New technologies have taken panfish and bass angling to a new level, a far cry from when kids carried around cane poles and tin cans of freshly dug earthworms.
Lure designers like Cliff Soward, a Louisiana native who designs for PRADCO Outdoor Brands, have taken notice of traditional baits and turned them into plastic versions as close to the way nature did it eons ago. Lures in his Rebel "bug" line look as though they can jump right out of the package.
"One thing about ultralight baits is that they'll catch anything," said Soward out on the waters of Lake Henderson in St. Martin Parish. "You can go anywhere and catch fish with these.
"Ultralight baits are something that would have to be thrown with light spinning tackle or closed-faced spinning reels. Anything that is naturally small and anything that can't be thrown with a baitcaster.
"The consumer, using ultralight baits, can catch 8-pound bass on them, catch trout on them or can pond fish with them. The market calls little baits like these ... 'creek, stream and pond baits' because they'll catch everything. Maybe now they can be called 'creek, stream, pond and bayou baits.'
"The advantage for the manufacturer is that we are reaching across the spectrum on every species. You're reaching across the spectrum from old to young and male to female. Everybody can throw these little baits plus they don't cost as much and they can be thrown from the bank. A lot of the ultralights won't go very deep so you don't lose them. People like that."
Amazingly, the time and effort that it takes to design ultralight baits is actually greater than most anglers realize.
"Ultralight lures require more engineering and design work," Soward explained. "The reason why is wall thickness. The larger cousins look just like them, but the wall thickness on the little ones is almost the same as the big ones. The little ones don't want to act like the bigger cousins. Size-wise, they are proportional, but all the other factors like action change."
Thanks to modern technology, though, enough "action" is maintained. With smaller baits, smaller equipment is also recommended. These baits are designed to fish on rods as limp as noodles — and not much longer.
Soward uses scaled down spinning tackle from Pflueger. He uses both the Solara and Trion reels on 4- to 5-foot light-action rods. He also uses 4-pound Silver Thread fluorocarbon IGFA Class Tournament Line.
"I like to fish with a little 4 1/2-foot rod," Soward said. "Real light action. Four-pound test is probably as much as you want, but no more than 6. Fluorocarbon is a line that actually sinks too. It's not like monofilament, so you can get more depth out of your ultralights. It's more invisible, and it doesn't have that bow in your line that kills some of your action.
"The little Pflueger spinning reels have seven ball bearings in them. They're really smooth, and they can catch big fish too. It's just like how they catch marlin on 30-pound-test — it's all relative to how you fight the fish."
Case in point: Henderson in late winter when action really slows down. Many Acadiana area bass anglers eagerly await the coming of spring when the bass bite turns on as the temperatures rise to comfortable levels.
Soward doesn't wait. He knows that bites can still be triggered with smaller presentations.
Soward tested a 12-foot Tracker Tadpole powered by a small Mercury four-stroke and 54-pound-thrust Motorguide trolling motor on a recent cold, sunny day to prove his product works.
He aimed his boat west out of the public landing under Interstate 10 in Butte Larose, and then worked his trolling motor along the old train trestles in the Texas Canal just north of and parallel I-10. He made a quick pass along the wind-blown lilies, where the slightly stained water met the trestles and deteriorating levees sent bugs, tiny minnows and small crawfish scurrying. Amid that ideal junction and the boats with sac-a-lait fishermen with their long jigging poles, Soward began coaxing a bass bite.
Most sac-a-lait fishermen would post themselves at the intersections of the Texas Canal pylons at the southern end of North Lake Bigeaux, but Soward used the trolling motor to work the pylons and the piles of grass and lilies.
He threw a white Rebel Big Ant, chartreuse/greenback Deep Teeny Wee Crawfish and white YUM enhanced tubes on 1/16-ounce lead heads, the latter of which had the most effect in provoking strikes.
Soward and some of the sport's more effective anglers know that finicky bass will still hit the smaller baits in cool to cold weather. He proved that 4-pound-test can still haul in nice bass as well as bream and crappie. It takes a different mindset and lighter gear to get them to bite.
"With ultralights, we're able to throw a smaller bait, make a smaller presentation, and make it slower because the water is cold so the fish are dormant," he said. "So this was an easier meal for them than chasing down something big. That's why we were able to catch bass today, and probably some bass fishermen couldn't have done as well as us.
"I think that's an advantage in cold weather too, and I think the average fisherman knows it but they don't stop to think that you could use something small like that to even fish a tournament.
"In fact, Takahiro Omori won a tournament a while back using 10-pound-test up at Sam Rayburn on a floating worm using spinning tackle. He won the BASS tournament and won something like $50,000. He only caught one out of every five fish he hooked, but he ended up winning the tournament. He was getting more strikes with lighter line, smaller bait and slower presentation."
Omori's 55.12-pound three-day limit beat out a field of over 300 anglers at the March 2001 Bassmaster Texas Invitational. When Omori strayed from the status quo, he hit the big payoff proving that lighter is sometimes better.
Types of cover that these baits can handle are important too. Louisiana waters are notorious for what's underneath the surface besides the fish. Stumps, pylons, old refrigerators and tires can wreak havoc on lures, but the diving paddle on many ultralight crankbaits allows the lure to roll away from a snag.
"The Wiggle O is a good example," stated Soward. "The hanging point of the front hook doesn't have a shallow attitude. The downward paddle, when it hits something, it rolls away from the object and then comes back into line. Square paddles like on a Bomber Square A also handle cover well. They bounce better."
And realism? Soward's baits look almost too real. One might see them lying around and want to swat them with a rolled-up newspaper. Fish recognize them too, although their take on the little baits might be different than the fisherman's.
"The more realistic, the better for the retailer," Soward said. "That point of purchase — when an angler goes to pick up a bait or when his eyes scan down the aisle, his eyes will stop at the prettiest one, the most realistic.
"The fish like it too, but the colors being so realistic go more for the fishermen than the fish. A fish doesn't have enough intellect to be able to say, 'That's a red ear sunfish, I'm looking for a blue gill' or 'I want a field grasshopper.' There are a lot of small things in nature. Fish want something easy. That's why they'll set up an ambush point. Very rarely will they run something big down. Bass are not like that. They don't want to use up oxygen. They want to get something that is easy prey.
"Bream and crappie will eat bugs and stuff too. They'll eat minnows. The thing is this — matching the hatch. When a bass sees this thing go by, he isn't saying, 'That's a crawfish' or 'That's a shad.' First of all, they feed primarily on sight. The clearer the water you want something that shines or reflects. Fish can see six times greater than we can.
"Sound also plays a role. When shad are swimming, they'll release multiple sounds. When a crawfish is moving down some rocks, he's clicking and making sounds. These lures mimic that. You need to get something that is going to get their attention and bring them to the source. They have to locate it. Sight and sound are your locators. Then smell comes in, and that works with crankbaits as well as with soft plastics.
"The sight is naturally appealing to one of the senses. The second sense is a combination of sound, vibration and water displacement, which all affect the lateral line of a fish.
"Scent too. I've always believed in scent on everything."
The scent Soward likes most of all is another of his creations, one that was started in a small office building in Lafayette in 1997. YUM Attractants was Soward's design that propelled him into the lure-design industry, and his research of the effects of smell and catching fish made YUM a major force in the fishing industry.
Soward designs baits that trigger the two major ways fish find food: sight and sound. Peculiar fish, though, can have their feeding instincts triggered, but still won't be fooled unless it "smells" like something good to eat.
Professional crappie anglers have also developed new strategies that follow the feeding instigator actions. Their combinations of trolling and vertical presentations are something southern anglers can also capitalize on when time is of the essence.
"It's hard to cover a lot of territory when they're fishing for crappie," Soward said. "It's usually a vertical type of fishing or it's a short cast because you can't make a long cast. You can't troll for bass in a tournament, but you can troll for crappie in a tournament so what they've developed is a technique to use a regular crankbait, a bass crankbait, that will get it down to 8 to 10 feet depending on where those crappie are located. Once they spot them on the graph or know they're at a certain depth around pilings or timber, what they'll do is use a jig or minnow, anything that is small that will follow the crankbait.
"The fluorocarbon leader (that connects the lure and smaller bait) is invisible so actually it looks like a little bug is following the fish. So what the big lure does is that it gets it down in the strike zone a lot longer, and you can troll so you can cover a lot more territory, covering a lot more area where those fish can be located. Then the little lure is actually what they'll hit.
"The large lure in the front is real bright or flashy. In clear water, you would use something flashy. In muddy or stained water like you have down here, probably your reds or chartreuse colors would be better as an attractant. Those fish will go toward the attractant and when they see the little lure behind it, the minnow, the jig, the Crick-Hopper or little crawfish, they'll hit it."
What Soward and other anglers sacrifice in size and strength with ultralight baits is made up for in big-time fishing action. The best thing about them is that you don't have to be a tournament professional to get something out of them. No big expensive bass rigs are needed, just water and appropriate habitat.
But there may be more to fishing than actually catching.
"Look at how many one-parent families we have today," Soward said. "A single mom can take her kids to local ponds and can still catch fish with these. God knows we need to get our kids away from the computers and onto the water in some sort of way. The social side of this is really important too."
Downsizing tackle is enjoyable and often beneficial. From a fishing standpoint, the smaller presentation and slower action on lighter line and rods act like a virtual catch-all for most species in the water. More importantly, though, the impact might be on society in general because of the increased access to more fishing opportunities thanks to these tiny little baits.