The Best Swimbaits on a Budget

The Best Swimbaits on a Budget

I’m generally an unrepentant tackle buyer, but here’s an anecdote that makes me less than proud.

A year ago, I put a “tickler” on an online merchant’s site that would alert me when a rare Japanese glide bait came back into stock. One day I got the email alert and was forced to act quickly, because I was certain that across the country and around the world others like me were going to pounce on the opportunity to spend $109.99 for a single lure. The temptation was too great, and I pressed the “Buy it Now!” button without much hesitation.

Why didn’t I buy two? Well, not only am I usually a cheap sumbitch, but also because it said in plain language on the site that if you tried to buy more than one your order would be assessed a $30 penalty. Out of the goodness of their hearts, these fishy crack dealers wanted to prevent quick-acting people from “flipping” the baits on eBay.

The mere fact that I made it rain on a tackle dealer isn’t the truly embarrassing part, though. It's that it still sits in the package, on a shelf in my office, unfished. I occasionally peruse the auction sites, where those same baits are going for at least two C-notes, but I can’t bring myself to sell it. It was so hard to get, and so desirable, and assumedly so bite-inducing, that the obvious choice is to fish it, but I’m also remarkably afraid that I’ll snap my line on the cast and launch it into the atmosphere.

Can’t sell it, can’t fish it. I’m caught in big bait purgatory.

That’s not the case for most of the swimbait freaks I know. I’ve dipped a toe or two into the deep end of their pool, but as the above anecdote indicates, I just can't take the plunge. They live in a world of “bait drops,” where Instagram announcements tell you about an opportunity to get in on a chance to apply for baits costing several hundred dollars apiece. They live in a world of “custom colorways” that bespeak rare forage and one-of-a-kind paint jobs. They live in a world where it’s normal to “buy one to fish and one to collect,” assuming you’re allowed to buy more than one. They live in a world where $1,147.99 for a 43-ounce bait “covered in 100% horsehide leather that goes through a vegetable tanning process” isn’t just a tongue-twister.

I live in a world where gluing worms back together with a lighter is an everyday occurrence.

But just because the Brinks truck doesn’t back up to your house doesn’t mean you can’t get in on the swimbait game. I’m sure that the true big bait freaks will balk at my cavalier use of the term “swimbait,” but I’m employing it here to mean anything that doesn’t fit normal bait profiles or tackle boxes—multi-jointed swimbaits, single-jointed glide baits, soft plastic boot tails, soft plastic prerigged baits, wake baits, and crawlers. Once you expand the category, not only does it become much more inclusive, but gaining access to the club becomes much less daunting. Even if you don’t ride a skateboard or wear a flat brim, there’s still an entry point for you.

Best Swimbaits for Bass Start with the soft plastics, largely because they’re the easiest landing spot, the most similar to things you’ve already thrown, and likely the least expensive as a general rule. Invest in some 4.8-inch Keitech ringed Fat Swing Impacts in a general baitfish color. They have a hard kicking boot tail which vibrates even on the fall. Add in some hollow bellies like the 13 Churro, OG Basstrix, the Yum Money Minnow, or the Zoom Swimmer. With a few packs of extra wide-gap EWG screw-lock hooks, some 3/8- to ¾-ounce underspins, and some swimbait jigheads up to 1 ounce, you can cover water from ankle deep to 40 feet down, fishing these lures snail-slow or rocket fast, across rock, over grass and through pods of suspended fish. Total investment is less than $30, until the fish tear up your baits and you need to buy more.

Add in some prerigged swimmers that’ll do pretty much the same thing, without the hassle of mixing and matching terminal tackle to your lures. At Mexico’s famed Lago El Salto, where expert anglers from around the world come to test their mettle and their tackle, no swimbait has produced more fish over the years than the Storm Wildeye Shad in the 4-, 5- and 6-inch sizes. They come in a stapled clamshell and cost less than two bones apiece. Bait drops? We don’t need no stinkin’ bait drops. You can buy ‘em at Wal-Mart.

Best Glide Baits for Bass Hard baits get a little bit tougher, because the gurus tell us that unless a bait costs triple digits, we’re not getting bit. But there are plenty of options used by the pros that cost far less. The River2Sea S-Waver is less than $20 for the 168mm size, and that one will get you bit by both average and enormous bass. Two-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year Brandon Palaniuk designed the Arashi Glide for Storm (for a generally underrecognized company, Storm has a pretty good handle on the “bargain” swimbait market) and more than one West Coast pro has told me it’s their go-to when looking for a big bite. Big bait freak Steve Kennedy of Alabama spent thousands of dollars on the big baits the first time he fished California in 2007, but 14 years later an affordable 7.5-inch G-Ratt Sneaky Pete ($35.99) is a prime tournament tool. He also likes the 5.75-inch Pistol Pete ($19.99).

Best Wake Baits for Bass There’s nothing more fun than fishing a topwater wake bait for big bass, and the logical entry point here is SPRO’s BBZ-1 Rat. The Size 40 model is tournament-sized at 4 inches of body and another 3.5 inches of tail, but do yourself a favor and invest in the big 10-inch Size 50 (5.25 inches of body). It may resemble a child’s bath toy or something your dog would chew on more than a fishing lure, but when the hypnotic side-to-side action is interrupted by your personal best, you’ll be thankful that you went big before you went home. I am both proud and ashamed to say at the same time that I have more confidence in the SPROs than I do in the “custom” rat that I recently paid $149 to acquire.

Tackle for Swimbait Fishing The most important thing these lures have in common is that you can likely throw them on tackle you already own, like the 1985 7-foot 6-inch telescoping flipping stick or heavy-action pike rod that’s currently leaning in the corner of your tackle room. But if you want to do it for real, pick up a legit swimbait rod like the 13 Muse Black in heavy power. Put the big wakes on braid and the rest on 20- or 25-pound mono and get to work. Because you don’t necessarily have to invest in new rods, reels, or line, that leaves extra money in the bait budget. Here are four more that have worked for me that you need to try:

Megabass Magdraft: Get the prerigged model and swim it around any kind of cover you can find. That’s the strategy Bassmaster Pro Chris Zaldain has used to consistently stay near the top of the standings. • 13 The Gill: Is a dead-ringer for a real bluegill working through the weeds. Work it slow and weedless, bumping off structure and vegetation. • Jackall Mikey: Creep this three-section wake bait along the surface, let the different pieces clack together and wait for the explosions. • Little Creeper All-American Trash Fish: Rigged on a weighted swimbait hook, this anatomically correct soft plastic can be fished from the surface to down along the bottom and represents whatever baitfish your local waters contain. • Triton Mike Bull Shad: At about $50, this is the gateway to more expensive baits, but the 5-inch model can be fished on tackle you already own. Crank it like a spinnerbait, especially if there are gizzard shad around.

Even though purchasing these baits may not require the sacrifice of your firstborn, you’ll still want to keep them in working order. Soft baits should stay in the clamshell or package as long as possible (some even come with foam to preserve the fins’ position). Once they’ve been removed, hang them from a hook on your garage wall to keep ‘em straight. The hard baits? You can throw them in a utility box, although some fanatics put them in foam-lined hard cases. The good news is that none of the ones listed above will require an insurance policy or a safe deposit box.

Feature image via Oliver Ngy.