Byron Velvick didn’t invent swimbait fishing. Fabled California anglers like Dave Rush and Russ Meyer were the first to explore the allure of the big pieces of wood and soft plastic on spawning bass in Western waters. Others joined in the fun in the early 1990s.
Velvick could, however, be credited as one of the pioneers of free-casting the oversized lures to bass in a variety of situations throughout much of the year. And he certainly popularized swimbaits to the rest of the bass world back in 2000, when he used an 8-inch Basstrix to set a tournament re-cord with 15 bass weighing an amazing 83 pounds, 5 ounces on California’s renown Clear Lake.
Through his circuit travels and television gigs, the former Nevada pro has arguably done as much as anyone to bring the swimbait East. Today, Velvick lives on Lake Amistad, that big-bass factory on the Texas-Mexico border with the kind of clear waters and oversize largemouths tailor-made for these lures. The setting keeps him on the cutting edge of swimbait fishing.
Who better to guide NAFC members through their ever-evolving world?
Ask him what makes him a good swimbait fisherman, and you’ll get a straight answer. “Confidence,” he says. “My ability to live with it or die with it. I’ll fish one all day for a just few big bites.”
His vast experience—through a much wider range of conditions than most anglers—has also given him insight as to when the lures perform at their peak.
“I fish them enough to know the right times of the year and especially the right times of day,” he says. “It’s interest-ing, but they don’t catch much bet-ween 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. There is a dead zone there.”
According to Velvick, the prime times are early in the morning and late in the afternoon. “I’ve picked up a swimbait at 2 o’clock on a tournament day and won the event by 3:30.”
The success of Western pros like him has over the past few years helped the swimbait migrate to Eastern bass waters both North and South. Despite their spread, swimbaits have not been embraced or utilized in the East the way they are on the Left Coast.
“Guys back East still don’t give the baits much confidence because it’s so much easier to catch fish on other things in those waters,” Velvick notes. “It’s dangerously tempting for Eastern anglers to fish a swimbait for an hour, then switch to something they know is going to work—like throwing a spinnerbait.”
He also blames weather patterns for the lag. “In southern California there’s a nice marine air layer, so the area gets a lot of those cloudy, warm days for which swimbaits are made,” Velvick says. “We also don’t have to deal with massive cold fronts, complete with bluebird days and high barometric pressure. Plus, the state stocks trout in many of our reservoirs, and the average swimbait perfectly matches their size and shape.”
In other words it’s easier to become a good swimbait fisherman out West. Despite the increased difficulty, Velvick believes learning to fish the baits is the key to catching bigger bass in the East. “If you fish them right, in the right conditions, they will produce big fish anywhere.”
Those right conditions consist of warm nights that give way to temperate days; low-light or overcast skies; a light breeze that puts a ripple on the water; water temperatures of 55 degrees or higher; and fairly clear water. Since swimbaits primarily attract and trigger bass visually, the clearer the water the better.
The lures’ track record for catching huge southern California bass from the prespawn through postspawn unfairly pigeon-holes the baits as springtime tools. But Velvick doesn’t limit their application to these shallow situations. In fact, during summer, he relies on them to work the thermocline in 25 to 35 feet of water.
Choose Your Swim Team
With swimbaits, there is a livewell full of options as far as color, species, length, swim style and depth. The array is daunting, but they fall into three basic categories: hard plastic, soft plastic and wood; and three subcategories: floating, diving and sinking.
For most of his fishing (particularly in tournaments), Velvick is a soft plastics man, as the baits have a more subtle action that gets strikes from a wider size range of bass.
On the other end of the spectrum, he sometimes throws a wooden version like a 22nd Century Triple Trout or River2Sea Wood’n Slither. The size of these baits eliminates smaller fish and ups his odds of connecting with a genuine brute.
His current favorites from all classes include the River2Sea Live Minnow, Live Eye Bottom Walker Shad, Basstrix, Original Optimum Swimbait, Matt Lures’ Bluegill and Baby Bass, and the Huddleston Deluxe.
Choosing the right swimbait for the situation begins with matching the dominant food source.
“If you’re in Florida, you’d better be fishing a golden shiner-looking bait,” he explains. “If you’re in Georgia or South Carolina, you need to match blueback herring; if you’re on Clear Lake in California, mimic the hitch (a local type of minnow); or a juvenile coho salmon on Lake Shasta.”
Aside from those general guidelines exist countless other forage scenarios that vary from water-to-water, or even change with the seasons. For example, Velvick points to a recent tournament on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake, when hooked bass were throwing up 5-inch drum. Noticing forage peculiarities like that will let you choose the perfect bait for the job.
“On my home waters of Amistad, there is a real good concentration of tilapia and the bass feed heavily on them,” he says. “Whether it’s that, or it’s a lake known as a bluegill or crappie fishery, you need to use swimbaits colored like that forage. Remember, too, that big bass also often key on ‘baby’ bass—8- to 10-inch fish.”
To ensure his swimbaits perfectly match the hatch and perform at their peak, Velvick doctors them considerably, particularly with colored markers and nail polish. That might include adding orange to a perch-pattern bait, painting on red gills or chartreuse, or blackening the tail of a baby bass-imitating lure.
Size, of course, also matters. “People ask me all the time what size swimbait should they buy,” he says. “Well, I can’t answer that anymore than Rick Clunn or Kevin VanDam can tell you what spinnerbait or crankbait to get.”
Matching the hatch size-wise as well as in color is crucial, and doing that consistently means keeping your box stocked with a wide variety of lures.
“There is no single swimbait that’s going to do all the tricks. I use smaller ones when I’m fishing a bluegill pattern or a shad bite,” he says. “Some of the new swimbaits are really small—like the size of a spinnerbait blade, and I use those when the forage calls for it—especially when fishing spotted bass.
“Of course, I also have the giant baits that I throw strictly for big fish. All sizes are viable depending on the forage base of the water.”
Velvick fishes swimbaits as long as 16 inches to shorter than 3, so he relies on tackle that will cover the gamut.
When fishing surface or mid-depth presentations, he uses a tough monofilament, such as Berkley XT or Big Game. His go-to strength is 20, but he varies it from 12 to 25 depending on the size of the lure.
“Big, heavy mono keeps the bait lifted, which is important for surface and mid-depth presentations,” he adds. “The heavier the line, the more lift you get, plus it absorbs the shock of the strike.”
When he’s fishing deep, Velvick goes with fluorocarbon. The sinking line makes it easier to swim the bait right along bottom.
The right rod is another critical component of the system. He prefers to go long to get the most out of the baits, opting for 8-foot, heavy-power sticks with a fairly limber tip. “The worst thing you can do is fish a swimbait on a real stiff rod,” he says.
Velvick designed three such rods for Rogue to handle the range of swimbait sizes. The 8-foot extra-heavy action SB 808C is perfect for the largest lures; medium-size lures fish excellently on the 8-foot SB 807C heavy-action model; and the 7-foot-9 SB 796C heavy action is best for lighter baits.
Take A Swim
For many anglers, swimbait fishing is a whole new frontier. But by following Velvick’s advice you can be sure that these increasingly versatile lures will pay off with bigger bass.