Native Americans had myths about shape shifters that could morph into a crow, a coyote, a man, or anything that suited their fancy. You probably have some in your tackle selection, though you might refer to them as tubes. A diminutive plastic panfish tube doesn’t resemble anything in particular, yet resembles everything in general. Change color and retrieve—presto. Tubes can become leeches, minnows, nymphs, crawfish or whatever you want them to be.
A tube can be a reasonable facsimile of everything a panfish eats. So many companies have panfish tubes today, it’s impossible to list them all here. But we’ll try. Because every tube out there has a time and place when it works better than any other, depending on its characteristics.
Tiny tubes might be the most universally effective artificial lures for panfish ever devised. Certainly manufacturers look at details and try to create or emulate factors that result in more bites. What are those factors, and what should consumers be looking for when faced with dozens of choices?
Facets For Foment
From an angler’s viewpoint, free-flowing tentacles are one of the keys. Most tubes are just plastic molded into a tubular shape and the tentacles are cut mechanically. Which is fine, but the cutting process is always imperfect, leaving tentacles bunched together and uneven in both length and thickness. Which is fine—a little pruning and separating is necessary. But the tentacles are molded on some tubes, with no need for cutting or pruning. One example would be the Berkley Micro Power Tube. Buying tubes with molded tentacles may save a step, but the tube still might be more effective with about one of every five tentacles pruned off at the base. This creates more freedom of movement for the remaining tentacles. Pruning sometimes makes quite a difference.
Thickness of plastic can be a crucial point. Some larger tubes meant for bass or pike are “double dipped,” to increase durability, but few panfish tubes are thickened this way. In fact, thinner is often better for panfish, because the final product is softer and therefore easier for a panfish to compress. Thinner plastic has greater translucency, allowing light to pass through the lighter or more natural colors. It also allows the tentacles move more freely and naturally.
Size and shape can be critical. While crappies can handle the majority, many so-called “panfish tubes” on the market are too large, both in circumference and length, for most bluegills in most environments to wrap their mouths around, especially when the plastic is too thick or hard. Hooking becomes a problem. Gummy, squishy, thin tubes in the 1-inch size range work best for bluegills. The harder, larger tubes work best in wood cover for crappies and other panfish with expansive mouths.
Color can be important at times. The more pressure panfish experience, the more finicky they seem to become about color. No matter ho many colors a company carries, they can’t carry or blend them all. It might be rare to find a situation where panfish will select only one color out of hundreds, but it certainly seems to happen, based on our experiences. Even when we see many colors catching fish, one color often produces a significant increase in strikes over all others. And it is not unusual to discover that panfish in a certain body of water, year in and year out, are drawn to the same two or three color patterns, a situation that speaks to water color, forage choices, and other environmental factors.
Turner Jones may very well be the inventor of the panfish tube. He claims he fished with his own versions as early as 1967, and is still making them by hand for his Micro Jig & Lure Company. “I think action has most to do with the effectiveness of a tube,” Jones said. “Natural action draws a strike and softness helps them stay with it, because it has a natural feel. When I cut those little tails, I get my blades as close together as possible, to make thinner tentacles. I want them real thin, so they respond more like hair. That’s why the feathers on my Micro Jigs are so effective. They produce a natural live action that suggests the movement of fins and gills. I make a 3/4-inch tube for a 1/250-ounce dace head. I’ve been making tubes for 40-odd years, and this is the smallest one I make. The inspiration for creating something that tiny was the effectiveness of the other tiny stuff I make, like the Scampi, a 1/500-ounce hair jig. People were winning panfish tournaments with those Micro Jigs, too, and I knew from previous experience that, sometimes, the tinier the better. Even giant crappies and bluegills can be caught better and faster with something truly tiny in a natural color at times.”
Jones has been an advocate of fishing tiny baits on lines testing 1- to 2-pound test for over 40 years, and his Micro Jigs have won thousands of converts throughout that period. The swordtail tube is another development Turner originated, featuring a single, tapering tail in place of multiple tentacles. These tails wiggle seductively and continue to quiver when the jig is at rest. When panfish are neutral or barely active, swordtails often trump augering, thumping tails on other plastics.
Spider rigging proved long ago that tubes lend themselves well to trolling. Tubes, being among the most versatile of plastics, apply equally well to any angling method extant today. Even fly fishermen use tubes, by cementing them to a tiny jig or hook. Drifting, vertical jigging, drop-shot rigging, bobbering—whatever method employed, tubes are universally effective in the right time and place.
Allow conditions, cover, and structure to determine which methods to use. When crappies are suspended in open water, drift, spider-rig, or troll through them with a stacked tandem rig. Tie a bell sinker to the mainline, and add two leaders at two-foot intervals above the weight with surgeon’s knots. Make the leaders 6 to 8 inches long. Actually, the built-in spacing delivers the tubes at any distance from the bottom required to put one of those tubes right on a crappie’s nose.
Pitching is something I enjoy doing early and late in the day, when crappies, bluegills, perch, and other panfish gather along weededges on shallow flats. Using polarized glasses to watch for follows, I use a 7-foot, light-power rod and a medium-sized spinning reel spooled with 2- to 4-pound mono to pitch tubes on a 1/32-ounce head to pockets and turns along the inside and outside edges formed by clumps of weeds. With the head outside the tube, it falls a little faster and swims a little better, allowing you to quickly cover an area. Swim the jig along near the tops of the weeds and let it fall into pockets or along edges. Pitch parallel to the edge, too. Depending on the species, the season, and the conditions, panfish may respond best to a simple slow retrieve or may prefer a lift-drop method we call “nodding.” Just raise the rod tip slowly, then drop the tip and retrieve just enough to tighten the line again. Just repeat that process, adding a quiver or two on the rise now and then.
Color selection around weeds covers the spectrum. Let the position of the fish suggest where to start. When crappies ride high in the weeds, go with white, white-chartreuse, silver, or smoke with metal flake, to imitate minnows. Along the stalks, in pockets or on the deep edge, shades involving watermelon or green pumpkin work well, possibly because the body of a minnow mirrors its environment, thus turning green to the eyes of predators waiting in the jungle. Down near bottom, white and chartreuse often turn the trick for perch, while bluegills may prefer black, pumpkinseed, pearl brown, purple, lime green, or any darker shades that imitate weed-dwelling epiphytes, aquatic worms and leeches. Right on bottom, colors that imitate local crawfish almost always score big.
The late Bobby Garland, inventor of the Gitzit, once explained to me in detail his refined method for both selecting and swimming a tube: “Most of the time, crappies respond best to a slow, smooth, easy swimming action. Don’t make sudden movements with the rod tip. When they’re up high, they’re almost always after minnows, so pearl white or smoke with several colors of metal flake are my first choices. When crappies are down near bottom, they might be feeding on anything, but I’ll start with a natural pumpkinseed, black, or smoke with black flake.”
When crappies are belly to bottom around gravel, rock, or clay, I switch to brown-orange, black, pumpkinseed-chartreuse, olive green-white, or green-chartreuse, depending on the colorations I see on the local craws, and I drag tubes on slightly heavier heads. If anybody makes a 1/32-ounce football head, that would be the ticket, but sometimes depth and wind requires even heavier jigs. TC Tackle makes a fine selection of 1/16- to 1/8-ounce ball heads with smaller hooks that match up nicely with most tubes
When panfish of any species hunker tight to the base of the weeds, near bottom, go after them with a drop-shot rig when pitching. Use 4- to 6-pound mainline on that same 7-foot, light-power rod. Nose-hook the tube on a size #10 to size #4 Owner Mosquito Hook, or any of the smaller drop-shot hooks on the market today. (Drop-shot rigs are easy: Tie the hook on with a Palomar knot, leaving a tag end of 6 to 10 inches and clip or pinch a 1/8- to ¼-ounce sinker to the end of the tag.) Pitch it, let it fall to bottom, and tighten the line. Drop the rod tip an inch or two and tighten up again. Twitch it in place ever-so-slightly, then lift-drop it into another locale and start over. Subtle action is best.
When panfish don’t show up very well on sonar, try drifting or control drifting to cover larger areas along the weed edge. Peg a sliding cone sinker anywhere from 6 inches to 3 feet above a small baitholder-style hook on 4- to 8-pound monofilament line. Keep the sinker near, but not on bottom most of the time. Stop the boat to pause the bait from time-to-time.
When panfish hover around brush piles, rockpiles, or group in the tops of submerged trees in reservoirs, jig vertically. Use an exposed head (jighead outside the tube) to get down faster. Depending on depth and wind, jig heads can vary in weight from 1/32- to 1/4-ounce. Use a 6-foot rod with light to medium-light power and 2- to 10-pound-test line, depending on the size of the fish, the clarity of the water, and the density of the cover. Use a 6-inch to 5-foot lift-drop to attract fish to the jig (again, this depends on water clarity and cover density), then tap the blank with your index finger to quiver the jig in place to trigger strikes.
And those are just the classic methods. Tubes can be added to almost any presentation involving an ultralight or normal-sized lure. Tie a light tube jig or hook to a 2- to 4-inch leader (any longer and things begin to tangle badly on the cast, but longer leaders can be used when trolling with some lures). Tie the leader to the bend of the hook shank or to any hook eye on the belly of the lure. Presto: You’ve created a double-trouble panfish rig. It works especially well with small-to-large suspending baits, which cast for miles, work down to reasonable depths and hover there, but it works equally well with poppers, popping bugs, small crankbaits, and a variety of surface and subsurface lures.
A tube is double trouble all by itself. When panfish hover near the surface out over deep open water, tubes can be trolled unweighted “in space.” Just nose hook it, let the line out for 40 to 80 feet and control drift. Tubes can be more effective under a bobber than bait. In fact, the potential for methodology is endless. Any panfisherman without a few packs of “shape shifters” in his tackle box isn’t really in it for the fish.