Grubbing on the river

We have all stumbled into something more or less by accident that turned out to be a good move. For example, some unusual food you had never tried but just knew you would not like — until you sampled some and discovered it was quite tasty. Well, that's how Steve Chaconas came to rediscover Mann's Sting Ray Grub. No, he didn't eat it. The bass did!

Steve has vague memories of the Sting Ray Grub when fishing as a very young boy with his dad in Alabama. But like all youngsters, Steve grew up and had to concentrate on making a living. He moved north, where he worked as a host on a shopper's channel in the early days of cable. Then he got into computer sales, did a stint as a comedy writer for Howard Stern, and was a radio station program director. Along the way he fell into tournament bass fishing and eventually became a full-time guide on the nation's river — the Potomac. Sometime during those nearly four decades, the Sting Ray disappeared from his tackle, but not from his dad's box.

One autumn day about five years ago, Steve was into a hot Potomac River bite. The bass were literally tearing up curled-tail grubs. He was down to his last bait, from which bass had already ripped the tail. Yet, the fish were still biting this almost tailless bait — until he snagged it and lost that one, too.

"Dad had left his old tacklebox in my boat, so I'm rummaging around to see if he had any curl-tail grubs. I found an old, old Sting Ray Grub. The flat tail on the Sting Ray looked like the stubble left on the curly-tail bait which bass were biting, so I tried it. Holy cow, not only did the bass eat it up, but they couldn't tear off the stiff tail!"

Rigged to fish

Following that experience, he began experimenting with the Sting Ray. The flat-tail grub is now a staple in his tacklebox, as well as the go-to bait for his clients.

Even among more senior bass chasers who remember the heyday of the Sting Ray, few would have considered it a good choice for dingy river water. Nonetheless, on a tidal river that remains fishable almost the entire winter, the Sting Ray has become Chaconas' No. 1 coldwater bait. When water temperatures dip below 50 degrees, the flat-tail grub catches bunches of average-size bass while offering the chance of nabbing a big one, too.

"On the Potomac, we have bass fishermen visiting from all over the eastern U.S. with the latest and hottest lures," explains Chaconas. "Plus there are a large number of tournaments, often with top pros participating. When you go down a bank, you know these fish have seen it all. It pays to throw something that is different and less intrusive. That's where the Sting Ray comes in. Its subtle, nonthreatening action is just right for highly pressured bass in warmer water and for sluggish bass in cold water.

"I fish the 3-inch model in avocado, exclusively. I've fooled around with smoke, chartreuse and white ones, but avocado is without a doubt the best color for the dingy water of the Potomac. It's natural looking without being flashy or bold, and of a size that matches much of the prey in the river."

He uses the grub on one size jighead: a 1/4-ounce round head molded on a 3/0 Mustad UltraPoint Hook, custom poured by Gerkin Lures. The 1/4-ounce size is the perfect weight for 4- to 12-foot river depths that he typically fishes. If the wind picks up, instead of going to a heavier head, Chaconas goes to a thinner diameter line to cut down on the bowing in the line.

Chaconas is very particular as to bait rigging. If the leadhead is not positioned in the grub the same way every time, the lure will not perform properly. "The grub is rigged with the flat tail horizontal. To ensure uniform behavior each time, make sure the hook comes out at the same spot — between the third and fourth rib segment, counting from the tail forward. If I'm skipping the bait under docks, I use a dab of super glue to hold it in place. Otherwise, the baitholder barb on the leadhead does the job."

A Palomar knot is used to attach line to the jig. But with that knot, the tag end of line is positioned outward, catching strands of moss or bits of leaves. Therefore, Chaconas ties a simple overhand knot after completing the Palomar but before trimming the line in order to reposition the tag so it cannot collect debris.

Tuned in to the bite

If the grub bumps into an obstacle on the glide path, so much the better, says Chaconas. He does not attempt to change the course of the Sting Ray, but allows it to settle in front of the rock or whatever the object might be. "On a tidal river that passes through a major metropolitan area, the hard object might be natural, such as a rock, or man-made junk — you just don't know. But I do know there is a good chance that hard object will hold one or more bass."

The colder the water, the longer he lets the Sting Ray rest on the bottom. If nothing picks it up, at some point, he decides to lift the rod tip and guide the bait over the object and let it fall on the other side. The strike frequently comes at this point.

"The bite is different," details Chaconas. "Rarely do you get that distinct tick during the coldwater period. Rather, the bite will feel more like dragging through wet leaves. It takes practice to detect when a fish has taken the grub. You do this by carefully lifting the bait. If it feels mushy, set the hook — but not with an eye-crossing snap. I'm only using 6-pound line. Instead, sweep and reel at the same time."

Linewise, he prefers fluorocarbon line for winter fishing because it sinks quickly. Earlier in the fall, he opts for 10 pound around chunk rock or wood cover, and 8 pound for less obstructed areas. But he drops to 6 pound in wind or anytime the water temperature slips below 45 degrees.

"A lot of anglers believe they actually receive more bites with lighter line, but I believe they get the same number of bites but they simply detect more bites with thinner line because of the increased sensitivity factor compared to thicker lines."

Chaconas continues fishing the Sting Ray grub with a lift-and-glide routine until springtime water temperature climbs above 55 degrees.

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