Tube Tips for Great Lakes Smallmouth, Part II: Draggin’ Tubes!

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Monday, June 10, 2013
by Mike Pehanich

There’s bronze in them thar’ Great Lakes!

Each year, more and more anglers fall in love with the big smallmouth bass of the Great Lakes and their connecting waters from Lake Superior through the St. Lawrence River. And if there is one bait every angler should have on hand to catch these bountiful bronzebacks, it is the tube jig!

Note: Kalin’s 10-pack tubes come in 3-inch and 3.5-inch sizes and a wide range of colors. See “Tube Tips for Great Lakes Smallmouth, Part I” in the Uncle Josh feature library for tips on seasonal color selection and “matching the hatch.”

But tubing is a special art on the big waters. Tube presentation to bass in depths ranging from 10 to 45 feet is an ongoing challenge, particularly as anglers probe deeper structure.

A well-presented tube jig may mimic several important forage species on the smallmouth’s menu including gobies, emerald shiners, smelt, and crayfish. “Matching the hatch” with proper size and color selection is important, but even more critical is meeting the challenge of keeping the tube where a bronzeback can find it and eat it!

“The key to tube fishing is keeping the bait in the strike zone of the fish,” says Mark Davis, host of “Big Water Adventures,” who credits his vast experience with Great Lakes smallmouth with helping him today with his saltwater conquests. “If I have a breeze, I like to drag tubes because I like to cover water. I can cover a lot of water with a good wind.”

In the coldwater spring and autumn situations when the largest smallmouth are most susceptible to catch, bass are often scattered over expansive offshore structure. In early spring, many bass brought to boat have mud on their bellies -- sure sign of their bottom-hugging, sluggish demeanor at this time. 

Long line presentations are important. On most casts in deep water, you will want to pull more line off the spool after the cast. Continue to do so until you are certain you are dragging bottom.

“When you think you have too much line out, it is probably time to let out just a little more,” suggests Davis.

Fluorocarbon line of 8-pound test is standard when tubing with spinning tackle; 10-pound on baitcasting reels. Fluorocarbon sinks and provides a straighter and more direct line between rod tip and bait than monofilament or braid. Be prepared to go in two-pound test increments up or down should conditions demand.

Kalin’s Tip: Have an assortment of tube jigs from 1/8- to ½-ounce on hand, but you will do most of your tube dragging with 3/16- to 5/16-ounce jigs. Since you will be fishing many rock and snag-filled areas, carry a good supply of these jigs, and a healthy supply of Kalin’s tubes in appropriate colors and sizes as well. Long lines and big waves will make attempts to retrieve snagged jigs impractical at best, dangerous at worst.

Goby gobblers

Great Lakes smallmouth feast on the round goby, a sculpin-like baitfish that has no swim bladder. A goby hugs bottom, crawls and barely hops when not in active flight. Those habits are key to your tube presentation.

“The biggest mistake guys make is trying to put action on the bait,” says Davis. “Don’t put action on the bait! A goby doesn’t have much action. It walks along the bottom, so you can’t do any better with a tube than drag it, walk it along the bottom, particularly when that bottom layer of water is so cold.”

When fishing current, Davis advises anglers to keep the nose of the jighead up.

“You want the tube to tick along and not get hung up,” he explains, noting the importance of fishing the tube with the current. “But you also want to keep it in the strike zone. Fish will face into the current. When the tube comes down, they will hit it.”

Davis may work his jig more actively in summer when smallmouth metabolisms are up and they are feeding on a wide variety of forage species including emerald shiners, crawfish and dace.

“Once a smallmouth gets active, it will run down anything. You can’t get a bait away from them if you want to,” he explains. “But if the water is 46 or 48 degrees, so is their food. The prey will be lethargic, too. Your bait shouldn’t be zig-zagging and going crazy if the water is 47 degrees That is why we drag tubes with a nice evenmovement along the bottom when it is cold.

“It looks like a goby, and smallmouth will eat it!”