Basic Swim Bait


Rigging swim baits is a subject that is difficult to write about or to fully understand as a reader, as there are many contributing factors than can affect the way baits do or don’t swim. It’s only after a lot of trial and error or having things explained first hand that you will fully understand ‘hydro-dynamics’ of dead bait fishing. I know I’ve mentioned it previously, but it can take some of the worlds top crew 2 or 3 full seasons to have a good understanding of what makes a bait swim correctly.

Being able to rig swim baits is a good skill to have in your fishing arsenal, as it’s a great way of targeting any of New Zealand’s billfish species including swordfish. There are advantages and disadvantages with any facet of fishing and using a swim bait may not be your best option in some situations, but when live bait is hard to come by or you want to remain more mobile than when soaking live baits, dead baits can be a great option especially if you’re tired of watching lures bubble away all season.

Rigging baits can be a lot of fun especially if you haven’t done a lot of it the past. It can also be very rewarding when spending a little bit of extra time and effort rigging a bait that results in catching a nice billfish. Some fisherman may prefer to stick to lure fishing as that too has its own advantages and disadvantages, but there are many times when lures don’t raise fish and dead baits certainly are worth the time and effort involved.

It’s important to understand what baits are suitable to use as swim baits and those that are not, as a lot of time and energy can be wasted trying to rig a bait that was probably never going to swim in the first place.

Skipjack or albacore are not generally suitable for swim baits. I’ve heard some crewmen mention that they have used small tuna for swim baits; I guess they know something that I don’t as I’ve never been able to get them to swim consistently myself, this is due to their rigid body composition and their fragile skin and flesh. Skipjack and albacore don’t actually make the best splash baits either due to their soft nature but sometimes you just have to use what’s available. Small tuna don’t really keep that well either, personally I think they’re best utilised as either a fresh live bait or simply as bottom fishing bait.

English mackeral or big slimey mackeral are generally pretty soft and fragile baits as well, they can be a little tricky to swim sometimes due to their body composition and they also don’t keep that well, similar to skipjack tuna. All billfish really love slimey’s and it’s a pity that they aren’t better swimmers. I prefer to utilise them as splash baits, pitch baits or just keeping them as fresh live baits.

Jack or yellowtail mackeral are also pretty hard to swim consistently. I’ve seen others trying or attempting to swim jack mackeral but in my experience unless they are quite big and fresh they’re not worth the effort and they’re just better utilised as live baits. Jack mackeral just don’t ‘flex’ that well and it’s therefore hard to obtain a good swimming action from them.

I’ve used a variety of baits successfully in New Zealand as swimmers. A good swim bait needs to have a suitable stream lined body, with strong skin and flesh to hold together when towed and it’s important that they keep well if frozen. It’s very important that swim baits flex or are allowed to flex after rigging to allow an acceptable swim action. Sometimes corers are used to remove a baits backbone, making it more flexible, generally I try to avoid this as I find your bait will ‘wash out’ at least twice as quick. I prefer to give my baits a good flex or bend and leave the body in tact.

Small to medium sized kahawai and mullet make great swim baits; if they’re too big they can create quite a drag through the water and can be difficult to tow. You may be able to come up with some sort arrangement to tow these bigger baits, I generally don’t use them as I prefer other baits, but sometimes you have to use whatever bait you can catch.

Koheru and medium sized trevally are probably my favourite swim baits in New Zealand waters. They can be a little soft sometimes, especially if not fresh, but they keep reasonably well, they have a great swimming action and above all else billfish love eating them.

Preparation of swim bait consists of removing the eyeballs, gut and gills while still leaving the throatlatch in tact. Removing the gut and gills will aid with the baits flexibility and reduce the rate of decomposing, while removing the eyeballs ensures the bait is well balanced when swimming. Eyeballs will pop out when towed and off balance the bait, so it’s just easier to remove them from the start. Adding a small amount of salt to the empty gill, gut cavity and skin will harden up the bait and reduce any fishy odours.

In situations where a lot of dead bait is used, small amounts of sodium bicarbonate and formaldehyde maybe also added to bait. Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is used to maintain the baits colours and formaldehyde is used to further reduce decomposing and strengthen your bait. From a recreational perspective these are probably not worth the trouble unless you want experiment with a few things (remembering also that formaldehyde is highly poisonous).

I realise not all boats have suitable refrigeration for keeping bait, considering a lot of New Zealand’s fishing is done from trailer boats, but having the ability to keep bait in good condition is vitally important how a bait swims, or more importantly catching a billfish. As with live baiting the best condition bait will generally be the first to get ‘bit’.

There are many differing swim bait rigs that all have unique advantages and disadvantages. Some are belly rigged baits, where the hook comes out the gut cavity and some are head rigged baits with the hook ‘leading’ the bait. Each has a differing way of hooking-up fish, that’s an entirely separate argument that every fisherman seems to disagree on, so we’ll leave that one alone for now.

I use or have used a large variety of rigs over the past few years, I use differing rigs in different situations and with differing bait species. Here is a pretty basic head rig that I don’t necessarily use that often anymore, but it’s relatively straightforward to learn and works well for many of the baits mentioned earlier. It’s maybe something that you will like to play around with over the up coming summer months.



All you need is a descent bait needle, some waxed rigging thread or suitable dacron, a 4 ounce teardrop or ledger rig sinker, your well prepared bait and maybe a knife or scissors tidying up lose ends. First step involves taking approximately 3-4 feet of waxed thread. Fold the length in half and make a 2-3 inch loop by tying a double over hand knot at the fold. This loop is essentially used as the towing connection to the bait so ensure it is pulled up tight.


Tie the mouth shut by simply cutting short length of waxed thread, pass your needle and thread up through both jaws and tie them shut with double over hand knot. Ensure the finishing knot sits right on the tip or front of the baits mouth, if it sits on either side it can cause a drag that will affect the baits stream line. 




Next step is important to get right as it will effect how ‘true’ your bait will swim. Place the sinker inside the gill plates of your bait with loop end facing the mouth. This weight basically creates a paravaine effect and enables the bait to swim. By placing the sinker inside the gill plates, it doesn’t affect the baits dynamics or streamline like some other rigs. 



If you rub the top of your baits head with the shaft of your needle, you’ll notice a centerline appear that runs the length of the skull. In line with the front of the eye sockets, you now pass the two tag ends with your needle through the baits head and on opposites sides of the centerline (approx 5-8mm apart). 




This is the towing point of the bait and it may vary with bait size, species, towing speed and sea conditions. Generally in line with the front of the eye sockets is a good place to start but as you get more experienced you may like to try and get a slightly different action out of your baits or simply have them swim deeper or shallower. Without getting to technical, I’ll leave that in your capable hands to work out.



Pass the two tag ends through the eye of the sinker and out the bottom of the baits head so you have each tag end is on opposite sides of the baits throatlatch. Pull the tag ends through so that the knot sits snuggly and exactly on the skulls centerline, remembering that this is the baits towing point. 





You now tie off the two tag ends firmly with a couple of over hand knots across the top of the throatlatch. This holds both the sinker and the loop on top of the head in position. It’s important to make sure the loops knot sits firmly and exactly on the centerline of the baits head when you tie off this knot. 




From this point you pass the two tag ends through the baits eye sockets in opposing directions and then over the top of the baits head in front of the towing loop. Tie the tag ends off again firmly with a double overhand knot on top of the head. Tying this in front of the towing loop holds it in the correct place and reduces it tearing through the head when it is towed through the water.



To finish off the head rig, you pass both the tag ends through the eye sockets again in opposing directions and then tie them off firmly under the baits gills with a couple of over hand knots. This is the finishing knot for the head rig so make sure the knot is firm, as you don’t want it coming undone. Obviously cut off the remaining tag ends with your knife or scissors.



The belly or gut cavity needs to be sown shut, so the bait doesn’t wash out. Cross-stitching is the more common way of doing this, but you may come up with your own method. Whatever method you use its important that your stitching is not too tight as the bait needs to flex to swim. 





Connect your hook and leader to the loop, give your bait a good flex, if you’ve taken care to do everything correctly your bait should swim like a champion. If it’s not quite swimming right, just work through all the factors in a process of elimination. Make sure the bait is stream lined as even the smallest thing can offset the baits action, the towing point is centered, the belly stitching is not too tight and you’ve given it a good flex.


If you get everything fine tuned with nice fresh bait you should be able to troll your swimmer at between 4-7 knots without any worries. This rig also makes great pitch baits if sea conditions are a little choppy for splashing pitch baits. I quite often use swimmers as teaser baits when I’m fly fishing for billfish or switch baiting with light tackle but I usually cross-stitch the body just to hold the bait together if a billfish does get hold of it.

The point I’m trying to make is that there’s a bit of variety you can play around with when you get more familiar with rigging a swimmer, you maybe able to come up with your own variation. As I mentioned earlier, dead bait fishing is a bit of a science that can’t be learnt overnight, but hopefully this basic head rig will give you something to play around with next summer, see what you think…good luck!