Weightless Soft-Plastics for Backwater Stripers

Catch the beginning of the striper migration by scaling down your soft plastics and targeting skinny-water bass.

April is a nearly sacred month for anglers as the snow melts into memory and a new fishing season is on the horizon. From the first dandelions signaling that tautog are back and biting to opening day of trout season, April presents a variety of opportunities to shake cabin fever and wet a line. For me, though, nothing ushers in the new season like throwing weightless soft-plastics for stripers as they invade our salt ponds and back bays as the water warms. 

Whether from shore, a kayak, or a boat, I like to take a page out of the freshwater bass angler’s playbook to target early-season schoolies by using Texas-rigged soft plastics, which provide a variety of advantages over other baits. First, the rig is weedless, which is incredibly important when after stripers in salt ponds. These fish are patrolling the eel-grass-lined shores and are often in a foot of water or less. The single hook tucked into the soft plastic creates a sleek profile that slips in and out of the weeds and into the strike zone.

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Another benefit of the weedless-rigged soft plastic is that it can be worked with a wide array of speeds and cadences, meaning I can switch my presentation to whatever the fish are in the mood for without having to constantly change lures. Early-spring bass, particularly in skinny water, can be quite finicky and lethargic, and the weedless, weightless Texas-rigged presentation gives me the option to slow my bait down and twitch it enticingly across the top of the water. 

weightless soft-plastics for stripers on cinder worms
Early in the season, skinny-water stripers go crazy for the zig-zag of a weightless soft-plastic. (Photo by Joey Manansala)

The bait can also be worked in deeper water along channel edges when retrieved at a moderate pace with longer rod-tip twitches to produce an action similar to that of the “walk the dog” zig-zag of a Zara Spook. Given the soft plastic’s slender profile, though, the walk-the-dog action is much more subtle than that of a large wooden plug, perfect for pulling bass out of the channel and up to the surface to slurp down the lure. My first keeper of the year always seems to fall for this retrieve along a channel edge in the upper reaches of a salt pond.

A third presentation that is very effective for early-season bass with weightless soft-plastics is a fast retrieve with short, quick twitches, producing an erratic bait movement that often triggers a reaction strike from hungry bass. There is not as much forage for these fish in early spring as there will be later in the season, and the fast-paced retrieve often causes fish to strike without thinking twice. When fish are tight to the shoreline, this retrieve almost startles them into swiping at the bait.

Saltwater-Grade Hooks for Soft Plastics

VMC Redline Series Hybrid Wide Gap
BKK Titanrider Swimbait Hook
Gamakatsu Superline Hook with Spring Lock

Texas-Style Rigging

The first rubber worm was invented in Ohio by Nick Crème in 1949. Ten years later, a group of anglers on Lake Tyler, Texas, began twisting the hook and burying the point in the worm to prevent getting hung up on submerged timber. Then, in the 1960s, professional angler Bill Dance was introduced to the technique by fellow angler Stan Marriott. Dance then introduced the world to the “Texas Rig” on his TV show, and the rest is history.

Step 1: insert hook point through the center of the bait’s nose, slide bait up and onto hook shank.
Step 2: align the hook eye with the nose of the bait and measure where the hook will pierce through the belly of the bait.
Step 3: push the hook point in through the belly and out through the back, making sure the point rests flush to the back of the bait.

Spots for Spring Stripers

When deciding where to target springtime stripers, I look for the same things as I do out in open water when the season progresses, but on a smaller scale.

weightless soft-plastics for stripers on cinder worms

1. Eel Grass and Mussel Beds

Any shoreline outcropping should hold at least a few schoolies. I particularly like steeper shorelines with mussel beds lined with eelgrass.  When the tide is high, bait push into the grass to hide, and the bass follow. When the tide is out, the bass are able to use the relatively steep shoreline to corral bait. In both instances, these spots produce fish.

2. Current Rips and Pinch Points

I look for any spots with stronger current than the surrounding water. Many salt ponds have points and sandbars that create small rips.  Working a soft plastic across these rips can produce many fish as they sit down-current and wait for bait to be flushed around a point or over a sandbar.

3. Rock Piles

I target any rock piles I can find because these often have fish. When doing so, I let my soft plastic sink for a few seconds before beginning my retrieve so that it passes very close to the top of the structure. While I would not be able to fish a weightless soft plastic like this in open water, in the bays, these spots are only a few feet deep and there is not enough current to prevent the lure from sinking a foot or so below the surface.

Similarly, I like to check out shallow choke points between islands, rock piles, and the shoreline because these areas often have stronger currents and funnel food to stripers waiting to ambush. They are relatively easy to spot, and fish often stack up in these seams, creating fast and furious action.

In addition to the versatility of the bait in terms of the retrieve, part of what makes it so effective in the spring is that the bait itself is minimalist enough to imitate any number of prey species for the bass, whether it’s silversides, mummichogs, peanut bunker, or cinder worms. By not mimicking one forage species too closely, it can pass as any of the multitude of prey species that begin to repopulate salt ponds along with the stripers. 

The biggest drawback to the rig is its lack of casting distance, but this is nullified by the backwater environment where it is being fished. Rarely in these early-season scenarios do I find myself casting more than 30 or 40 feet, well within a weightless plastic’s range. Additionally, the shoreline serves as a windscreen, so there is no need for the lure to cut through the wind.

While any number of soft-plastic stickbaits work, my go-to is the white 4.5-inch Slug-Go. It is relatively durable and the size matches just about any bait in the ponds during the spring. I prefer using white because I think it stands out against a darkening sky better than other “natural” colors. I tie the plastic off to a 2-foot, 15-pound-test fluorocarbon leader that I attach to my 20-pound braid via a barrel swivel. I use a 7-foot, medium-action spinning rod. This setup has enough backbone to handle larger fish while still being light enough to cast weightless lures.

Soft-Plastic Stickbaits for the Worm “Hatch” 

While fishing Texas-rigged soft-plastic stickbaits is effective all spring long, my favorite time to fish these is during worm “hatches.” The annual occurrence is by far my favorite part of the fishing calendar when thousands of cinder worms emerge from the mud to spawn, creating an all-you-can-eat buffet for stripers. It is an incredible natural phenomenon.  Hundreds of stripers head into tiny coves, with so many fish crashing the surface that it seems like you could walk on them.

Cinder worms, a favorite springtime food of backwater stripers, can be imitated with weightless soft plastics.

These worm hatches can be somewhat unpredictable, but there are certain patterns that can help put you in the right place at the right time. First, worm hatches generally start further up salt ponds early in the season, and as the spring progresses, they occur closer to open, faster-moving water. I try for warm, sunny days with low tides in the late morning or early afternoon. This allows the mud to warm and makes the worms active. By the time evening rolls around, the tide will be high and starting to move out again, which gives the fish enough water to get into the marshes while the tide flushes bait out of the eelgrass.

Additionally, hatches occur for several consecutive nights, with smaller hatches building into a larger hatch, followed by several nights of smaller hatches. While the bigger hatches can be incredible to watch, the best fishing is usually during the smaller hatches since there is less bait with which to compete. In a similar vein, the best fishing is in the early evening when the hatch is just beginning because the bass have moved in, but the worms have not all emerged from the mud.

Match the “Hatch”

weightless soft-plastics for stripers
4.5-inch Slug-Go
weightless soft-plastics for stripers
Z-Man Trick ShotZ
weightless soft-plastics for stripers
4-inch Lunker City Fin-S Fish

While these events are spectacular to experience, they can also be incredibly frustrating since there is so much bait.  The fish are so zoned in on the bait that it can be very difficult to get them to eat anything else. The only bait that I have found to consistently produce in this situation is a Texas-rigged soft plastic which, thanks to its slim profile, leaves a wake across the top of the water similar to that of a cinder worm. It even outproduces the “fly and bubble” technique, which consists of a casting egg or bubble fished above a fly to allow someone using spinning gear to cast a worm-imitating fly. However, to move the fly effectively, the bubble produces a significant amount of commotion on the surface, creating an unnatural presentation in calm backwaters. 

By always having a few soft-plastic stickbaits on hand whenever I head out to fish salt ponds in the spring, I am always prepared in case I am lucky enough to find a worm hatch.

More than anything else, the reason I love fishing weightless soft-plastics for stripers is that there is nothing that gets my heart racing like watching the first bass of the new season materialize behind the lure and slurp it down. The rush of a topwater strike and the frenetic runs of a shallow-water striper are the best ways to knock off winter cobwebs and welcome a new fishing season here in New England.

Related Content

Sandy Beach Soft Plastics

The Cinder Worm “Hatch”

Topwater Tips for Backwater Stripers

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