Proven Lures &
Presentations for Smallmouths
Before Zebra Mussels invaded Lake Erie and drastically increased its water clarity, smallmouth anglers who preferred lures over live bait were practically limited to jigs. In the murky water, which was especially prominent in the western basin, bass relied more on their sense of sound to find food than their eyes. They could more easily locate a darkly colored jig scratching along the bottom than a flashing lure darting overhead.
Now that Erie has become dramatically clearer, its smallmouths see prey farther away. The bass now move greater distances to pounce on a meal or lure. This opens the door to a gamut of lures that take smallnouth bass from top to bottom. The key is matching the lure to the season and the conditions.
Even though Lake Erieís smallmouths are now susceptible to a variety of lures, jigs still rank No. 1. For decades, the preferred Lake Erie smallmouth lure was a black or gray bucktail jig. Bucktail jigs continue to fare well, but they were nudged out of the top spot by jigs dressed with curly-tailed grubs. When plastic tube jigs found their way to Lake Erie, the response among smallmouth anglers resembled a mob scene at a rock concert. The enthusiasm for this lure has not diminished since.
If you were limited to one lure for Lake Erie smallmouths, it would have to be a tube jig. Tubes take bass of all sizes throughout the season and often in greater numbers than any other lure. During a recent fall B.A.S.S. Federation Divisional tournament held in the western basin, teams of anglers from nine states and the country of Italy crushed every existing record for Federation tournament catches.
Overall, the three-day event racked up 1,429 bass, 221 limits and a total weight of 3,257 pounds of predominantly smallmouth bass. Lure selection for the tournament fell into the category of "no brainer." So many of the competitors caught their bass on tubes that it was practically a one-lure tournament. The significant question was: What color tube are you using? For most it was some shade of green or smoke.
Berkleyís Power Tube, the first lure of this type to establish itself on Lake Erie, impressed many charter captains who previously relied only on live bait.
"The Power Tube," says Capt. Bob Troxel, "is the first lure Iíve seen that competes head to head with live bait. Even clients who have little fishing experience regularly catch bass on it."
Fat 3 1/2-inch tubes impregnated with salt, such as Kalinís Super Salty Scented Tubes and Venomís Erie Series Tubes have proven to be just as effective on Lake Erie smallmouths as Berkley Power tubes. The most popular colors include chartreuse, watermelon and dark green, all with black flake. Smoke and brown hues also score well. One reason tubes work so well is they mimic the primary forage upon which Erieís smallmouths feed. Root a tube along the bottom and it resembles a crayfish or a fat goby. Swim it above the bottom and it appears to be a baitfish on the run.
Narrow jig heads, often in a teardrop shape, slide inside tubes and give these lures a clean, uninterrupted appearance that smallmouths find inviting. Jigs weighing from 1/8- to 3/4-ounce will handle anything Lake Eric throws at you, with 1/4- and 3/8-ounce sizes being the work- horses.
Early in the season, New York smallmouth guide Jim Hanley rigs tubes with 3/8- and 1/2- ounce jigs and casts them to deep points where smallmouths stage prior to spawning.
"If itís not too windy," says Hanley, "I hold the boat with the electric motor and cast to the fish. Because the water is only in the upper 40s to low 50s, I want to keep the tubes on bottom and give them very little movement. In early spring, I love clear silver flake and firecracker colors."
Fishing guide Terry Jones, who works both the New York and Ontario waters of the eastern basin, fishes tubes vertically early in the season.
"When the bass are on the breaks," says Jones, "I stay right on top of them with my trolling motor and drop a tube straight down to the bottom."
As the water warms and bass move up to the tops of flats and humps, drifting methods prevail. Many anglers fail to take full advantage of this phase because they overwork their tubes. Jeff Snyder recommends that you drag tubes with a long line that keeps them digging bottom. Hold the rod low and dead still. "Just let the boat do the work," says Snyder. "When Iím not fishing a tournament, I hold one rod in each hand. I canít tell you how many times Iíve hooked two bass at once.
A jig dressed with an undulating curly- tailed grub is the runner-up to the tube. A 3- inch grub was once the most popular size, but the 5-inch fat grub now holds the position of prominence. Joe Thomas, of Cincinnati, Ohio, relied on this lure to win a $ 1 00,000 purse during a Red Man All- American bass tournament on eastern Lake Erie at Buffalo, New York.
"If youíre after big smallmouths," emphasizes Thomas, "youíll score better with big grubs."
Thomas rigs a 5-inch Kalinís Salty Lunker Grub with a 1/4-ounce darter head jig that has a long-shanked hook. The long shank is crucial for securing solid hookups with these thick-bodied lures. After casting the grub and letting it touch down, Thomas snaps it up, sharply about 3 feet off the bottom and continues the jump- bump action all the way back.
"That big grub darting up brings out the smallmouthís aggressive nature," Thomas believes. "They nail it on the fall."
Jeff Snyder, another proponent of the 5-inch Kalinís grub, threads the bait on a 118- to 5/8-ounce football head jig. The wide, football head imparts a stable swimming action and avoids snagging in boulders better than other jig designs, especially with the drift-and-drag presentation that Snyder employs.
To give the jig even more bulk and animation, Snyder embellishes it with a hula skirt which he slips onto the jigís collar before fixing the grub in place. This combination is referred to as a spider jig.
Spider jigs almost seem too big a mouthful for smallmouths, but the bass engulf them with relish. Snyderís most reliable colors are pumpkin-pepper, pumpkin with green flake, avocado seed and chartreuse salt and pepper.
The most crucial facet to effectively dragging a grub is the amount of line let out behind the drifting boat. Start by making a long cast into the wind. Then hold the rod tip low and still. You should soon feel the jig ticking bottom.
If the jig bangs into one boulder after another and tends to snag, reel in until the bottom contact becomes less frequent. The jig should swim freely above the bottom with only occasional contact.
Carolina rigs perform well for casting and drift-and-drag presentations. Put together a basic Carolina rig by first threading 15-to 20-pound monofilament from a stiff baitcasting outfit through a 1-ounce egg sinker. Tie the line to one end of a swivel. To the other side of the swivel attach a 3- to 5-foot leader comprised of 8- to 12-pound test monofilament.
The business end of the leader should sport a 2/0 or 3/0 worm hook dressed with some type of soft plastic morsel. Curly-tailed grubs, 4- to 6-inch worms, tubes and reapers have all proven to be effective on Lake Erie. Hanley especially likes Berkleyís Power Sand Worm. Rig the lures Texas style, with the hookís point embedded into the plastic to make them snag resistant.
A Carolina rigís heavy sinker beats a lively tattoo on Erieís rocky bottoms. The ruckus brings smallmouth bass around to investigate, at which point they find the plastic floating seductively behind. Itís usually an offering they canít refuse. Many anglers place one or two 8mm glass beads above and below the sinker to generate more noise. Thatís not a bad idea, because the commotion caused by the heavy sinker banging against the bottom attracts fish.
"The more noise you make," says Hanley, "the more fish youíre going to catch. Iíve seen many days when a Carolina rig out fishes anything else. Iím convinced itís because the sinker rattles, pounds and bounces along the bottom."
Another fishing guide who praises the Carolina rig is Greg Horoky, who works out of Colchester, Ontario, in the western basin. Horoky is convinced that the biggest srnallmouths suspend above bottom and prefer larger baits. To appeal to these fish, Horoky and his friend Bill Gitlin developed Mannís Floating Jelly Tube in 4- and 6-inch sizes.
This fat plastic lure dwarfs conventional tubes and comes packaged with flotation inserts. The foam inserts make Floating Jelly Tubes float high off the bottom when rigged Carolina style with a 3- to 6- foot leader. Since the lure floats above bottom snags, Horoky rigs it with a straight-shanked 3/0 or 4/0 hook, tip exposed. He runs the hookís shank between the inside wall of the tube and the foam insert and out the nose of the bait.
"Just drag the bait behind the boat," says Horoky. "When the sinker hits and bounces off rocks, the tubes starts and stops and hangs in a bassís face. Thatís when they pounce on it."
SPLIT SHOT REAPER
Erieís smallmouths grow difficult to catch when they suspend high above the bottom, as they often do during the hot months. Live bait usually fares better than lures at this time, but Hanley recently discovered a finesse lure presentation that overcomes this challenging period: a reaper floating above the bottom behind a single split shot.
In the summer," says Hanley, "I see tons of fish on my graph suspended above the bottom, but Iíve never been able to catch them on lures with any consistency. Now I throw a reaper out over 25 feet of water and drag it behind the boat like live bait. The split shot pulls the reaper down about 10 feet. This little setup has me suddenly catching those bass that have eluded me all these years. I bet I caught three or four hundred smallmouths that way last summer. And Iím catching the better fish doing this."
Hanleyís split shot rig consists of a Clear Water Reaper-manufactured under his own name-rigged Texas style with a No. 1/0 light wire Daiichi worm hook. Pumpkin pepper with a chartreuse tail has been an especially productive color combination for Hanley. He pinches a small split shot (1/32, 1/16 or 118 ounce) about 12 to 18 inches above the hook and fishes the reaper with a medium-light 6-foot graphite rod and 6-pound monofilament.
"You just let it float out there doing nothing," says Hanley. "Itís great. Just donít get carried away when a bass strikes or youíll break off. With that fine wire hook, all you need to do is raise the rod and keep the line tight."
A sensitive 6 Ĺ to 7 foot medium-action graphite spinning or baitcasting outfit serves nicely for jig fishing. Match the rod with 8 to 10 pound test monofilament. Heavier lines prevent jigs from getting deep, especially when dragged behind a drifting boat. Thinner lines made from Spectra and similar fibers help in this respect.
The drawback with light lines is that they donít stand up well to zebra mussels which cover most of the bottom structures that Lake Erieís smallmouths frequent. Reduce breakoffs by rigging a 4Ėfoot 12 pound test monofilament leader to a thin Specra line. Attach the leader via a swivel, or join the two lines with a double UNI knot.
This article was an adaptation from Mark Hick's Book, Lake Erie Smallmouth. Part II will appear in the Spring 2002 edition. To order Mark's book on smallmouth bass fishing in Lake Erie, see page 17 or call 1 800 447-8238.