By: Shaye Baker
If you’re just getting into bass fishing, or even if you’ve been around awhile, you’re probably starting to hear a few terms that don’t make a lot of sense right out of the gate. There’s a lot of terminology in fishing that becomes second nature to anglers overtime, but can be quite confusing early on. “I want to sling a blade” comes to mind at the present moment, which to me just means fishing with a spinnerbait. But I could completely understand how a new comer to fishing might be a little taken aback upon hearing that one, or perhaps even duck.
There are a lot of these little nuances to the English language that apply to fishing. Some make nearly no sense at first, while some are a little easier to grab hold of. Today we’re going to define a couple of the low hanging ones that describe the two main categories of artificial lures for bass fishing: soft plastics and hard baits. Hopefully this will not only help define the categories, but also help you in your lure selection moving forward. Let’s dive in.
Two Main ‘Artificial’ Categories of Baits
So first things first, hard baits and soft plastics don’t encompass all ways to catch a bass. Namely, live bait. Live bait refers to using shad, shiners, worms or other bait that is alive. This is very effective and mostly used by people who are trying to catch fish to eat. Non-live bait, or artificial lures, present more of a challenge when trying to trick a bass into biting and are thus the lures most people use who are ‘sport fishing’, or simply fishing for the sport of it and not for something to eat.
So the two main categories then of artificial lures are the aforementioned hard baits and soft plastics. We’ll get a little more into what each of these categories look like in a minute, but I believe it prudent to quickly layout a few other baits that don’t really fall into either category. Skirted baits like spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, vibrating jigs and other jigs don’t really land in the hard or soft categories. Likewise, umbrella rigs, spoons and terminal tackle like weights, hooks and swivels all fall into other categories. But for the majority of the remainder, say 80% of all lures, you can lump them into one of two categories, hard baits or soft plastics. So let’s look at those two now.
Hard Baits vs Soft Plastic Baits
The hard bait category is vast, including baits made of several different materials like wood, plastic and other composites. Crankbaits are a good example here with some being made of plastic while others are made from balsa wood. But regardless of the material, all these baits are ‘hard’. Another common characteristic between many hard baits is that they’ll have treble hooks, as you’ll see with crankbaits like the Hammerhead 1.5 or topwaters like the Patriot 2.0. But this isn’t a requirement, as a few hard baits actually use single hooks.
Soft plastics refer primarily to baits like worms, Flukes, grubs, tubes, craws and other lures made of a ‘soft plastic’ type of material. Not all of these baits are actually made of plastic, as some are actually biodegradable and others made of a different material all together like Z-Man’s ElaZtech line of soft plastic baits that are actually made from a unique patented material. But all have a similar consistency that is soft to the touch and appears to be plastic. These types of baits almost always come without hooks or weights and are intended to be used in conjunction with terminal tackle.
When to Use Hard Baits/Lures
Hard baits are typically a little more prone to hang cover due to their treble hooks, so you’ll want to use them in situations where they don’t get super close to cover. We call these ‘open water’ scenarios. This could refer to yo-yoing a lipless crankbait around a school of baitfish or fishing a glide bait a couple feet below the surface. You’ll often still be fishing in close proximity to cover too, like the glide bait may come over a tree, but you won’t actually bring a hard bait through the cover.
Then there are some instances where you will intentionally bring a hard bait through cover. But in these rare cases, the bait will have some weedless characteristic— a squarebill like the Hammerhead 1.5 comes to mind. When you reel a squarebill, the bill digs down and kicks the hooks up behind it. This helps the bait work its way through laydowns, rocks and stumps without getting hung. You can also fish a hard bait like a squarebill or even a lipless crankbait through submerged vegetation by ripping it free from the grass when the hooks do grab hold of it.
When to Use Soft Plastic Baits
Most of the time, however, when it comes to actually fishing a bait through cover, you’ll want to go with a soft plastic. Soft plastics are again typically used in conjunction with some sort of terminal tackle. So you’ll combine a bullet weight, a worm hook and a soft plastic bait to create a Texas rig for instance. Or you can take a soft plastic and create a dropshot by adding a weight, hook and leader. Many of the presentations you’ll use a soft plastic with will be inherently weedless, because the hook point will be concealed by the soft plastic or some other weed guard. This is the case with a shaky head, Carolina rig, weedless wacky rig and many more. So these baits work great in and around cover.
But there are also instances where you’ll fish a soft plastic in open water with the hook exposed. We see this a lot with a single swimbait on a jig head for instance. A Ned rig is also a good example of this, where it is fished on the bottom but typically a fairly clean bottom since the hook is exposed. There are also cases where a wacky rig or Neko rig is fished in open water and rigged with an open hook instead of a weedless one, to give either presentation just a little bit more of a finesse profile.
To Wrap Things Up
A hard bait typically has treble hooks and most are intended for open water, but neither of these statements are absolute. The opposite is the case for soft plastics, which typically don’t use treble hooks and are meant more for fishing around cover. But again, this isn’t the case every time. A good starting point for any angler though who is trying to figure out when to do what, is to start off with a soft plastic rigged weedless around cover and a hard bait out in the open water.
As you add more and more techniques to your tool belt over time, you can start to use some hard baits around cover and find a few soft plastics that work well in open water. I would say that both these instances are a little more advanced. The soft plastics you'll fish in open water are finessier in nature and often require technique specific gear and a little better feel for the bait. And the hard baits you’ll fish through cover require pretty accurate casting and a good bit of patience as you will inevitably hang-up some. So its best to keep it simple at the start with hard baits in open water and soft plastics around cover and then allow yourself to grow overtime.