Floating vs. slugging

(Above) 2000 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year Tim Horton says floating worms (below) and jerkbaits may appear to be interchangeable, but their applications are different. 

Take two identical glasses and pour Coca-Cola into one and Pepsi into the other. For the casual observer, both glasses look exactly alike. But to a soda pop connoisseur, they are very different.

The same can be said about floating worms and soft jerkbaits. They look alike, are rigged and fished similarly, and can be used on the same rod-and-reel outfits. But to a bass tackle connoisseur - the kind who catches bass for a living — these two baits are anything but interchangeable.

Not one and the same

Ask 2000 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year Tim Horton what he thinks.

"It is rare to see a floating worm and a soft jerkbait out on a pro's deck at the same time," notes Horton. "It will be one or the other."
Alabama CITGO BASSMASTER Tour pro Randy Howell agrees. He unabashedly considers himself a floating worm whiz, and he has been perfecting his floating worm game since he was a 12-year-old angler fishing Buggs Island Reservoir and Lake Gaston.

"A floating worm and a soft slug bait are very different," he notes. "I think of a floating worm as finesse bait that will tease or aggravate a fish into biting. But a soft jerkbait is a bait geared for feeding fish."

As proof of his theorem, Howell explains that he has pulled up to schooling fish, cast out floaters and never got a bite. "Then, I picked up a soft slug bait, and caught them on every cast," he reveals.

Additionally, Howell recalls spring tournaments in which his team partner used a soft jerkbait while Howell used a floater. He says the ratio was five floating worm fish to one slug bait fish.

Howell's explanation has merit. "When it comes to weightless soft plastics, an angler has more control over a floating worm compared to a soft jerkbait," he claims. "The action of a soft jerkbait is intended to be erratic and out of control. A floating worm has a more deliberate action; it can be controlled by the angler. That is important in the spring, when precise control is needed for fishing visible targets and bass."

Floating in the spring

Howell fishes floating worms from March through June, when fish are in any phase of the spawn. He will brandish a floater as soon as the water temperature hits the 62 degree mark, keeping one tied on until the water reaches 80 degrees.

His floating worm technique is so refined that he breaks the spawn into two portions when determining which size floating worm to throw. During the pre-spawn and spawn, Howell relies on a Hawg Caller floating worm that is 6 3/4 inches long. After the fish come off the bed and start guarding fry, he resorts to a Hawg Caller Needle Worm, which is 8 inches in length.

Howell selects his colors according to which worm he is using. "If I am using the shorter floater early in the year, I like bumble bee (black and yellow), sherbet and white. But with the longer Needle Worm, I like natural colors — green pumpkin and watermelon."

Exactly why Howell has developed a two-worm approach has to do with the bass' differing moods. "Early in the spawn, the fish are more prone to guard the nest, and a tighter, brighter worm seems to trigger their defensive mood," he says. "But later, when bass are guarding fry, the longer, natural-colored worms work better."

Texas Pro Clark Wendlandt also finds floating worms to be at a premium in the spring, when the water is up around isolated cover. He says the worm works best in clear water, but he will fish it in off-colored water if the fish are relating to shallow targets.

Rigging a floating worm is an issue of debate among pros. Wendlandt prefers to thread a Gambler floating worm all the way on an Owner 3/0 straight shank hook so the hook is exposed. He employs a swivel to overcome line twist.

Howell's rigging is different. He adheres to the common weedless Texas rig, using a 4/0 Daiichi offset bleeding bait worm hook in the shorter floater and a 5/0 hook of the same make in the longer needle worm. Also, Howell is dead-set against the use of a swivel, claiming that it stymies the action of the bait.

The difference in rigging is due to the fundamental difference in the way the two anglers employ a springtime floater.

Wendlandt thinks of his floater as more of a search bait to cover water quickly — almost like an alternative spinnerbait. He cruises down a bank at a high clip, quickly dashing and darting the floater over isolated pieces of cover, such as solitary rocks, stumps or laydowns. He prefers bright colors, like pink and yellow, to give the worm a flamboyant flash.

Howell slowly approaches the back end of flat spawning pockets looking for visible fish. He throws his floater repeatedly to cruising fish, trying to get them interested. He rigs the worm with a small arch in the worm's back to get a wide side to side swagger in the worm's action.

"That is why I do not like a swivel," remarks Howell. "Many times, a fish will track my lure out of the bushes, and I can make the worm do a complete turnaround with the snap of my rod tip. This keeps the bait right in the fish's face for a few seconds longer. With a swivel pulling your worm to the bottom, you can't do that, and the fish loses interest."

Howell also has discovered that red is an alarming color to spawn-oriented fish; therefore, he dresses his floaters with the red Daiichi bleeding bait hooks. Occasionally, he will dye the tail of his floater red with spray-on Spike-It.

Slugging summer through fall

Once bass leave the shallows and begin feeding on shad schools in open water, Howell trades his floater for a soft jerkbait. He prefers the Hawg Caller "Big J" 5-inch soft jerkbait, and rigs it on a 5/0 Daiichi wide-gap bleeding bait hook. He likes to keep his color selection simple with slugs, choosing pearl white most of the time.

"There are two ways to fish a soft jerkbait," explains Howell. "One is to really skitter the bait frantically on top of the water, pausing it momentarily. The other is to basically 'deadstick' the bait — throw it out and let it sink slowly on a slack line. Either way, the soft jerkbait is appealing to the fish's sense of hunger - not defense, like the threatening rhythm of a floater."

Howell keeps a soft jerkbait tied on for open water schooling fish from summer through fall, when bass begin to herd shad up in the backs of creeks.

Riprap, current and vegetation

Wendlandt reveals that one of his favorite places to throw a soft jerkbait is around riprap. "I hop it and skip it frantically up near the rocks, then kill the action and let it sink out of sight."

Howell reminds anglers that, along with riprap, bridge pilings are good soft jerkbait targets as well. "When fishing bridge pilings with a soft jerkbait, I'll cast the bait to the piling and deadstick it down the piling," says Howell.

Tim Horton likes to use slugs in places where he finds current. "Anytime you have current, a soft slug bait is a better choice than a floater." Horton also prefers a soft jerkbait around vegetation, especially in Florida, where hydrilla, Kissimee grass and lily pads are prevalent.

In terms of colors, Horton uses natural shad hues, such as pearl, smokin' shad and albino. But, he adds, "For some reason, in Florida, watermelon is an excellent color."

Slugging smallmouths

Horton, who once guided on Alabama's smallmouth-laden Lake Pickwick, has become proficient at catching smallmouths on slug baits. He says smallmouths are undoubtedly more prone to bite a soft jerkbait than a floating worm. "In fact, I don't think I have ever caught a smallmouth on a floater," he recalls.

In order to get smallmouths to bite on Pickwick, Horton visits a dozen or so "smallmouth tabletops" — shallow ledges that come up to within several feet of the surface. He will make a long cast with the soft jerkbait and skip it across the surface, making it skitter in a blind panic for about 20 feet. Then, he will kill it for 10 or 15 seconds and let it sink.

Horton fishes a soft jerkbait on a Daiichi 5/0 offset wide-gap hook. If he is having trouble securing hook-sets on long casts in open water, he Superglues the soft slug on a No. 2 Daiichi treble hook.

Horton and Howell both opt for soft jerkbaits over floaters when fishing for smallmouths in the northeast. "In smallmouth fisheries like Lake St. Clair, I will deadstick a watermelon-colored Big J — especially early in the summer, when smallmouths are coming up and feeding on mayflies," says Howell.

Different baits, same equipment

Although floating worms and soft jerkbaits are different, pros throw the two baits on similar — and in some cases, identical — rod, reel and line combinations. The common denominators are medium heavy rods with soft tips and high speed reels.

Tim Horton uses a Pflueger Trion medium heavy baitcasting rod, 6 1/2 feet in length, teamed with a Trion 6.3:1 high speed baitcasting reel for both baits. He spools the reel with 12-pound-test McCoy's Mean Green line.
Wendlandt uses a Falcon "Floating Worm Special" rod, which is 6 1/2 feet in length and designed with a softer tip especially for floaters and soft slug baits. He prefers a heavier line, 17-pound test, for his floating worms and soft jerkbaits.

Howell is the only one who strays from the pack, opting for a spinning outfit for floaters but staying with a baitcaster for soft jerkbaits. He uses 12-pound-test Stren Easy Cast Line on the floating worm and 14-pound test on the soft jerkbait.

Howell believes a spinning reel and soft rod tip give him an advantage when skipping the worm up under low hanging bushes and docks. For his spinning rod and reel, he uses a Quantum Tour Edition outfit. The rod is 6 1/2 feet, and the reel is a high speed 6.2:1 ratio spinning reel.

"Soft-tipped rods and high speed reels are critical for floaters," says Howell. "Part of a good floating worm cadence requires the slack to be taken up quickly between soft jerks of the rod tip."

Floating or slugging? By heeding these pros' advice, deciding which one to use in which situation should be easier.