The evolution of the swimbait - Major League Fishing

The evolution of the swimbait

A lure that revolutionized bass fishing
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Swimbaits have evolved through the years. Photo by Jason Sealock.
March 30, 2006 • Mark Rogers • Archives

In the late 1980s, a man named Allan Cole was walking the marina area of Lake Pyramid, near Los Angeles, with a lure that crudely resembled a rainbow trout. It was a hand-carved wooden lure of around 9 inches in length that was jointed in the middle. It had a rubber paddle tail attached to the back that flickered around as it came through the water. While it didn’t swim like a real trout, which were stocked in various lakes by the California Department of Fish and Game, it was similar in size and shape. The lure swam with an erratic action that was caused by the eye screws that connected the two pieces of wood. This lure, which became known as the AC Plug, not only caught many of the huge striped bass in that particular lake, it also caught the anglers that had been unsuccessful in catching the same fish with traditional lures.

Cole soon found himself selling these AC Plugs to anglers that were willing to pay $20 to $40 per lure. They too were rewarded with sizable catches. Some of these anglers ventured out into new waters that were also regularly stocked with rainbow trout. The target, however, wasn’t the striped bass like those at Lake Pyramid, but rather the largemouth bass that inhabited the rich waters of Lake Casitas and Lake Castaic. It didn’t take long before word got out that these rogue anglers were catching giant largemouths. The swimbait craze had officially begun.

As the craze began to run full-swing, a number of garage companies sprouted up and started making these hardbaits, softbaits and hybrid baits. One of the first people to get into the game was a man named Mike Shaw. In 1993, he started producing a lure called the M.S. Slammer. The M.S. Slammer, which is still being made today, is a wooden lure that is turned on a lathe and also jointed in the middle. This bait differed from the original AC Plug in that it had a diving lip that allowed the angler to fish slightly deeper. He also incorporated a more natural-shaped tail, similar to that of a real rainbow trout, on all three sizes that he made. Hundreds upon hundreds were produced and sold in the $30 range as fast as he could pump them out.

Another company that started production the same year was the Castaic Bait Company. They set out to ad realism to the hardbait world. While the AC plugs and M.S. Slammer caught hundreds, if not thousands of fish, they didn’t look like a trout in the eyes.

California swimbait designers Ken Huddleston and Chomp Josephite set out to change all of that. The Castaic Hard Bait they designed turned out to be more like a piece of art than a fishing lure. It too was a lure that was hand-carved, but they added the fine details, like anatomically correct fins and a paint job that would rival any photograph of a real trout. In doing this, the time that went into building and painting each lure was painstakingly long. There was concern that the fishermen wouldn’t be willing to pay the price that these lures were worth. After being offered an astonishing amount of money for a prototype that they were testing at the lake, they knew that the price wasn’t going to be an issue. These lures sold from $60 to $70. While they didn’t fly off the shelves as fast as their predecessors’ baits, they did sell on a regular basis.

As the price of these hard baits continued to rise, a new era of bait making began. RT Custom Lures started producing a lure called the Stocker Trout. This bait differed in that it was made out of plastisol, rather than wood, and could be fished at any depth. With the costs of these baits lower due to the fact that production was faster, there were now swimbaits that most fishermen could afford. These baits were produced by heating up the plastisol and pouring the material into a mold. During the production process, a weighted hook harness and lexan wing was placed into the mold. The wing caused the back section of the bait to swing and cause the bait to swim. Once the bait was pulled from the plaster mold, it was complete. Now that these lures had lead in them, they could effectively be fished at any depth, which revolutionized the way we fish them today.

Around the same time that the Stocker Trout made its debut, the Optimum Swimbait was gaining popularity. Not because of the flash and flare that caught an angler’s eye in the tackle store, but rather the price tag. These generic-looking, fish-shaped swimbaits retailed in the $8 to $12 range. Now just about anyone could afford to grab a lure off a tackle store rack and not be afraid to lose it after a day’s worth of fishing. The Optimum was an instant success. It too incorporated lead inside the plastic, which allowed it to be used in all water columns, and it caught giant bass. This was one lure that almost all California bass fishermen had in their repertoire.

Over the next few years, there were many lure makers that tried to break into the swimbait market. Some were successful while most only lasted a season or two. The swimbait, however, had made its mark on the bass world and was here to stay.

Fast-forwarding to today, the swimbait has accounted for literally thousands upon thousands of largemouths over 10 pounds. They are as much a part of a Californian’s tackle box as the plastic worm. The technology has advanced tenfold also. Baits like the Huddleston Deluxe, Castaic Platinum and Matt Lures Trout are now available in various sink rates. Anglers now have the option of buying a lure that can target specific depths or retrieval speeds, enabling them to become more detailed with their presentations.

With the popularity of sinking plastic swimbaits in the early 2000s, one lure maker made a name for himself by bringing the hardbait back to the forefront. Jerry Rago has produced many styles of baits over the last few years, but it has been his life-like hard swimbaits that have left hardcore big-bass hunters salivating. Rago recently unveiled a new bait that is sure to stir up quite a few oohs and ahs. The Tool, as it has been named, has taken the swimbait/hardbait to a whole new level. This ultra-realistic lure of 13 inches in length not only is 100 percent anatomically correct, it incorporates taxidermy eyes used in fish mounts and hinged fins that collapse for a better hookset. The detail of the open mouth and hidden joint system has fooled many largemouths over 13 pounds since it has been put to use. With a paint job that would make a live rainbow trout think it was his cousin, these baits are the epitome of realism. The slow, seductive wag produced by these lures on the surface is something that pressured California largemouths have never seen. Along with the new style of producing these and the realism that they offer, the price tag has also never been seen before. At $300 each, there are only a handful of people willing to pay that price. Those that have been willing haven’t been let down.

Are swimbaits the silver bullet, a guarantee to catch the biggest bass of your life? If you live by the adage of big baits equal big bass, then the answer could be yes. All of the baits mentioned prior have and will catch giant bass. The advances in technology and realism over the last few years give the modern-day bait an advantage over the baits of yesteryear. Decide for yourself: Is the trophy of a lifetime worth $300?

Deep-water swimbaiting

With the technology that goes into the swimbaits available today, the focus has been put on deeper water, where the bigger fish typically are located. The larger fish spend the majority of their life in, or over, deeper water. While most bass fishermen are shoreline-oriented, these educated, older bass have adapted in a way that rarely positions them in the shallows. There are times of the year when they will be shallow, but the majority of the time they are offshore, where they are pressured the least.

When dealing with deeper water, you need to be willing to lose a lure every now and again. If your bait gets hung in a tree branch in 23 feet of water, you can’t simply use the trolling motor to ease over to it and pop it off with the rod tip. There needs to be a mindset that your $30 investment will occasionally be lost.

The swimbait needs to be a lure that probes structure just as a jig or crankbait would. If the fish are positioned near the bottom on a piece of structure, the optimum cast is to have your bait land past the piece of structure holding the bass. Boat position is a key factor, as you want to have your lure either bump into that piece of structure or have it make an angle change while still allowing some distance between you and the fish. An angle change takes place at the apex where the bait begins to rise as it is brought back to the boat.

There are other ways to make angle changes. One is to simply stop winding. This causes the bait to drop, typically nose first, as if the trout was trying to escape to the safety of the structure. Once again, if you are fishing an area that has a lot of snags, the willingness to put your bait in jeopardy comes into play. If, in fact, your lure does become snagged, it can be shaken free most of the time. Once this happens, be prepared the instant it comes free, as this is the time that the most ferocious strikes often occur.

The last way that you can create angle changes is with the rod tip. For example, if your rod tip is pointed straight out in front of you and you move it straight up, you have moved the rod tip upward of 8 feet. The slightest change in angles can turn an inactive follower into a feeder.

Suave For Men bass pro Art Berry of Hemet, Calif.Swimbaits definitely are not just a chunk-and-wind lure. The angler needs to be as much in tune with what the bait is doing below the surface as he would any other bass lure. Stay focused on what the lure is doing and make slight angle changes in your retrieve. A live rainbow trout doesn’t swim in a straight line, so why should your lure?

Little swimmers – Will Brantley

California isn’t the only place to catch big largemouths on a swimbait. Lunkers everywhere will latch onto these lures, including those east of the Rocky Mountains. By using them, you’re always targeting the biggest bass in the area – the kind that win tournaments. The secret to using swimbaits on any body of water, according to Suave pro Art Berry of Hemet, Calif., is “matching the hatch.” After all, the primary reason bass in many California lakes get so big is because they snack on stocked trout big enough to make a fly angler grip-and-grin for the camera. Trout-imitating swimbaits are simply the best way of imitating that forage. But trout-patterned swimbaits aren’t the only types available.

“Before I go to a lake, I do a lot of research and find out what the primary forage is in that lake,” Berry said. “In Okeechobee, for example, it’s golden shiners. In Lake Cumberland, they feed on alewives. But it could be yellow perch, bluegills or shad. They make swimbaits to imitate all of that.”

Because most anglers seldom throw swimbaits, particularly in Eastern lakes, they can be a new and particularly deadly offering for big bass. And they don’t have to be 10 inches long and cost $65 to work. Shad and bluegill-imitating swimbaits are only 4 or 5 inches long, but they’re ultra-realistic and have an action that simply cannot be duplicated with a crankbait or swimming jig.

In the end, it all comes down to piquing a bass’s curiosity, showing it something it hasn’t seen before. “Bass are naturally curious,” Berry said. “And curiosity killed the cat.”

As a matter of fact, Berry makes his own swimbaits. For more information on Berry’s California Swimbabes, call (877) 929-FISH or visit

Did the swimbait really originate in California? – Chris Eubanks

The widely distributed history of swimbaits indicates the lure was developed in California in the late ’80s or early ’90s for bass-fishing purposes. The lure and technique, which evolved from striped bass anglers, then slowly made its way east. There appears, however, to be another, independent arm of history involving the swimbait that also began in the late ’80s.

“I think we were using swimbaits for bass fishing before anyone out West was,” said Mark Pack, Wal-Mart FLW Tour pro, former Lake Fork guide and founder of Lake Fork Tackle.

“There were striper guides that used swimbaits in Lake Texoma. Well, we had these big bass in Lake Fork that were chasing big gizzard shad. So in 1988 or 1989, we figured we would try them here.

“It wasn’t until the early ’90s that we heard about everyone out West using them.”

So, it’s quite possible that the swimbait, in terms of using the lure for bass fishing, was actually invented in Texas. Californians, however, clearly took the concept to another level.