Tube Tactics for River Smallies

This 20+ inch April smallmouth from the Delaware River ate a Mizmo tube on a current break.  Water temperature was 48 degrees.The scrappy river smallmouth bass, ah yes, those leaps and deep runs, and those ferocious surface strikes, and… there may not be a more entertaining game fish to target.  River smallmouth are opportunistic feeders and eat whatever is available and easiest to capture.  However, if several different types of forage are available simultaneously and crawfish are among the available, smallmouth pursue lobster dinner first.

Tubes, primarily four-inch Mizmo Big Boy tubes, are the finest crawfish-imitating lure for trophy river smallmouth bass. Mizmo tubes are laced with an abundance of salt, and a bait fish attractant is baked into the rubber during molding. Tube bodies are hollow, allowing for a much more natural feel to the fish. When a smallie latches on to a crawfish and the shell cracks, a bloody, salty taste results, hence the reason why fish hold tubes longer than hard baits.

Tubes are versatile in that they can be fished slowly in deep water near boulders and rocks. They can be fished in a swimming motion imitating an escaping crawfish or shad fry. They are effective when dragged across rocky flats. They can even be used weightless on the surface with a "walking the dog" type retrieve.

Tubes are extremely effective when fishing rivers and streams for smallmouth, especially when rigged with an insert style lead jig head pushed up through the hollow body of the lure. A weed guard may prevent the lure from excessive snagging and hang ups on rocks and ledges. The jig head eye is then pushed through the rubber, becoming exposed so the line can be tied. Rigging the tube in this manner is effective when targeting smallies in deeper water, in current, on drop offs or when the lure must get to the base of boulders and ledges quickly.

Texas-rigging tubes has become a popular method for targeting smallies, especially those holding near wood or grass cover. Push the shank of a 3/0 or 4/0 Gamakatsu offset worm hook through the body of the tube and then push the hook eye through the rubber. Turn the hook so the point can be placed just under the surface of the rubber. This makes the lure weedless. This method can be done without weight, with a bullet style weight threaded on the line, or an insert weight pushed up into the tube body.  Mojo-rigging works nicely in calmer water when smallmouth are sluggish.

There may not be a more effective way to catch trophy river smallmouth from ledges, boulders, or concrete than dropping a tube to the base of the structure. River smallies often hold at the base of ledges and boulders. A submerged eddy is created to the downstream side of the structure, creating a place for refuge from the current and an ambush point for taking food. Target the downstream side of ledges and boulders with tubes. The rod tip should remain high to keep the line off the surface of the water and lessen the bow in the line created by the current. As a rule, target shoreline eddies, rocks and ledges during high flows and mid river ledges and boulders during low flows.

River bronzebacks use eddies on the downstream side of concrete as well. They also hold tight to the current side of concrete in swift current or during high water. Flipping tubes to concrete structure is a sure bet method for high water success.

Smallies hold in calm shoreline eddies and creek mouth areas, or eddies created by mid-river islands during high, cold flows. Pitch tubes to the calm water areas at the heads of eddies. Allow the lure to sink to the bottom and then hop it very slowly, covering only a foot or so at a time.

When the water temperature rises above 55 degrees, smallies feed on current breaks created by points, islands, boulders and ledges. Tubes are effective for taking fish in these conditions. Current brings the food to the fish. This is common during the post spawn period and during periods of receding water when smallmouth are active. Cast to the fast water and drag the lure to the break line. When bass are in this mode, it isn’t uncommon to take numbers of fish from one break line. Large females also can be taken during this period from the shallow slack water heads of eddies.

During the warm water period, smallmouth are found on rocky flats, grass edges and faster riffles and runs. Tubes can be effective when fished in fast rapids. A "tumbling" retrieve is best. With the rod tip high, allow the current to drift the lure naturally, hopping the tube slowly several times per retrieve. And, for those elusive summertime trophies, target deep water boulders and rocks and work the tube slowly and deliberately.

River smallmouth typically feed heavily during the fall period. Tubes fished near deep grass edges and rocky drop offs take big smallies during the fall. Smallies use current until the water temperature falls below 50 degrees, and numbers of fish can be taken from current breaks. Again, target mid-river structure during low flows and shoreline cover and adjacent current breaks dring high flows.

When river smallmouth winter, they hold in slow, deep pools with adequate structure and forage. Smallmouth do not lay dormant during the cold water period. In fact, this is an excellent time for trophy smallies. For more aggressive feeding fish, throw tubes to rocky drop offs, boulders and wood adjacent to holding areas. Fish the tube very slowly on the bottom. There are times when smallies prefer the lure lying completely motionless.

Natural crawfish colors are top producers for most applications. Top colors are green pumpkin, watermelon, black and smoke (red, black or purple flake). Dark-colored tubes work well during muddy water conditions.

A good quality graphite rod and sensitive, low stretch line like McCoy Mean Green copolymer is a must for fishing tubes. 

Smallmouth eat tubes the way they would eat a crawfish, by flaring their gills and creating a vacuum that sucks the tube directly into the back of the mouth. There, they have crushers that they use to mash their prey for swallowing. Many times aggressive fish eat the lure on the fall of the cast before it hits the bottom. As this process occurs, anglers feel a tap or "tick" through the line and rod. A quick, forceful hook set is imperative for two reasons. Slow hook sets often result in missed fish, or gut hooked fish, and neither scenario is a good one.

Fishing tubes occasionally results in deeply hooked fish. DO NOT tear impaled hooks from a fish’s esophagus. Smallmouth have a pulmonary artery directly behind the gills and esophagus. If this artery is severed or torn, an ugly stream of blood flows down the broad side of the bass. Most times, when this occurs the fish perishes. It may swim away, but there is no blood flow to the major organs. A quality stainless steel wire cutters is a must. In fact, cutters are more important than a needle nose pliers for gut hooked smallies. Lip land deeply hooked fish and don’t flip or yank it into the boat. Then, use the cutters to cut away as much of the hook as possible without injuring the fish. Bass often rid their body of the remainder of the jig head. After the "surgery", place the fish in the water with the head facing upstream. Try to release fish in as little current as possible. Move slowly back-and-forth to displace water through the gills. When she’s ready to swim, let her go home.

When targeting feisty smallmouth bass from rivers, no matter what the season, tubes produce trophy fish. Find the fish, then use the tactics mentioned above and hold on!

Blaine Mengel

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