June 04, 2018
Surface lures get old but they never die. From wood whittlers of yore to the high-tech CAD men and 3-D printers of today, lures that scratch the water's surface have received plenty of attention. In part, that's because it's hard to design a topwater lure that won't catch fish. I've seen videos of bass slurping old wine corks, cigarettes, and other trash floating above. As opportunistic predators, they're attracted to things that look vulnerable on top of the water.
While some anglers cling to old favorites, novel designs have come on the scene, offering new levels of attraction. The one that's received the largest notoriety is River2Sea's Whopper Plopper, designed by former TV producer, host of the TV Show "Hunt for Big Fish," and inveterate lure tinkerer Larry Dahlberg.
The first version, Whopper Plopper 190, measured 7.5 inches. "I worked with River2Sea to build a new version of a classic style of muskie lure," Dahlberg relates. "Early models included the Mudpup, Gooch's Tally Wacker, and Dick Gries' Top Kick. The rear portion spins and its curved blade throws a lot of water. We refined its construction and made the tail fin of tough plastic, which made it more durable and also produced unique sounds. But when testing early versions for muskies, I had big largemouths and smallmouths attacking it."
Today, the 190 model is popular among lunker hunters in California, where deep structure, clear water, abundant rainbow trout, and giant bass make huge lures of all sorts a good option. The 13/8-ounce, 5-inch 130 model has found most favor, but all sizes have sold fast since the closely guarded secret got out. The expose came at the October 2015 Bassmaster Central Open tournament on Table Rock, as FLW Tour pro James Watson of Missouri realized the time was ripe as choppy conditions brought big bass onto rocky points.
On Table Rock and Lake of the Ozarks, big buzzbaits have long been favored for precisely those conditions, as big fish gravitate to main-lake coves with rocky banks. "It casts farther and more accurately than a buzzer," Watson notes, "and tends to call up bigger bass, perhaps due to its size and ability to work great at a range of speeds."
The following spring, I got my first Ploppers and tried them once waters had warmed into the low- to mid-60°F range. I was a bit dubious as it's considerably larger than my usual topwater choices for a mixed population of largemouth and smallmouth bass in early summer in Minnesota: Heddon Super Spook, Jr., Rapala Skitter Pop, and such. But my casts were met with hard strikes from bass of both species and all sizes, from less than a pound to over four.
On a calm morning, its ruckus seemed obnoxious and the speed I reeled it brisk to say the least. Indeed, I quickly determined that the sweet spot in retrieve speed, where sound and vibration seem most potent, is steady and considerably faster than a typical horizontal retrieve. It's continued to work well any time bass are gathered on shallow flats or along breaks with moderate cover of vegetation with sand or rock, from early summer into early fall. With its two imposing trebles, it can't negotiate grass once it thickens near the surface, as stalks wrap the tail section and catch dangling hooks.
The following May, Florida pro Chris Lane, now living in Alabama, capitalized on a shallow bite at Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Texas-Louisiana border to take 2nd place in the 4-day event on topwater lures. His lure of choice: 130 Whopper Plopper. Many anglers rely on topwater lures primarily in low-light conditions, shifting to deeper techniques midday. While tournament winner Kevin VanDam exploited big bass in deep water with a Strike King 10XD that runs close to 30 feet deep, Lane fished topwaters from blastoff to weigh-in, sacking 20 bass weighing over 88 pounds. When the Plopper bite is on, it's really on, though persistence pays off. Lane fished through hours without a strike to then encounter shallow lunkers on the prowl.
With such successes, we've seen more large topwater lures equipped to produce extra sound effects with special features.
With the emphasis on enhanced sound production, a couple of new poppers catch the eye and ear, and have proved deadly across the country. Lure designer Sean Ostruszka explains why novel poppers continue to appear, despite dozens of good ones on the market. "In lure design, the smallest tweaks can make the biggest difference," he says. "The mouths of different poppers vary greatly in their shape and depth, which conveys a particular action and sound to each lure.
"Many of the classics like the Rico, Yellow Magic, and Rebel Pop-R have an oval mouth with a shallow cup. Minimal force is required to create a popping sound. And with a fast retrieve they spit water, imitating shad schooling on the surface. Lures with a deeper and more exaggerated mouth create a loud bloop and a trail of bubbles when pulled sharply. This can be a great trigger for bass lurking in bushes or other dense cover. That was the allure of the vintage Rebel P70 Pop-R, the 1/2-ounce model that was 3 1/8 inches long."
Long out of production, you can find original P70s on eBay in the $50 range. But anglers have discovered that the 6th Sense Splashback has similar allure and size. Ostruszka initially designed it for his own use, and bass immediately signaled their approval. "I'd carved a few of balsa in 2009 and brought them along when I fished with FLW Tour pro Ramie Colson at Kentucky Lake," he says. "We got on a topwater bite and I tied one on. Right away I caught three in a row and Colson started looking over, as he was trying several of his favorite surface lures, but hadn't caught anything. Finally he asked, 'You got any more of those.' It stayed under wraps until 2015 when I started working with 6th Sense on lure designs. It debuted at the 2016 ICAST Show and has proved popular."
The Splashback's body and mouth have a V-shape, wider on top and flat along its back. It's tail-weighted to provide a heads-up posture and the ability to walk back and forth when twitched. The belly is keel-shaped to pivot easily and its mouth has a deep cup to catch and throw water. These features make it a versatile option as it works well for target-casting to shallow cover and also walks the dog over expansive flats or open water, throwing water to attract attention. Two sizes are available: size 70 at 3/8 ounce and 2 3/4 inches long and #90 at 3.5 inches and 3/4 ounce.
Storm Lures pro staffer and Bassmaster Elite pro Ott DeFoe of Tennessee went through a similar thought process in working on Storm's Arashi Cover Pop. DeFoe knew he'd gotten the design right when he used it to land a 9-pound 9-ounce bass at the 2017 Bassmaster Classic on Toledo Bend, bringing him a 5th-place finish. It measures 31/8inch and weighs 1/2 ounce and sports a generous hackle tail. Like the Splashback, it has no rattle chamber. "Its shape and balance allow you to work it in place, teasing big bass from cover," DeFoe says. "It's highly effective when fish are shallow around the spawn and postspawn, holding in brush. When it's on, nothing compares to it.
"I fish in on a medium-action 6.5-foot rod, the shortest I use for any technique, with 17-pound mono. The softer rod and mono work the lure slowly in place and let bass eat it before you set the hook. No need to overwork it, which can happen with braided line. It's built for precision casting and works best on short casts, 50 feet or less.
"We spent a lot of time trying different positions for the line tie and weight system, says Dan Quinn, field promotions manager for Rapala. We wanted a lure that landed softly, as the key is putting it near a bass in cover, so it has no choice but to bite. Placing the weight in the tail does this, and the Cover Pop sits straight up like a bobber. The line tie is high in the mouth, so it pivots 90 degrees right and left while lingering in the target area."
Though it's a walker, Bill Lewis' Stutter Step also relies on protracted action in a key area to draw savage strikes. One glance gives notice of its uniqueness. Instead of the usual tapered tail, this lure has a broad paddletail that recalls a manatee. "Its banana shape makes it pivot easily," explains company president Wes Higgins, who's responsible for developing this plastic lure from a prototype made of wood by Zimbabwe tigerfish angler Greg Budd. "Instead of turning at a 45-degree angle like most walkers, it turns 90 degrees, so it can dance in a key spot where you know a giant lives.
It allows anglers to execute at least four different surface moves that are all deadly, depending on the position and disposition of the bass. Demand for the original 5-inch, 1-ounce model encouraged us to add a 4-inch version that weighs 5/8 ounce." This lure has been a sensation from shallow grass lakes of Florida to timbered impoundments, drawing savage attack from surface predators of all sorts, in freshwater and salt."
Waking and Shaking
As a category of topwater lures, wakebaits seem underused and not well understood. The earliest versions in the modern era date back three decades. Most, such as Mann's 1-Minus, dive 6 to 12 inches on a moderate-speed retrieve or wake the surface at a slow pace. The latest wakebaits are designed to create serious surface commotion. A bill angled close to 90 degrees creates a wide hunting wobble.
New on the market are a pair of big baits—Chanwake from Jackall Lures and i-Loud from Megabass. The i-Loud is a 4.5-inch 1-ounce lure with four different sound- and vibration-producing features. Its jointed body clacks as the hinges pivot, while an internal sound system moves laterally, striking the inside of the body with every turn, producing a low-frequency knock. The bill gives it a rolling surface action, while the rear segment inclines upward, with a metal propeller at the tip.
"This is the lure you want when big bass are hunting around shallow grass, as its bubble trail and other features draw savage strikes," says California Elite pro Chris Zaldain, who has scored big with it on the California Delta, and found success in tournaments on other tidal systems like the James River in Virginia and Florida's St. Johns. "Seasonally, it's worked great from the postspawn through early fall. It's especially effective around old bedding areas and where bluegills are nesting, when the bluegill-color bait is deadly. In summer, peak times are early and late in the day around clumps of vegetation. Fish it slow and steady," he adds. "I use a 7-foot 2-inch Megabass Destroyer rod with moderate action, along with 40-pound-test Seaguar Smackdown braid. The softer rod lets a fish engulf it better and keeps them hooked."
Company product development specialist Kenichi Iida says this lure has a Rudder Action Balancer (RAB) system, which contributes to the knocking sound. "It makes for an extremely loud lure," he adds. "We worked on the RAB system for several years, starting with the i-Jack in 2015."
Jackall's Chanwake is another multi-faceted option and Alex Davis, FLW Tour pro and Lake Guntersville guide, leans heavily on it in competition and when putting clients on Alabama giants. "When I tie one on, clients often ask, 'What the heck is that thing?'" he says about the 5.1-inch, 7/8-ounce lure that has a bill and rear propeller. "But they see soon enough what it can do. When I first tested it on grass flats at Guntersville, I caught an 8-pounder, then a 6-pounder. Few bass have seen this lure and they annihilate it."
While many experts prefer hefty braid for outsize topwaters, he relies on 19-pound-test Sunline Defier mono. "This mono is very thin for its strength, and abrasion-resistant. You won't break it," he says. As with the i-Loud, a steady, moderate-speed retrieve seems best, though he occasionally pauses a moment to trigger bass that may be following. Prime time is from around the spawn into fall, when bass forsake the flats to school in creeks.
Jackall's Pompadour is another outsize surface lure that creates a major disturbance. Its action is based on the metal wings that extend from its crankbait-shaped body, reminiscent of Heddon's old Crazy Crawler. California Elite pro Jared Lintner has become a fan, fishing it at home waters like Clear Lake, the California Delta, and smaller impoundments, as well at tournaments around the country. "It's one of my favorite baits and I always have one on deck," Lintner says. "The first bass I caught on it weighed 9 pounds. There are two sizes and I like both, but favor the bigger one when big fish are abundant. It's a new face on the surface scene and lunkers can't get enough of it. Out here, Whopper Ploppers have gotten so popular, we've seen a decline in their effectiveness lately.
The Pompadour's deadly after dark and toward evening. But one day on the Delta, I caught two 10-pounders on it, midday in sunny conditions." As with other lures, peak times are from the spawn to early fall. Like Zaldain, he favors braid, selecting Sunline 50-pound and runs it on a medium-speed reel (6.2:1 gear ratio), and a 7.5-foot cranking rod to keep from pulling it away from bass on the strike and to keep fish hooked.
Seeking to find space in our already bulging "frog boxes" are a couple models that bring a new dimension to this weedless presentation. Booyah's Toad Runner incorporates the weedless floating body of the Pad Crasher with a large flapper at the rear. Oklahoma pro Jason Christie was the force behind this one, and he's had great success already, with a top-10 at Sam Rayburn Reservoir in Texas at last year's Bassmaster Texas Fest tournament. "It has a wire insert in the tail, which allows you to shape it, which affects surface action," Christie says. "Point the end of the tail upward to increase splash and vibration or flatten it for a more subtle approach," he recommends. "Its tail is a flexible but tough material, attached with a ball-bearing swivel and split ring, so it can swivel 360 degrees. It's clear so bass target the body not the tail, so hookup ratio is high. It has a special Trokar double hook and weighs 7/8 ounce so it has great casting range."
Meanwhile David McDonald and the Lunkerhunt staff introduced the Prop Series of frog-style lures. "The Prop Fish includes two body shapes," he says, "the Sunfish and Shad. Both are compact and weedless lures with a single prop at the rear that sputters subtly as it's steadily retrieved. It passes through vertical vegetation easily and over surface plants as well. Each of the Prop Frog's feet has a flappin foot that rotates out to the side, kicking water and making a surface commotion. This one comes rigged with a single stinger hook that rides behind and helps to lift the frog over grass clumps. It's positioned to not contact vegetation.
"The Prop Turtle is flatter and weighs 3/4 ounce and also has a double-prop system and a stinger hook. It works best around vertical cover or over open water. We tested many versions of these lures before we got it right," he says. "They've proved popular so far, exceeding our expectations."
At the finesse end of the surface spectrum, Lunkerhunt adds the Dragonfly, an unweighted lifelike dragonfly made of highly buoyant and durable TP Foam. "Texas-rig this 4.5-inch lure with a 4/0 extra-wide-gap hook and shake it on the surface in holes in vegetation for explosive strikes from bass that feed heavily on these insects in early summer," McDonald says. "It works best on heavy spinning tackle with 30-pound braid."
By their nature, topwater lures produce sounds likely to lure bass to attack. The softer spitting sound of a small popper imitates a school of threadfin shad sipping on top, while the loud bloop sound of a deep-cupped model makes bass think another fish is feeding, spurring a competitive drive. A walker, on the other hand, mimics the aimless meanderings of a sickly or wounded bigger baitfish. The erratic movement and sudden stopping of weedless frogs create the illusion of a tasty amphibian.
Two companies offer designs that add a sound element beyond splashing or interior knockers. Livingston Lures has been devoted to incorporating a sound-producing device to their hardbaits. The heart of this system is a circuit board in the body that produces sounds that peak in the range of 200 to 600 Hz, within the hearing range of freshwater predators. They term this device, EBS Technology, short for Electronic Baitfish Sounds. Erick Arnoldson, National Sales Manager, calls this system, "a duck call for fish." "Emitted through the belly of the bait, these sounds reach far and wide," he notes. "Under water, sound waves travel over four times as fast as in air, due to the closely packed molecules of water, compared to air. They're based on recordings of baitfish, so bass are drawn to it. Our pro staff and the angling public have enjoyed great success with them." Three topwater designs have been available: walking-style Pro Sizzle, Walk N Pop popper, and Spin Master with a pair of propellers fore and aft.
"The latest in Livingston's line is Freddy B," Arnoldson says, "a weedless frog introduced late in 2017 that produces a froggy croak, imitating the vocalizations of a male bullfrog, both those to attract females and warning sounds to other males to avoid the area. The sound chamber is located between the line tie and hook, and is activated when it lands."
Instead of an electronic chip, Boing lures rely on a mechanical noise-maker—a small metal bead on the end of a thin tungsten wire (think light bulb filament) inside the lure that vibrates to create a unique low-frequency sound when it's moved, sounding like boing, hence its name. This innovative concept goes back 20 years or more as well known custom lure painter Tim Hughes got the idea from an angler in Arkansas who made one by setting a guitar wire within the body of a Zara Spook. Hughes and partner Bill Pacota began mass-producing them, using nitinol wire instead. The company is now owned by Jason Yocum of Indiana and he's expanded the lure line beyond the original walker, including the 3½-inch Boing G2 Popper and G3 Prop Bait. They have a long tail hackle to add to the allure as the lure's paused and allowed to settle in a key area.
Hughes sent me one years ago and I've found it amazingly effective any time bass want a slow walk-the-dog cadence. Largemouths come unglued in their aggression. I'm eager to try the new Popper and Prop Bait, as extended pauses work best, especially for smallmouth bass in rivers and largemouths in deep clear lakes. As I write this in late winter in Minnesota, I'm longing for a warm summer with luxuriant vegetation to try these new topwater options.