Totally tubular

Fishing tubes useful for pre-spawn smallmouth bass

A text message from my old friend and expert bass guide Ken Penrod appeared on my phone late last Monday afternoon. It simply said, “Have an empty boat tomorrow. Can you come down?” Without hesitation I responded that my brother Dwayne and I would be happy to occupy the empty seats in his bass boat.

Penrod guides on the Susquehanna River and lower Juniata River for smallmouth bass each spring from early March until the beginning of May. I first met him about 15 years ago and since then spending a day or two fishing with him on the Susquehanna became a regular rite of spring for me. We had already fished with Penrod twice back in mid-March, shortly after he started his 2019 Susquehanna campaign. Cold weather and high water made for tough fishing, but we managed to boat some bass despite the conditions.

The weather couldn’t have been nicer when we arrived at the Riverfront Campground at Duncannon early Tuesday morning. Riverfront, which is located at the junction of the Juniata and Susquehanna, is Penrod’s home base during his springtime tenure on those rivers. Both rivers were somewhat high and off color, however, as the result of some heavy rain last weekend. But water temperatures were much better now than March, so the bass were in pre-spawn mode, and we were hopeful of finding some cooperative fish.

Penrod specializes in fishing soft-plastic tube jigs for springtime river smallmouths and given the current conditions, I was prepared for a steady diet of tube fishing. I started fishing soft-plastic tubes shortly after Guido Hibdon won the 1988 Bassmaster Classic on the James River in Virginia using them and brought national attention to these lures. My first experiences with tubes were mainly fishing for largemouths in lakes, but it wasn’t long before I discovered how deadly this bait is for river smallmouths.

When I started fishing with Penrod, we typically fished mostly 31/2-inch and even some 4-inch tubes for springtime smallmouths. In recent years, however, the smaller, so-called “teaser” tubes that are 23/4 inches long are often the best producing baits. That was especially true during years when river water levels were low and clear compared with typical spring flows.

We also found the teasers work fine in the higher water as we’ve experienced the past several seasons, and I now fish teasers almost exclusively for river bass.

Once I became a tube fan, I found myself using two basic colors most of the time: green pumpkin and smoke/purple flake. But tubes come in an endless array of colors, so I began experimenting with all sorts of different shades. About ten years ago, Penrod and John Cunningham, owner of the Riverfront Campground, collaborated on a series of tubes in custom colors designed especially for river smallmouths called “Campground Specials.” Currently, there are about 15 colors of tubes in the campground Specials line. Several of them have become my go-to baits for river bass, including: KP Rose, Black Crawbug, Juniata Treat, Bass Buzzkill, Troy’s Trigger and Purple Craw.

The simplest way to rig both standard and teaser tubes is on a jighead — heads with a 3/0 hook for the standard tubes and heads with a 1/0 hook for teasers. An 1/8-ounce jighead is sufficient most of the time for river fishing, but with all the high water we’ve had the past two springs, a 1/4-ounce jighead has been necessary to get the tube on the bottom. To complement his line of tubes, Cunningham also makes his own line of jigheads, RAB (short for Rent A Boat) Jigs. These jigheads are available in both regular and weedless in 1/16-, 1/8- and 1/4-ounce in hook sizes 1/0, 2/0 and 3/0, which will cover almost every possible need of a tube fisherman.

For river fishing, I use his weedless style of jighead almost exclusively. The thin wire weed-guard molded into the head cuts down on the amount of snags and lost lures significantly when river fishing. For more information on tubes and jigheads, contact Cunningham at 717-834-5252.

The key to catching river smallmouths now is finding them, and to find them, you need to find their food. Their preferred forage is crayfish and baitfish. Crayfish will be plentiful on rocky bottoms, while baitfish will congregate in large schools in places out of the strong currents of the main river channel. Shoreline eddies, rock piles, sunken logs and similar current breaks will often hold lots of minnows, and if the minnows are there, the bass are sure to be close by. Smallmouths, too, will congregate in favorable lies at the edges of the main river channel and near food sources, so it is not uncommon to catch several bass from the same spot.

Searching shoreline structure by fishing tube jigs slowly along the bottom was our basic strategy last Tuesday, and it proved successful. The three of us boated 49 smallmouths, most of them 15 to 18 inches. I consider smallmouth bass the hardest-fighting fish in freshwater, and the added strength of the river currents this spring makes these great gamefish a bit more of a challenge, if that’s possible.

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