The blazing afternoon sun turned the Louisiana Delta backwaters into a steam bath as water temperatures broiled into the 90s. There wasn't a hint of wind, and the bass were tucked tightly beneath patches of thick milfoil shading the shoreline.
Denny Brauer put down his favorite jig, picked up a flipping rod rigged with a Strike King Pro-Model Flip-N-Tube, and flicked it onto the shallow grass. He crawled it to an opening, and then twitched the rod tip, causing the tube to dart and its tentacles to wiggle.
Brauer pinched his line, pulled the bait off the water, and then pitched to another spot. Once again, the tube stayed near the surface. I was dumbfounded.
"You don't have any weight on that bait, do you?" I asked, pointing to the 4 ½-inch tube that Brauer crawled over the grass. "What's that all about?"
"You just never mind," Brauer smirked. "This is one of those things we don't talk or write about, OK?"
But that was nearly four years ago, and the secret is out. As effective as tubes can be for dropping into cover or dragging on bottom, a weightless version may be the remedy you need to coax lethargic bass into striking.
"We've been fishing floating worms on top for years, but sometimes you need a different presentation or lure profile to get bass to bite," offers South Carolinian Davy Hite. "I would imagine there are times when any soft plastic shape might catch fish. You just have to experiment until you find one that fits the conditions."
Many pros are doing just that. A random survey revealed other types of soft baits best known for bottom bumping will catch bass on top of the water, too. Here's a look at some of those, and when and how they're being put to use:
Brauer says conditions he faced on the Delta in 1999 were ideal for pitching the weightless tube. The slow, seductive fall made it a good backup lure when the fish stopped hitting the jig. Furthermore, he could keep it from falling into the scum on the bottom, which saved time cleaning the bait before each pitch.
"The Pro-Model Flip-N-Tube has a solid head, which adds a little weight in the nose," he describes. "That makes it easier to flip on heavy line and causes the bait to glide when it sinks in those pockets of grass."
So, why not fish a soft jerkbait?
"One of the problems with soft jerkbaits is the hooking/landing ratios due to the thickness of the plastic and the way they ball up on the hook," Brauer explains. "You rarely miss fish on tubes rigged with 4-ought hooks because the hollow bait collapses when a bass bites down."
Brauer says the weightless tube is a great choice when bass seem to be wary in clear, shallow water.
"It's deadly in the spring and right after the spawn, especially when you see bass chasing minnows," he adds. "But I've caught them doing that in the summer, too."
He's not alone. Shaw Grigsby says the Pro Model tube is his first choice for fishing matted vegetation.
"I stumbled onto it while filming a TV show, One More Cast," the Floridian says. "We were pitching tubes along a weed edge when a big fish blew up near the back of the slop. I rifled my tube out there, shook it on the grass and the fish came up and blasted it. We caught several good fish casting tubes onto the slop."
Grigsby believes the flipping tube has several advantages over traditional slop baits, such as rats and frogs.
"It skates across the mat, and the rounded nose makes it easier to slide over cover," he describes. "The profile is such that it makes a subtle imprint and emits enough vibration so that the fish know something is there."
You'll miss some fish, he adds, when the bass blow through thick grass and can't get the bait into their mouths. Then, he shakes the bait so that it drops into the hole (created by the initial strike), and the fish come back and crush it.
"That's the best part of it, because you can fish it on top and drop it into the holes," Grigsby explains. "You can't do that with a frog or rat. And when they hit the tube, they inhale it."
Alabama pro Randy Howell, best known for his floating worm expertise, says surface tubes can be a backup lure when the bass are reluctant to take floating worms.
"If I'm getting short strikes on the worm, I switch to a tube," Howell says. "You can throw the tube in there and let it fall slowly. They usually hit it just as it falls out of sight."
Another of Howell's favorite techniques is to skip a weightless tube under low hanging tree branches when bass are tight to the bank. It's a technique he tested one day when bass guarding fry under trees ignored his floating worm.
"Dion Hibdon once told me that you can catch bass on a tube without a weight, so I decided to give it a try," Howell says.
He rigged a 5-inch white Hawg Caller tube, and began skipping it under the tree limbs.
"I was amazed at how easily that tube skips, and by using a big 4/0 hook in it, you get a slow fall," he recalls. "As the bait fell horizontally, the tentacles flared, and when I twitched it, it darted from side to side, like a fish trying to eat the fry. The bass were coming up and inhaling it."
When fishing for giant fish schooling or busting shad in the pockets, California native Aaron Martens ties on a weightless 6-inch Tora Tube.
"I work it like a rip bait, holding the rod tip high so it stays near the surface," Howell explains. "I let it flutter down a little, then rip it. Or, if I need to excite them into striking, I may give it short, fast jerks that will cause the bait to hit the top of the water."
Hite, meanwhile, loves to swim a weightless, 6-inch Gambler lizard when following anglers who are fishing floating worms. He says the lizard has a different profile and action that entices strikes when the worm isn't working.
"For some reason, the floating lizard seems to be at its best when fished along grasslines," he explains. "The paddle tail on the back of the Gambler lizard produces a swimming action and vibration that attracts more strikes."
Hite says he prefers weightless lizards over spinnerbaits when fishing grasslines in clear water.
"I've not had much success catching bass on spinnerbaits in real clear water, especially when there's no wind," he asserts. "I've followed other anglers throwing spinnerbaits down grass edges and caught fish that they missed on the lizard. And the strikes are vicious."
Hite works the lizard with a fast swimming action, and sometimes he inserts a small screw-lock sinker into the nose to keep the bait in the water during faster retrieves.
"I also modulate the speed until I see what the fish want," he explains. "The faster I can fish it, the more water I can cover and, hopefully, the more fish I can catch. However, I never get set on one speed when swimming baits near the top. Conditions can change, and you need to change as well."
Water clarity and the mood of the fish will determine color choices. He prefers watermelon or pumpkin when the water is extremely clear, and darker or bright (pink, yellow or white) colors when the water is stained.
"This presentation appeals to a bass' vision, so it's got to be able to see it from a distance," Hite offers. "If I'm fishing a bright-colored bait and the fish follow without striking, I'll tone down the color."
Florida pro Bernie Schultz will add a 6- or 8-inch Zetabait Ding-A-Ling paddle-tail worm to his repertoire in those areas where a buzzbait should work, but doesn't. He rigs the Texas rigged worm weightless on a 10-inch leader with a swivel (to reduce line twist) and winds it fairly fast.
"It works when the fish are hitting buzzbaits, but more importantly, when they aren't," Schultz explains. "The advantage to this rig over a buzzbait is that when a fish follows but won't strike, you can stop it and let it fall naturally. Sometimes that's all it takes to provoke those curious fish to bite."
This technique is one of his go-to patterns for fishing the clear, shallow ditches of tidal rivers and Lake Seminole. He says there's something about the fluttering tail on the Ding-A-Ling that makes it work better than other worms with flat tail designs. It doesn't make a lot of noise, but it does displace water.
Producto Lure's BuzzTail Shad was designed specifically for those situations. It has a slender, soft jerkbaitlike body and a modified V-notched tail. The floating bait produces subtle buzzing disturbance when the bait is cranked over the surface, or it can be fished in a stop-and-go popping action.
Mike Skat of Producto says it was created to imitate shad working the surface, but the lure works equally well when retrieved over and through lily pads. He recommends using a 3/0 hook, and if fishing pads, add a tiny screw-in sinker on the nose to prevent it from catching in the pads.
"If the fish are aggressive, simply wind it slowly like you would a buzzbait," Skat explains. "If they're not aggressive, you can use a twitch-and-pause presentation."
Texan Alton Jones has discovered that hollow-bodied tube craws are equally effective for fishing peppergrass or slop that is too dense for fishing traditional slop baits.
"I was fishing a Texas lake one day and saw some fish moving in the back," he recalls. "I didn't have a ratlike bait, so I cut the weight off a big YUM CrawBug, threw it back there, and bam! One ate it."
Jones believes the larger CrawBug creates more disturbances on scum or matted grass than some weedless lures, and he gets better hookups because the bait is so pliable.
He rigs the CrawBug upside down so the bait rides on its back, and the 4/0 hook point is buried in the belly membrane. That enables the lure to slide better over the cover, and hooking ratios are excellent.
"I drag it a couple of inches at a time and guide it to the small holes," he describes. "The hollow cavity keeps it floating in open water pockets, but if you pop it, the air bubble is released, and the bait will sink slowly.