The Adaptable Angler: Perfecting Bass Swimbaits for Trophy Trout

The year was 2010. I sat peering out of my backdoor window at the pelting rain and hard North wind that turned Mobile Bay into an angry beast. My plans to wade fish a favorite oyster flat that morning left much to be desired. So, I flipped on the TV to watch the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament at Smith Mountain Lake in order to quench my fishing thirst. Over the next 2 hours, I watched Skeet Reese dominate the field of the best anglers in the world. Over 15 pounds of bass separated him from second place. As he was swinging winning bass into his boat, I noticed a large lure in the fishes mouth that my mind saw as looking exactly like a big mullet: a Jerry Rago Series Swimbait. As I began to do research, neurons in my brain began to fire as my saltwater biased mind began to put the pieces of the puzzle together. One week later, my Jerry Rago Swimbaits were at my doorstep, and that is when the magic happened.

The Big Bite

The full moon in May was quickly approaching as one of the last cold fronts of the year had passed weeks before. On coastal Alabama, this time of year is when sick days are taken for tournament anglers targeting the trophy female trout moving up on the shallow bars to spawn. As the water temperature was rising into the 80s, two days before the full moon, I knew it was time to try my 7 inch swimbait that already bent my rod to the water once tied on. I arrived at one of my tournament spots well before daylight, jumped into the water and waded to a cut that met an oyster bar with a subtle drop off. First cast, nothing. Second cast, nothing. Third cast… you guessed it, nothing. As I was watching the carnage of trout breeching on mullet not 20 yards from me, I was already mentally defeated and had lost hope in my $25 investment. I eased away from the schoolies and made one more half-hearted cast, then, BANG. The mullet scattered in a shower of fear as the big girl rolled just under them on the end of my line. On my fourth cast, with a bass lure I never used before, I landed a 26 inch, 6.25 pound trout.

I now had acquired a weapon for tournament day. Since this day, I have landed more trout between five and seven pounds than I ever have before using big swimbaits of varying brands and designs. The key, as we have always been taught: big baits catch big fish. The freshwater lure market has always been far more innovative than the saltwater market. There are hundreds of ways to catch a bass, yet, only a few known ways to catch a trout. These big swimbaits were needed to catch educated bedding bass. Necessity will always breed innovation. Always keep an open mind when lure shopping and never be afraid to adapt by checking out the freshwater side of the isle as well.

The Swim Bait Dynamics

It can be a daunting task to understand when to throw a bait of this size. The most important point, especially on tournament day, is fishing where the big females live. This may sound elementary at best, but it’s something most anglers overlook. Oyster bars with current and deep water nearby are the best for spring and early summer patterns. These types of areas attract the large mullet that resemble the big swimbait and provide ample forage for a female trout to gorge herself before spawning. Clearer water is the best for swimbait fishing, yet, it’s a doubled edged sword. Trophy trout are trophies for a reason, they have survived and survival means adaptation. These clear water Einstein’s on coastal Alabama are notoriously line shy, so, downsizing your line size is best when you can. I always almost exclusively wade fish for trout in the Spring. They are as much trolling motor sensitive as they are line shy courtesy of fishing pressure and their highly evolved lateral line. Look for schools of mullet “smoking” on the surface and watch for any sign of them evading. Anytime I see this, I quickly reel up and cast into the mullet school. It is nature’s sign that there could be a large trout lurking underneath. When using a big swimbait, a medium to medium-heavy action rod works best paired with a bait casting reel with a 7:1 gear ratio.

When using a big swimbait, a medium to medium-heavy action rod works best paired with a bait casting reel with a 7:1 gear ratio.

Also, use 15-20 pound fluorocarbon depending on water clarity. Try to use colors that “match the hatch.” Quality fish are always more attracted to life-like imitations versus some colors that are so bright they resemble a Mardi Gras float on the streets of New Orleans. Personally, I have never seen a mullet with the colors of a Mardi Gras float, so, I refrain from using these unnatural colors in clearer water. When retrieving the bait, reel slowly with your rod tip pointed towards the water and the lure keeping your line tight. I like to twitch the bait every 4-5 seconds for added erratic action. Don’t real too fast that the bait begins to roll over. Test the optimal speed of the retrieve while you can see the lure in the water to ensure this does not happen. Brands such as Rago, Storm, Live Target, Riptide, and the Wedgetail by Egret Baits are my favorite brands to use.

A Palomar knot is the best universal knot to use for this set up. It is a 100% knot that won’t leave you cursing into the breeze after losing an expensive lure due to a poor knot. This technique is effect across the Gulf Coast. Anywhere there are mullet, the big swimbait will excel in catching big trout.

The Tournament Mindset

Tying on a 7 inch lure or bigger is simply self-psychological warfare. You have to have the mindset that you are fishing for a trophy, a wall hanger, one bite that will win the big check or the memory of a lifetime. This mindset defies human nature at its core and you’ll find that the urge to tie on a smaller lure is very strong. Sure, you’ll probably catch more fish, but not the right fish. Everyone loves to get bit every cast, but keep in mind that school trout have no desire to hunt around big female trout. They get out-competed. If you find yourself surrounded by school trout, move down the bar fan casting in every direction until you get the bite you’re looking for. There’s not much that feels better than the jolt that a trophy trout sends up the spine from a tight line. Once you get the big bite, you will have adapted enough to fish with big bass lures for trophy trout.

Tight lines and calm seas,
Harrison Jordan

Harrison Jordan is a Biology major at Birmingham Southern College. He's a passionate outdoorsman when not in the classroom, specializing in freshwater and saltwater tournament fishing for big bass, trophy trout, and tripletail.