In the 38 years I’ve spent casting for Great Lakes trout and salmon, one thing has changed dramatically—water clarity. A combination of factors, including environmental improvements and zebra and quagga mussel infestation, have cleared near-shore waters to new levels. Gazing at the bottom in 25 feet now is a common occurrence.
Way back when, my tacklebox was filled with lures that rattled and clacked, in colors that hurt your eyes. That game doesn’t play anymore. It’s all about subtle and natural these days, and I’ve found the perfect tool, the tube jig.
I’ve used tubes for trout and salmon for over 20 years. They used to be my “in case of emergency, break glass” bait. I only needed them for the rare occasions when the water cleared drastically, due to prolonged off-shore winds that caused a deep cold-water upwelling. Clear water is the rule now and tubes are my leadoff hitter all year long.
Picking Tubes and Tube Jigs
When Bobby Garland made the first tubes four decades ago, I doubt he envisioned them as smelt or alewives. They were made to toss under docks and drag along the bottom. But we’ve found that in the right color and matched with the right jighead, they become a perfect pelagic baitfish imitation.
The 3½-inch tube is the workhorse of the system. I may downsize to a 3-incher in winter and go to a 4- or even 5-inch tube when a big bite is on. Many fine tubes are available today, but the ones that imitate baitfish most accurately are slim. Original Gitzits, Zoom, and Guido’s G-3 from Luck “E” Strike are my favorites for this technique.
The body should taper from head to tail and not puff out at the end. If there are rogue tails protruding, pluck them out. In fact, thinning the tail is often necessary to get a slim look. Stripping off a few tails where the hook exits helps keep a tube running true. Tails wrapped up over the hook cause the jig to track in one direction, not good.
Pearl-white tubes are the standard for Great Lakes applications since few manufacturers offer baitfish patterns. Stay away from tubes with too much glitter, which defeats the subtlety of this system. Zoom makes a firetiger that works well and Canyon Plastics offers laminates that imitate baitfish well. One of my favorites is pearl white with fine gold glitter (I call it dirty pearl) made by Gitzit. The fine gold glitter tones down the pearl a bit and is a consistent producer, even in the clearest water.
When things get tough and it seems like the big browns are wearing bifocals, my go-to tube is clear. I dress the jig inside with a little Mylar tubing or flashabou to get a transparent baitfish effect. When fish shy from pearl, clear tubes can make a big difference. I also add glow dressings to clear tubes for night or pre-dawn fishing.
The jighead is critical. Heads that position the eye of the hook at the nose of the tube are great for dragging the bottom for bass but all wrong for this swimming baitfish system. For great baitfish imitations, a center-balanced head is ideal. With the line tied in the middle of the head, the tube darts left and right, not up and down. A tube rigged to imitate baitfish can swim 12 to 18 inches from side to side on each crank of the reel. This random darting and hunting action imitates a fleeing baitfish better than anything I’ve seen.
I pour my own jigheads for this system and have made my own molds to achieve perfect center balance of the head. When selecting hooks, remember that there are 30-pound fish out there and light wire won’t cut it. My choice is the Eagle Claw 635 saltwater jig hook. I use 1/0 for most 3½- and 4-inch tubes and #1 for 3-inch tubes. The heads for my 5-inch tubes have a 5/0 hook. For weights, 3-inchers match 1/4-ounce heads. Mid-size tubes work best on a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce head. For 5-inchers, choose a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce head.
The weights affect not only fishing depth but the speed of retrieve. In winter, I may work a 15-foot spot with a 1/4-ounce head. At that same spot in July, I’d go to a 3/8-head so I can maintain depth but move the bait faster.
If the look and action isn’t enough, tubes are tailor-made to dispense a scent trail that seals the deal. Pro-Cure Sticky Gel in alewife or smelt is a great attractant and lasts for hours when squirted into a tube. Cod liver oil is another great one. It needs a little help hanging on so I add a band of chenille to the shank of the hook that soaks up and holds oils. Another favorite is a pinch of canned mackerel inserted into the head. I add a small scent-keeper disk to the hook shank that keeps the mackerel packed into the head. Although this is primarily a clear water system, I add rattles inside tubes when fishing slightly murky areas or color breaklines.
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Lines should be clear and light—8-pound-test mono, 10-pound max. I like a few feet of fluorocarbon leader uni-knotted at the business end to take some of the punishment of fish and rocks. I don’t like braids for this technique. I think they see it and hear it. But if you must, add 10 feet of mono or fluorocarbon leader.
Rods should be 7 to 9 feet long and fast or extra-fast action. You need enough tip action to cast a light jig and guts to stop a 20-pound king. The blank I use is designed for steelhead “plugging” but works fine for any type of Great Lakes jig fishing.
Any high-quality 3000 or 3500 size reel with a powerful drag works well. This technique is about the only time I prefer a high-speed (6.2:1) reel because you sometimes need to take up line quickly.
The beauty of the tube is its ability to work at any depth and particularly well in deep water where crankbaits and spoons lose effectiveness. Fishing deeper has become increasingly important as waters have cleared.
Over the past 10 years, many anglers have discovered that salmon and trout can be caught while casting from small boats in nearshore waters less than 40 feet deep. The tube jig lends itself perfectly to casting or even lifting and dropping in a moderate drift. No trolling gear is needed. Light tackle, big fish—it doesn’t get any better.
From pier or boat, cast the jig and let it sink to a desired depth, near the bottom in most cases. With the rod between 2 and 3 o’clock, start the retrieve. One crank, two cranks, a half crank, two cranks, you get the idea. Make it random, with one-second pauses between. This stop-start retrieve causes the tube to dart left and right like a fleeing baitfish. Fast cranks yield a wide darting action, slow cranks establish a tighter pattern. Practice in shallow water where you can see the tube’s action and how your retrieve affects it. Impart action primarily with the reel. Some up-and- down motion is okay, but working a tube with the rod causes too much vertical movement and also puts you in a bad position to set the hook. Nearly all hits come on the pause. Some fish crush it and others feel like a thump.
This tube jig technique works all season. In winter, I stay small and light with 3-inch tubes on 1/4-ounce heads. From April through late fall, I generally use 3½-inch tubes on 3/8-ounce heads. When large baitfish are around or when big fish show up, I switch to slim but elongated 5-inch tubes.
Given the clear water and shy fish we now face on the Great Lakes, lure presentation has changed. Plenty of lures still fool fish occasionally. Tube jigs fished to imitate a smelt, alewife, or shad fool trout and salmon all the time.
*Marc Wisniewski, Greenfield, Wisconsin, is an avid Great Lakes angler and freelance writer. He has contributed several features to In-Fisherman.