When Michigan bass tournament standout Joe Balog designed what’s considered the first commercially manufactured goby softbait in 2002, he did so with Lake Erie’s smallmouth bass in mind.
By then, studies by the Ohio Division of Wildlife had confirmed what countless goby-spitting smallmouths in Balog’s livewell had already told him: the exotics had become the primary food source for Erie’s bass.
Let’s back up: the round goby, a native of the Black and Caspian seas of Eastern Europe, invaded North America by stowing away in the ballast water of transoceanic vessels. First discovered in the St. Clair River in 1990, gobies now thrive throughout the Great Lakes. They’re so thick in Lake Erie that 10 to 30 of them occupy every square meter of their preferred rock and shell bottom habitat.
Considering such abundance, it’s not surprising this plump, soft-finned, slow-moving bottom feeder is a ubiquitous, easy meal for smallmouth bass.
To exploit this, Balog initially cast and dragged tubes, as well as drop-shot small worms and shad-profile baits to make a more precise vertical presentation to offshore structure. The tactics proved deadly and Balog caught countless big Erie smallmouths, but he believed they would be even more productive with a true goby imitation.
That’s when he designed Poor Boy’s Original Drop Shot Goby. This 4-inch hand-poured bait has a wide goby-like head, a narrow tail and a flat bottom. Balog also made the bait thin from top to bottom so he could nose-hook it with a small drop shot hook and still achieve acceptable penetration.
“The bait had to be streamlined or it would twist the line,” he says. “I also wanted a flat bottom because it undulates more with a vertical presentation.”
Fishing these baits, he regularly finishes in the top 10 in Erie bass tournaments and often brings in five-fish limits that weigh more than 20 pounds. He’s won several major tournaments with his goby bait, including a Bassmaster Open in the summer of 2006 on Lake Erie’s Western Basin.
Success like that has made the Poor Boy’s Original Drop Shot Goby a hit with fishermen. Demand has been so great that scads of other companies have come out with goby baits of their own; collectively they have become the go-to lures of Great Lakes smallmouth hunters. They’re so pervasive, in fact, that it’s hardly news.
What is news, however, is that anglers are experimenting with these lures for other gamefish on waters beyond the Great Lakes, where gobies don’t live. The results have been impressive, and they’re only the beginning.
Why They Work
Why do gamefish nab goby baits in waters gobies don’t inhabit? Maybe because if a baitfish looks like a goby, swims like a goby and feeds on the bottom like a goby, it ain’t necessarily a goby. Native sculpins closely resemble gobies and are common to lakes, streams and rivers across North America, as well as in saltwater. A goby also resembles a small bullhead, another prime forage species for bass and other gamefish.
“I think they look like willow cats, which are hard to come by in bait shops,” says Kirt Hedquist, a walleye addict and competitive angler from Lakeville, Minnesota. “River walleyes think willow cats are candy, and the Gulp! Goby is a great substitute.”
Guide Craig Lewis of Erie Outfitters in Sheffield Lake, Ohio, believes the Poor Boy’s Goby works well on stream salmon and steelhead because it looks so much like a sculpin, which eats the salmonids’ eggs. He theorizes that adult steelies and kings deliberately eliminate these egg eaters.
“I used to tie flies that imitated sculpins,” he says. “Then I tried the Poor Boy’s Goby four years ago and it worked great. I’ve been fishing it ever since.”
On the saltwater front, goby lures are widely considered a mud minnow look-alike, a baitfish redfish relish.
Hedquist has experimented extensively with goby baits, specifically the Berkley Gulp! Goby, on Pool 3 of the Upper Mississippi River, and has had spectacular results. The best way he’s found to fish it is on what he calls a “dork rig.” It consists of a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce egg sinker on 12-pound fluorocarbon followed by a snap swivel and a 16-inch leader snelled to a 1/0 hook. A float on the leader holds the sinking fluorocarbon leader and lure slightly above bottom.
When the current is swift, Hedquist anchors his boat 20 to 30 yards upstream from a wing dam and lets the flow sweep his rig across the face of the dam. In slow current situations, he holds his boat in place with the trolling motor, then fancasts the rig to the face of the wing dam and slowly works it back over the bottom.
In both scenarios, walleyes from 18 to 28 inches crush the goby. “They just inhale it,” Hedquist says. “And it sure beats messing around with live bait.”
Lewis dotes on Poor Boy’s 3-inch Goby Jr. when fishing salmon and steelhead in Great Lake tributaries during fall and winter.
When he drifts a goby bait through a swift run on a river, he uses a 101/2-foot G. Loomis model STR1265C rod matched with a baitcasting reel and 12- to 15-pound Raven high vis monofilament. He ties the line to a three-way swivel which sports a 2-foot leader in 6- to 15-pound test mono, depending on where he’s fishing.
The leader is knotted to a No. 2 Gamakatsu hook, which he runs up through the nose of the bait. A 6-inch drop line with a 3/8- to 1-ounce pencil sinker is tied to the third eye of the swivel. Lewis matches the weight to the strength of the current.
If the current is slow, Lewis uses the same outfit, but he exchanges the pencil weight for a fixed float that serves as a strike indicator.
“The goby is a big offering for these fish, but it has the correct shape and has a lot of movement,” he says. “They really whack it.”
Goby baits have even found their way to saltwater in a big way. In fact, some manufacturers report inshore anglers are buying goby-style lures by the bucket.
The champion redfish tournament team of Bryan and Greg Watts, twin brothers who live near Tampa, Florida, are among them. They credit the Berkley Gulp! Goby’s size for much of the lure’s effectiveness as a mud minnow imitation, as it’s small enough that it doesn’t intimidate redfish.
The Watts fish the bait on Carolina and drop-shot rigs. Both feature a 30- or 40-pound Spiderwire Stealth braid main line, a 30-pound Stren fluorocarbon leader, a 1/2- to 1-ounce sinker and a 1/0 Gamakatsu bait hook. Leader length ranges from 4 to 10 feet, depending on conditions.
“We make long casts with both rigs because redfish are spooky on the shallow flats where we catch them,” Bryan says. “We target oyster mounds, shell bars and sand folds.”
When they fish clean bottoms, the Watts go with the Carolina rig. If the bottom is covered with turtle grass and other vegetation, they switch to the drop-shot because it holds the bait above the vegetation.
Just The Beginning
Judging from their tremendous initial success, these presentations are likely just a promising hint of what’s to come on the goby-bait front.
More species and situations are tailor-made for goby-style softbaits and anglers who stay on the leading edge of this trend will reap the rewards of innovation.
Gobies Vs. Sculpins
Gobies and sculpins not only have the same flattened tadpole profile and large fins, they both lack swimbladders. They can swim up off the bottom, but they can’t suspend like, say, a bluegill does.
Once they stop peddling, they sink to the bottom where they spend most of their time, according to Fred Snyder, Sea Grant Extension Specialist fisheries biologist with Ohio State University.
“Sculpins and gobies occupy the same niche,” he says. “They’re both say-at-homes that search the bottom for invertebrates. They prefer a stone or hard shell bottom where they can hide under rocks and root around for food.”
While the invasive goby’s range is limited mainly to the Great Lakes and their tributaries, the sculpin, a native fish with over 300 subspecies, is widely distributed.
When gobies and sculpins compete for living space, as they do on Lake Erie, however, the goby wins. This may be partly due to its size advantage. The round goby ranges in length from 4 to 10 inches. Native mottled and spoonhead sculpins generally measure less than 4 inches long.
“The sculpin is more of a cool-water fish than the goby,” Snyder says. “It’s found pretty much around the world in the Northern Hemisphere, but in the northern regions—northern Asia, across Canada and across the northern United States from California to the East Coast.”
Snyder points out that most species of sculpins are saltwater or brackish-water fish, which is why he’s not at all surprised that goby baits are catching saltwater gamefish.
“I used to work on the Chesapeake Bay and that place was full of sculpins,” he says.
Three common sculpin species found in North America include the slimy, mottled and spoonhead. The slimy sculpin rules in New England.
The range of the mottled variety extends from the Tennessee River Basin to Labrador, Canada, and west to the Great Lakes basin. Mottled sculpins are also found in parts of the Missouri and Columbia rivers, and in southern Canada, Idaho, Montana, Idaho, Utah and Washington.
The spoonhead sculpin is found in all the Great Lakes and throughout Canada.