Swimbait Fishing Tips

When all else fails, soft plastic swimbaits, such as shad imitations or paddletails, can trigger bites from finicky fish that ignore every other bait or lure you throw at them.

In order to mimic a wounded baitfish, swimbaits can be cast and recovered at a variety of speeds with the occasional halt or shift in direction.

About 12 years ago, I first started using these shad imitations as striper or white bass lures. Since then, I have discovered that all fish species that pursue and consume shad have a weakness for these baits.

Shad-imitation swimbaits are a surefire bait since they make up a significant portion of the diets of most game fish, and this is especially true when using moon periods as an indicator.

Photo of walleye caught with swimbait
Swimbaits make excellent lures for many fish, such as this gorgeous walleye

Why are swimbaits so effective? 

Probably the most important feature of swimbaits is their realistic appearance.

Swimbaits closely resemble real baitfish in both their action and shape, and also come with very lifelike colors. Some of the modern swimbaits look so real that it’s hard to distinguish them from actual bait fish.

Swimbaits also make great search baits, since you can quickly cover a lot of ground with them, and will notice if any fish are following your swimbait to the boat.

How to rig a soft plastic swimbait 

The easiest way to rig a soft plastic swimbait is to thread it onto a weighted jig head.  When you do this, make sure to choose the hook size so that the the hook pokes out of the soft plastic about two-thirds of the length of the swimbait.

You can also use soft plastic swimbaits as trailers on on swim jigs, spinnerbaits, or chatterbaits.

The weight of the jig will depend on the fishing depth and the strength of the current; for suspended fish or when shad are located close to the surface, I have even used very little weight or none at all.

What to look for in a swimbait 

I had the good fortune to try Slider Co.’s fantastic Double Action Grub recently. Due to its distinctive shape, with vibra-tail action over the whole rear half, it produces strong wave action even at medium retrieve speed.

With other baits, you would need to loosen the tail by chopping off pieces of the plastic in front of it in order to get this lifelike motion.

And when it comes to color selection, use dark colors in dark conditions, and light colors in bright conditions, as a general rule of thumb. When choosing a jig head color, I try to match the color of the swimbait with the color of the jig head.

Photo of Z-Man Smoky Shad
Z-Man Smoky Shad

I find that 3 to 4 inch baits, which appear to match the hatch in most places, work best in terms of size.

Some 5 inch baits have worked out okay as well, but keep in mind that downsized swim baits work best when fishing in cold front conditions or in waters where fish are under pressure.

Match the hatch with your swimbait 

I usually like to match the local forage with my swimbait, and if that isn’t shad, it means changing to whatever is currently on the menu of the game fish that I’m targeting.

When targeting bass around bedding bluegills, try to use bluegill imitation swimbaits, which can make killer baits at this time.

How to fish a swimbait 

As suggested by their name, you can swim these baits along cover where predator fish hide in order to ambush prey.

During spring when the weather is erratic, fish will hold quite tightly to that cover, and you’ll need to fish your swimbait as close as possible to the cover.

When summer arrives, most fish will be found off shore near bottom and around structure after the spawn and before the thermocline is set.

Look for fish in stream or river channels, humps along the channel, at prominent lake points, and along breaks and rocky banks outside of the spawning season.

When shad are being driven onto flats in the summer and fall, stay back as far as possible, make a long cast, and gently swim your bait through the busting shad.

During the retrieve, maintain your rod at around the ten o’clock position to make the bait go high and get a better feel for the bite.

Swimbait retrieval tactics 

Despite being referred to as swim baits, there are several other methods to fish with them.

You can just pull the lure like a Carolina rig if fish are holding close to the bottom. A hopping or pumping retrieve enables the bait to approach the fish’s level while it is just off the bottom (similar to using a bottom bouncer for walleye). The best places to wiggle or twitch the bait along are weed margins and gradually sloping areas.

In order to improve your swimbait fishing technique and catch more fish, try to experiment and test various things until you figure out what works.

You also need to build up your confidence with this lure in order to produce more bites.

How to fish swimbaits for striped bass 

Swimbaits are excellent baits for stripers, and sometimes outperform all other lure types.

When fishing swimbaits for striped bass, look for stripers feeding at the surface, as evidenced by shad busting out of the water as they’re being chased by hungry stripers.

Then cast your swimbait parallel to the edge of the action, and work it slowly back until you get a strike. Experiment fishing at different depths in order to hit the jackpot.

If the stripers are feeding very close to the surface, you may want to downsize the weight of your swimbait, so you can keep it closer to the surface.


This concludes our article on swimbait fishing tips. Most fish species that feed on shad or other bait fish can be caught with swim baits, and even if you don’t get a hit, any fish in the area will have seen the lure.

So add a few of these enticing shad- or minnow-impersonators to your tackle box, and see what they can do for you.

Visit our homepage at Larry’s Fishing Hole to get more up-to-date fishing reports, angling advice, as well as information on current events in the local world of sport fishing.