July 18, 2016
Every year I marvel at the array of new lures presented at the annual ICAST show, the fishing industry's combination of showcase, sales meeting, and party. We've noted the release of new styles of countless crankbaits and swimbaits, designed to probe new depths and move in new fish attracting ways.
But the array of new frog baits seems at first strange. They basically all do the same thing — move along the surface of more or less matted vegetation to lure bass lurking below. So why do lure companies keep making new ones? And why do anglers keep buying the new ones although they have boxes of similar baits already?
I call it the lure of the frog. From the scurrilous Mr. Toad in Kenneth Grahame's timeless children's novel The Wind in the Willows to Jim Henson's most famous Muppet, created in 1955 and still a star today, frogs seem to fascinate the young and old. They're sort of a caricature of ourselves.
Frogs fascinate bass as well. I've watched overeager lunkers fly out of a hole in a lily pad bed, diving over the top of a frog, missing it by several feet. Those bass never come back, seemingly embarrassed by their poor aim. On another occasion, we found big bass huddled beneath mats of filamentous algae several inches thick. Retrieving a frog across the slop, fish would at first barely bulge the surface. But with each cast to the same spot, the mat would thin as the bass bumped it from below, finally enough so the persistent fish could eat the lure.
Their allure seems timeless; it's hard to believe that it's been 11 years since the development of two popular baits — Zoom's Horny Toad and SPRO's Bronzeye Frog. The Bronzeye was developed by an angler who's almost synonymous with frog fishing, Dean Rojas, while the Horny Toad spurred the development of soft plastic frogs (sometimes called toads) with paddle feet that churn the surface on a straight retrieve.
Pro Randall Tharp of Florida points to the continued evolution of frog fishing, citing recent advances in lures, rods, reels, and line, and how they make us more effective than ever. "Back in the day," he says, "I lived in Alabama and fished Lake Guntersville when Eurasian milfoil and hydrilla got thick and guys started fishing it with frogs. We had short rods, monofilament line, and flimsy frogs that didn't cast well. We felt good if we caught 50 percent of what bit. That's all changed with new frog designs, rods built for the technique, wide-spool high-gear-ratio reels, and thin, strong superlines. We're far more effective at presentation, hooking fish, and landing them."
Walkin' the Walk
Many of today's frogs are designed to not merely slog along on top of a mat, but also do a little shimmy-shake on the surface, a move that recalls the wide-to-side pivoting of a Heddon Zara Spook. Several new models have narrower bodies with keeled bellies to more easily walk-the-dog. This action can be deadly off steep banks with cover, in open pockets among lily pads, under docks, and even in open water.
Southern Lures' Scumdog Walker, SPRO's Bronzeye Shad 65, and Sebile's Action First Pivot Frog emphasize these features. Instead of a double hook, the Pivot Frog has what's called a "Gravity Hook System," a unique single-hook design that allows the hook to pivot upward on a strike, increasing the odds of hooking the fish.
Last summer, the Terminator Walking Frog was revealed, built with a deep, rounded belly that helps it pivot in place, as you can make this one dance while barely moving forward, a deadly look for bass that turn finicky. For this summer, it's joined by the Popping Frog, with a smaller body and deeply cupped mouth to splash and create a loud blooping sound. Pro staffers who tested it say it also offers a fine walking action, making it a versatile option for various types of shallow cover, including buckbrush, bulrushes, and floating vegetation. The weight on the bottom of these baits is placed far to the rear, giving them a nose-up attitude when floating, while also allowing longer, more accurate casts. The body is soft and easily compressed when a bass bites, revealing an ultra-sharp VMC hook.
While many anglers would prefer to toss a standard popper, armed with a pair of treble hooks, Tharp says he can land a higher percentage of bass that bite a poppin' frog than a hardbait. "The frog is soft and bass attack and eat it. When you hook them, they stay on and can't throw a frog as easily as a popper." Some might disagree, but it's something to think about, as Tharp has countless hours of froggin' experience to back him up. To make standard frogs walk more easily, trim an inch or two from the skirt to reduce drag and allow the bait to pivot more freely.
Talkin' the Talk
While a standard frog makes noise as it passes over vegetation, poppin' frogs create blooping sounds and splashes that can be deadly on surface-feeding bass. I feel that this response comes as bass, hearing the commotion, believe other fish are feeding. And few things get bass' hunger in gear than competition.
Snag Proof built a popping frog in the 1970s, and today many brands are available, built to produce different pops, splashes, and bloops when snapped abruptly forward. At times, these different surface sounds and action can appeal to bass more than others. When you're around fish, it pays to experiment with various lures, as well as retrieve cadences.
Recently, a few models, notably Stanley's Top Toad, Southern Lures' Bigfoot, and Snag Proof's Bass Kicker Frog, combine two effects, with the addition of buzzing feet to a hollow-body frog so it's effective when retrieved steadily or paused on the surface. As you fish an area, often the cover invites one style of frog or another, but these lures can be effective in open areas with sparse cover and over thick vegetation.
Mississippi River ace Rich Conrad showed me a trick for getting more bites when bass lurk in ultra-dense cover, in this case matted coontail topped out at the surface, with a layer of algae and duckweed on top. But bass love it on the river and elsewhere. After Conrad seemed to be getting twice the blow-ups I did and boated several big fish, he revealed his secret, nice guy that he is. He opened his frog box to reveal a pile of narrow plastic jig rattles. "Just push 'em up into the frog, in the hole where the hooks come out," he said. I immediately altered my lure, then proceeded to increase my catch substantially.
Southern Lures' new Pro Series frogs contain a loud glass rattle that's attached to the hook, out of the way of a hook-set, but where it clicks with the slightest movements. It also comes with a split ring on the eye, which allows it to pivot more freely, further activating the rattle.
The bodies of traditional frogs are about 2 inches long, with a skirt or plastic legs increasing their apparent size. The first giant frog was Snag Proof's Frogzilla, weighing 3/4-ounce and measuring 6 inches from nose to toe, armed with a 7/0 needle-point hook. With the popularity of the Bronzeye Frog, SPRO released the King Daddy Bronzeye, weighing an ounce and with a body almost four inches long. It's backed by a custom 6/0 Gamakatsu Superline EWG Double Hook. Mann's Bait Company recently added the Goliath Frog, with a broad, flat body. And while not technically a frog, Livetarget's magnum Field Mouse fishes the same way and has the mass to lure the biggest bass. Its ratlike 4-inch tail, rubber skirt, and massive double hook bring up the rear.
One of Z-Man's latest creations of stretchy ElaZtech is the 6-inch Pop FrogZ, a softbait that can be Texas-rigged with a 6/0 wide-gap hook. Its mouth is cupped to pop, and its feet have paddletails that churn the surface like a buzzbait. The buoyancy of this material keeps it sitting high and its size tends to attract big bites.
Vegetation changes the feeding strategy of largemouth bass. In waters without aquatic plants, bass hug structural elements or hold by wood or rock cover, or manmade features like docks, bridges, and marinas. With plentiful pelagic baitfish, they school to feed near offshore structure.
Thick plant growth makes them more like ambush predators. They lurk by clumps or under thick mats, waiting for prey to move close enough to engulf. Here, sunfish, shiners, perch, and crayfish replace shad as key prey. Amphibians supplement their diet.
This feeding strategy makes frog baits highly effective. Anything vaguely lifelike that moves into the strike window is liable to be attacked. Beneath thick mats, bass can't see the lure, but attack whatever moves on the surface.
Whether he's fishing a frog over thick vegetation or working a poppin' model around brush or docks, Bassmaster Elite pro Ott DeFoe starts with a twitch-twitch-pause or pop-pop-pause cadence. "I've found that action generally works best," he says, "but experiment with faster retrieves, especially if there are baitfish around. A frantic, popping-twitching action often works, but at times they want it sitting still for several seconds.
"It surprises some people, but bedding largemouth will hit a frog. That pattern develops when they're spawning in shallow, murky water where you can't see the beds. These baits work well when bass are spawning around brush, as you can work through the thick stuff where other anglers probably haven't fished. Frogs are great lures to skip under docks as well.
"They're more versatile than most anglers think,"he adds. "I've made good catches from the prespawn, with water temperatures in the low-50°F range, all summer, and into fall. I put it away when waters cool below 55°F."
With his background on Guntersville and in Florida, Tharp often focuses on dense mats, where submerged vegetation is topped by duckweed or algae or both. Given the nickname "Honey Badger" for his cunning tactics and determination, Tharp has honed his froggin' skills in tournament competition.
"Always be tuned to activity in those vast mats," he says. "Watch for bluegills flitting, bass blowing up on dragonflies, or other activity. When I see that, I won't even fish there, knowing bass are present. When a bass eats a frog in a mat, it makes a hole that other anglers easily spot; even more so if you drag a fish out. Your spot gets beat up.
"Late in the day of the last practice session, I carve trails into mats that show promise with my boat, providing access way back. If you bust in there on tournament day, you spook those fish. If you must do so, wait for 10 or 15 minutes before fishing, and bass generally settle down.
"Be stealthy and make long casts where no one else has reached. I use a 7½-foot heavy-power rod for this, but it has a soft tip, which aids casting distance. A wide-spool reel tuned for long distance helps, too. Sixty-five-pound braid is the rule, and when a bass eats a frog, I let the fish have it for 3 to 5 seconds before setting the hook. Anglers set too quickly and bass get off.
"When I prefish with frogs, I turn the hook points back into the body of the frog, so bass can't get hooked. And I seal those spots with Mend-It to prevent leakage. If I let them, bass hold onto a frog, chewing on it." He adds that cutting off hooks of practice baits changes the action and weight displacement of the lure.
Make no mistake about it: a frog's color can make all the difference in number of bites and size of bass. Bass tournaments provide a good opportunity to evaluate lure selections and colors, as long as competitors come clean or you are with them to observe. I've seen a white frog vanquish a black one, and vice versa, without apparent causative factors, such as water color, cover, or sunlight. And on other occasions, a green one is the ticket to glory.
The first frogs were all green, as the plastics technology was in its infancy. Early Snag Proof Frogs, Mann's Rats, and Scum Frogs from Southern Lure had bellies the same color as the back. And they caught loads of bass.
Today, frogs come in every conceivable color and I believe you can catch bass with every one, at one time or another. But while you can wow your friends with a rainbow arrayed frog box with dozens of hues, it's not practical or necessary to go so far out. Consider, too, that bass often can't see the lure at all, and at other times glimpse merely a flash of the belly.
Terminator's new Walking and Popping Frogs come in 16 fine-looking colors, but that's far too many to test. DeFoe generally limits his selection to about one-third of that. "My all-around favorite is the Cocoa Camo (a red-brown hue with a darker back and redder belly)," he says. "It seems to imitate a dark-color bluegill and works great in all the shallow, grassy areas where small bluegills abound. The Bluegill color also is excellent, and it works in both clear and murky conditions." He also carries shad hues like Smoke Shad and Hot Shad when shad school along grass edges, and uses the translucent Ghost in open-water situations in clear water. "It's a see-through bait, so bass can't determine what it is, and they eat it. It has no negative cues, so it can fool tough fish," he adds.
While anglers like Rich Conrad insert jig rattles in the frog when mat fishing, Tharp favors a weightier insert. "I buy 1/4-inch diameter brass balls meant for a Carolina rig and push them up into the frog when I'm fishing the thickest stuff. While it does make a clicking sound, I feel the best effect is to weight the frog so it presses down into the mat more. Not only are bass more likely to see or feel the frog moving, they're also going to eat it better. When bass charge upward against the bottom of the mat, the frog won't go flying off, which often happens with frogs out of the package."
He also adds talcum powder to his frog box to keep the bodies, and especially the rubber skirts, from sticking together. "You can end up with a mess if you put frogs right back in the box," he says, "especially in hot conditions. I dry them on the boat carpet, then put them back in the box with a little powder. They're always good as new, and the powder washes of as soon as it hits the water."