12 Fathom Fat Sam Mullet "Clear Gold", the greatest redfish lure ever made.

By FRANK SARGEANT fsargean@tampabay.rr.com

Published: Jul 12, 2002

Bass anglers long ago figured out a secret that most inshore saltwater anglers are only now discovering: Soft plastic is good for a lot more than jig tails. In fact, most flats anglers ignore soft plastics, which have the consistency of week-old Jell-O, in favor of hard plugs, spoons or jigs. But in many situations, the chewable lures offer distinct advantages over traditional lures. One guy who became convinced long ago is Mark Nichols of Stuart, who began making his own molds for soft plastics about 10 years ago. He turned out to be very good at it, and very good at using the lures he molded to land world-class fish. Nichols soon parleyed his abilities into a company, DOA Lures, that is one of the southeast’s most successful lure companies. Nichols still prefers slipping off for a day of fishing the Indian River to managing his company, and rarely fails to drum up a trophy snook or trout. While most of his tactics are designed to fit his own products, they could be used with a variety of lures, and in just about any location where the usual cast of saltwater characters are found.

“First, match the hatch,” advised Nichols, who grew up a rainbow trout angler in the Rockies.

“Check to see what the most abundant bait species is on each flat you fish, and remember that this may change if you travel a mile or two down the bay.” Nichols said large trout, reds and snook often prefer finger mullet – at least on the lower east coast of Florida where he fishes most often – so he relies on a soft plastic mullet imitation about 4 inches long in many areas. “I fish the mullet imitations right in the mullet schools,” Nichols said.

“Sometimes, you find big trout in with mullet that are far too big for them to eat. I think they get the small fish and crabs the mullet stir up as they feed.” Shrimp Also Effective However, Nichols said most game- fish also eat shrimp on certain tides and in certain locations. He relies on one of these particularly when tides are running strong enough to move a shrimp imitation without added motion from the angler. “With the shrimp, it seems like the slower you move it and the less you jerk it around, the more bites you get,” Nichols said. He advises tossing the lure uptide and keeping slight tension on the line as it drifts down. “If it stops or if you feel a tap on the line, set the hook,” he said. If he’s after permit, which sometimes hang around the ocean-side outflow from the Fort Pierce nuclear power plant – just as they do the artificial reefs along the west coast – he chooses a soft plastic molded to imitate their favorite food, a 3-inch crab. “I’ve seen a lot of times when you could put a baitfish imitation in front of permit a dozen times and they ignore it, and then switch to the crab and catch one after another,” he said. The crabs, he said, usually are fished much like shrimp, letting the current provide most of the motion, or simply cast over deep water and allowed to flutter down in front of the fish.

He said the same tactic works well for sight-fishing tarpon along the beaches. And sometimes, the lure has to be varied to deal with unique habitat problems. “Really big trout in our area very often get up in the weeds on the bars where the water is less than 12 inches deep,” Nichols said. “Any lure with an open hook will catch the weeds right away, so you have to go with something that has a Texas-rigged hook to get it through that stuff, even though the hidden hook will cause you to miss some fish.” Sizing Up The Hooks Nichols likes a size 4/0 hook for fishing the Texas-rigged jerkbaits, and he sometimes pinches a small split shot on the bend of the hook to give added casting weight.

The jerkbaits – about the thickness of a pen and 4 inches long – are worked through channels in the weeds, under floating surface grass and along the edges of oyster and sand bars. “When you get a hit on these, take up slack and point the rod at the fish and then set the hook,” Nichols advised. “If you have any slack or don’t get a good set, the hook just pops free.” He fishes most lures on light spinning gear equipped with 10-pound- test microfiber line, and several feet of clear, 25-pound-test mono leader. The lure is tied on with a loop knot to allow more action. Whatever the imitation, Nichols said soft plastics have one big advantage over nearly all other lures. “When a fish bites down on a soft plastic, whether it’s mine or some other company’s, it doesn’t eject the lure right away like it does with a hard bait,” Nichols said. “That extra few seconds gives you a lot better chance of making a hookup.” And just to help things along, Nichols adds shrimp scent to most of his lures. “Catching big fish is not that easy anywhere these days,” he said. “I figure the angler can use all the help he can get.”