Going Soft For Bottom Fish
Something big was about to happen, but of course I had no idea. The tide and the wind where cooperating and the black water pushing around Point Reyes was glassy flat and calm…..
I’d been eyeing the bait in Will Fish Tackle in Auburn for a while. It was an 8 inch long squid. The squid was made out of thick tough plastic and was hollow inside. It was pearl in color and it glowed.
The bait looked like something you’d rig up for marlin trolling but I had something else in mind when I bought the bait. I tied up a leader of 100 pound monofilament and tipped it with a 9/0 treble. I threaded several large beads on the leader so that they rested against the knot where the hook was connected. The beads were followed by three 3 ounce egg sinkers.
With the sinkers in place I threaded the leader through the squid from the bottom out through the top of the head. The next challenge was pushing the sinkers into the squid’s hollow body. It was a tight squeeze, but after applying a little bait oil to them they popped right into place. What I ended up with was a realistic glow in the dark squid that weight in at right around 10 ounces. How could a lingcod lay off something like that?
Back at Point Reyes I was thinking big lingcod and my brand new “glow squid” seemed like a perfect lure to try. I pitched it 30 or 40 feet uphill and let it drop to the bottom, my plan was to work the bait over the bottom in big lifts and drops using both the rod and reel to give the bait action.
When I felt the bait thud onto the rocks I pump it up and down a few times and then cranked it briskly off the bottom. I was going to stop after 10 cranks or so and drop the bait back to the bottom, but I never got that far.
After the second or third crank something freight trained the squid and I was hooked up with what seemed to be a large frisky lingcod.
I yelled for the gaff and worked the fish upward with steady cranking. When I saw the brown mass appear below the surface I was still thinking lingcod. It wasn’t until the deckhand gaffed the fish and brought it over the rail that I realized it wasn’t a lingcod, but rather a huge cabezon. I’d never landed a keeper size cabezon before so you can imagine my excitement when the cabezon that gobbled my homemade squid bait, registered 17.2 pounds on a digital scale!
Since that day, I’ve discovered that not only do cabezon like soft plastics, but lingcod and rockfish have a sweet tooth for them too. Day in day out if you catch me at the rockfish grounds and check my gear I’ll generally be fishing with either live or dead natural bait or a metal jig, yet I know a lot of anglers that are just as successful as I am and they spend most of their time working plastic. This being the case lets look at how plastic can be used for tempting bottom fish and explore some different baits that you might find useful.
For a long time, if you said you were using soft plastics for bottom fish you were talking almost exclusively about single or twin tail Kalin grubs. Kalin grubs were great two decades ago and they work well today, but alas these days there are a lot of super effective baits on the market. Before we get into the individual baits let’s take a look at three of the most effective ways to employ plastics.
The simplest way to go is to tie a ½ to 1 ounce jig head to the end of your line and pin the soft bait of your choice on the head. Using a jig head you can effectively work shallow water rocks and structure black bass style, but this approach is seldom realistic from anything but a private boat. When fishing from a charter boat you’ll likely be fishing water that is around 100 feet deep and you’ll need to use a lot more weight in order to control your line and keep your offering in the near bottom strike zone.
This is where the three-way rig comes in. A three way set up for fishing plastics is the basically the same as the three way you’d use for fishing live anchovies with a couple important variations. Instead of a live bait hook you’ll want to tip your plastics three way with a 6/0 to 9/0 octopus hook depending on what size bait you use. To keep the rig from tangling you’ll want to construct you leader out of stiff 40 or 50 pound fluorocarbon line.
Using this rig you can snap on as much weight, as you need to get to the bottom. After that fishing the rig is easy. You just mooch it above the bottom and wait for something to come knocking!
The final method we need to touch on is basically a modified shrimp fly rig. That can be used on either a private boat or charter boat with equal effectiveness. The rig simply consists of a leader with a pair of dropper loops tied into it. The droppers are armed with 6/0 to 9/0 octopus hooks. The top of the leader features a swivel where you attach your main line and the bottom of the leader sports a snap where your weight is attached. The two hooks are armed with the soft baits of your choice and perhaps tipped with strips of squid. Lower the rig to the bottom, start bouncing and before long rockfish and perhaps a ling or two should come over the rail!
Now that we’ve got an idea of what sort of rigs we’ll be using let’s think about baits, colors and execution. Clearly there are thousands of soft baits on the market and most of them will catch bottom fish at times.
My hands down favorite soft bait is Gulp! from the folks at Berkley. Berkley Gulp! looks alive in the water, puts off a bunch of scent and when a fish hits it, the bait tastes alive!
For arming a shrimp fly style rig, Gulp! Minnow Grubs work great. For the three way rig or for use with a jig head, Gulp! Jerk Shad work well, but my overall favorite Gulp! offering is the plain Jane, Gulp! 6 inch grub. Lingcod, cabezon and big rockfish absolutely love Gulp! grubs. They are big enough to interest a big fish, but they maintain a thin profile that doesn’t intimidate medium size fish.
Beyond Gulp! I’ve been playing with some new baits from the folks at P-Line. Their new bait dubbed the “Kicker Minnow” is actually a 6 inch long slim profile swim bait. The baits are super soft and feature a very lifelike eye. These baits are achieving great things on the black bass and striper fishing fronts, but in testing they are also proving to be exceptionally deadly on lingcod and rockfish.
I’ve been using them pinned on a three way rig with a good level of success, while P-Line’s own Don Newman has been using them paired with black bass gear and jig heads to hook an array of shallow water vermilions, blacks and lings while fishing from his private boat.
In closing we’d better take a moment to discuss colors. When it comes to saltwater fishing I don’t think you need a big color selection. White and chartreuse baits are standard and will produce action on most days. Along with the light stuff you’ll also want some darker baits in browns, blues and purples. At certain times along the northern and central California coast purple baits will out perform everything else on the rockfish grounds…
The next time you head out looking for bottom fish, don’t forget your soft plastics. They are super effective, easy on the wallet and lots of fun to experiment with!