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INSHORE IMPOSTERS

They're not spies, although they're experts at infiltration and identity theft.

They're soft plastic baits - probably the most diverse and versatile segment of the inshore fishing scene. No slight to topwaters, spoons, crankbaits and all the other proven fish-getters, but when measured by selection, adaptability and user-friendliness, it's tough to beat a soft hunk of imitation sea creature.

There was a time when Baskin-Robbins had more flavors than fishermen had soft plastic options. Today, you'd be hard pressed to find a baitfish, crustacean or invertebrate that you couldn't imitate with convincing form. And modern color selections cover just about every shade a baitfish ever thought about presenting.

Benefits of soft plastics are many, but the biggies include:

VERSATILITY: With a single jig head or weedless hook, you can try several body styles, colors and hooking arrangements. Experimenting with various styles and sizes of jig heads and hooks is as simple as clipping one knot and tying another.

QUICK RESPONSE: If the fish aren't buying what you're selling, try another color. Likewise, if you detect the presence of a likely food source such as crabs, shrimp, pinfish, you can match the hatch without missing an opportunity.

Moreover, when a snook, redfish or trout strikes and misses a topwater plug, following up with a soft plastic presentation often gives the fired up fish an easier target to catch.

PORTABILITY: Fill a Ziploc bag with various baits, jig heads and worm hooks, stuff it in your pocket and you're set to go. When wading, you'll appreciate such convenient simplicity.

Just remember that some baits bleed their colors and, while a subtle stroke of chartreuse on a white body isn't the worst thing in the world, random blending can mar the effectiveness of colors intended for particular water conditions. Avoid this by using separate bags for leaky baits.

Techniques

Consider what the body shape imitates and how that creature naturally moves. Whereas you can get away with ripping a shad body through the water to mimic a baitfish in full stride, a crab imitator clocking a quick pace isn't likely to fool skeptical fish.

With denser, aerodynamic baits like slugs, eels and other slender jerk baits and "stick" baits, you can outfit your soft plastic with only a single hook - preferably a heavy, wide-gap model - rigged weedless. Lighter baits, or those with legs and/or active tails present too much wind resistance and typically "die" in the air when cast unweighted.

With jig or single hook rigging, mix up the presentations by suspending your bait under a popping cork. Cast the rig, let it sit for a few seconds, and then retrieve with an abrupt cadence of jerking and reeling.

Tugging on the cork makes a slurping sound at the surface that mimics a feeding fish. It also hops the bait through the water column. Any predator responding to the commotion sees the bait falling like a wounded meal and that generally draws a reaction strike.

Enhancements

SOUND: Rattle chambers inserted into soft plastic bodies, or clipped onto hook shanks increase the lure's calling ability.

Scents: Nose power is an essential tool for foraging fish; even those that hunt primarily by sight. Spraying or dipping your soft plastics in one of the many synthetic attractant formulas can boost the bait's appeal.

In reality, most added scents wash off when you dunk the bait, but for the first cast or two, it helps. To extend the scent's effect, cut a small slit in the thickest part of your bait and insert a small piece of sponge saturated with the attractant.

Soft baits manufactured with natural scents are different altogether, but certainly worth considering. Opinions vary on how much influence a scented bait has on enticing strikes. But there's little doubt that a fish is more likely to hold onto an object that smells and tastes like the real thing.

Scented baits are especially effective in cold water or any scenario where you have lethargic, disinterested fish.

Tips for plastics

Don't hesitate to reach into your freshwater tackle bags when coastal fishing. The basic law of survival dictates that a hungry fish will feed when food - even an imposter - avails. Snakes, lizards, worms, frogs - all of these soft plastic shapes are fair game for briny duty. Just consider what the bait is designed to do, and apply it in a comparable saltwater scenarios. Example: the noisy kicking of a plastic frog usually works best when fluttered across mats of surface vegetation. On the coast, running a plastic frog through marsh grass or along the edge of overhung mangroves should get attention.

Scent-savvy tournament pros know that when sunscreen or other synthetic scents threaten to stymie their day by transferring onto fishing tackle, they can neutralize the vexing aromas by rubbing a scented soft plastic between their hands. The fish-friendly smells will mask the intrusive scents.

When soft plastics wear out, keep a few of the chunkier sections and use them as hook guards on spare rods - especially those carrying multi-hook plugs.

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