Kevin VanDam’s first-ever bass with a swimbait hit exactly like he had imagined it would, with a thunderous strike in shallow, open water, and it weighed more than 10 pounds.
He became an instant fan of the big rainbow trout imitations at that moment – this was during practice for a major Bassmaster tournament on California’s Clear Lake – but after suffering through one of the worst tournaments of his career there, VanDam began seriously studying the lures to learn how they might better fit into his personal style of fishing.
“A lot of my fishing is based on triggering reflex strikes,” said the Michigan pro. “But the big swimbaits aren’t built to do that very effectively. You can’t really speed up or jerk those lures very well. Most were basically designed for a slow retrieve just under the surface, and when big bass are up shallow, these types of lures are awesome. When they’re not up, you’re going to make a lot of empty casts.”
What VanDam really wanted was a smaller swimbait just four or five inches in length that offered both the profile and color of natural shad forage, but more importantly, a lure he could reel as fast as a spinnerbait.
Since that tournament, as swimbait interest has grown, lure makers have responded with a boatload of both hard and soft plastic swimbaits. Strike King, Spro, Sebile, Optimum, Mann’s, Yum, Berkley and others now offer smaller hard and/or soft swimbaits that don’t fish anything like their big brothers.
“I originally thought swimbaits only worked well in clear water,” VanDam said. “But these smaller lures are very effective in stained and dingy situations because they’re actually a combination of swimbait and crankbait. They move a lot of water, which is important when bass are not relying so much on sight to find prey. In fact, they may be even more effective in stained water than in clear water.”
VanDam fishes the small, hard-plastic swimbaits like a spinnerbait or crankbait, using longer casts and a mixture of stops, starts and speed changes throughout every retrieve. At Falcon Reservoir during the 2008 Bassmaster Elite, he caught more than 70 pounds with Strike King’s four-inch King Shad jointed swimbait, working it across rocky points and flats. At Amistad, he cranked it over and through standing timber.
“Almost always, I’m trying to get more speed out of my lures, but I don’t want to lose the lure’s action,” he said. “With a spinnerbait, I try to cover a lot of water and bounce the lure off rocks, logs and different cover, and I fish the King Shad exactly the same way, something I could never do with a larger swimbait.”
In shallow vegetation and brushy cover, around boat docks and bridge pilings, and even along steep-walled bluffs, VanDam changes to one of the soft plastic swimbaits because they can be rigged weedless.
While they vary in size from about two to perhaps seven inches in length, most feature a down-turned, boot-type tail that vibrates as the lure is retrieved. VanDam prefers the hollow-body style, which, when rigged with a belly-weighted hook, also rocks back and forth even as the tail kicks.
He often retrieves them just like a jerkbait, with a series of rapid rod snaps. Then he stops to let the lure sink a few inches, then speeds up his retrieve so the swimbait swims again.
Although the scene is changing quickly, VanDam doesn’t believe bass have seen a lot of these types of lures being retrieved in this manner through weedy or brushy cover or along the outside edges of deeper grasslines, so he’s enjoying the action while he can.
He’ll also use these soft plastic swimbaits when he wants to fish deeper water.
“A lot of times, I’ll Texas rig these lures, putting a 1/8-oz. slip sinker on the line just like with a worm,” he said. “I can cast it further and work it back about six feet deep. If I want to go down to about eight feet, I’ll put on a ¼-oz. sinker. This way I still have the rocking, swimming action but in deeper water.”
If he wants to go even deeper, he rigs with a 3/8 or even a ½-oz. jighead. His preferred presentation this way is to cast, let the swimbait sink to the bottom, then hop and swim it along the bottom.
Depending on how bass are biting, he may also employ a stinger hook, a treble threaded on the main hook with one barb embedded in the swimbait body to hold it in place. Even with the stinger, the lures keep that distinctive side to side rocking action as well as the swimming tail movement.
VanDam fishes both the hard and soft swimbaits with fluorocarbon line, which he terms critical in clear water and on those occasions when he might employ a slow retrieve. He also prefers fluorocarbon because, since it sinks, it allows the lures to run a little deeper.