1. Archive

Fake can be fantastic

It's hard to argue against baiting a hook with dietary staples of the gamefish you seek. Whether it's sardines, crabs or shrimp, the real thing rarely requires any convincing because, well, it's the real thing.

But what if the real thing is hard to come by, inconvenient or otherwise nonconducive to a hassle-free day on the water? What if your baitwell pump gives up the ghost shortly after you launch? What if you plan on wading a large area and you don't want to drag a bait bucket?

You get the picture. Sometimes the logical choice - natural bait - isn't the feasible choice.

In such scenarios, it's time to call in the imposters. Like stuntmen and body doubles of Hollywood acclaim, artificial lures will get the job done in place of the live bait stars.

But don't think you're getting inferior talent.

Sure, live bait is easy - just sling it out there and wait for someone to eat it. But with a little practice, you'll find artificial lures allow you to cover more water, pinpoint particular spots and thoroughly "work" an area.

Moreover, inanimate objects follow your orders.

Baitfish and crustaceans will instinctively hide from predators, but keeping a lure visible through different retrieve tactics can lead to more hookups.

Decisions, decisions

You could fill a bay boat with tackle bags packing plastic trays stuffed with lures. I'll be the first to admit a high level of anxiety when determining what to take, especially with limited boat space. But there comes a point when you just have to make some decisions.

This is particularly true for wading when you have only a chest pack and a little space inside your waders to accommodate the day's tackle selection.

Some utility items such as spare leader material and needle nose pliers with cutters, notwithstanding, you have to limit yourself to a reasonable selection of tackle. Otherwise, you'll spend more time contemplating which lure to tie on, than fishing.

Some call this "paralysis by analysis," overthinking options to the point of foregoing the actual objective.

Avoid this situation by packing a modest selection that will cover the water column top to bottom. Here's a good mix for most inshore and coastal pursuits along the Nature Coast:

TOPWATERS: Nothing beats a surface walking plug for sheer anticipation and excitement. You twitch this floater in rapid side-to-side cadence and it imitates a finger mullet so well that predators froth the surface with violent strikes.

Topwaters are best at dawn and dusk or any low-light scenario when gamefish can't clearly define what they see. As visibility increases, downsize to a smaller topwater plug to avoid spooking fish.

MID-DEPTH LURES: Crank baits and slow-sinking or suspending twitchbaits made to run about half way between the bottom and the surface comprise a key element of your arsenal when working spots of about 3 feet or more.

These lures resemble baitfish swimming naturally through the water column, not too high, not too low. Just don't fish them around dense sea grass or any type of floating vegetation or you'll spend all your time cleaning a fouled lure.

SPOONS: A -1/4- to -1/2-ounce weedless gold spoon provides the ultimate search lure. Easy to cast and simple to work, spoons enable you to cover the water to find a bite. A solid, compact design makes this a good choice for probing around oyster bars or flying lengthy casts to nervous fish.

SOFT PLASTICS: This is your most versatile and interchangeable category of lures. Sometimes called "tails," these pliable forms come in shad, curl, tube and jerk bait designs.

Most jerk baits can fit on weedless style worm hooks, either bare or with pinch weights, while these and smaller tails also work with jig heads of 1/32-ounce to an ounce. For most shallow water pursuits, a 1/8- to -1/2-ounce jig will suffice.

Experimenting with different tail size, design and color is as easy as removing one and rigging another. Generally, brighter colors work best in clear conditions, while darker patterns do a good job of simulating the shadowy figures that gamefish see in low light scenarios.

But don't hesitate to try something atypical. Maybe a bold color will catch the eye of a lethargic fish, or perhaps an oversized tail rigged on a light jig head can produce an effective combination of a big meal without a heavy splash in skinny water.

Middle ground

For those who love hybrids, try fishing live shrimp on a jig head. For optimal appearance, rig your shrimp through the tail so the jig head rests nearly hidden beneath the rear fins.

Because of its compact nature, this setup offers better castability than a hook and sinker rig. Also, it helps get your bait to the bottom quickly, and that's very helpful in a swift current.

You'll also find jig heads good for bouncing baits over rocks and oyster bars for redfish. Just keep the rig moving to avoid snags.

Also, consider that you'll have about half of the shrimp exposed past the hook, so pinfish, juvenile snapper and the like will nip away bite-sized nuggets from any shrimp that sits still too long.

Don't overreact on every little tug. Wait for a gamefish to commit and put a bend in your rod before setting the hook.

And if you run out of bait, just slip a soft plastic tail onto that same jig head and keep fishing.