Every year it seems that someone introduces a new lure, or at least a variation of something that has been around for a while but either went out of production or fell from favor. Some of these contemporary lures are the results of the research of ingenious anglers experimenting, altering the action, or the work of a tackle company resurrecting an old favorite in a dozen new colors and sizes. Fishermen are lure collectors. It’s a character flaw as obvious as our tendency to embellish the accounts and descriptions of our forays into the salt. This scribe is not being critical of these aberrations, because I’m also swayed by these same tendencies, owning a collection of tackle and lures that would rival the inventory of many a small tackle shop. The aforementioned statement is not a boast but an admission of guilt.
Despite owning all this proven fish-catching tackle, if I had to catch a legal bass between the hours of sunrise and sunset, I’d choose a very simple rig, one that has experienced such an enormous growth in popularity and productivity over the past 25 years that it could be listed as a universal favorite. You could fuel the fishing fleet for the entire season with the energy generated by the debate on just what constitutes the best overall striped bass baits. For the purpose of this discussion I’d like to interject that it is not always the “best” baits that become the most productive, so I’m obliged to provide some insight into my reasoning.
Few knowledgeable anglers would argue against the popularity and fish-producing qualities of the menhaden or pogy, as we New Englanders refer to the oily forage fish that is currently in very short supply. Last season bunker was right at the top of the most-wanted list, followed closely the live eel. The downside of these two baits is their variable availability and the difficulty for the average angler to capture and maintain them. A school of live pogies in some waterways generates almost as much interest as a school of bass or blues, and not everyone has a deep-water slip or dock where they can hide a supply of live eels during the heat of the summer. Although I seldom use pogies in any form, I’d never give up my live eels. Those serpents I potted over the years have paid for tackle, fuel and schoolbooks and accounted for numerous bass up to 60 pounds. The live eel is still one of my favorite baits, but with that said, let me tell you about the most natural and readily available bait that accounts for well over 50 percent of all the bass, blues and weakfish we catch in a season that stretches from April to late November.
The sea or sandworm might not be the most appealing of baits, but when I was a boy it was the staple of the winter flounder, scup, tautog, white perch and just about every other species that inhabits the salt water. For the privilege of rowing the old-timers along the rocky beaches of the rivers and bays, I learned an awful lot about the fish-producing appeal of the sandworm. Using Cape Cod or Niantic Bay spinners we trolled quietly along the shoreline, hooking bass, scup and the occasional tautog on the tandem-worm rigs the old-timers attached to the tarred handlines, which were the workingman’s choice of the day. We seldom accounted for any stripers larger than 10 or 12 pounds because their tackle and methods were no match for larger fish. Without the aid of a slip drag and the soft action of a forgiving rod, the big fish, and there were quite a few, tore off or broke the soft handlines. The trollers who used the old, stiff bamboo boat rods with the Ocean City or Penn reels did not fare much better.
The successful technique and results of these experiences were not lost on an inquisitive youngster who had plans of his own. Putting lively seaworms down where the stripers lived produced bass. Some of the haunts where the stripers were harvested were near my worm-harvesting grounds, so the broken worms the hardware dealer would not purchase from me were attached to a handline and cast out towards the channel. Other fishermen were using quahogs, steamer clams, squid and other strips baits, which were never quite as effective as the seaworms. These same stripers had been feeding on worms since their earliest migrations into these rivers, when they anticipated them engaged in feeding on the various worm hatches.
Some of the largest bass I’ve hooked and lost were tempted by the pervasive seaworm strung naturally on a single hook. At the time we were fishing from an anchored boat, although I’ve achieved the same results fishing from the banks of a tidal river. Small 2/0 offset hooks were snelled directly to the 20-pound-test running line with little or no weight required until the current began to move, at which time we added pinch-on or rubbercore sinkers of the appropriate weight to keep the worms down in the striper’s pantry.
The system was flawless whenever tide and fish combined, but for fish that held along rocky shorelines and other natural and manmade structure, trolling was the ticket. The Cape Cod spinners or blades and beads the old-timers fashioned worked in the rivers and bays, but the bigger fish I tended to hook along the oceanfront trashed the lures and broke us off more often than I care to relate. From my youthful experiences to this very day I’ve learned that the seaworm was and still is one of the most natural and productive of all saltwater baits, and when presented properly, one that a trophy striper will seldom ignore. Here is just one last anecdote for anyone who might still harbor reservations about the importance of seaworms and natural presentations.
A few years ago I was hired to escort and assist a woman on a charter boat who was fishing in a contest. I didn’t know the captain or the boat, but when I got a look at the condition and type of his tackle I was appalled, and walked back to my truck to fetch my rods and a container of seaworms. When we arrived at the rip the skipper put out two beat-up 36-inch tubes with a very small piece of Berkley Power Worm attached to the hook. We trolled for an hour or so and caught a few small bluefish while boats around us jigging parachutes on wire were catching school bass in the 4- to 6-pound class.
I asked permission to try my rods and tubes with the seaworms and he said he didn’t care what I did, as he glanced at his watch, contemplating just how much longer before he could rid himself of these greenhorns. I put both wire line outfits with small tubes and juicy seaworms astern and stuck them in the rod holder. We completed our first pass and when the boat turned, our tubes dropped deeper into the water column and both rods bent over. A few minutes later two stripers were being netted. We went on to catch eight bass to 18 pounds and two small blues before the captain called it a trip. While we didn’t win the contest, we ended up with more bass than did any of the other boaters who trolled large tubes with tiny pieces of plastic worms.
When a friend showed me some of the first tubes to show up in our area from Jersey, they were crude plastic rigs compared to today’s models. But they presented the worms and held up to the abuse and punishment a big fish dished out when it tried to scrape the hook from its jaw. After some 30 years of numerous trials, experimenting and adjusting, I’ve come up with the tubes I employ today. You can purchase or make tubes of any shape, size or materials you desire, and if you have something that works for you, by all means continue to use it. The following is my description of a rig and methodology that has proven extremely successful for me, my friends and associates over the decades. At this juncture if you are not convinced of the prowess of the seaworm, I suggest you put the magazine down and begin building a holding car for pogies and eels.
Having witnessed just about everything from a stainless steel partial denture (courtesy of my dentist friend, Doc Riley) and numerous other wacky lures catch fish, nothing that has fooled a bass or bluefish would surprise me. With that said, it’s obvious most of us are not interested in feats of extraordinary proportions; we just want to catch fish, big fish if they are in residence. But still some anglers feel it’s necessary to apply or add something to the tube-and-worm to make it work. I don’t believe that is necessary and hold to the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) rule, which I believe applies here. I know you’ve seen and probably fished tubes that gyrated and corkscrewed through the water and caught fish. If I’ve learned anything about fishing, it’s to endeavor to keep my presentations, regardless of what type of lures or baits I’m using, as natural as possible. Unlike most wooden, metal or plastic lures that require some form of convincing “action” to imitate a wounded baitfish, the seaworm requires none.
My tubes are the conveyance that transports the most important part of this unique combo, the seaworm. I don’t need or want to impart anything other than the natural movement of the seaworm as they swim through the water column. It’s not necessary to twist, curl or distort the tube, because a worm does not roll or gyrate as it moves naturally through its element. Humor me and take a fresh seaworm and place it in the shallows or a white bucket of salt water. Observe the worm as its multi-segmented legs wriggles slowly and naturally in an almost straight line. My method presents the tempting worm in its most typical form. Certainly there are stripers and blues caught on all form and manner of tubes, but few if any of them account for wary 53-inch bass or fish in the 50-pound class in shallow water under bright daylight conditions. If you are catching 50-pound bass with a corkscrew or gyrating worm in the near-shore shallows, I’d love to present my tubes alongside you to that same class of fish.
This is not a condemnation of big, active tubes, quite the contrary. Over the years, in numerous experiments, I’ve fished large tubes in deep water and rips with great success. In those instances I required a larger, heavier lure to pull the stiff wire line from the reels. Did they work? They certainly do; just ask the charter specialists who account for large specimens of stripers with the heavier lures. I’ve made a long and detailed comparison of the thick and heavy, 24- to 36-inch tubes alongside my short, straight, soft tubes in the shallow near-shore coastal waters that I fish, and the smaller version outperformed the radiator hoses by a wide margin. These were not unsupported conclusions arrived at after a few random trials but unbiased tests conducted over a period of several years. I can honestly report that I’ve never had a complaint from a deck mate who just landed a husky 30- or 40-pound bass about the lack of size and action of my little tubes.
Most fishermen experiment to try something different out of boredom when the fish aren’t in a feeding mode. The best time to conduct experiments is when the fish are eating; otherwise you are just wasting your time. For experimentation purposes I’ve used a tube with two hooks. One hook is located at the customary location at the rear and the other affixed to the barrel swivel at the head to determine the primary purpose of the tube. We baited the rear hook and trolled through the structure where the fish were holding and caught three bass from 5 to 8 pounds on the rear, baited hook.
Next we moved the worms to the top hook and repeated the procedure. The next three fish where caught on the top hook. If you are convinced (as I am) that the seaworm is the most important component of this combo, you are on the right track. Just ask, or if you are fortunate enough, observe the most successful live eel and menhaden fishermen you can find, and if they are honest, they’ll admit they are successful because they present their offerings in their most natural form.
You don’t have to own any expensive tackle to fish the tube-and-worm efficiently. Many conventional boat rods of 6 or 7 feet in length with a 4/0-size reel will get the job done. However, over the years my tackle has become quite specialized. I utilize a custom 6-foot conventional rod with a moderate to slow action that has Hi-Alloy guides and a size 16 tiptop. A Fuji reel seat and Hypalon grips with a gimbal butt complete this very efficient package. The rod is light for all-day use, forgiving when a big fish makes a strong surge, yet strong enough to beat any trophy striper and get it boatside without the angler having to walk to the opposite side of the boat. If ever a reel was designed or best suited for this duty, it’s the Penn 330 GTI. It is strong, lightweight, has a great drag and the level wind makes it perfect for expert and novice alike to retrieve line evenly in the excitement of battling a large striper. This is what I consider to be the best outfit for fishing the leadcore line I employ for fishing depths up to 30 feet in coastal shoreline situations.
If you are fishing rips, you will need a wire line rod with carbaloy guides and a reel similar to the popular Penn 113H (4/0) reel filled with 40- or 50-pound-test stainless or monel wire. This will get the tubes down to the proper depths in the fast moving water.
On my lead line rods we start out with 150 to 200 feet of quality 50-pound-test monofilament backing, which is connected to 5 colors (each color is 10 yards or 30 feet) of 36-pound-test leadline via a bead chain connector or small 50-pound class barrel swivel. At the business end of the leadline I attach a 15-foot length of 50-pound-test leader material to which the tube is tied directly without any snaps or hardware. Don’t confuse leader material with monofilament line because they are designed for different purposes. Mono line is manufactured with characteristics that make it suitable for numerous applications, including casting. The leader material is stiff and usually more abrasion resistant and permits the lure to fish more naturally. In many instances the leader material has made the difference between hooking and landing large aggressive stripers.
My tubes are constructed using a 16- to 18-inch length of soft latex or vinyl tubing, dyed a dark red or maroon. Using liquid laundry detergent as a lubricant, I insert an egg sinker from 1/2 to 1 ounce in weight in the forward end of the tube, pushing it about 1/2 inch past the opening. I then insert a length of twisted stainless trolling wire or 174-pound-test solid Sevenstrand wire through the opening and sinker to extend about 10 inches from the bottom of the tube, which is cut on a 45- to 60-degree angle. A quality 6/0 hook is twisted onto the wire, then pulled back until the hook is snug up against the tubing. I cut the wire about 4 to 5 inches longer than the tube, then pull on the hook and bend on a 3/0 Rosco barrel swivel. The pulling action allows half of the barrel to fit inside the space between the egg sinker and the top of the tube. If that sounds like a lot of work, I can assure you it’s not and the effort will pay big dividends during the season.
Fishing a tube-and-worm is one of the easiest techniques you’ll ever use. However, every boat and engine combination has different characteristics, so it is not possible for me to recommend a specific speed or rpm for your boat that will put your lure at the optimum depth. Each skipper has to determine their own progress through the water using his or her GPS, loran or a reliable knot meter. Years ago the same fishermen who looked askance when I suggested that trolling for bass at speeds over three knots would not tempt trophy fish have become believers. By keeping it slow and low down in the strike zone, you will be much more successful. Use the wind, tide, trim tabs, trolling valves or other devices to slow you down, including your second (trolling) engine, along with judicious use of the gear shift lever. Keep the rod in your hand to feel the nuances and strikes of bottom fish that might attack the worm. It’s a misfortune if you’ve finally located the habitat of the largest striper in the area, then drag a barren tube or one covered with weed or grass by its nose, because it won’t eat it.
You can’t feel or see what’s happening if the rod is stuck in the rod holder. With the rod in hand you must avoid the temptation to set the hook. If it’s a legal bass, you won’t have to set the hook; the fish will do it for you. Setting the hook prematurely usually results in the worm breaking away from the hook and the bass turning off because now it has the bait and you have a barren tube. Bottom fishermen initially have difficulty with this aspect of the game but eventually make the necessary adjustments. Only as a last resort, when I have a problem with someone who just can’t resist setting the hook, I have them place the rod in the holder and instruct them to watch the tip. Large bass attack the worm right at the head and get stung by the hook, while smaller fish and blues begin biting from the tail end of the worm until they get to the barbed end.
Are you content to sit and wait for a bass or bluefish to find your chunk of bait or are you the type of angler who enjoys hunting bass and making things happen? One of the most productive means of catching fish is to anchor over known habitat and chum and chunk. When fish are in residence they follow the chum to the baited hooks and swallow them. This method of fishing does not require a great deal of knowledge or experience, although the most experienced anglers obtain the best results. It’s obvious that the fisherman who is accomplished in numerous disciplines is better suited to cope with the ever-changing situations we encounter in the salt water.
It is, however, easy to become complacent when we stop thinking and experimenting and fall into a rut. “Troll” might be a five-letter word that spells boring to the uninitiated, but if there is a more productive and interesting way to locate fish along a coastal shoreline, I’m not aware of it. While trolling you learn to read the water, become intimately familiar with your surroundings and learn to recognize consistently productive striped bass habitat. An old-timer once told me that if you don’t have faith in what you’re doing, you won’t do it well. I apply that theory to everything I attempt, particularly fishing, and it has paid tremendous dividends.
Thread a large, lively seaworm onto your tube and troll it low and slow into productive striped bass habitat. If you invest the time to master this technique, it won’t be long before you are fishing these lures properly and catching more fish than you ever thought possible under a bright midday sun. Give the tube a fair trail and you’ll become yet another disciple of the Deadly Combo.