Tube Bait Basics for Smallies

News & Tips: Tube Bait Basics for Smallies
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Tube-bait has been garnering attention and catching boatfuls of fish for a record number of years.

Tube baits and smallmouth bass are a match made in fishing heaven. Representing their preferred bait of crawfish perfectly, the plastic tube fishing bait has been garnering attention and catching boatfuls of fish for a record number of years, with many believing it to be the pinnacle of baits for catching this robust specie. They can be deadly in the hands of a seasoned pro, but confusing and frustrating for those that are discovering the bait for the first time. Come and learn the correct way to rig and fish this bait — once you understand the basics, the catching part will become rudimentary.

What is a Tube Bait?

A tube bait is a hollowed-out, cylindrical soft plastic lure, with a tentacle-encased open end and a closed rounded head. Sounds confusing, doesn't it? Without the fancy jargon, it is actually very simple and ordinary looking, yet capable of producing deadly results. 

Although they come in a variety of sizes, from micro for panfish and extra large for musky, when dealing with smallies, a tube between three and four inches in length is perfect for the task at hand. When dealing with finicky fish or cold front conditions, a nod to the smaller size of the two is generally preferred.

Tackle store shelves are literally jammed with row-upon-row of tubes, with each of the major manufacturers vying for your dollar. My personal preference is to stock the box with an assortment of different makes, letting the fish (and my time on the water) dictate the best of the best. A tube that is comprised of soft and supple plastic is a definite asset, allowing for a more lifelike and realistic feel for tricking fish, especially when scent has been added. Color selection and superior craftsmanship should also be taken into consideration when narrowing down your choice.  

Although they come in a wide range of colors, there are a few combinations that will generally shine above the rest. Natural hues such as brown, smoke, white, and green are mainstays on my rods, with a nod being given to gaudier hues when water conditions dictate it.

The Fishing Hook and Weight Factor

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Weight is important to your tube bait, as you want your presentation to be down on the bottom of the structure area you are fishing.

Tube jigs are meant to be used with a special hook and weight system. This lead-molded or tungsten jig head is slid into the cavity of the body, at which point the line tie is poked through the shell in order to attach to your line. The standard style of head is of a cylindrical shape, although round-headed and arrow-style jig heads are also very popular. When faced with heavy cover (especially vegetation) a weedless style is also available to the angler.

Weight is important to your tube bait, as you want your presentation to be down on the bottom of the structure area you are fishing. Maintaining contact with a rock shoal or underwater hump is imperative, so choosing the right size for the job is extremely important. For smallmouth fishing, the top three weights for jig heads are 1/8, 1/4 and 3/8 of an ounce. A rough guide for choosing weights is as follows — water between 0 and ten feet (1/8 ounce), ten to twenty (1/4 ounce) and anything over twenty (3/8 ounce) Keep in mind that these are only rough estimates, and may need to be increased when faced with extremely rough water, or finicky fish. 

Hooks should be wide-gapped and chemically sharpened, allowing for increased penetration when setting the hook. Solid hooksets are mandatory when chasing smallies, as the jumping nature of these fish will allow more opportunities for thrown hooks. 

Taking it to the Water

Now that we know what to look for when purchasing tube baits, its time to get down to the nitty-gritty. 

We've already established that tubes mimic a smallmouth's favorite food, namely crawfish. Since craws spend the majority of their time directly on the bottom of lakes, rivers and streams, this will be your main target of presentation. A smallmouth has honed its hunting skills to notice and react to any movement or sound coming from the rocks or sands down below. As long as you can get your bait down there and within a fish's strike radius, you should be able to find some action. Here are a few tactics for working your bait along the bottom.

Hop and Reel Fishing Technique

This is the most common and standard technique when out on the water, taken directly out of the book of the walleye jigging angler. First off, get your bait down to the bottom, allowing it to fall on a completely slack line. When your tube has made contact with the structure area you are fishing, reel up the slack in your line until it becomes taut. It is now simply a matter of rod lifts and snaps, sending your jig upwards mere inches or a foot or two, and allowing it to come to rest once again on bottom. Continue this rhythm until you have worked the tube back to the boat. 

A smallmouth will do one of two things during this retrieve — bust your bait while it is spiraling on slack line, or suck it up while it is motionless on the pause. Pay close attention to your line for any taps or movement, as this will signify a hit from a fish. Smallmouth can suck up a jig and spit it out in the blink of an eye, so concentration and visualizing what is happening below the surface is crucial.

Dragging a Tube Bait

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Berkley fishing line for rigging your bait for will greater sensitivity and hook sets.

Dragging a tube bait across rock shoals or humps can be a dynamite technique, mainly because it replicates the movement of a crawfish realistically. For the most part, craws scurry across the bottom in a horizontal manner, never leaving the safety of the lake bottom.

Dragging is a simple technique to master - cast your tube out, let it fall to the bottom and then proceed to drag or pull your bait in 6-inch to a foot intervals. After each pull, reel up any slack line and prepare for the next drag. Fish will either hit the bait while it is stationary or moving, so be prepared to set the hook hard and fast.

When using the dragging technique, pay careful attention to your line and hook. These will come into contact with rocks and snags often, dulling hooks and fraying line. Periodic checks will lesson the chance of losing a big fish.

Drop Shotting Fishing Rigs

The logistics behind the setup are rudimentary. The basic rig consists of a hook tied into the line (a palomar knot is recommended), with a weight tied at the end of the line below the hook. The length of fishing line you leave between the hook and weight can range between 6 inches and 6 feet. (This can be dependent on whether or not the fish are hugging bottom, are suspending high, or the type and height of bottom structure encountered.) A general rule of thumb is between a foot and 2 feet. 

You should always rig the hook with the point facing up. This enables the tube bait that will be attached to appear more life-like and convincing to a fish, and also to ensure a solid hook-set. If you are faced with heavy bottom cover, a Texas-rigged tube will be your best bet. 

Drop shot rigs can be fished in a variety of water depths, although their real forte is deep water. (Water between twelve and thirty-feet are the norm.) Cast the rig out to a productive spot and let the weight settle on bottom. Reel in the slack line so you have a direct feel and contact with the weight on bottom. With a slow and methodical movement, slowly lift, pull and wiggle the rod tip in order to cause movement and action to the tube bait down below. The best approach is subtle movements, as finesse is what you are striving for with this technique.

In order to remain in direct contact with the bait, a vertical presentation is highly recommended. By keeping you line vertical, you will have better feel for what the bait is doing, and will be able to work it more efficiently.

Quick Fishing Tips for Tube Baits

  • Scent is important for tube baits. Choose those that are impregnated with salt or smell, or apply a commercial craw scent while fishing.

  • Stuff a small piece of sponge into the tube cavity and fill with scent. The sponge will hold the liquid longer, slowly releasing a scent trail.

  • Upsize your tubes when the water warms or if fish are in an aggressive mood.

  • Try one of the "superlines" when fishing tubes. Sensitivity and hooks sets will be greatly improved.

  • Tubes baits make great follow-up lures for missed fish. Next time a smallie smashes your topwater but misses, cast in a tube for sure-fire action.

  • Squirt a commercial scent into the tube cavity in order to help with sliding the jig head in.