By Hayes Ozelet
Special to BassFan
Besides a thriving and successful pro bass career, Brandon Palaniuk has something else that’s envy-inducing; a tackle box that, based on the value of its contents, might as well be a treasure chest. Its contents? Swimbaits.
But not just any swimbaits. These are the ones on Tackle Warehouse’s JDM page that you fantasize about. Many are immigrants (legal, mind you), born in and around Japan's Lake Biwa and other meccas of bass-bait evolution. Some are as large as the proverbial tennis shoe, and others are standard 4-inchers.
How he implements them might be as shocking as some of their price tags. Like several other top-tier pros, he can often be found chucking beastly swimsuits in water less than 4 feet deep. Fellow Bassmaster Elite Series pros Chris Zaldain and David Walker are quick to nod in agreement that big baits work surprisingly well in skinny water.
For shallow-water fishing, Palaniuk’s favorite treasure in his chest is an 8-inch Huddleston Trout, but he also throws a Huddleston Deluxe 68 Special and the Hud Deluxe Bluegill. He says that the 8-inch Trout is his go-to 80 percent of the time from pre-spawn all the way through post-spawn, as well as any other time the fish are up shallow. But there are several nuances to using behemoth baits in the shallows.
“The biggest thing to remember is that you are in shallow water, so in general you want the slower-sinking models,” he says. “In the Huddlestons, I use the ROF 5 models. For those who don’t know, that means that on a 10-count, the bait will have fallen 5 feet. And when I’m casting it, I’ll always cast past my target with a low sidearm throw to minimize the splash. If I’m fishing around cover, I’ll skip it. The Huds – especially the Hud Gill – skip great because they’re so tall; they’re almost like a saucer.”
All three pros agree that the best retrieve is tantamount to that of the tortoise who bested the hare: slow and steady.
“Let the bait do the work; use its action,” Palaniuk says. “If I’m fishing in and around cover, I’ll use a weedless version and bump it into the cover, like I would a crankbait or swimjig. It gets the same reaction as those other baits, it just appeals to bigger fish.”
Palaniuk also reserves a big swimbait in the spawn to deal with pesky fish that won’t cooperate with anything tossed into their beds.
“If I have a fish that won’t react to anything, I’ll grab the swimbait, cast it well beyond the bed and let it sink to the bottom. I’ll begin to slowly retrieve it along the bottom and then kill it in the bed. One of two things is going to happen; the fish will crush it or be spooked off, but if they’re locked on and not taking anything else, they can’t ignore that and they’ll usually smoke it.”
Palaniuk prefers to lob his big baits on a prototype Alpha Angler rod. The up-and-coming rod company is a venture that he’s entered with a friend back in his native Idaho. It’s 8 feet long and he pairs it with either an Abu Garcia Revo Beast or Cabela’s Arachnid reel spooled with 20- or 25-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon.
A rare glimpse inside Palaniuk's "treasure box."
“The key to making these big baits work in shallow or deep water is persistence. You’ve got to understand that you’re not going out looking for 15 or 20 bites a day; you’re looking for five or six,” he says. “Another key is that you have to retrieve it all the way back to the boat. A lot of fish will follow it, and when they see it approaching the boat, they have to make a decision to grab it or pull back.
"Last year in Oklahoma I was fishing up shallow and had a 9 1/2-pounder eat it right at the trolling motor. I see that so much with swimbaits. If I see a follower, I’ll give the reel a quick three-quarter turn to jump it forward, so the bass thinks it’s trying to get away, and that’ll often get ’em to try and snatch it up.”
Hunt ’Em Up
Before, during and even after the spawn, many anglers are on the trolling motor, mucking up the shallows in search of active beds. In contrast, Western pro Chris Zaldain prefers to let a large swimbait do the majority of his bird-dogging.
“A lot of times in practice you’ll be behind a guy who’s throwing a Senko or jig to every obvious piece of cover in the shallows, but the fish have all seen those things plenty of times and might not react to them, especially the big females,” he says. “When a big girl pulls up to something like a stump, she owns that piece of cover. She’s not leaving. There likely won’t be many small fish around because she’s there. When a crankbait or spinnerbait swims by, she’ll pass it up. But an 8-inch bait? She’s got to have it.”
In and around the spawn, Zaldain will throw trout-profile baits, but more often relies on bluegill imitators.
“Through every phase of the spawn, the bass are in shallow water and the most common forage fish up there are bluegill, which is why I prefer the 3:16 Lure Co. Bluegill. I also throw some old Baitsmith swimbaits as well as Megabass Mag Drafts and iSlides. The Mag Draft and iSlide aren’t as much of a bluegill-imitator as the 3:16, but they work really well around grass flats and in colder water.”
Zaldain dotes on these lures because of their realism. He says that if you’re throwing a big bait, there’s more of it for a bass to look at and therefore scrutinize. If it isn’t up to snuff in the looks or action department, you’re going to be left with nothing but followers.
Another part of turning followers into biters is having a bait that balances well. Zaldain says that a bait must fall horizontally when killed and also not crumple up and fall over to the side. Real baitfish do neither of these things.
As previously mentioned, getting your plus-size bait into skinny water is paramount. Before he fires, Zaldain ensures that the rod is fully loaded, and in a low and sweeping action, smoothly sends the bait on its way. Just before it splashes down, he’ll either engage the reel’s handle or thumb the spool to stop it dead, allowing it to enter the water with a “plop” rather than a “sploosh.” When possible, he’ll skip the bait to its destination.
“Skipping a lure is much more natural than just letting it slam down; the Mag Draft is nice because it just has a single hook that’s held to the belly with a magnet, so it stays put when you skip it,” he says. “That also lets you creep it along the bottom, doing its thing, without snagging.”
Large swimbaits like the Roman Made Negotiator can be surprisingly effective in shallow water if properly employed.
Zaldain says that a rod with a moderate action is imperative for two reasons: to let the rod load properly on the cast and to fight hefty fish with a single treble hook. He prefers a Megabass Orochi XX Leviathan rod for those two reasons and because it has a short butt section, permitting him to cast around cover without it hitting his body. Mated to the Leviathan is a 300-size Shimano Curado spooled with 20-pound Seaguar InvisX.
Regarding his bait selection and timing, in cold water he opts for the big, jointed Mag Draft, iSlide and Roman Made Negotiator because “they’re like giant jerkbaits, and everyone knows how well jerkbaits work in cold water.” When the water hits the 60-degree mark, he goes for boot-tail options when many are throwing ChatterBaits.
Real is the deal
David Walker agrees with Zaldain that a boot-tail swimbait is key during and after the spawn, a time that sees him with a LiveTarget Golden Shiner on the deck.
“You know, it used to be kind of novel to have a swimbait in your boat, but it’s not anymore. Guys – myself included – used to throw a spinnerbait where we now throw square-bills and swimbaits. In general, I use big baits when we fish where it’s mostly shallow, and that means Florida a lot of the time.
"LiveTarget makes the perfect bait for that, the new 6 1/2-inch Golden Shiner. It’s a big bait, and Florida has some big bass and that’s what they like to eat. Because of baits like the Shiner, I can say that my spinnerbaits don’t get as much use as they used to.”
When he’s using the Golden Shiner or one of LiveTarget’s other boot-tails, Walker echoes Zaldain and Palaniuk that you need to let the bait do the work for you; don’t impart any twitches or pauses. After all, you’ve selected your big swimbait because it looks good, right?
“The most effective way to fish them – either shallow or deep – is with a long cast and a slow and steady retrieve. I’ve never really caught ’em well doing anything else,” he says. “Big swimbaits often create a lot of lift, and if you reel it too fast it’ll come up on you. I try to retrieve them just fast enough to keep it from sinking.
"The reason you see some really heavy swimbaits is so you can reel it faster and it’ll stay down. When you’re in clear water or they’re not particularly aggressive, slow is the way to go.”
Also like Zaldain and Palaniuk, Walker prefers a nice and easy underhand cast. He uses a 7 1/2-foot G. Loomis GLX Jig-n-Worm rod or the Alabama Rig rod that's an inch longer. He uses Shimano Metanium reels on both, spooled with 18- or 20-pound Sunline Sniper FC fluorocarbon.
Both of those rods permit long casts and will drive the big single hook home at the end of a long toss. During a long cast, you might get a follower that only wants to sample the bait, but Walker has a way to get those fish in the box.
“If you can get away with it, meaning there’s not a lot of grass or cover, add a stinger hook to snag those that are only trying it. This is especially true in clear and shallow water; if they follow it and only want a taste, that stinger can make ’em pay.”