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October 25, 2001

Pitching the Soft Sell

Lifelike feel and versatility have more and more anglers buying into soft-plastic baits.

"The saltwater market represents my bread and butter." Certainly this quote could be attributed to dozens of lure-makers, but it becomes noteworthy when rolling off the lips of Robin Shiver. As president of Bass Assassin - a soft-plastic-bait manufacturer in Mayo, Florida - Shiver might be expected to say he owes his company's success to "hawg hunters" who purchase purple worms and pumpkinseed lizards for pitching under lily pads. Bass, walleye and crappie anglers do make up a large portion of Bass Assassin's loyal customer base, but Shiver recognizes the popularity that soft-plastic lures continue to gain among saltwater anglers.
Shiver feels the recent boom in shallow-water saltwater angling has contributed to a higher demand for plastics by opening up a whole new market for this type of lure. "Within the past five years, quite a few guys I used to go bass fishing with have sold their bass boats, bought flats boats and now fish for speckled trout and redfish," he says. "These guys like to fish soft plastics in salt water because they always used them in fresh water. The growing legion of conservation-minded anglers practicing catch-and-release also keeps sales of slugs, curly tails and shad bodies moving briskly, according to Shiver. Single-hook-rigged lures usually prove less harmful to fish than deeply ingested live baits. And rather than bother with procuring live bait whether bought or caught - today's on-the-go anglers often opt for the convenience and cost-effectiveness of rubbery imitations. "Plastics are cheaper in the long run," says Shiver. "Compare the price of a bag of grubtails to the cost of several dozen live shrimp, many of which you'll lose to pinfish anyway."

Something for Everyone
Mixing salt water and soft plastics is no revolutionary new concept; anglers have been duping redfish with the tried-and-true spoon-and-grubtail combo since plastic muscled into pork rind's market decades ago. The big news in plastics today centers on the variety of styles and their versatility. Soft plastics now have applications in every angling venue, from threading 10-inch tails onto lead-heads for halibut to trolling shad bodies for tuna to fooling snook with shrimp-shaped (and flavored) offerings.
Unlike hard baits, where size and shape often limit a lure's optimal working depth and action, plastics can be rigged to suit many situations. The same body can be fished weightless on a worm-style hook to be slithered through grass, twitched over oyster bars on a popper head or bounced through deep holes on a jig. On-the-spot adjustments such as trimming the length allow customized tweaking to please picky fish.
Two basic methods exist for producing these baits: hand pouring and injection molding. The difference between the techniques lies in how raw material (heated plastic) enters the mold. Hand pouring, as the name implies, requires extensive manual labor to carefully fill open-cavity molds. An automated process, injection molding uses machines to perform the work. A quick inspection reveals a bait's origin. Hand-poured plastic bodies have one flat side because they come out of open-cavity molds. They also tend to be more porous than injection-molded plastics, which exhibit a smoother finish. Prices fluctuate considerably from one brand to another, but hand-poured baits tend to cost slightly more than injection-molded products.
Our quality runs high because each bait is individually handled, says Ben Thomas, president of Rhino Custom Fishing Lures in Virginia Beach, Virginia. "It's like comparing Grandma's homemade cookies to something from an automated bakery." Thomas's company has been producing hand-poured plastic baits for four years, and he says the hands-on method allows him to offer body styles and sizes that machines can't make. "For example, injection-molding companies don't like to produce large shad bodies because they require longer cooling times. I make 6-, 9- and 12-inch shads that striper fishermen love."
According to Thomas, hand pouring also allows for creating color combinations unavailable in machine-made baits. "Our baits contain laminated colors. That means the dark shad backs aren't painted on; they're mixed in the plastic and poured in along with the rest of the body. We also make split-vein patterns with branched streaks of color running through the body."
Ted Sheridan, president of Mr. Wiffle Lures, points out, however, that manufacturers have developed ways to produce injection-molded baits with laminated colors. The Bass Assassin Glass Shad represents another innovation in injection-molded soft-plastic baits because it contains a strip of reflective tape within the body.

Making Scents
Once the movement of a soft-plastic bait triggers a predatory response from game fish, the lure's lifelike feel encourages them to hold on. But how much does lure color influence angling success? Shiver feels that Bass Assassin gained acceptance among saltwater anglers thanks in part to "wild new colors nobody had offered before, such as chartreuse diamond, pink diamond and fire tiger."
"I have certain favorite colors I may start off with and come back to, but I change lure color often to see what's working on a given day," says Thomas. (One of his favorites is the ribbed Rhino Tail in mantis-shrimp brown.) Sheridan, on the other hand, sticks to just two colors - but wouldn't offer any specifics. "If you believe in a certain color, use it," he advises. "Having confidence in a lure helps you catch fish."
Does natural taste or scent in a lure actually increase hookup rates? A firm believer in scented baits, Thomas spikes all Rhino lures with a double shot of menhaden oil. The aromatic attractant goes into the plastic before molding, and the finished baits receive another application during the packaging phase. "Not only does the oil attract fish, it keeps baits from sticking together and helps the hook slide in for easier rigging," Thomas says.
Shiver says he doesn't incorporate scent in his lures because that would make it tough to keep the bright colors his customers look for. "Besides," he says, "why add scent if the baits catch fish just the way they are?"
According to Sheridan, Mr. Wiffle lures stay unscented because they serve both fresh- and saltwater markets. It's better to remain neutral than make shrimp-scented versions for salt water and salt-flavored bass worms. "If you want scented baits, you can soak them in mehaden oil overnight or use one of the commercially available sprays," Sheridan says. Before dousing your favorite plastics with scent spray, read the label carefully. "Many fish attractants contain mineral oil, which toughens up plastic baits over time," warns Thomas.
Anglers can't seem to agree on exactly how soft a soft-plastic bait should be. Tougher baits last longer but lack seductive action. Ultra-soft baits encourage fish to hold on long enough to guarantee a solid hook-set, but tear apart easily and require frequent replacing. "I try to find a happy medium by listening to feedback from my customers," says Thomas. "Some say the baits are too soft, some say they're too hard."
"When fish pull on the tail of a tough plastic bait, it breaks off," says Sheridan. "The right amount of softness increases elasticity, so baits stretch without snapping."
Due to their versatility and wide selection of shapes and sizes, soft plastics have earned a place in every angler's bag of tricks. You could say that hard-core fishermen are going soft.