How to fool big smallmouths

Chris Konop
Chris Konop

When fishing for spawning bass, anglers often crawl tubes through the beds to goad fish into striking. At other times, tube crawling is largely ignored in favor of hopping and gliding retrieves that allow this soft plastic tidbit to tempt bass with its sexy, spiraling fall.

Some anglers have learned that tube crawling also yields excellent results outside the spawning season, especially with smallmouth bass. Many of these fishermen speak guardedly of their success with this approach, but not Capt. Chris Konop, a pharmacist and reputable Wisconsin fishing guide.

Konop's clients enjoy superb smallmouth action when they venture out with him to fish Sturgeon Bay and several other sparkling bays along the southern peninsula that borders the mammoth Green Bay. More accurately, the clients who listen to Konop's coaching are the ones who tussle with sizable smallmouths during a typical outing.

"The folks I take fishing probably get sick of hearing my voice, because I'm constantly urging them to slow down and drag their tubes on the bottom," says Konop.

Though all smallmouths are released on Konop's guide trips (with the exception of trophy bass to be mounted), he has carried many limits in his livewells while fishing local money tournaments. Upon emptying the wells after such events, he invariably finds partially digested crawfish that bass have regurgitated.

"There's no question that crawfish are a major part of a smallmouth's diet," says Konop. "I'm convinced that nothing imitates a crawfish better than a tube dragging on the bottom. My clients who insist on hopping tubes just don't catch as many bass."

When you watch Konop dragging a tube, you realize you must downshift to granny gear to make this tactic work. He pulls the tube along with almost imperceptible 10 o'clock to 11 o'clock movements of his 6 1/2-foot Fenwick HMG AV spinning rod. He often pauses for several seconds between pulls, and may jiggle the tube while leaving it in place. The goal is to mimic the subtle movements of a live crawfish and induce a feeding response from bass. It is the antithesis of a reflex strike.

"You just feel a pinch and a little weight on the line," says Konop. "I tell my clients to set the hook whenever they're not sure. About half the time, they latch onto a bass. It doesn't pay to play touchy-feely with these fish."

Crawfish-colored 3 1/2-inch tubes from Kalin's, Culprit and Berkley do the heavy work for Konop, who prefers the colors of pumpkin, pumpkin/green flake and smoke/red flake. Konop inserts a 1/8-ounce darter jig into the tube and fishes it on 8-pound-test Trilene XL.

In the spring and fall, bass typically feed 3 to 10 feet deep in the bays Konop fishes, which is when tube crawling works wonders. Konop makes relatively short casts of about 35 feet to maintain optimum control over the tube. This also improves sensitivity to the light bites. When the bait gets within 12 feet or so of the boat, he retrieves and makes another cast.

"It's really important to fish the tube far enough away from the boat so the bass don't see you in the clear water," says Konop. "I never cast into water the boat has already passed over."

With the electric motor set on a low speed, Konop inches against the wind and casts into the breeze from deep to shallow water whenever possible. This allows for more precise boat control and also prevents the wind from bowing the line and lifting the tube off the bottom. Key locations are gravel bottoms with boulders mixed in, and transition areas of clumpy vegetation between a clean, hard bottom in the shallows and dense beds of milfoil in deeper water.

More upbeat techniques also produce smallmouth bass from these same waters, including ripping big willow-bladed spinnerbaits just beneath the surface and twitching jerkbaits over the grass. But Konop believes drubbing bottom with tubes is much more consistent.

"I think of smallmouths in terms of a pyramid," says Konop. "The top of the pyramid near the surface holds fewer bass, but they're aggressive and will whack something like a spinnerbait. The pyramid widens part-way down, and you're likely to catch more fish with a jerkbait or crankbait. The widest part of the pyramid is dead on the bottom, and that's where most of the bass feed."

Konop often watches other anglers fish one of his spots and catch one or two bass on some type of fast-paced presentation. After they leave, he slips into the same area, slowly dissects the bottom with his tubes and boats a dozen or more bass. It may take an hour or more of tube crawling to milk the bass from the spot, but it is time well spent.

"The object isn't to cover a lot of water," says Konop. "It's to poke a tube into every nook and cranny. If smallmouths are there, you'll catch them."

Drifting and dragging

Another deadly tube crawling method involves the drift-and-drag technique, which is used widely throughout the Great Lakes for smallmouth bass. Ohioan Jeff Snyder excels with the drift-and-drag on Lake Erie.

In a nutshell, the drift-and-drag consists of drifting with the wind over bottom structures while dragging tubes and other baits behind the boat. To encourage a broadside posture, the outboard is turned all the way to one side while the electric motor nudges the bow around. A drift sock connected adjacent to the bow casting deck slows the drift in strong breezes common to the Great Lakes.

Though Snyder freely gives out information on how to implement the drift-and-drag, he has been tight-lipped about tube crawling. Yes, he does recommend letting out enough line to make regular bottom contact, but his secret is to let out so much line that the tube constantly plows through rocks and gravel.

"I call it long-lining," says Snyder. "I've tried to keep it quiet, but a lot of guys have caught on to it, so I might as well 'fess up. I simply let out so much line that the tube drags right on the bottom. If I'm dragging tubes with somebody who isn't long-lining, I'll catch four or five bass to their one."

When long-lining, Snyder inserts 1/4-ounce jigs into his tubes, stepping up to a 3/8-ounce jig on windy days. To help the tube stay down, he holds the rod tip low and dead-still, and he opts for 8-pound monofilament. Long-lining puts Snyder in touch with more bass, but it also increases snags and break-offs, due to the line rubbing against abrasive bottoms. Sometimes he spends nearly as much time tying on tubes as he does dragging them, but he gladly puts up with this because the rewards exceed the hassle and expense.

Gary Klein, another proponent of crawling tubes, warns against letting out too much line when drifting and dragging for smallmouths.

"If I want to crawl a tube, I let out a little more line than I normally do," says Klein. "But if you let out too much line, water resistance actually lifts the tube. I pretty much go by feel when judging line length."

Thin, no-stretch 14-pound FireLine and heavy jigs keep Klein's Berkley Power Tubes crawling on bottom and improve his sense of feel. He favors a 1/2-ounce jig, but will go as high as 3/4 ounce to sustain bottom contact when fishing in a strong current or blustery conditions. Especially snaggy bottoms force him to lighten up. Klein drags tubes with a high rod tip and lets the boat's movement impart all the action.

"I mold my own tube jigs around a 4/0 Gamakatsu heavy wire Superline hook. A hook with a 90 degree eye is essential, because it keeps the nose of the tube rooting into the bottom. That's the key."

Klein believes a bottom-rooting tube has tremendous appeal to smallmouth and largemouth bass throughout the country anytime crawfish are high on their menu.

"When the fish are feeding on crawdads, bass get conditioned to looking down," says Klein. "When that happens, they can pick up a bait rooting the bottom at a tremendous distance, especially in clear water."

Klein also has a great deal of success crawling tubes with casting presentations. When fishing for smallmouths on rock and gravel bottoms, he uses the same exposed-hook tube jig he employs with the drift-and-drag. If largemouths are the target species, he generally switches to a Texas-rigged tube and a slip sinker.

"The difference between crawling a tube for smallmouths vs. largemouths is that largemouths tend to relate to heavier cover. I have to lift the tube to work it over the cover, but once it's on bottom, I'll often crawl it until I hit the next object."

The benefits of crawling a tube for largemouths has not escaped Dean Rojas, who became famous overnight for his record-shattering catch at a B.A.S.S. Tour event in January 2001 on Florida's Lake Tohopekaliga. He first got on to tube crawling while fishing tules at Lake Havasu.

His basic setup for this type of fishing is a 4-inch Texas-rigged Lake Fork Tackle tube in red sparkle matched with a 3/16- to 5/8-ounce Lake Fork Mega Weight. He pitches the tube into alleys in the tules with a baitcasting rod and 15-pound-test line.

"After the tube hits bottom, I let it sit for a few seconds," says Rojas. "That gives a bass time to swim out and look the bait over. Then I'll drag it slowly across the bottom. In clear water, they'll usually chomp the tube before it moves a foot. You may have to drag the bait 2 or 3 feet in murky water before they'll take it."

Tube crawling produces bigger bass for Rojas, and it often comes through for him after bass have grown gun-shy due to heavy fishing pressure. Since he discovered tube crawling on Havasu, Rojas has applied it successfully across the country when pitching around brush, clumps of submerged grass and other cover.

Texan Alton Jones resorts to tube crawling when fishing chunk rock banks for largemouth or smallmouth bass during cold water periods. He rigs a 3 1/2-inch green pumpkin Riverside Vibra King tube with a 1/8-ounce exposed-hook jighead and matches it with a spinning outfit and 8- to 10-pound line.

After casting the tube tight to the bank, Jones imparts short, gentle drags that keep the tube scraping over the rocks. The light jig allows consistent bottom contact with minimal snagging. A 1/8-ounce jig is sufficient for depths to 10 feet. When fishing deeper, he switches to a 3/16-ounce jig.

"It's a crawfish thing," says Jones. "A tube just does a better job of imitating a crawfish than about any lure you can throw — even craw worms. And it's in the right place, crawling around down on the bottom."

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