Catching Smallmouths on Top During the Summer-to-Fall Transition
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The popper burbled, twitched, and paused, bobbing gently on the water it disturbed. Through the wavering lens of the lake’s surface, we could see dark shapes rising toward it. The little bait brought up an entire school of bass.
We didn’t have to wait long. In a competitive furor, several fish exploded on the bait at once. The lucky “winner” dove back down to bottom, then scribed a semicircle around the boat trailed by a tight length of braided line.
That day we “popped” about two dozen bass in one bay of an oligotrophic trout lake, watching each fish rise to the bait from 5 feet down in window-pane water. But drifting with the current in a canoe, casting poppers for smallmouth bass is something we look forward to every summer. When the water gets low and clear on the Mississippi, smallmouths are no longer confined to current breaks and they wander everywhere. Casts in all directions to any part of the river might score.
But whenever we encounter a surface bite that lasts all day, we invariably try at least one version from each of the three basic categories. Though all manner of topwaters are old school—having been around for well over a century—many ancient myths persist about when and where a surface assault will produce. Some say topwaters work only in low-light periods, or only when the water is flat calm. Both assumptions are wrong.
Most of the time on lakes, anglers focus on shallow water when fishing smallmouths on top, but a torrid topwater bite can take place over depths of 20 feet and deeper—especially in late summer. Problem is, if it’s even a slight bit windy, we can’t see the subtle tell-tale signs—the “nervous water,” the occasional tip of a tail, or the swirl of a bronze body pushing minnows against the barrier represented by that interface between worlds we call the surface.
Never assume smallmouths will refuse a topwater bait in a chop of two feet or less at any time of day, no matter how deep, how cold, how clear, or how cloudy the water may be.
Style & Tackle
Calm mornings, days, and evenings, however, suggest a surface assault as a first tactic all summer and into fall. Three styles of topwater are all you need for smallmouths: Poppers, propeller baits, and “walkers,” with a few hybrids attached to each category. Always let bass tell you which one they want. Just because smallmouths are hitting poppers doesn’t mean you can’t catch twice as many with a prop bait or walker.
Line is the first concern for surface assaults. Mainline should be braid, because it floats. Fluorocarbon is dense and sinks terribly fast. Monofilament eventually soaks up water, and during those Elysian hours when smallmouths blow up on every cast (it happens), with smallmouths dragging the line under repeatedly—or those days where the bait has to sit for long periods to entice a strike—mono gets waterlogged. When that happens, it becomes impossible to control the bait correctly. Lifting sunken line after a strike compromises hook-sets.
I use 10-pound Berkley FireLine for most surface smallmouth encounters because it’s coated, which protects knots when tying on a leader. In clear water, a 3- to 5-foot, green or clear monofilament leader tied on with back-to-back uni-knots provides stealth and a modicum of stretch. Mono leaders quickly dry—being short and out in the guides when running. An 8- to 10-pound leader is sufficient. Heavier leaders can impair the action, especially with smaller lures.
Spinning tackle casts farther and works best for poppers and most 3-inch topwaters, but larger walking baits and prop baits often present better with casting gear and 20-pound braid. A 10-pound leader remains optimum. My favorite topwater rod for smallmouths is a 6-foot 10-inch medium-light power rated for 4- to 10-pound line. Medium light is just right when using braid—protects knots better, sets hooks just fine.
Size matters. Smallmouths may not be as picky or selective as trout, but when keying in on small minnows, they often refuse big baits. The opposite can be true as well. When smallmouths disturb the surface but won’t hit a topwater, size might be the issue. Don’t be skittish about throwing something big, like the new Berkley Choppo, or something tiny like the Rapala Ultralight Pop. Bass feeding on top almost always respond to a topwater of some kind, so exhaust the range of sizes before giving up on it.
Over a decade ago we experienced one of those rarest of visits to topwater heaven. Every day for six weeks, the best thing to throw on the Mississippi River was a popper. Crankbaits worked. Hair jigs took fish. Jigs and grubs were ok. But a popper outperformed them all. Every day. All day long.
Didn’t matter if the wind blew and rain triggered the bilge pumps, or bright sun blared down from the sky on windless, cloudless days—the method remained the same. Cast, let the bait sit, watch it drift for 5 feet, and pop it once. Let it drift 5 feet and twitch it. Kablooey. That’s not entirely true. Sometimes we had to twitch it twice.
In other years we learned that walking the dog with poppers works better some days. And, some days—odd as it seems—just letting a popper drift without working it takes the most bass. The right retrieve can also be anywhere between those extremes. Several big pops followed by a short pause or just a series of subtle twitches might work. Most days, in my experience, letting the bait settle (let the rings die away after splashdown), giving it one good pop, then pausing for 10 to 20 seconds before giving the bait a subtle twitch triggers explosions best, especially on highly pressured waters. Subtle poppers like the Rapala Skitter Pop have a smaller face and perform well with that kind of retrieve.
Walking the dog with a popper requires a loop knot or a rounded clip through the eye. The loop frees the popper to turn first one way, then the other when worked with short downward snaps of the rod tip. Pay attention to cadence. Sometimes bass want a pause between snaps, sometimes not. A pause should be injected somewhere in the retrieve most days. Long, slender poppers, like the Storm Chug Bug, have the most pronounced back-and-forth action.
Minnowbaits, like the Rapala Original Floating Minnow, are basically twitchbaits—poppers with a lip instead of a cupped face. Don’t overlook the realistic appeal of a minnowbait retrieved so slow it creates a wake through the surface film, or worked with a subtle twitch-pause retrieve. It’s designed as a subsurface bait, but the effectiveness of minnowbaits on top has led to the development of hybrids like the Booyah Prank, which sports both diving lip and cupped face, creating a mixed bag of effects and a wider range of techniques to play with.
Splutter-pause. Splutter-splutter-splutter-pause. Bass are bound to look up because something up there can’t swim. Something’s in trouble and making a mess of the breast stroke. Bass are tuned into that kind of disturbance like few others. Prop baits stir up a fuss with a combination of sound and visual cues, leaving a bubble trail to the kill.
New shad-shaped prop baits like the Berkley Spin Bomb and Bagley Sunny B Twin Spin are certain to get blasted. Oversized blades on these baits throw more spray. The Berkley model has cupped, plastic blades that turn during the slowest retrieves. The Bagley Sunny B has big props designed for maximum water disturbance, and that’s what prop baits are all about.
One of the most intriguing new prop baits is the Berkley Choppo—a tail prop designed after famous muskie lures like the Bucher Top Raider, but in a size bass will find more to their liking. The entire tail section of the lure revolves. I haven’t tried this one for bass yet, but muskies try to kill it during a slow, steady plop-plop-plop retrieve. Vary the cadence to dial in the best trigger.
If smallmouths want something subtle, I twitch a popper. If they’re responding to an aggressive popping action, I always try a prop bait next. When a prop bait is successful for me, it’s usually due to a rip-pause retrieve. With the rod tip pointed down at the bait, an overt, sweeping tug, bubbling the lure 1 to 2 feet through the surface film, followed by a pause of a few seconds, generally elicits a violent response when bass are drawn to really noisy disturbances. The bubble trail is most pronounced that way.
A slow, steady retrieve certainly has its moments—especially over cabbage that tops out near or on the surface. The props help deflect weeds, but the steady plop, plop, plop of the blades helps bass zero in where vision might be obscured.
But smallmouth guide Chris Beeksma (Get Bit Guide Service) prefers the subtle side of prop-bait fishing. “When bass are tentative about hitting on top—nudging baits or swirling without taking—I throw the Rapala X-Rap Prop with props on both ends,” he says. “I just reel and stop, reel and stop at a moderate speed. I’m not trying to throw all kinds of water—just creating enough disturbance to make a ripple. Rapala calls it an Extreme Action bait, but I think it’s best at slower speeds with more of a subtle action. You can reel it fast and quick but making the props barely spin works for me on flat calm days, especially during postspawn. I’m likely to start the day off fishing that way during postspawn.”
The Rapala X-Rap Topwater and the Bagley Bang-O-Lure Twin Spin are what I call “minnow props.” Beeksma starts with one, but has a thing for casting gear and walkers, too.
“I love the Rapala Skitter Walk for smallmouths,” Beeksma says. “For anything, actually. Pike and largemouths, too. When smallmouths are being aggressive, I start with a Skitter Walk. I love that big rattling back-and-forth presentation clunk-conking along. I throw it with a 7-foot, medium-power St. Croix Legend Tournament casting stick with 30-pound Sufix 832 braid. And I use a 5-foot, 12-pound fluorocarbon leader. Some people say you should use mono because it floats longer, but when you’re constantly walking the bait with 6- to 8-inch snaps of the rod tip, the leader has no time to sink. I think it makes a difference if bass can’t see the connection between the bait and that opaque braid. Fluorocarbon is stiffer and more responsive, too.”
Beeksma varies the retrieve until he has the trigger dialed in. “Shorter snaps produce a quicker cadence with less glide,” he says. “Longer, slower snaps cover a wider area with a longer glide. Smallmouths prefer one retrieve over the other, depending on their mood, so I play with cadence until something blows up.”
The snap is the thing. Rod tip down with a bit of slack line hanging off the rod tip, quickly snap the rod tip 6 inches at a time for a short, fast cadence. Use 8-inch snaps with brief pauses afterward to produce more glide and a slower cadence. Snapping through slack line each time produces the classic back-and-forth walking action.
Beeksma gives clients the same tackle for walkers as prop baits, but with an 8-pound fluorocarbon leader. “All three styles—poppers, prop baits, and walkers—take a lot of fish on Chequamegon Bay,” he says. “We had a 30-fish day on walkers last year, and I once had a client catch 84 on a topwater on a flat calm day, but he was using a Skitter Pop. I think bass are close to the surface when they hit topwaters. Certainly they’ll come up 10 feet, but most of the time they’re only down a couple feet, using the surface as a barrier to corral baitfish against.”
Bass may be pinned to the bottom, focused on crayfish, gobies, perch, sculpins, or some other structure-oriented forage. During those times, it can be difficult to entice them up top. Smallmouths look up when chasing emerald shiners, smelt, ciscoes, and other baitfish that suspend in schools. Baitfish often leave the safety of cover when hatches are occurring, too. Suspended bait can be pushed up and trapped against the surface.
Determining when, where, and why bass are looking up or down is the basis for establishing patterns every day on the water in August and September.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is a longtime contributor to In-Fisherman publications and a multispecies expert, smallmouths among his favorites.