ICAST50: Swimbaits changing the industry

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LAS VEGAS, Nev. — There's no doubt about the hottest fishing lure trend in the U.S. and probably the rest of the world too.

"Everybody's got a swimbait this year," said Bob Scott, the vice president of Castaic Soft Bait, Inc.

If you follow the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament trail, you probably know what a swimbait is. But no matter what species you fish for, you're about to find out about swimbaits.

"I've caught crappie on swimbaits," said Justin Boe, the fishing rod product manager for Shimano. "I caught a four-pound tilapia on a swimbait at (Mexico's Lake) El Salto."

These lures were born in California a decade ago. In inventing a new way of fooling big largemouth bass that were getting fat on stocked rainbow trout, a few lure designers came up with near-exact imitations of the prey - 10- and 12-inch rainbow trout. The AC Plug was probably the first. Swimbaits are available in various sizes and compositions (wood, composite hard plastic, soft plastic and combinations of hard and soft plastic).

And as anglers have figured out that big fish of all species eat big prey of various species, lure designers have adapted the swimbait color patterns to imitate everything from gizzard shad and bluegill to smelt and yellow perch.

Al Lindner of In-Fisherman fame has spent decades in the fishing industry. He thinks swimbaits are more than just a passing fancy.

"It started in California," said Lindner. "This past winter I was in southern California and southern Arizona for an extended period. I really got exposed to that swimbait type lure, both hard and soft plastic.

"It's coming inland. It works great on smallmouth bass. In the upper midwest where I fish, the largemouth tend to be structure fish. But the smallmouth get out and run smelt and ciscos. They're out there chasing them in open water. It's incredible.

"When these smallmouth get to about three-and-a-half pounds, they get off the shallow water forage. They get a taste of this open water forage, and they're not going back. The fish are surprisingly high in the water column, surprisingly high, and they're eating these baitfish that have a real high nutritional value. They're real greasy fish.

"The smallmouth just get switched over. And it's kind of like these big fish haven't been fished."

That's the big thing about swimbaits - understanding what they are taking advantage of and having the confidence to buy a lure that may retail for $30 to $100-plus, then cast it in open water. (There are soft plastic swimbaits in 4-inch lengths that don't have double-digit price tags. But the larger 10- and 12-inch hard baits can go off the charts. For instance, some Japanese manufacturers are selling hard-carved balsa wood swimbaits for $1,000 each.)

"People don't believe these giants are out there in open water and high in the water column," said Lindner. "The thing is the quality of the bites. These big giant fish are on the biggest forage."

It was during this past winter that Lindner developed the confidence to cast swimbaits. Now he's begun to realize how many different species the swimbait can be adapted to.

"You've got to get bit quick and early, when the fish are out there feeding," said Lindner. "It's something that when you get bit on, you're confidence goes up.

"It all started with largemouth bass and stripers. Now it's coming to all the other species. The swimbait muskie market is just exploding. Some guys are flatline trolling these big swimbaits, that are almost too big to cast, for lake trout. Northern pike will hit a swimbait too."

Boe, the man who has caught even crappie and tilapia on swimbaits, puts it simply: "Everything that eats fish eats a swimbait."

That's great for business, if you're Bob Scott and his son, Jason, the president of Castaic Soft Baits, who've been making these lures for 10 years. But the idea that dozens of other manufacturers are suddenly riding the swimbait wave leaves the Scotts in somewhat of a quandary. Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery. But in the fishing lure business, imitation takes money right out of your pocket.

The fishing lure business has been that way for ever. A hot lure comes out and several manufacturers come out with a knockoff of it, patents be damned. The swimbait may signal a new attitude there, too. When a single lure costs a hundred bucks, you tend to defend your patent more than you would on a five-dollar crankbait.

"This industry is really incredible in how so many people make someone else's lure," said Bob Scott. "We received four patents on our lures this year.

"It costs a lot of money to defend your patent. We've been there once. We won, but it was expensive.

"Was it worth it? Financially, it's not worth it immediately. But you show people that you are ready to protect your products, and you gain the respect you should have. And maybe it will slow down some other (imitators).

"Some people are really upset. I think you'll see some pretty big lawsuits come out of this. We're just all taking a break and letting the lawyers go to work."

But, in the meantime, swimbaits are going to continue to skyrocket.

"It's amazing for me to see how fast this is sweeping into other fisheries," said Lindner. "There has been so much finesse stuff, like drop-shotting, that has been the hot trend for so many years. Now you're seeing these big, giant baits that have never been fished before, in the water column where they've never been fished before.

"It's like a whole new phenomenon."