Swimbait open season


Published: Friday, January 12, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 12, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

The humble shiner guides must have been left terribly perplexed last January while witnessing the big-bass frenzy experienced by Byron Velvick just a few yards away.

It was during a practice day for a national tournament that Velvick, a top western pro who owns a home in Tampa, was setting the hook on bruiser after bruiser while the guides watched in apparent awe.

"I had a practice on Okeechobee that was unbelievable," Velvick recalled. "The shiner fishermen had been whacking them. I was throwing a golden shiner swimbait and having the most incredible practice I've ever had in Florida.

"It was funny because all of the guides thought I was throwing a live shiner because it's such a close imitation of one. I was firing it out there and then slow-rolling it back. They said, 'Man, we haven't ever seen anybody fish a shiner like that.' They had no idea I was actually throwing a swimbait because they didn't know what a swimbait was."

Good point. And that means that swimbaits are also lures that bass throughout Florida rarely see.

The swimbait craze, which was born in the big-bass waters in California, involves large soft-plastic, wood or hard-plastic remarkably realistic forage imitations (like bluegill, trout, or shad) that feature a lifelike swimming action when retrieved through the water. Their cost ranges from $8 to $300 each.

Although he later became best known for his role in television's "The Bachelor", Velvick is recognized as the country's authority on swimbaits. In fact, his three-day BASS record — 15 bass weighing 83 pounds, 5 ounces on Clear Lake in 2000 — came on a swimbait.

Designed to be fished in the deep, clear western reservoir, few bass anglers connect these action baits with Florida's shallow, weedy terrain. But Velvick has spent enough time in the Sunshine State to learn that this is the time when swimbaits shine best.

"Swimbaits are a hit or miss deal in Florida most of the year," he said. "Myself and a few other guys have gotten on a swimbait bite (in tournaments), but it's really, really hit or miss. That's because of the fronts that roll through. Those fish are always loosening up and then being sucked back up into the cover.

"This is the best time of year for it. The water is cool and the fish are roaming around. This is the best time of year as long as you have optimal weather. Stable and warm with cool nights and warm days. Stable enough to where everything in the water is active. Any kind of a cold front or a cold snap or a post-frontal condition is when those fish are so prone to tucking back into that vegetation. And swimbaits are finished when that happens.

"Absolutely, in Florida when the weather is stable and it's prespawn and spawn, that's the best time to throw a swimbait."

While a swimbait in the talented hands of Velvick has produced bass up to 10 pounds (on the St. Johns River), he emphasizes that this category of lures are not consistent enough to win tournaments in Florida. "But you can catch a couple of big fish or have one decent day with it," he added. "That's how it is; it's not like other places in the country."

Case in point: In the Lake Okeechobee tournament mentioned earlier, a cold front came through just before the competition and the top finishers spent their time pounding a 2-ounce bullet weight through grass mats.

When fishing a swimbait in our waters, Velvick begins by selecting a lure that matches the Florida bass' favorite food source.

"I've spent a lot of time throwing swimbaits down there trying to replicate a golden shiner," he said. "These bass don't ever see this type of lure. And they love shiners.

"And when it works, boy, I'll tell you, it's a rush."

His swimbait choices for Florida include both a soft-plastic and wooden version, which come in a golden shiner pattern. The soft-plastic bait is a Jerry Raggo custom-made lure from California; the River2Sea Wood'n Slither is made of a buoyant wood and double-jointed to give it a gentle S-shaped swimming action.

"For Florida, I like the long, thin-bodied baits," Velvick noted. "The bluegill-shaped swimbaits are good, but I want to match the hatch — something that replicates a wild shiner.

"I'm big on 6- and 8-inch baits. You hear the shiner fishermen say that the bass will eat a 10-inch shiner. But as a tournament fisherman, I don't push past an 8-inch swimbait."

The big lures are usually tied to 20- to 25-pound Berkley XT or Big Game moss-green monofilament. Velvick most often fishes them his 7-foot signature swimbait rod he designed for Rogue Rods.

No big surprise — most of his success with swimbaits has occurred fishing types of shallow vegetation in this state.

"I like fishing ambush paths," he explained. "At Okeechobee, it was floating hyacinths with rooted vegetation. I was fishing the spots where they came together, especially if it was wind-blown. There was a little ripple in the water blowing into some hyacinths, some (bulrushes) or some surface vegetation.

"It's really hard, but you want to make long, parallel casts and work that swimbait along that vegetation. It's like shiner fishermen; they throw the bait up to the edge of the vegetation and when the shiner gets off of that stuff it usually starts running along that grass edge. It won't swim into it. It follows those lines. So I really focus on parallel casts in Florida."

Tim Tucker's e-mail address is tim@timtuckeroutdoors.com

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