When it comes to heart-pounding excitement, nothing compares to topwater fishing for smallmouth bass. This opinion is shared by every red-blooded angler who’s had a surface bait torpedoed by a brown missile. In an explosion of white spray and bronze flash, the lure disappears before your eyes and a wild aerial show is likely to follow.
“Topwater fishing for smallmouths has always been a blend of folklore and fact,” explains Tennessee smallmouth guide Jim Duckworth. “Over the years, a lot of misinformation has been passed around. For example, many anglers have been led to believe surface baits are rarely effective outside early morning and late evening. In truth, opportunities to catch smallmouths on top arise throughout the day, from late spring into the late fall.”
Bassmaster Elite pro Edwin Evers says as long as the water temperature exceeds 55°F and bass are feeding up, looking for baitfish high in the water column, topwater is an option. Joe Balog, Great Lakes smallmouth guide and tournament angler, is quick to point out differences in topwater presentations between largemouths and smallmouths. “For largemouths, I generally target isolated cover. For smallmouths, though, I cover water as I would with a spinnerbait. I retrieve quickly over gravel bars, shallow rock-weed transitions, main-lake points, and offshore humps.”
Dave Lefebre, FLW pro from Pennsylvania adds, “You can tie on any surface plug, pop it around shallow cover, and likely get a strike from a largemouth. But there are more factors to consider when targeting smallmouths.”
Lefebre: “I only use a couple surface baits for largemouths, while my topwater assortment for smallmouths fills a Plano 3700 box. Smallmouths can be picky about what they want—often a walking bait. But based on time of year or mood of the fish, sometimes it’s a popper, prop bait, or buzzer. Favorites include Rapala’s Skitter Walk, Skitter Pop, and Skitter Prop, and a modified buzzbait—plus an old Luhr Jensen Johnny Rattler.”
“For smallmouths, I rely solely on walking-style baits,” says Balog. “I’m not saying other styles don’t catch fish, but that side-to-side action, fished with the right cadence, works for me. I don’t limit myself to traditional walkers like a Zara Spook, but also fish chugger-style walking baits. Storm’s Chug Bug has long been a favorite, and Rapala’s new X-Rap Pop has my attention.”
Evers: “My most successful topwater for smallmouth is Heddon’s One Knocker Spook. It’s bigger than the Super Spook Jr., and has a unique knocker in the body that creates a low-frequency sound like a drum beat rather than a rattle. When most anglers are using rattling topwaters, the One Knocker’s alternate sound often outperforms them.”
According to Duckworth, “Poppers generally produce smaller bronzebacks. Big ones generally bite better on walking baits, in my experience. I rely on them summer and fall. On the hottest summer days, I also fish a buzzbait. In spring, I go with a prop bait. Two of my favorite topwaters are ones I make—Duck’s Pup prop bait and Duck’s Dawg walking bait.”
Anglers often wonder what difference color on the sides and back of a topwater makes, as they assume bass only see the lure’s belly. But that’s not the case, says Balog. “While working at a sport show Hawg Trough years ago, I noticed that whenever a topwater rolls or dips below the surface, its sides and back color are reflected off the surface. Color does matter. I like a little chartreuse in a topwater—not a gaudy all-chartreuse, but a splash somewhere on the bait. That color’s a great trigger for smallies.”
“Color plays a key role,” Lefebre agrees. ”Natural baitfish finishes seem best in clear lakes. On flat-calm days, when bass feed on small baitfish, I use transparent baits. Bass apparently find it harder to judge size when the lure’s clear. In other situations, lures with some hot colors—chartreuse, orange, and hot pink—produce better on clear lakes than shad colors.”
Evers chooses among three colors of Spook. “You can’t go wrong with black; in clear water, I like Flitter Shad; for off-color water, it’s bone.”
“In building my baits,” Duckworth adds, “I put silver glitter on the belly of natural-color wood topwaters. Viewed from below, it looks like scales on a baitfish. For buzzbaits, there’s only one color—black.”
TIPS & TWEAKS
Duckworth: “Super-sharp hooks are a must. Feathers wrapped and glued on the tail hook—another must. Same with a red front treble.”
Lefebre: “Unless floating weeds interfere, I fish a hand-tied white feather treble ahead of the plug. Tie a Palomar knot to the feather treble, leaving a 2-foot tag end (as with a drop-shot rig); tie the snap for the plug between 6 and 18 inches behind the feather. Smallmouths are so competitive, they often hit the feather, apparently thinking they’re taking a minnow away from another fish. On occasion, I hook bass on both the feather treble and the lure.”
Balog: “When the water explodes, anglers often are too quick with a hook-set. Wait until you feel the weight of the fish on the line before setting. Also, smallmouths sometimes slap at or jump over a lure. In this situation, don’t pause the lure—keep it moving; speeding the retrieve challenges fish to run it down.”
Evers: “I favor braided line. It casts farther, doesn’t stretch on hook-sets, and makes walking baits more responsive.”
Select New Topwaters
ABT King Dawg—“The ABT King Dawg is unlike any other lure on the market,” says its designer Allen Borden. “Its segmented body allows easy walk-the-dog presentation with minimal effort.” abtlures.com
AR Popper 55—“Our topwater baits are made from basswood and feature exceptional lifelike finishes,” says Chip Servant of AR Lures U.S. “The new Popper 55 pops, spits water, and walks.” arlures.com
Duck’s Dawg—“My surface walker is made from solid wood with no internal weight or rattles,” says designer Jim Duckworth. “It produces a 120-degree arc left to right when walked. Its body also rotates to the side so one eye dips below the surface on each pull.” jimduckworth.com
Duck’s Pup—“Made from cedar, this prop bait has one rear propeller with a feather hook. I like it for finessing smallmouths in tough situations,” Duckworth says. jimduckworth.com
Jackall Bowstick—The 51⁄4-inch Bowstick moves a lot of water as it sashays back and forth. A hollow gill tunnel creates extra splashing and bubbles. jackall-lures.com
Rapala X-Rap Pop—“This 2¾-inch popper has a slender profile, which allows it to walk like a Chug Bug,” says pro staffer Joe Balog. “It’s a great alternative to a spinnerbait for fishing shallow in clear lakes.” It’s adorned with detailed X-Style Finish and Flash Feather Teaser Tail. rapala.com
Rapala X-Rap Prop—At 43⁄8 inches, this bait calls up big smallies from deep clear water, and the Teaser Tail triggers reluctant biters. With three treble hooks, fish are readily hooked. The pair of props counter-rotate, keeping the bait on a straight track. rapala.com
Redemption Outdoors Smack-N-Shad—The brainchild of Ferlin Wynacht, this bait is unique, best described as a topwater dart bait. Its erratic action is part of the appeal, as it shoots one way, dips below the surface, then bounces up in wild action that attracts bass of all sorts. redemptionoutdoors.com
River2Sea Whopper Plopper—“I didn’t set out to make a smallmouth bait,” says designer Larry Dahlberg. “The original size Whopper Plopper was intended for muskie, but we had so many smallies blow up on it that we added a downsized model for bass. Cast it far and retrieve as fast as you can turn the reel, throwing water and gurgling all the way. Or else fish it with a slower ‘rip-pause’ retrieve.” river2seausa.com
Late Spring: According the Lefebre, “The best topwater action often occurs just as smallmouths are finishing the spawn, feeding in shallow water before moving deeper. On many clear lakes, the topwater bite is the best thing going then, not so much for big bass, but for numbers. At this time, my retrieve is subtle. I fish a Rapala Skitter Pop with a slow pop-pop-pause motion, far slower than a summertime cadence.”
Duckworth agrees, “The postspawn brings the first reliable topwater bite of the year. I favor baits with a single prop in the rear, like the Heddon Baby Torpedo or my own Duck’s Pup. The retrieve is a slight pull—just enough to make the prop sputter—followed by a pause. Smallies may be aggressively guarding pods of fry, but too much commotion spooks these shallow fish. Later in the season, lots of splashing typically attracts them.”
Summer: Balog notes that in some waters, such as Michigan’s Lake St. Clair, and New York’s Oneida and Chautauqua lakes, smallmouths may remain shallow throughout summer. “On these lakes, topwaters can be effective over flats and humps any time of day,” he says.
Evers: “The effectiveness of topwaters during summer is related to water clarity. You can catch them on top in certain southeastern reservoirs, but the best bites occur on northern waters with larger populations and clearer water. Water depth doesn’t much matter. If they’re feeding up and able to see a commotion above, you can bring them up from 25 feet.”
Duckworth: “I spend summer days on Center Hill Reservoir, a clear highland reservoir in central Tennessee. Smallies suspend in open water off steep ledges along rocky banks where they move periodically to forage. I focus on shorelines with a 15-percent gradient and plenty of rock, and walk my Duck’s Dawg with a quick Tennessee two-step. I fire casts in both directions—toward shore and out to open water. If the walker isn’t working, I use a buzzbait and cover water.”
“During summer, I fish walking baits and prop baits aggressively,” Lefebre notes. “On calm days, an old Johnny Rattler is deadly. It has features to stir up a ruckus—a rear prop, sloped face and notches on the sides to create extra splashing, plus a rattle. I make long casts and retrieve as quickly as possible to trigger schooling fish in open water. You can’t retrieve it too fast.”
Fall: On many waters, cooling water in fall brings smallmouths that spent the summer offshore toward shallower water to feed. Balog and Duckworth consider walking baits superb producers when brown bass chase preyfish on flats. This may occur in October on the Great Lakes and a month or two later in Tennessee. Balog calls it the best opportunity to hang the biggest brownie of the season.
Lefebre: “During fall, with water temps between 65°F and 55°F, I find success with a 1/8-ounce buzzbait retrieved slowly. Replacing the silicone skirt with a tube body lets you cast it far on braided line to cover water. Retrieve so the blade barely sputters across the surface. Instead of an explosive strike, bass merely swim up behind the buzzer and suck it in. That’s when the fun begins. ”
Taking Your Topwaters for a Stroll
This panel of anglers agrees that walking baits are best for smallmouths. There seems to be something especially attractive to brown bass about the zig-zag motion of a walker. Surface action isn’t limited to traditional cigar-shaped lures like the Zara Spook, however. Certain prop baits, chuggers, and poppers can walk when worked properly.
Walking a plug on the surface requires developing a rhythm between rod tip and lure action. It takes practice. Most anglers work a walker with rod tip close to the water’s surface. I always attach walkers and prop baits with a #2 cross-lock snap or split ring, but chuggers I tie direct. Using only wrist and forearms, snap the rod tip towards the surface, and in a smooth continuous motion, return the rod tip to the start position. The total distance of downward rod tip movement is typically 6 to 12 inches.
A downward snap pulls the bait, creating forward momentum. Immediately returning the rod tip to its original position throws slack line to the bait. A properly constructed walker slides either left or right when given slack. The next downward rod snap slides the bait in the opposition direction.
Once you cipher the proper rhythm, you can increase or decrease the cadence. Slowing it (longer pauses between downward snaps) allows the plug to glide or slide gently in a wider arc. Speeding the cadence makes the bait turn back and forth abruptly, throwing lots of water. Summer smallmouths are generally attracted by fast-moving baits and water disturbance so increase the tempo during the warm-water period.
*Darl Black, Cochranton, Pennsylvania, is a veteran outdoor writer and photographer. He has contributed many features to Bass Guide.