Swimbait Fishing Lures and Tips

22 versatile swimbaits that impart lifelike actions and catch fish.

A Flexible Presentation

red grouper
Swimbait actions are often less aggressive than those of hard lures. That’s important in areas with high fishing pressure and clear water. This red grouper bit near a South Florida ledge.Jason Arnold / jasonarnoldphoto.com

To classify a swimbait is not as simple as you might suppose, especially since there are few hard-set rules for lures (or for fishing in general).

Depending on one’s definition, swimbaits might represent jointed hard-body lures that swim just below the surface, imitating full-size baitfish. The single- or multijointed plugs often pack powerful swimming action that replicates the fluid swimming motion of prey. This style of swimbait also tends to be popular with freshwater fishermen targeting trophy largemouth bass in California, Mexico and Florida.

Other anglers prefer soft swimbaits. Soft-plastic bait imitators, which most often feature a paddle tail and enticing wobble, might be the most common lure associated with the term "swimbait." Here, I compared 21 such baits from 12 manufacturers.

In particular, I’ve covered swimbaits that come out of the package pre-rigged with hook, weight and soft plastic. Most often, the weight is internal, molded inside the soft-plastic baitfish, and the soft-plastic bait itself features a shad-style tail. Still, there are exceptions to those rules, and I cover them as well.

One type of lure noticeably absent is the stand-alone soft-plastic tail that affixes to a lead jig head. Many companies, such as Z-Man or Berkley (Gulp!), produce killer soft tails, but they're not sold as pre-rigged swimbaits. In fact, so many lure makers produce individual soft-plastic bodies that to try to cover all the different options would be an endless task. For the purposes of this piece, I've left them out.

Easy Fishability

redfish catch
Redfish are easily duped by a well-placed swimbait, especially when you’re fishing deeper flats, passes or beaches. This drum pounced on a Storm WildEye Swim Shad.Adrian E. Gray

As I drifted in about 15 to 20 feet of water outside an east central Florida inlet, a froth of water roiled by baitfish, diving birds, and game fish bent on carnage had my full attention. The mix of Spanish mackerel, bonito (false albacore), ladyfish and cobia offered perfect targets for swimbaits. This hectic scene is common anywhere there’s salt water. It might mean striped bass are feeding heavy on bunker schools. It could be tarpon rocketing through migrating mullet pods, or tuna packing sardines tightly into a black globe. No matter the location, cast a swimbait into the melee and hold on.

"When fish are up at the surface and actively feeding, it's a great time to throw swimbaits," says Dave Brown, promotional and events manager at Savage Gear. "Pull up to a baitball where you see the birds working, then cast as close as possible to the school and let it sink. A steady or jerked retrieve entices the bite."

dorado fishing
Offshore, dorado crush swimbaits, especially when frenzied near the boat. Don’t waste time re-baiting a hook; instead, cast a swimbait.Jason Arnold / jasonarnoldphoto.com

In scenarios where your targets are keyed in on baitfish, an all-purpose swimbait is a safe and effective option. A hard plug's action is limited to a specific depth, but a swimbait can be fished throughout the column. "You can work a swimbait in the entire water column by choosing how heavy a bait to throw," points out Greg Watts, a Berkley pro staff angler. "They can be worked fast or slow, shallow or deep, even along the bottom."

Swimbaits are highly effective from the beach, over shallow or deep flats, and along jetty rocks for this reason: They can be fished effectively in varying depths of water. "Single-hook swimbaits snag far less on the bottom than other baits do," says Greg Shaughnessy, vice president of marketing at SpoolTek Lures. "But they also tend to be one of the only lures that fishes ­effectively when floating grass is around."

Different Materials, Same Results

snook fishing
Casting near or underneath docks with swimbaits leads to catches such as snook. Try to match the local baitfish for the most natural presentationJason Arnold / jasonarnoldphoto.com

The key feature of a swimbait might be its lifelike appearance. Besides physically resembling baitfish in shape and action, swimbaits also have realistic finishes. Some of today’s baits look so genuine that identifying the exact baitfish species the lure imitates is a breeze.

To get those lifelike finishes and feels, the two main build materials used in soft baits are synthetic plastic-polymer polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and thermoplastic elastomer (TPE), a rubber-and-plastic mix. TPE is a tough material that's also recyclable. "[TPE] colors will not run when stored together, but do not store it with traditional PVC used in plastics," says Ken Chaumont, of Egret Baits. The unfortunate result will be a multicolored puddle of goop. More and more, companies like Z-Man, Savage Gear and Egret Baits are moving away from traditional PVC material to tougher, longer-lasting options. In particular, Z-Man's proprietary ElaZtech is a tough, stretchy soft-bait material that contains no PVC, plastisol or phthalates.

“Material and species of fish ­definitely affect swimbait life span,” says Savage’s Brown. “PVC baits tend to be softer than the more durable TPE baits. Still, if you are fishing for wahoo or other toothy creatures, plastic baits entice the bite and usually die a hero.”

Soft-plastic swimbaits can last indefinitely if left in your tackle box. "I suppose if you left them in salt water for a long time, they would break down, but fish strikes are the chief cause of damage, death, doom and destruction," says Chris Clow, operations manager at D.O.A. Lures.

Purposeful rigging by lure manufacturers can extend a swimbait's life. "We think we've engineered ways to help anglers get multiple fish landings per lure by virtue of the factory rigging, which molds the hook and weight into a harness that provides enough structure to help preserve the lure's fishability," says Gary Abernathy, of LiveTarget Lures.

West Coast Swimbaits Are a Breed of Their Own

MC Swimmer Viejo
MC Swimmer Viejo and VMC Boxer Jig Head
Weight: ½ ounce to ¼ ounce, rigged with 1-ounce VMC Boxer jig heads Length: Three sizes from 5 to 9 inches Material: Hand-poured PVC soft plastic Colors: 19 Targets: Calico bass, rockfish, lingcod Price: $5.39 for five-pack of 5-inch baits Tidbit: The slim profile of these baits, coupled with a narrow boot tail, gives them a tight ­swimming action instead of the familiar wide wobble.Bill Doster

Many Southern California anglers prefer to pair massive soft-body tails from regional lure makers with heavy jig heads for calico bass and yellowtail near kelp and rocks. Farther north along the coast, rockfish and lingcod attack the same baits. In many West Coast fisheries, custom swimbait creations are preferred to the pre-rigged baits presented in this feature.

"Most mass-produced swimbaits are injection-molded," says Erik Landesfeind, an outdoors writer and angler from Southern California. "Hand-poured baits like those from Corey Sanden's MC Swimbaits allow for much greater depth of color and iridescence."

A couple of years ago, Landesfeind was fishing a calico bass tournament off the coast of Malibu. He and fishing partner Matt Kotch had to downsize from 9- to 5-inch swimbaits to lure better-quality fish while working the edges of kelp beds. Landesfeind was easily able to change the size, weight and color of his presentation, giving him more options than traditional swimbaits offer. Often, an increase in the length of a traditional swimbait means the weight increases too; Landesfeind changed his jig heads and soft bodies easily to find the optimal lure weight and length.

“For the next couple of hours, it was almost a fish per cast on the small baits in the same waters [where] we’d caught absolutely nothing on the larger offerings,” he says. “When time was up, those small baits gave us a 21-pound bag for our five biggest fish and a third-place finish in the tournament.”

Below are 21 different swimbaits, with specifications and details listed about each lure. Which bait is your favorite?

Almost Alive Glass Minnow

Almost Alive Glass Minnow
Length: 2¾, 3½ and 4 inches Material: PVC soft plastic Colors: Yellow, purple, silver or natural Targets: Seatrout, red drum, Spanish mackerel, California yellowtail, false albacore Price: $5.99 for five-pack of 4-inch baits Tidbit: A top bait to throw when glass minnows or rain baits are getting pummeled at the surface, it handles subsurface action too, with help from a weight attached to the hook shank.Bill Doster

Almost Alive Mud Minnow

Almost Alive Mud Minnow
Weight: 1∕5 to 1∕3 ounce Length: 2¾ and 4 inches Material: PVC soft plastic Colors: Plain, horizontal stripes or vertical bars Targets: Flounder, seatrout, red drum Price: $4.99 for six-pack of 2¾-inch baits Tidbit: Imitating mummichog and other killifish, this pint-size lure features a custom hook and chin weight to keep it in the strike zone.Bill Doster

Almost Alive Mullet

Almost Alive Mullet
Weight: ½ to ¾ ounce Length: 4 and 6 inches Material: PVC soft plastic Colors: Horizontal stripes or natural Targets: Red drum, flounder, snook, tarpon, seatrout, sea bass, grouper Price: $6.99 for four-pack of 4-inch baits Tidbit: Imitating the ever-present mullet, this popular bait is equally at home in back­waters or over shallow wrecksBill Doster

Almost Alive Rainfish

Almost Alive Rainfish
Weight: ¼ to 2∕3 ounce Length: 4 and 6 inches Material: PVC soft plastic Colors: Silver Targets: Weakfish, salmon, striped bass, bluefish Price: $6.99 for six-pack of 6-inch baits Tidbit: Featuring a natural color pattern and eyes, this bay anchovy imitator has a lifelike swimming action that comes from its soft body and reactive tail.Bill Doster

Berkley Powerbait Swim Shad

Berkley Powerbait Swim Shad
Weight: 1∕8 to 7∕8 ounce Length: Five sizes from 2 to 6 inches Material: PVC soft-plastic Powerbait formula Colors: Nine Targets: Anything that eats shad or bunker Price: $4.99 for three-pack of 5-inch baits Tidbit: Powered by a proprietary Powerbait scent formula, this pre-rigged shad swimbait features lifelike detail, 3-D eyes and holographic inserts.Bill Doster

Calcutta Flashfoil Shad

Calcutta Flashfoil Shad
Weight: 1∕8 to 2¼ ounces Length: Five sizes from 2 to 6 inches Material: PVC soft plastic Colors: 10 Targets: Redfish, seatrout, bluefish Price: $4.99 for five-pack of 4-inch baits Tidbit: Perfect for casting to schooling fish, baitfish or near structure, Flashfoil baits incorporate a weight-balance system, holographic eyes and raised gill plates.Bill Doster

D.O.A. Bait Buster

D.O.A. Bait Buster
Weight: 5∕8 to 1 ounce Length: 4¼ inches Material: PVC soft plastic Colors: 55 Targets: Wide-open targets, from largemouth bass to tarpon Price: $4.69 for one-pack Tidbit: Shallow, deep and trolling models make the Bait Buster a versatile swimbait that can be fished over the flats, in passes, or even slow-trolled up to 6 knots.Bill Doster

Egret Mambo Mullet

Egret Mambo Mullet
Weight: ¼ to ½ ounce Length: 3½ and 4 inches Material: TPE Colors: 10 Targets: Any shallow-water inshore game fish Price: $7.99 for two-pack of 3½-inch baits Tidbit: A reversed hydro-cupped tail causes this bait to dance and shake when retrieved — hence its boogie name.Bill Doster

Egret Vudu Mullet

Egret Vudu Mullet
Weight: ¼ to 1 ounce Length: 3½, 4½ and 5½ inches Material: TPE Colors: 12 Targets: Redfish, trout, snook, tarpon, cobia Price: $7.99 for single 3½-inch bait Tidbit: Rigged with an internal weight and 4x treble, this lure has a notched body design that allows it to move in an ­undulating manner when retrieved.Bill Doster

LiveTarget Mullet

LiveTarget Mullet
Weight: 1 to 1½ ounces Length: 4½ and 5½ inches Material: PVC soft plastic Colors: Silver or silver/black Targets: Most inshore game fish Price: $10.99 for single 4½-inch bait Tidbit: The realistic mullet swimbait is at home in skinny water, over grass, or in a current. An accessory pin at the base of the bait handles a split ring and treble hook.Bill Doster

LiveTarget Pinfish

LiveTarget Pinfish
Weight: ¾ to 1 ounce Length: 3½ and 4 inches Material: PVC soft plastic Colors: Silver/violet or silver/green Targets: Structure-oriented fish Price: $9.99 for single 3½-inch bait Tidbit: Fish this pinfish imitator near pilings, rocks, mangroves or docks with confidence to attract the fish away from the structure. The dorsal fin acts as a shield to protect the hook from snags.Bill Doster

LiveTarget Sardine

LiveTarget Sardine
Weight: ½ to 1 ounce Length: 3½ and 4½ inches Material: PVC soft plastic Colors: Silver/green or silver/bronze Targets: Anything that eats whitebait (scaled sardines) Price: $9.99 for single 3½-inch bait Tidbit: Like all lures in the LiveTarget swimbait series, the Sardine features a unique oscillator at the tail to generate specific, lifelike action.Bill Doster

Savage Gear Cutbait Herring

Savage Gear Cutbait Herring
Weight: 9½ to 16 ounces Length: 8 and 10 inches Material: PVC soft plastic Colors: Blue pearl or pink Targets: Halibut, Atlantic cod, lingcod, tuna, Cubera snapper, California yellowtail Price: $19.99 for two-pack of 8-inch baits Tidbit: The massive Cutbait Herring swimbait is 3-D-scanned, lifelike in appearance, and comes packaged with one replacement curly tail. It's popular in Alaska for halibut down deep.Bill Doster

Sebile Magic Swimmer Soft

Sebile Magic Swimmer Soft
Weight: 1¼ to 23∕8 ounces Length: 6¼ and 8 inches Material: PVC soft-plastic mesh Colors: 8 Targets: Most saltwater species Price: $9.99 for three-pack of 6¼-inch baits Tidbit: This latest version of the Magic Swimmer includes strategically placed holes in the nose and throat, and in slots on the belly and back, to allow the bait to slide up the leader after the hook-set.Bill Doster

SpoolTek Fatty Extra Heavy

SpoolTek Fatty Extra Heavy
Weight: 3¾ ounces Length: 6 inches Material: Hard ABS plastic head with plastisol tail Colors: 6 Targets: Tarpon, snook, stripers, cobia, grouper, snapper, pelagics Price: $21.99 for two-pack of baits Tidbit: SpoolTek lures conceal a 12-inch, 80-pound steel leader that deploys after hookup, allowing anglers to use lighter line for a stealthy presentation.Bill Doster

Storm WildEye Live Mackerel

Storm WildEye Live Mackerel
Weight: ¾ to 1½ ounces Length: 4, 5 and 6 inches Material: PVC soft plastic Colors: Mackerel Targets: Nearshore and offshore species Price: $11.99 for five-pack of 4-inch baits Tidbit: A mackerel color pattern and VMC needle-point hook provide the attraction and toughness, while a 3-D eye and flash-foil finish provide extra detail.Bill Doster

Storm WildEye Live Sand Eel

Storm WildEye Live Sand Eel
Weight: 5∕16 to 7∕8 ounce Length: 4 and 6 inches Material: PVC soft plastic Colors: Black, blue, ­chartreuse, olive, pearl Targets: Cobia, stripers Price: $6.19 for three-pack of 6-inch baits Tidbit: The eel imitator with 3-D eyes jigs true, even at faster retrieval speeds.Bill Doster

Storm WildEye Swim Shad

Storm WildEye Swim Shad
Weight: 5∕8 to 2¾ ounces Length: 5, 6 and 9 inches Material: PVC soft plastic Colors: 16 Targets: Many fresh- and saltwater species Price: $4.29 for three-pack of 5-inch baits Tidbit: A tough, soft outer body with flash-foil attraction allows this swim shad to stand up to fish-catching abuse.Bill Doster

Tsunami Heavy Swim Shad Deep

Tsunami Heavy Swim Shad Deep
Weight: 3 ounces Length: 5 inches Material: Vinyl Colors: Limetreuse, golden bunker, blue back, pearl spot Targets: Most game fish deeper in the water column Price: $6.99 for two-pack of 5-inch baits Tidbit: Meant to swim deeper in the water column, this bait gets to the bottom quickly for ­swimming or jigging presentations.Bill Doster

Tsunami Holographic Swim Shad

Tsunami Holographic Swim Shad
Weight: 3∕8 ounce Length: 3 inches Material: Vinyl Colors: 15 Targets: Most toothy species Price: $5.99 for six-pack Tidbit: Available in different patterns and colors, this shad features a unique holographic finish and 3-D eyes for high hookup percentages.Bill Doster

Williamson Live Ballyhoo Pro-Rigged

Williamson Live Ballyhoo Pro-Rigged
Weight: 21∕3 ounces Length: 9½ inches Material: PVC soft plastic Colors: Black or blue Targets: Sailfish, tuna and other troll targets Price: $21.99 for one rigged bait and two extra bodies Tidbit: One fake 'hoo lure comes rigged with 6 feet of 100-pound mono, although two other rigging options are also available. Trolls at 2 to 8 knots.Bill Doster