Soft Plastics 101

Soft Plastics 101
Trying to decide which color and style of soft plastic is not always easy but client Tom Granchi loves the challenge.

As I type this month’s piece I am happy to report that salinities across the Galveston Bay Complex have improved dramatically. In addition, calm days typical of late-summer have begun to dominate the weather pattern. It is therefore a given that the water clarity has also improved all across the bay system. Such changes often require adjustments on our end when it comes to finding the right lures, colors, etc. to trick trout and reds. Day in and day out, the baits we rely most heavily upon on my boat are soft plastics. There are many different styles, sizes and colors to consider and as conditions change we need to be able to determine the right soft plastic for the job.


Soft plastic styles can be classified by their shapes into two main categories – rattails and paddletails. There are literally dozens of variations of both on the market today, along with some hybrids. The style and design we choose is based upon not only the application but also personal preference. I have a couple of buddies who almost always stick with rattail baits and they seem to do very well most of the time. There’s a lot to be said for having confidence in what you’re throwing.   

Some rattails have a split in the belly section to allow for weedless rigging. Some are solid-bodied (no belly split) with segmented joints that help create swimming action. Most rattails are about five inches in length while some can measure as long as seven inches. While most brands have their own subtle characteristics, there have been a couple of lure makers in recent years who have come up with some innovative designs that have proven to be especially effective in certain situations. One of my personal favorites is the MirrOlure Lil John. I guess the Lil John would technically fall into the rattail category but it’s really in its own league because of its size – only 3-3/4 inches. The Lil John has more of a twitchbait action and is impregnated with scent attractant. MirrOlure also offers a 4-1/4 inch version they call the Lil John XL. I personally prefer the smaller of the two, most of the time. 

Rattail plastics require a bit of finesse during the presentation. You have to actually “work” them by twitching, jigging, etc., as opposed to simply casting and reeling. This being said, I’ve caught plenty of fish on the Lil John by simply straight retrieving, although this is likely attributable to the scent impregnation. It could also be my high degree of confidence in this particular lure.

As a professional fishing guide I probably use paddletail lures more than most. In my opinion, paddletails are technically swimbaits, and as with most swimbaits it not strictly necessary for the angler to twitch or jig the lure to catch fish. The simple cast and reel technique will draw plenty of strikes. This method is super easy for beginners and kiddos. My two favorite paddletails are Saltwater Assassin Sea Shads and MirrOlure Marsh Minnows. Both are four inches or less and the Marsh Minnow is scented. It seems the smaller size and the addition of scent can help trigger more strikes from finicky trout.

Because salt water has a higher density than fresh water, objects tend to sink more slowly. And, as I mentioned earlier, our upper coast bays are finally becoming saltier – for now anyway. This means that whatever soft plastic we’re chunking is going to sink slower on average. We had a situation the other day where the guys on my boat throwing Lil Johns were catching three times more fish than the one guy using a paddletail. The tide was fairly swift and the area we were fishing was very salty. The Lil John is smaller and made of denser plastic than the softer paddletail he was using and it has a more aerodynamic shape which enables it to sink faster. The trout were near bottom and the paddletail wasn’t getting down into the strike zone like the Lil John.

Of all of the styles of soft plastics we use the paddletails sink the slowest. Saltwater Assassin makes a bait called the Die Dapper that sinks slower than any soft plastic I’ve ever used. It is a bit bulkier in shape than the Sea Shad and is a great bait for catching trout that are suspended just beneath the surface. Rigged on a 1/16 ounce jighead, a Die Dapper can stay in the strike zone for a very long time, thus giving us a legitimate chance at tricking even the most stubborn trout.

Color Choices

There are literally hundreds of soft plastic colors from which to choose and some of the names are just as creative as the colors themselves. Once we feed the trout some of Mama’s Chicken we can then offer them some Key Lime Pie. The ones that aren’t so picky may just settle for some Roadkill. And for sure, we should always have some Drunk Monkey, Texas Hippie, and Pimp Daddy in our soft plastic arsenal. Yes, these are indeed the actual names of lure colors.

But seriously, while colors can be important, it’s actually more about shades and contrast. I tend to group colors into three categories – bright, natural, and dark. If this sounds simple it’s because it is. See, many folks tend to overthink things when it comes to color selection. It’s not at all hard to do with so many choices out there, and I certainly get it. However, two basic factors help me decide which color to use and these are water clarity and available sunlight. Please keep in mind I’m referring mainly to upper coast bays here. Our friends from the coastal bend areas all the way to Port Isabel have to also take into consideration seagrass beds, sand potholes, etc. when making color choices. While Galveston Bay does indeed have a few areas with shoal grass and a few other species of bottom grasses, none of them compares to what one would observe in the Lower Laguna Madre.

Simply put, we use bright colors – limetreuse, pink, and glow – in water with greater clarity and bright sunlight. If the water clarity is decent, meaning green to sandy green, colors like Plum, Slammin’ Chicken, Chicken On A Chain, or Pumpkinseed work well, especially in cloudy or overcast conditions. Back in May and June, many areas in Galveston Bay (and Sabine Lake) had very low visibility because of the influx of fresh water. Visibility was less than three inches in many of the areas we were fishing. During these stretches, Morning Glory, Texas Roach, and Red Shad were hard to beat.

Which Size Jig Head to Use

I have customers who throw 1/4 ounce lead heads for every application and do just fine, but this is the exception rather than the rule. For the most part you can have the right color plastic on but if your jig head size doesn’t fit the requirements for the conditions the results will be disappointing. As I mentioned earlier, we definitely have to consider which style of soft plastic we’re using before choosing the best jig head size. The Die Dapper will sink slower than most any other paddletail, especially the Sea Shad. A rattail will sink faster than a paddletail and a Lil John will sink faster than all of them. As a matter of fact, I’ve found that a Lil John on a 1/16 ounce jig head will actually sink faster than a 4” Sea Shad on an 1/8 ounce head. We must therefore pay close attention to the style of plastic, the wind, salinity level, and the current when selecting jig head size.

If we’re wade fishing we’re almost always using a 1/16 ounce head. Exceptionally strong winds, high salinities, and/or swift currents may dictate switching to an 1/8 ounce, but that would likely be the heaviest. Drifting in 4- to 8-foot depths, an eighth ounce is pretty standard on my boat. Drifting deeper than 8 feet could warrant the use of a 1/4 ounce jig head, especially with some decent tide movement. Anchored in 8- to 12-foot depths with two knot current calls for 3/8 ounce jig heads. These are general guidelines and there are always exceptions. I am asked quite frequently whether jig head colors matter and I personally don’t believe they do. That being said, if you have more confidence throwing a chartreuse lead head then, by all means, throw it.

In my opinion, soft plastics are the most versatile baits saltwater anglers can use. They can be rigged in a variety of ways and retrieved using dozens of different techniques. We can typically cover more water in a shorter amount of time chunking plastics, which leads to being able to narrow the choices where fish can be caught more efficiently. Be resourceful, flexible, and keep an open mind with your soft plastic presentations while sticking to what you have the most confidence in – just don’t get caught up in overthinking things. And remember to crimp those barbs to allow for easy and quick releases of our speckled trout. Please just keep what you need for a nice dinner. Good luck!

Soft Plastic Buoyancy/Giant Redfish