Tube Tips for Great Lakes Smallmouth, Part I
The tube jig has caught more smallmouth bass on the Great Lakes than any other type of lure – perhaps more than all other lure categories combined!
In the palm of your hand, that strange plastic with the squid-like tail may not resemble much of anything you have seen in fresh water. But rig it right and work it well, and it just might resemble any food a Great Lakes bass might crave that moment.
The 3.0- and 3.5-inch Kalin’s tubes are deadly effective for Great Lakes smallmouth, and you can fish them on several styles of jighead – or even rigged Texas style with a bullet weight.
The tube jig is practically a Rohrschach test for a hungry smallmouth. But when should you fish a tube jig? And what colors should you stock?
Match the hatch
“I pretty much steal a page from the fly fisherman’s book and try to match the hatch,” says Frank Campbell, veteran smallmouth guide on Lake Erie and the Niagara River and owner of Niagara Region Charter Service (716-523-0013).
That nondescript tube shape may morph into a goby, a crayfish, or even a smelt, emerald shiner or any one of a dozen or more other forage favorites in the eye of a hungry bronzeback. But to capitalize fully on the hot bite, Campbell recommends stocking up with a range of colors – and different sizes – to simulate the forage species tempting the bass’s appetite at the time.
Pay careful attention to the baitfish or crawfish arms or legs that hooked smallmouth often cough up during a fight. In the generally ultra-clear water of the Great Lakes, those food fragments are easy to identify. Sometimes fish will spit out evidence of their last meal in your livewell, too. (Make sure local regulations permit you to take possession – even temporarily – before you place one in the bubbler!)
“You can’t go wrong with two broad color patterns,” says Campbell. “You need the basic darker colors of greens and browns, but you also want to stock up with a light color like a white or clear color as well. Bass have a tendency to switch off and on to different forage species. Yes, gobies can comprise up to 90 percent of a smallmouth’s diet at times during the summer, but in spring and fall and even on some summer occasions they are not feeding a lot on gobies but on emerald shiners or smelt.”
The latter two forage species attract a lot of bass attention in early spring.
“Smallmouth slide in from their deep winter sanctuaries earlier than gobies do,” explains Campbell. “When they are on an emerald shiner or smelt bite, lighter colors usually work best.”
Kalin’s Tip: Try pearl, smoke/purple flake, smoke/red flake and glow-in-the-dark tubes when evidence indicates smallmouth are feeding on emerald shiners, smelt and similarly colored forage species.
Great Lakes smallmouth have thrived on the round goby since that exotic species entered the system through the St. Lawrence River decades ago. It has proliferated since and now dominates the bottom-dwelling niche among Great Lakes forage species.
Gobies go through as many as six different color phases through their spawning period and throughout the season, opening up a range of colors and blends of browns, purples, dark greens and blacks – often peppered with red, gold, silver and other flecks of sparkle and color to anglers.
Kalin’s Tip: To match the goby bite, try green pumpkin, green pumpkin/purple/copper flake and black neon tubes.
Crayfish factor into the smallmouth diet wherever they are found, and Great Lakes smallmouth are no different.
“Smallmouth feed a lot on crayfish in summer,” says Campbell. “That is when the melon pepper and the greens factor into your tube selection more predominantly than other colors.”
In summary, Campbell suggests clear or light colors in early spring or whenever bass deliver clues that they are feeding on emerald shiners, smelt, alewives or other silver/white baitfish. But he always has one or more dark-colored tubes ready as well.
“Bass are opportunistic,” he reminds. “They may bite on whatever looks like the predominant forage at the time and sometimes any bait at all, if it looks halfway real! It’s the same with dropshot lure selection and even with live bait. Sometimes they prefer a small bait over a large bait, too, or vice versa, depending on what is predominant at the time.
“To say one is better than the other? It varies day to day!”
Look for more tube tips for Great Lakes smallmouth bass in Part II.