They look simple and kind of stupid, so much so that skeptics need convincing that this new style of West Coast tube lure can catch fish. But once an angler experiences the prodigious effectiveness of these soft-plastic baits, doubts quickly turn to shouts.
Originated by a San Diego, California-based company called Hookup Baits, and now imitated by a host of others, these lures (which are scented in different ways) work on an amazing variety of Pacific saltwater fish, including calico bass, sand bass, spotted bay bass, California halibut, mahi, California yellowtail, rockfish, lingcod, tuna, white seabass, California sheephead and even marlin. Given how well they work on the Left Coast, there’s little doubt that they can produce fish in any waters.
“They don’t look like much, but they catch fish,” says Ben Secrest, a veteran saltwater angler and a member of the Accurate Reels sales and marketing team. Secrest uses Hookup Baits a lot, primarily for bottomfishing for bass, rockfish and lingcod.
While many believe flavoring (garlic in the case of Hookup Baits) or special liquids (applied inside the tubes with squirt bottles) account for their uncanny fish-catching qualities, flavor is only part of the answer, perhaps even just a minor part when it comes to saltwater species.
More important characteristics lie in the semi-rigid body, precision balance point, counter-shading, and special angled cut of the back part of the tubes that give these lures a different look and action than traditional soft-plastic tube baits, such as the Fat Gitzit with its feathered tail.
Yet like the Gitzit, they are definitely “drop” baits, Secrest points out, meaning many bites tend to occur while the lure is sinking, often on the down-sweep of the rod while jigging. This explains the Hookup Baits advertising tag line: “Don’t blink on the sink.”
It’s not just a slogan, as I learned while fishing with Secrest aboard my 21-foot center-console off the coast of San Diego last spring. We targeted rockfish on popular reef areas in depths ranging from 200 to 300 feet using the tube baits on “donkey” rigs—a pair of 3-ounce, 6-inch lures tied to offset leaders (see sidebar).
The combined weight of two lures helps the baits get to the bottom quickly and keeps the line as vertical as possible while jigging for rockfish. But it also seems to enhance the appeal to bottomfish, especially as the two lures dance in frantic unison.
Vertical Dog Walk
“Once it reaches the bottom, reel up three to 10 turns, then let it drop back down,” Secrest explained as we drifted over an expanse of rocky bottom 250 feet below. “When you jig it like that, it’s like a vertical walk-the-dog action, but with two lures instead of one.”
I dutifully followed directions and seconds later felt a distinctive “tick” as the donkey rig descended. I threw the reel into gear and wound tight. The powerful fish pulled the rod tip underwater as I struggled to turn the handle, finally gaining the upper hand as the fish began to give ground. Eventually, I swung aboard a 6-pound vermilion rockfish, a personal best for me, that had inhaled the top bait on the donkey rig.
We went on to land several big rockfish that morning, pointing to another benefit of fishing tube baits, given the number of anglers who also fish the same reefs. “These lures are really good to fish on heavily pressured spots,” says Steve Carson of the Penn Fishing University seminar program. They can produce big bass and rockfish when other presentations fail.
Courtesy Hookup Baits
Design and Testing
This effectiveness did not come about by accident, according to Chad Gierlich, principal and developer of Hookup Baits, who spent countless hours studying the behavior of bait and gamefish underwater.
Gierlich observed that bottomfish and bait barely move much of the time. “They just suspend on or near the bottom,” he says. “I wanted a lure that could do the same thing—hover horizontally when it’s not moving.” He achieved that by placing the eye of the internal leadhead at the balance point of the lure.
At the same time, Gierlich wanted the lure to dart and dance enticingly. He accomplished this after much trial and error by cutting the back of the tube at a 30-degree downward angle and creating a swallow tail with a small slit at the end. There’s also a slit on top from the back of the tube to the bend of the hook. The design imparts a tail-wagging motion whenever it’s retrieved, jigged, dropped, or just held steady in the current.
To create natural colorization, many of the lures include darker shading on top and lighter, almost translucent color underneath. Finally, each Hookup lure has eyes on the internal leadhead. The plastic around the head is carved out around the eyes to let them show through and enhance the natural look. This feature is not unique to Hookup tube baits, as competitive brands such as Mag-12 also include eyes on their lures. Redrum, another competitor, does not include eyes, but does offer sound-producing rattles inside its tube baits as part of the leadhead.
As the originator, Hookup Baits fairly dominates sales for this new breed of tube baits in Southern California. Their lures range in size from 1/32 ounce and 2 inches long to 6 ounces and 8 inches long; sizes 5/8 ounce (4 inches) to 1 1/2 ounces (5 inches) are popular among California’s inshore saltwater anglers for species such as calico bass, sand bass, halibut and yellowtail. There are more than 14 color patterns, and some of the most popular include Chovy, Pink Silver, Red Crab and Sexy Smelt.
To promote his lures, Gierlich and his company team participate in a number of Southern California saltwater bass tournaments (targeting all three species of bass), and they almost always place near the top in each event. Gierlich and his team are also multiple season overall champions of Southern California’s Saltwater Bass Series tournament circuit.
While Hookup lures are impregnated with a garlic scent—and the company sells squirt bottles of its Mermaid’s Milk, a thick liquid applied inside the tubes—Gierlich downplays flavor as a factor in the lure’s effectiveness. “The scent is more of a cover than anything else,” he says. “For example, it’s good if you have sunscreen on your hands and will help mask any contaminants that might scare away fish and make them reluctant to bite.”
Of greater importance is the glitter in the flavored formula. “When a fish bites the tube, the glitter squirts out, like the filling of a Twinkie,” he explains. This replicates baitfish scales, a visual trigger that often excites other fish into biting. With the donkey rig, it often results in hooking two fish at once.
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Through experience, Gierlich has found a preference for spinning tackle when fishing Hookup lures. “The lures drop more naturally with spinning tackle than with a baitcaster or conventional reel,” he reveals. “I catch a lot more fish with spinning gear.” Braided line is a game-changer, especially when it comes to working the baits for bottomfish in deep water, Gierlich says. The thin-diameter braid slides through the water column more easily and allows anglers to work the baits as vertically and naturally as possible.
Interestingly, dead-sticking can sometimes prove more productive than any other technique. “When you’re not catching fish, do less,” Gierlich advises. “I tell people who are having a hard time to just put the rod in the rod holder and wait for a bite.”
I have found dead-sticking can also work well when anchored in a current. Cast the tube baits behind the boat, put the rod in the rod holder, and let the lures swim in the current. Actively feeding calico bass, sand bass, white seabass and yellowtail will often jump on tube lures fished in this manner.
The design of this new breed of flavored tube baits might look simple, but its development reflects a complicated, time-consuming process of trial and error, as well as field testing. The result is a stupid-looking lure that fish can’t resist.
Creating a Donkey Rig
The donkey rig originated among freshwater bass anglers fishing soft-plastic fluke baits. But it also works well for fishing the new breed of tube baits designed for West Coast species such as calico bass, sand bass, rockfish and lingcod. To tie one, start by splicing 50-pound-test main line (braid) to 8 feet of 40-pound-test fluorocarbon, then tie on a three-way swivel. Tie on a 3-foot leader of 25-pound-test fluoro to one ring of the swivel and a 2-foot leader of 25-pound fluoro to the other ring. Tie tube baits to both leaders and you’re ready to fish.