April 27, 2021
By Pete Robbins
“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.” ― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through it and Other Stories
If you do not understand the soul-awakening thrill of a topwater bite – indeed, if you do not feel it deeply in your bones – then you and I are never really going to connect. No, I’m not one of those purists who only fishes surface lures, or who claims that “one bite on a topwater is better than 10 on a worm,” because I simply like the art of catching way too much to be that hardheaded, but I dream about surface strikes both when my eyes are open and when they’re closed.
That means I’ll throw a popper, a plopper or a buzzbait long after most people have set them down, on the off chance that a big largemouth is lying in wait and still looking up. It means that I still kick myself for not throwing a topwater mouse last summer in Alaska, while my wife switched from subsurface offerings and caught the snot out of rainbows, Dolly Vardens and grayling on a small fly-in stream. It’s also why until recently I thought that Amazonian peacock bass were the ne plus ultra of fishing greatness, the ultimate topwater ambush predator.
Then I went to Panama. And I caught rampaging tuna on top.
I will never be the same.
To watch acres of 15- to 50-pound tuna exploding on balled-up bait is exciting enough, but when one of those explosions is on your lure, there’s that brief period of wondering if you really just saw what you thought you saw, followed by an extended period of panic when you’re not sure who’s hooked who. Over the course of four days of fishing with Captain Shane Jarvis of Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge in the Gulf of Chiriqui, I got my fix of topwater strikes. Now I’ll save my pennies to get back again, but until that happens, I’ll apply tuna lessons learned and relearned onto my local bass waters. Here are five that got ingrained into my gray matter.
1. Keep it moving – When the first tuna hit and missed my Yo-Zuri popper, I stopped it to give him a chance to get his wits about him and relocate it. “Keep it moving!” Captain Shane yelled. Indeed, it was the same instruction I’d been given in Brazil (albeit in Portuguese). It’s all about the chase for these predator species, and while bass sometimes love a paint-drying-slow retrieve, and trout may enjoy a flawless dead drift, predators are used to chasing down their prey. You can’t move a topwater faster than your quarry can swim, so cause a ruckus, make noise and let them relocate your lure.
2. Cast long, cast accurately – Sometimes the tuna were exploding on baitfish or squid right below the boat, and other times they were 40 or more yards away. In the latter case, you wanted to get your topwater in their grill right where the action was happening. Even the most frenzied fish will turn down an easy meal if there’s an easier one to be had. Practice your casting, especially with lures and presentations that are outside of your wheelhouse. There were three of us chucking big treble-hooked baits and 3- and 4-foot leaders in close quarters and no one got hooked, and we all got plenty of fish to the boat.
3. Color often doesn’t matter – We caught tuna on chrome poppers, yellow poppers, black poppers and a white one with a red head – all with comparatively equal success. It’s easy to fixate on specific patterns, but remember that in most cases the bass, tuna or trout can only see the lure’s belly. Fancy paint jobs are somewhat of a waste. Focus on light or dark colors depending on the sun penetration or try to “match the hatch” if they’re eating something specific, but don’t obsess.
4. Stay ahead of the fish – This was the most aerobically challenging fishing I’ve ever done. We’d see birds and dolphins working in the distance, either with our eyes or with radar, rush over there, pop up unto the front deck and cast at boiling tuna. If they didn’t chew in two or three casts, we’d relocate them and hang on for dear life as we sped to the next boil … often five or six times sequentially before hitting paydirt. The lesson learned is that you can’t be where the fish were yesterday, an hour ago, or even a minute ago. You want to be where hungry fish are headed.
Check your hardware – Any fish, from a pond bluegill to a thousand-pound “grander” marlin, will exploit weaknesses in your gear, and both tuna and bass are no different. Start with topwaters with good trebles and split rings (and wire-through construction, as appropriate) and check them after every fish and every snag. A little bit of maintenance and vigilance is a small price to pay for the fish of a lifetime.
I’m heading out in the bass boat this weekend.
I am haunted by tuna.