The more I learn, the less I know. At least it seems that way lately when it comes to structure fishing with a bass tube jig. At one time, I was regarded as somewhat of a regional expert on tube-jig fishing among the Great Lakes smallmouth crowd, but as the drop-shot fad hit the Great Lakes, my tube fishing took a back seat. However, as trends in fishing methods usually cycle, the tube-jig bite started coming back on Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair, and other big northern waters known for producing jumbo smallies.
I was excited to show all these new drop-shot guys a thing or two about old-school tube fishing and the huge stringers of smallmouths that can result. Then a funny thing happened. All too often when I'd get a strike on a tube, a horrifying sequence of events followed: Set the hook, hook the fish, bass pulls, bass is gone. Or else the old classic: Set the hook, fish swims up, bass jumps, bye-bye bass. This sad sequence was repeated over and over again.
I realize everyone loses fish from time to time and every tournament "should've been won" by someone else, but this was getting ridiculous. Over the course of two years, I lost so many big bass in major tournaments on tubes and other jig baits such as shakey heads, that I calculated it had cost me over $100,000 in tournament earnings, and that's a conservative estimate. Baffled, I set out to find the reason for these problems and, most importantly, a solution.
Steve Clapper and Mike Trombly are both friends and competitors of mine across various circuits that visit the Great Lakes, and it's clear they're not having the same problems. Clapper won the FLW Detroit River event in 2007 and the Canadian Open in 2006, while Trombly won back-to-back Stren Series events on Erie in 2006 and 2007. Together, they've pocketed over $400,000 in two years, and tube-jigs played a vital role in each of those victories. Years of tube fishing have led them to refine their respective tackle and techniques that produce such wealthy results.
A few common characteristics arise when reviewing the tackle and methods of today's successful Great Lakes deep-structure fishermen. Not surprisingly, long rods and fluorocarbon lines are standard. But actual fishing methods are changing.
Gone are the days of the drift-and-drag method for catching huge smallies on tube-jigs. With today's powerful Minn Kota trolling motors producing 101 pounds of thrust, and with a 52-inch shaft, anglers can remain stationary while casting at targets, regardless of wave conditions. Holding with the trolling motor was a technique that Clapper and I pioneered, and it's now common practice with big-water anglers of the region. This aspect of boat control is important to note because, when holding with the trolling motor, removing all slack from your line when setting the hook or fighting a fish is much more difficult than when dragging.
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Lost fish are often the result of slack, which may have been part of my problem in the first place. Tackle choices must compensate for this. I've held my boat in place in rough water for years and caught loads of bass, but something unexplained seems to have changed. Why do so many of these fish now seem to come unhooked?
Steve Clapper is the most reknowned bass fisherman on Lake Erie and perhaps across the entire Great Lakes region. Throughout his 30-year career fishing the Great Lakes, he's won hundreds of bass tournaments, most recently the 2007 Chevy Open in Detroit, where he pocketed $200,000. And nearly all of those wins have come using a tube on a leadhead jig, with this year's win no exception. Perhaps no one has a better understanding of the intricacies of deep-structure fishing for huge smallmouths, particularly in rough water conditions so common on the Great Lakes. Clapper recently explained his theory of tube-jig fishing for big smallies.
"In that FLW victory last year, I relied more on a tube, though I caught some bass on a drop-shot rig," he reports. "When it got real rough, with seas at or above 7 feet, it was easier to keep baits on the bottom with a big, heavy tube-jig." Clapper often used a 3/4-ounce head during that event, yet surprisingly, few of the bass he hooked jumped and threw the lure.
"The key to my deep-structure fishing has always been using stout rods and stout hooks," he adds. "I used a custom-made rod designed specifically for deep structure." The rod, built on a G. Loomis SJ842 blank, tapes 7 1/2 feet long with the handle and has a medium-heavy action. Clapper often uses a heavy-gauge hook in his custom-made tube heads, and driving that hook into a big smallmouth's jaw in 30 feet of water, not to mention while fishing in 7-foot waves, can be more than a bit challenging, requiring heavy gear.
"For line, fluorocarbon is a must," he says. "But you need to be careful with thin fluorocarbon and a powerful rod, to prevent break-offs on the hook-set. I'm fishing a lot now with Berkley's new Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon, due to its incredible strength.
"On my jigs, I use a 3/0 Gamakatsu heavy-gauge round-bend hook. Although it's rated a heavy-gauge wire, it's considerably smaller in size and diameter than a 4/0. It doesn't flex, and it doesn't tear much of a hole in the fish's jaw tissues. That helps keep 'em hooked. The 3/4-ounce Bite-Me Big Dude head also has a 3/0, and that's what I turn to for fishing really rough water."
Clapper's comments got me thinking. Most of my career, I've used 4/0 heavy-gauge hooks in jigheads along with a discontinued heavy-action Team Daiwa spinning rod I nicknamed "The Cannon." I could always get the hook into a bass but often lost fish when they jumped. I'm a firm believer in the need for stout gear when fishing deep structure, but maybe that fine line between a 3/0 and 4/0 hook, and more specifically the wire gauge of those hooks, can affect the likelihood of losing fish.
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Mike Trombly of Perrysburg, Ohio, has quietly become one of the most successful tournament fishermen in the North, pocketing over $150,000 in tournament earnings in the last two years, largely by fishing tube-jigs. Trombly's back-to-back Stren wins had a few common characteristics: a tube played a key role, and a few key bass were caught shallow.
"I use a 90-degree-bend jig hook in my tubes most of the time," he reports. "But when fishing shallow, I usually switch to one with a 60-degree-bend hook." He makes it clear that it's simply a matter of presentation. "I can catch them on a 90-degree hook; that's not the problem. But the 60-degree eye helps the tube swim a little better in shallower water. With the rod I use, I don't have a problem losing fish."
Trombly's rod is the key to his arsenal. "It's a G. Loomis SJR902 blank that's 7 1/2 feet long and medium action. When I load up on a fish, the rod about folds in half. From that point on, my reel does all the work. I don't worry whether or not I get a good hook-set. If I keep pressure on the fish with that rod loaded up, I'll drive the hook home while fighting the fish."
Both Trombley's rod and hook are lighter than Clapper's. "The hook is a lighter wire Matzuo 3/0. Again, I use the 60-degree bend in water shallower than 10 feet, and the 90-degree bend in deeper water. I pour my own custom aspirin heads, generally selecting jigs weighing 1/4 to 1/2 ounce depending on how rough the lake conditions are."
Clearly, choices of equipment, particularly rod, line, and jig, are critical to successful tube fishing. It's apparent that the key to not losing fish is to get the hook in but to avoid tearing a large hole in the fish's mouth. A 3/0 hook seems to accomplish this well, whether it's stout and driven home on the hook-set by a powerful rod, or a lighter wire hook that's pressured into the fish. Clapper and Trombly manufacture jigheads to their own exact specifications, as none is commercially available with their favorite hooks. For those experts, it's that specific.
For me, 2008 means another year spent on the Great Lakes refining tackle and methods best suited for the unique challenges of big-water smallmouths. I'll continue to report my findings. Maybe by switching hooks, I'll be able to recount tournament victories rather than near misses. I sure hope so. I'm getting tired of my friends winning all my money.
*Joe Balog, Harrison Turnpike, Michigan, is a tournament veteran on northern lakes and won the 2001 FLW Stren Series Championship. He has contributed articles to In-Fisherman and Bass Guide.