fishing off the other. On each occasion the powerful proteins have out-fished the traditional methods by about two to one. Other times I have alternatively fished one hour with each technique, with the same good results. As I continue I plan to be somewhat more rigorous in my testing and I will let you know the results.

Yes, softbaits will provide dinner in most circumstances. They also keep the boat clean for minimal mess prior to filleting later.

More importantly, it is outstanding fun to catch fish in this way. More about this at a later time, but the closest experience I’ve had has been when I was trout fishing as a child on Lake Taupo. It is a very similar experience to catching a fighting rainbow trout from a river bank after casting into the water. That is the great pleasure of these graphite rods and braid lines.

I did try about a year ago to have a go with the first generation of plastic baits, by trying them on the end of my ordinary heavyweight set up. The failure was breathtaking, my disappointment palpable and my frustration ultimately leading to my throwing the whole lot away. I have since learned two things: one, that the new generation of baits is a significant step forward and, two, you really do need the complete set up which includes the braid line, a small light graphite rod and the nifty little reel.

So you can see that I am now a dedicated convert. So too is my wife, in whose name of course this outfit was purchased! Not that she has had any opportunity to use it. I have totally commandeered the whole system. She, however, is delighted that the boat remains clean, and I don’t come back smelling like the back end of a fish factory after a hot day in the sun and, most critically of all in the classic domestic environment, that she has been able to reclaim her freezer. What is known in the common parlance as a win-win solution.

This first article has been a general overview. In future episodes I shall describe the techniques in greater detail, and report back upon my experiences of fishing in different environments – such as deeper water from my rubber-duckie, and from the shore. In the meantime, I’m off to Kawau.

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