There was a time when the most sophisticated lingcod lures available were somewhat limited. There was either live bait, such as a small greenling, or the large hunk of chromed metal known as a Norwegian Jig. While a Norwegian Jig will certainly get the job done and catch fish, these days the discerning bottom fisherman has a plethora of new lures from which to choose. Saltwater swimbaits are one of the best new additions to the tackle box. There are now many of these ultra-realistic rubber lures to choose from. And I’m sure the small greenling are very happy about this.
What is a Swimbait?
A swimbait is a rubber or silicone fish with some sort of current-actuated tail—that is, the tail moves in the current, either due to its long, snaky design or the more common paddle tail style. These lures are made to move or swim, and are a more advanced version of a standard lead head with a rubber “grub” tail. Some are set up with a replaceable body, just as with a lead head. Others are one-piece units that are disposed of once a ling bites off the tail, which is inevitable with all swimbaits.
How to Fish with a Swimbait
They are not intended to be jigged up and down vertically as a standard cod jig would be. Swimbaits need horizontal waterflow to work. This is derived from the current or, if necessary, from forward movement (a slow troll) of the boat. The easiest way to fish them is to find an area with decent current flow, and simply hold the lure over a lingcod reef. One can even just leave the rod in the rod holder and wait. The lingcod will spot a lazy fish just hanging above the reef, with its tail slowly moving back and forth, and find it irresistible.
Alternatively, one can slowly troll swimbaits along the reef, or even over sandflats, for halibut. In fact, the first time I saw a video of swimbait in use, it was being trolled for halibut. One can troll them off a downrigger or a spreader bar.
Adding Weight to Swimbaits
Swimbait usually is not heavy enough to reach the desired depth, so adding weight via a spreader bar is often necessary. I feel this is more effective than some sort of in-line weight, as the spreader bar allows the swimbait to swim as intended. Just remember that there is a weight restriction of 1 kg on fishing lures that don’t incorporate a release clip such as with a downrigger. This is as per the regulations under the “Unlawful Actions” category. Some of the styles now available are incredibly realistic. Some look exactly like a rock cod, some like a flounder, and some like a juvenile lingcod. In fact, there are even clownfish and puffin (yes, the bird) swimbaits. They are made in a wide range of colours, with some replicating real fish and some just being bright and noticeable. However, I’ve found the co- lour to be less important than the action. It could be that some colours are better than others, but they all seem to outperform standard cod jigs to such a degree that it’s hard to judge one colour versus another. As far as I can tell, they all just work well.
Personally, I try to choose mine more based on how ruggedly they are constructed. Some are just too soft to last through very many lingcod strikes. I also prefer ones with the hooks on the top, as I really don’t want to snag a lure that can cost more than twenty dollars. In fact, if the manufacturer intends the hooks to be placed on the belly of the lure, I will move them to the top if possible. I will also add a trailing “stinger” hook if the swimbait is only made with one hook.
Using Swimbaits for Better Targeting
Another advantage to swimbaits is less unintended bycatch. You are much less likely to catch small rockfish when using a large swimbait. This maximises your fishing time and allows you to focus on more desirable lingcod. I also find one catches less dogfish than when using real bait such as herring. There still may be some bycatch, but less than with traditional methods of bottom fishing. I do have a couple confirmed stories of large Chinook grabbing swimbaits, including one that took a rock cod-shaped one. I’m not sure why a Chinook would try to eat a large and spiny rock cod, but at least one thought it was a good idea.
Once you master the art of fishing swimbaits, I’m sure you’ll never go back to heaving hunks of metal around.
This article appeared in Island Fisherman magazine. Never miss another issue—subscribe today!