Smallmouth + Goby + Sculpin
October 31, 2015
I believe that what sets In-Fisherman apart from the other magazines is standing on the cutting edge of fishing and being able to look around the corner—spotting the promising new trends and forward-thinking techniques in their infancy and then giving them life, first in the field, then on these pages, as we pass them on to you.
The goby-sculpin connection is a case in point. We discussed it before, noting that many smallmouth bass anglers miss a key element in their repertoire by not using goby-style soft plastic baits and goby-type presentations in waters beyond the Great Lakes, where gobies aren't present.
The story won for me a national magazine award, but more importantly, it highlighted a relationship and a presentation that in the intervening few years has been embraced by many top bass anglers from California to Connecticut to Canada. It was the start of a beautiful relationship that has since been fertilized and nurtured to new and exciting heights—or rather depths.
In setting the stage for what's happening now, remember that the little-known and even-less-understood family of strange looking fish called sculpins flourish in many of the lakes, rivers, reservoirs, pits, and ponds we fish. Shad, smelt, ciscoes, yellow perch, shiners, bluegills, and crayfish are widely recognized as forage items, but diet studies reveal that smallmouth bass, and just about every other sportfish species, relish the strange looking sculpins often to the exclusion of everything else.
Most bass anglers still don't know sculpins exist. It's a function of the squash-headed, wide-mouthed, bug-eyed little fish's penchant for spending its life on the bottom. Lacking a swim bladder and thus the ability to navigate throughout the water column, sculpins use their wide pectoral fins like feet to scoot across the bottom.
The other reasons sculpins flew so far, for so long under the radar of most smallmouth anglers is their chameleon-like ability to blend in, lie motionless, and camouflage themselves. Plus, they're typically more active at night and the older and bigger they grow, the more they gravitate to the dimly-lit environs of deep water during the day. So, effectively out of sight, they were also out of mind—until gobies invaded the Great Lakes via the ballast water of European-based freighters and upset the applecart.
The Case Connection Unravels
If that connection seems strange, consider that while gobies and sculpins are not related, the two fish are similar. In fact, with the exception that sculpins have free and independent pectoral fins, while the fins on gobies are fused, the two species look like identical twins.
As a result, as gobies spread throughout the Great Lakes and smallmouth bass gobbled them up with reckless abandoned delight—almost certainly confusing them for native sculpins—tackle makers rushed to produce chewy, soft plastic, goby imitations. Little did they know, they were also making precise sculpin reproductions.
Two highly successful bass pros who didn't miss the connection were Mark Kulik and Dave Chong, who for years have dominated the Great Lakes bass fishing tournament scene. Kulik owns X-Zone Lures, a custom hand-pour soft-plastic operation in southern Ontario. Realizing the extent to which Great Lakes bass were targeting gobies, he designed the Slammer, which is arguably the most popular drop-shot goby imitation with tournament anglers on lakes Erie, Ontario, Simcoe, and Champlain.
But, it was when Kulik and Chong, who has more than 17 major tournament career wins to his credit, took the Slammer to inland waters where gobies didn't exist that they created an uproar. They won so many tournaments drop-shotting Slammers that local hot sticks and regional tournament anglers protested they had to be cheating. How else could a couple of "out-of-towners," who didn't grow up on the home waters and didn't know them intimately, weigh in twice as much weight as those who did?
That is the story I reported on in In-Fisherman a few years ago, after fishing with Kulik and Chong as they prepared for the Bass Pro Shops Open on southern Ontario's Lake Simcoe. The day I spent with Kulik showing me how he presents his soft-plastic goby imitation on a lake that, at that time, had sculpins but no gobies, still stands as my finest day ever fishing for smallmouth. Our best 5 fish exceeded 31 pounds.
As if to add an exclamation mark to the story, Kulik went on, two days later, to catch a 7-pound 2-ounce smallmouth on his first cast in the tournament, winning big-fish honors and anchoring a 5-bass limit weighing 21.5 pounds.
Kulik called me last fall, saying that he had taken the goby-sculpin connection to the next level and was once again whacking tough-bite bass in tournaments, while local "hot sticks" were struggling. He suggested I meet him and Chong on Lake Erie to see firsthand. I booked a flight as soon as I hung up.
Goby Goes For A Swam
There is no such thing as a magic bait, but most good lure presentations have their time and place—that's what I kept reminding myself as I casted and dragged Kulik's new Swammer soft-plastic swimbait across the bottom of Lake Erie. We launched the boat in Fort Erie, the Canadian sister city across the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York, on a Monday morning after a large bass tournament had been held the previous two days. Because of the gusting wind and blustery weather we were forced to fish the same relatively sheltered structures, shoals, and lake sections the weekend warriors had pounded.
The daily winning weights in the tournament were high-single and low-double digits. Our best 5 smallmouths, from among the 35 or so fish we landed that day, fishing the same "used" water, surpassed the 30-pound mark.
"What I did," Kulik says, "was marry the preeminent properties of a swimbait with the fundamental elements of the best soft-plastic goby-sculpin imitations, including my original Slammer. I spent more than two years experimenting with different soft-plastic recipes and body designs to get a bait that looks like a goby and a sculpin, and kicks like a swimbait, rocking back and forth with that special three-dimensional paddletail effect."
He realized he had the prototype perfected while practicing for a late-fall tournament on Lake Simcoe. He borrowed a friend's white walleye boat to remain inconspicuous among the other anglers who were finding the smallmouth bite as tough as the notoriously crystal clear waters of Lake Simcoe can produce—except for the guy in the white walleye boat.
"I remember every time I turned around," says Doug Brownridge, one of the most successful bass pros in Canada, "I kept seeing this guy in the white boat netting a fish. I kept saying to my partner, who the heck is that guy? I didn't know it was Mark, but he was fishing the same spots as the rest of us and he was putting on a clinic."
Kulik remembers calling his partner that evening, on the drive home, and telling him they were going to win the tournament, which they did handily.
"I'll be honest with you," Kulik says, swinging another 4-pound-plus Erie smallmouth over the side of the boat and releasing it with the same casual fanfare most anglers reserve for a 12-inch dink. "I've watched In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange carefully on In-Fisherman television over the years throw those blasted swimbaits. And I've discovered that in the hands of a capable angler, a swimbait catches just about everything that swims. So I wondered what would happen if I married it with the best properties of a goby-sculpin bait."
During my day with Kulik and Chong on Lake Erie, I couldn't tell whether the bass were duped by the goby-sculpin size, shape, profile, and color of the Swammer or fooled by its unique swimbait motion. Perhaps it's a combination of factors, a synergistic wedding where the sum is greater that the individual parts.
Then again, Kulik and Chong take the "match-the-hatch" concept a step further, using football-head jigs to emulate the wide, bulbous heads of gobies and sculpins. And, just as Stange has been preaching for years, Kulik is adamant about using heavier jig heads than most anglers are accustomed to fishing. His football heads weigh 1/2 or 3/4 ounce, but he doesn't hesitate to go heavier to maintain bottom contact when the water is deep or the wind is howling.
The object is to "overweight" the jigs in an effort to constantly swim them along while bumping bottom in depths of 30 feet or more. Kulik's favored 15-pound Spider Thread on his spinning reels and 20-pound Spider Thread on his baitcasting outfits further aids in keeping his Swammer swimbait bumping bottom.
To help stay down and also for abrasion resistance, he tips the low-stretch braid on his spinning rods with a 3- to 4-foot 10-pound fluorocarbon leader, upping it to 12-pound on the baitcasters. In fall, when he swims and drags Swammers in the deepest water of the season, he lengthens his fluorocarbon leaders to 20 feet.
"Gobies and sculpins don't swim in the water column," Chong says, "they're on the bottom. That's why anglers have dragged tube jigs with so much success in the Great Lakes for the last decade. Wherever you go, you hear bass anglers talking about the Erie drag. But what everyone misses is that they could have been catching smallmouth this way long before gobies invaded the Great Lakes—because those same bass were targeting and eating sculpins that look identical and behave in the same way."
"Note too," Kulik says, "that so many anglers have been dragging tube jigs along the bottom of the Great Lakes for so many years that the smallmouth have become conditioned to them. The drag isn't producing like it once did. The next step forward has been not dragging, but swimming the right new baits in the right way."
For sure, given the goby population explosion, bass are focused more than ever on bottom-dwelling creatures to the exclusion of almost everything else. The same scenario is playing out in every lake, river, reservoir, pit, and pond across North America with smallmouth bass and sculpins in it—just as it has been, undetected, for ages.
But there's more to the story. Chong won the 2011 Lake Muskoka Pike Open this past spring with a 5-fish limit measuring 162.75 inches. Four of the fish, including the 38-inch kicker that was the third biggest pike weighed in during the competition, fell for Kulik's Swammer goby-sculpin swimbait. This raises a thought-provoking possibility. If largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleye, pike, whitefish, carp, and every species of trout devour these baitfish on sight, have we only started to peek inside the goby-sculpin box of magic? How many connections are there that we can't quite see?
That's a question we intend to answer in the days ahead, from our vantage point out on the edge, looking around the corner. For now, for smallmouth anglers, the big step forward has been, as Kulik said, ". . . not dragging, but swimming the right new baits in the right way."
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer lives in Kenora, Ontario, and is a co-host of In-Fisherman's Ice Fishing Guide television show. Contact Mark Kulik, of XZone Lures, at xzonelures.com; and Guide David Chong at fishharddreambig.com.