Topwater for Bass
October 07, 2015
If you have an itch, it's human nature to scratch it. Try some self-restraint, but it's no use.
These days, the itch for many anglers is catching big bass on topwater lures. Whether in open water or around vegetation, the feed is on now for largemouth bass. With their metabolism running high, bass seek opportunities to waylay small creatures. They seem to know that pushing prey against an edge gives them an advantage for capture. Pinning preyfish against the bottom is one tack; chasing them to the surface is another.
Both tactics work for bass. Anglers who understand these feeding strategies also can make them work, either with bottom bumping presentations or by putting something up high and vulnerable, almost teasing fish to strike.
Just as varied presentations must be tested to find and catch bass below the surface, there are many aspects to topwater fishing. Consider the fine-tuning process for defining the best crankbait action, jerkbait cadence, or spinnerbait speed. Topwater specialists choose among dozens of lures in several key categories, particularly ones that allow the anglers to create novel looks with mixes of rod tip manipulation and pauses.
Believe it or not, it's been 10 years since the development of two key surface baits: SPRO's Bronzeye Frog and Zoom's Horny Toad. The Bronzeye was developed by an angler who's widely regarded as the top frogger in the business, Dean Rojas, while the Horny Toad ignited the development of buzzing-style soft-plastic frogs, sometimes called toads. Weedless frog baits tempt big bass to bust through matted surface vegetation, but can also lure strikes in more open areas. Solid-body soft frogs with buzzing legs work neatly across sparser surface vegetation or among the stalks of emergent plants like bulrushes when Texas-rigged.
A few models, notably Stanley's Top Toad, Southern Lures' Bigfoot, and Snag Proof's Bass Kicker Frog, combine the two effects, with the addition of buzzing feet to a hollow-body frog so it's effective when retrieved steadily or when paused on the surface.
Several new frogs have narrower bodies with keeled bellies to more easily walk-the-dog. This action can be deadly off sharp banks, in open pockets among lily pads, or even over deeper water, though another sort of surface bait might work better there. Southern Lures' Scumdog Walker and SPRO's Bronzeye Shad 65, and Sebile's Pivot Frog emphasize these features. The Pivot Frog also has an innovative single-hook design that allows the weighted hook to pivot upward, ensuring good hookups.
Another recent trend has been supersizing frogs. The bodies of most models are about two inches long, with a skirt or legs adding to their apparent size. The first monster frog to appear was Snag Proof's Frogzilla, a plus-size amphibian weighing 3/4 ounce and measuring 6 inches from nose to toe. It's armed with a single 7/0 needle-point hook. With the popularity of their Bronzeye Frog, SPRO released King Daddy Bronzeye, weighing an ounce and with a body almost four inches long. It's backed with a custom 6/0 Gamakatsu Superline EWG double hook. The latest is Mann's Bait Company's Goliath Frog, with a wide, but flatter body and custom double hook. The River2Sea Spittin' Wa is another impressive amphibian, with specially cupped and vented mouth to create a loud chugging sound, while sending bubbles below the surface. It has a custom black-nickel, needle-point hook. And while not technically a frog, Livetarget's magnum Field Mouse fishes the same way and has the mass to lure the lake's biggest bass. Its ratty 4-inch tail, rubber skirt, and massive double hook put some teeth into this rodent.
Hefty frogs cast far to cover expanses of lily pads, wild rice, milfoil, or algae. And because they're heavier and larger, they create more surface disturbance when pulled across thick mats.
Today, SPRO offers 33 colors in their most popular Bronzeye 65 Frog, including exotic ones like Harbor Seal, Baby Duck, and Freak. Many anglers have faith in black and white frogs, but at times natural green, chartreuse, and jazzy hues seem to catch more fish.
Walking Bait Wisdom
Topwater walkers and wakebaits excel at working over flats, points, breaklines, and beds of vegetation lying well below the surface. And they're deadly when bass school offshore, over deep water. They work best in warm and clear waters — from early summer, shortly after the Postspawn Period, into early fall, with water temperatures from the upper-60°F range into the 80s, then back down to about 60°F.
Walkers: Classic walk-the-dog stickbaits have been keys to surface success since the earliest form of the Zara Spook appeared in 1939 as the Zaragossa. Today, the Spook is joined in the Heddon stable by the Super Spook and Super Spook Jr., Chug'n Spook and Chug'n Spook Jr., Super Spook XT, and One Knocker Spook. Most manufacturers of hard lures offer a lure of this style, with popular models including Rapala's X-Rap Walk, Strike King Sexy Dawg, Jackall Bowstick, Paycheck Bait's Repo Man, and Lucky Craft Pointer.
French lure designer Patrick Sebile likely has spent more time fishing and designing topwater lures than any angler. He not only targets bass and other common predators but travels to remote locations to tangle with exotic freshwater and marine fish, such as peacock bass, cubera snapper, barramundi, and more. He's designed several walking baits, each with a distinctive gait and action. The Ghost Walker has a raised head and wider body, giving it a narrow a narrow gait. But it's also effective on a pull-pause retrieve, which causes it to bob up and down like a little sea serpent. His latest design is the Flatt Belly Walker, a 3/4-ounce bait with a flat belly that crisply pivots, since it planes like a boat. It's weighted for long casting and has loud rattles and a metal ball, creating sounds of various frequencies.
Sebile designed it with an external weighting system to maintain a low center of gravity, which especially enhances action in rough water. Its slim tail also increases walking action
Shufflers: Instead of walking, some baits shuffle or crawl along the surface, working back and forth and producing a large wake. Fred Arbogast made his first Jitterbug in 1937 and patented it in 1940 while James Heddon released his Crazy Crawler in 1940. Unlike the Jitterbug with its concave metal lip, the Crazy Crawler has a pair of cupped metal fins that give it a wide wobbling gait that's been a favorite for decades.
Recently, Japanese designers have seen that surface crawling action is a powerful trigger for bass during daytime as well as after dark. Jackall's Pompadour, a 3/4-ounce bait, has wings that recall the Crazy Crawler, but are bent to catch more water as it's retrieved. To increase commotion, it also has a tail prop that spins as it moves forward, adding flash and splash. Megabass also revealed a shuffler, the Derby-X, a wooden bait with a tapered snout and hinged appendages that cause it to march back and forth on the surface. Trailing behind on a ball-bearing swivel is a spatula-shaped blade that flits just below the surface.
Pencils: The pencil popper is like a hybrid of a popper and a big walking bait, but their singular action and size merit them their own category. Cotton Cordell's Pencil Popper was apparently the original, built wide in the tail and narrow at the nose to fly far and create a wild splashing even in a moderate surf. The 1- and 2-ounce baits were built for striped bass, bluefish, and other marine fish, but bass anglers discovered their appeal for big fish, particularly in waterways housing blueback herring, an anadromous species that's become landlocked in some reservoirs near the Atlantic coast. Running 8 to 14 inches long, bluebacks offer a fine mouthful for big bass, and their habit of schooling offshore near the surface opens the window for a pencil popper.
Paycheck Baits' The One has become a favorite for its similar size (1 ounce) and fine detailed finishes. The ima Big Stik is an upsized model, 7 inches long and 1¾ ounces. Its line-through construction ensures it stands up to the roughest predators. Worked at a staccato pace, it throws water up to a foot in the air, causing a commotion that calls fish from afar.
Wakebaits: Built like a crankbait or jerkbait, but with a lip that extends straight down, wakebaits wobble on top and create a wake. Cordell's Redfin may have been the first such lure, though it took a bit of tuning to run perfectly. For surface action, wind them slowly over vegetated or brushy flats, or work them tight to bluffs, riprap banks, or laying logs. Jointed models accentuate the meandering action of these baits, as water pressure on the lip pushes the body from side to side.
Target topwaters, on the other hand, have a longer potential window to work. Whenever you can deliver a topwater bait close to shallow cover, you're liable to hook up. While weedcover tends to be expansive in nature, allowing bass to roam, key woodcover sticks out. While most anglers work spinnerbaits or swimjigs through shallow brush, or else flip a jig or softbait into the cover, a topwater often is the best way to draw strikes.
Poppers and prop baits of all sorts are deadly when worked close by or over thick cover. They can create erratic action but often draw strikes when paused in the kill zone. Skillful anglers make them perform nearly in place, not moving far from the key cover. Bass often can't stand something hovering over their head.
The more accurate your casting, the more fish you catch in this situation. While bites sometimes come soon after the lure lands, a few pops and pauses often turn the trick on bass that are holed up in cover. One of the most impressive fishing demonstrations I've seen was watching Craig Powers of Rockwood, Tennessee, deliver an old Rebel P-70 Pop-R far back into the brushy lairs of an Arkansas duck slough. With a short, supple rod, he effortlessly slung it into impossible crevices. His technique inspired me to practice this unorthodox cast; you can get surprisingly good with a couple hours of bank-beating, though it would take most of a lifetime to match Powers' acumen.
While poppers are more commonly used in these situations, as well as in flowing water, prop baits can produce extremely well, too, with a combination of sharp snaps to get the hardware spitting, and extended pauses to let the rings settle a bit. In clear water, bass may come from at least 10 feet away to strike. At times, bites are explosive, but other times you can see the fish slowly rising into attack range as it seemingly scopes out its supposed quarry.
The angle at which a lure sits can be important, often a dangling tail enhanced with a feathered treble is hard to pass up. And added wrinkles, like the tiny Colorado blade on the belly of Jackall's new Binsky popper, add a bit of flash or vibration. That bait also sports a tail prop, which creates surface commotion, though it sacrifices somewhat its ability to pivot back and forth.
While the dawn and dusk periods are always high-percentage times for topwater action, overcast skies extend these low-light windows and often keep bass feeding on top at other times. Darker conditions seem to play in the predator's favor and bass cruise farther from cover then, seeking opportunities to feed. And this opens a window of opportunity for anglers.
Moreover, when rain accompanies overcast skies, the limited surface light is broken up further by the raindrops, and bass tend to feed even more actively. Incoming fronts often are accompanied by rain and thunderstorms, and these systems can crank up the activity fast as the barometer drops. As a storm approaches, action can shift from average (a bass or two an hour) to ridiculous (two fish on one cast) in a period of half an hour. And the bite fades just as fast, once the system has passed and the sky lightens and rains cease.
Whatever the cause, don't miss an opportunity to fish topwater baits then, as long as safety allows. It's time to head for cover fast before your rod starts crackling or buzzing. But you know the storm is coming when bass crush jigs on the fall and throttle spinnerbaits. Put a bait up on their window and watch the action as several fish battle for it.
One key element of surface fishing is the fun factor. Because the angler creates the action, it often pays to be creative. While some experts seem to summon fish almost at will, it's an art any angler can accomplish with practice. And for many of these lures, there's no wrong way to fish them. Success is almost guaranteed. â–