In lakes, rivers, and reservoirs topwater smallmouth baits are the best thing going lots of days throughout the year. Surface lures become prime locational tools on calm days, by appealing to the insatiable curiosity of smallmouths and prompting them to rise, follow, and sometimes make themselves apparent even when they won’t actually strike the bait. Rivers are especially productive venues for topwater smallmouth baits, since smallmouths have to make decisions in a relative hurry before the current carries away a potential meal.
In rivers, cover tends to dictate presentation. Poppers have the potential to work anywhere in a river, but they excel in covering shallow, snaggy, weedy spots; boulders in fast water; and any kind of emergent cover in slow water. Poppers tend to attract vicious strikes from active, aggressive fish as a rule, though they sometimes encourage timid strikes from neutral bass as well.
Prop baits seem to attract less-active fish, though an aggressive approach with a larger pencil-shaped popper can draw active fish up from 20-foot depths in large lakes and reservoirs. Something about tiny, spluttering propellers buzzing through the surface film for a foot or two brings up less-active smallmouths. Smallmouths on Shield Lakes, for instance, often slurp down Heddon Tiny Torpedoes after refusing a variety of other presentations.
On rivers, small, pudgy prop baits like the Tiny Torpedo excel on shallow weedflats out of the main flow, on flats preceding a rapids or current push, or along the lip of a break into deeper water, where less-active smallmouths tend to hold. The same baits work equally well in lakes, especially along shallow shorelines where pressured smallmouths feel vulnerable. Streamlined prop baits like the Rapala Skitter Prop work well for subtle retrieves, too, but tend to be more productive than the pudgy styles on aggressive, noisy retrieves. Long, minnow-shaped prop baits like the Cordell Boy Howdy are great for ripping retrieves that sometimes beckon suspended bass from depths of 10 to 20 feet.
Some days, walking baits like the Excalibur Super Spook Jr. or the Berkley Frenzy Walker are even better for suspended smallmouths in reservoirs, big lakes, and the Great Lakes. That ol’ walk-the-dog procedure can be irresistible to smallmouths feeding on open-water baitfish, especially during low-light periods when bait clusters near the surface.
On traditional topwater mornings, replete with mist rising from a glassy surface, twitch baits work well. Subtle, quiet, surface disturbances make seductive presentations for wary fish in clear water. Smallmouth fishermen have long known that a floating minnowbait alternately twitching and resting on the surface can send bronzebacks through the proverbial roof.
So, where traditional tactics are used and fish have seen a few minnowbaits, new approaches are required. Try pitching white or shad-colored tubes with styrofoam inserts in clear water. Nothing says “twitch” like a tube, its slender tentacles quivering and beckoning with every tiny motion of the bait. A tube resting on the surface in a light breeze is a wonderful thing. The subtle motion of the tentacles undulating on the surface film exhibit a potent triggering capability in shallow water. The clearer the water, the better it works.
Or try a soft-plastic buzzbait. While buzzbaits at times tremendously appeal to smallmouths, they’re technically not topwater baits because they sink on the pause. But a 5- to 6-inch plastic grub, fished tail-down with a 3/0 wide-bend hook for a keel not only floats (well, sometimes), but also makes a sound like a cat purring when buzzed through the surface film. The sound, size, and texture suggests “subtle,” but the quick, rhythmic disturbance tends to appeal to active fish, precipitating savage strikes. This is a prime tactic for pulling big bass out of reeds and other shallow weedcover — better than a buzzbait, at times, because it’s entirely weedless, provides fewer spook factors, and is far more effective in surface algae.
TINKERING TIPS FOR TOPWATERS
* Or using a hard, fine, triangular file, cut a groove on the inside of the ring eye where the line is tied to the bait. This holds the knot down low on the eye. When the rod tip snaps down, the head of the lure pulls downward, making the “walk” easier to achieve, while increasing the action of the bait. (Use a fine-tooth file so edges are smooth.)
* Feathered trebles are mainstays on most poppers, but they can lend real attraction to any surface bait, even walking-style baits. Feathered trebles from Storm, Owner, and other companies spruce up ordinary prop baits, spitters, even minnowbaits, creating a hinged-tail effect and creating a subtle breathing action when the lure is resting on top. Feathered trebles can be purchased separately.
* Bend the props forward about 20 degrees on prop baits to make them louder and to pull more air under the surface on ripping retrieves. For enhanced subtlety, bend the props back, away from the direction of the pull, to make a softer, purring sound.
* Shave the lower lip of a popper to create a larger surface area for louder bloops and a bigger disturbance, or to create a unique walking bait. The addition of a small split ring also enhances the walking ability of a customized popper.
* Trade trebles. If the bait comes with standard trebles, replace them with premium short-shank treble hooks by VMC, Eagle Claw, Owner, Daiichi, Gamakatsu, or Mustad. When replacing trebles, remember that the distance between the points should be almost the same as the width of the lure. Some lures come with smaller hooks.