April 26, 2018
Plunk! Twitch . . . Twitch. Then, like a sucker punch in some dimly-lit barroom, chaos ensues. Water explodes and the rod's nearly ripped from your hands. The bass sprints toward cover, then changes direction in a nanosecond, erupting into air like a missile.
Big bass fanatic "Chef" Todd Kent of Peoria, Illinois, lives for such moments, spontaneous demonstrations of brute force and acrobatics. "Seeing a bass jump over a lure, then come back and eat it—that's as good as it gets," he says. "Topwater lures have been my deal since day-one."
For Kent, that means a steady rotation of a proven topwaters: a black Booyah clacker-style buzzbait, #130 RiversSea Whopper Plopper, and a Terminator Walking Frog. "I can cover all my bases with these three lures. Each has its time and place."
As soon as the water hits 55°F, he starts the morning with the black buzzbait, fishing it on a 7-foot 2-inch medium-heavy or heavy-power rod paired with Lew's BB1 Pro reel and 40-pound braid. "I retrieve the buzzbait slowly. It's all about getting that clacker working methodically. I engage the reel, get it clacking, then give the lure an occasional little pop."
He adds a fish-catching detail overlooked by many anglers. "I always figure-eight by the boat, just like in muskie fishing. Especially when the water's cooler, bass follow and it can take a figure-eight to get 'em to eat."
As water warms, Kent shifts surface weaponry to the Whopper Plopper, especially the 130 size, on the same rod, reel, and line. "Each size of Whopper Plopper creates a different sound," he says. "In my experience, the #130 has the right noise for big bass. The #90 catches smaller fish."
He makes long casts over open water, moving the bait the second it hits the surface. After 10 feet or so, he kills it momentarily. "When water gets into the 70°F- and 80°F-range, I catch more bass in open water than I do over vegetation or around wood in strip pits around here. Fish might be 10 or 15 feet down but are looking up for a meal. Come summer, I fish a Whopper Plopper morning 'til night."
Kent's favorite Plopper color is Yoda, followed by black loon, rainbow trout, and bone. But no matter the color, he makes a small tweak. "I always replace the rear hook with a white Owner Tournament Trail feathered treble. It's amazing how many fish hit this lure on the stall with that feather."
While buzzbaits and Ploppers are his choice on strip pits, he favors hollow-body frogs on vegetation-rich lakes. "By the end of May, vegetation's getting thick and the frog bite starts on Central Illinois' more fertile waters. When I can't get a ChatterBait through the salad, I turn to a Terminator Walking Frog. They don't take on water, are easy to walk, have good hooks, and yield good hookup ratios. I like white early-season, black on overcast days, and natural frog patterns as the season progresses."
Kent's frog gear includes a heavy-power 7-foot 4-inch Dean Rojas Duckett rod, high-geared Lew's BB1 Pro reel, and 65-pound braid. "I like a longer-handled rod for frogs so I can set the butt under my armpit and let my wrist work downward to get the lure walking back and forth. It helps maintain rhythm and control," he says.
Last October, I spent a day with Bassmaster Elite pro Bobby Lane on a Florida lake and watched him pick apart cover, firing precise casts in rapid succession. "Man, I love to fish topwaters! I'm a Florida guy—it's what I grew up doing," Lane proclaims.
He stresses the importance of trying different buzzbaits—both clackers and prop-only models, color and skirt options, and line choice. "I usually stick with two colors—black and white—in 1/4-, 3/8-, and 1/2-ounce sizes with gold, black, and silver blades. If bass are striking but missing them, I reduce lure size and switch from braid to mono." Lane prefers mono for short casts, braid for longer bombs. Most days, he fishes buzzers on a 7-foot medium-heavy Abu Garcia Veracity and Abu Garcia MGX reel with 8:1 gear ratio, spooled with 20-pound Berkley Big Game monofilament.
Proficient with many topwater lures, Lane likes the new PowerBait Rib Toad from Berkley, a soft-plastic swimming frog. "The Rib Toad casts a mile, swims true, and has a high hookup ratio," he says. "But the coolest thing is how it moves when you stop it. It falls and turns back toward the fish like a real frog. Drives bass crazy."
Depending on the scenario, he fishes the Berkley Rib Toad on a 4/0 to 6/0 Trokar straight-shank or EWG hook. It can be fished weightless, but he often adds a silicon stop and 1/32-, 1/16-, or 1/8-ounce tungsten weight. He rigs it on a 7-foot 3-inch medium-power Abu Garcia Villain rod, 8.0:1 Abu Garcia ALX reel, and 50-pound-test Spiderwire UltraCast braid. "There's no wrong way to fish it," he says. "Cast and reel to your liking, spring through fall. It's all about the legs that kick without much work. Adding a little weight gets it to sit down a bit more when climbing over grass, trees, and pads, and helps when slinging it far. It also skips well around docks or laydowns."
A Nod to Rods
BASS Elite pro Stephen Browning is a topwater technician who emphasized to me the importance of matching rod and line to the hook size on topwater lures during our day on the water. "Walking baits, prop baits, poppers, frogs unfortunately, one rod doesn't do it all," he says. "In general, topwater and crankbait rods are similar. You want something with a powerful butt and mid-section with more flex toward the tip so you don't tear hooks out. Match rod action and line size to the hooks on the topwater lure, rather than lure weight.
"Don't go too heavy in rod and line when fishing #4 and #6 thin-wire hooks on poppers. For them I use mono or copolymer line for its stretch. But you can get away with braid with a walking-style bait with #2 and #1 hooks. Fish them with a longer and heavier rod to make longer casts."
When fishing a big lure like the Livetarget Walking Bait or #130 Whopper Plopper, Browning uses the same gear he'd use for fishing magnum-size crankbaits. "I fish a 7-foot 4-inch medium-heavy-power, moderate-action St. Croix Legend Glass to make long casts. In some situations, I want to cover a lot of water, not make spot-specific casts. A powerful rod provides distance and hook-setting ability when bass hit as you begin the retrieve. And for big lures armed with #2, #1, or 1/0 hooks, I fish 40-pound braid."
We'd no sooner launched the boat when Browning dropped his trolling motor and started casting. "Topwaters work in marinas and large dock systems year-round," he says. "On reservoirs without much cover, these areas draw baitfish and bass throughout the year. I use a topwater to draw out fish from under floating docks, corners, brushpiles, or whatever cover is present in these manmade areas. Cross beams connecting dock sections hold fish, and bass relate to cables that extend out past the dock, too.
"For example, on Table Rock Lake in Missouri, I cast over cables to deep docks along the banks and get bass to come up and eat a topwater. Docks over 20 to 40 feet of water often attract bass that suspend at various depths throughout the day. Because of how their eyes are positioned, bass often feed upward. Consider the surface an edge. As in deer hunting, look for spots where edges come together. Baitfish move along edges as they afford some protection."
He stresses how marina bass behave like cats, leaving ambush points to investigate a topwater when other baits go unnoticed. Sometimes that means covering a lot of water because sometimes only a few areas in a marina hold fish. "The Livetarget BaitBall Yearling or Glass Minnow Walking Baits are good search baits, especially in clear water," he says.
"At other times, it's important to make spot-specific casts with a shorter rod like a 6-foot 8-inch medium-heavy power fast-action St. Croix Legend Elite. Shorter rods are more accurate in those situations. Where bass tuck into sweet spots of a dock, I fish a Livetarget Glass Minnow Popper with mono."
Jon Beaushene of Ontario keeps topwater rods on deck from May through October in Canada or when making trips to the southern U.S. in winter. One has a Megabass X-Plose SS, a spybait that morphs into a viable topwater when speed-reeled.
"Burn it with a high-gear-ratio reel and it makes a screeching sound on the surface, a bit like that War Eagle spinnerbait sound," Beaushene says.
He first discovered the lure's double-duty potential while spybaiting on Arkansas' Bull Shoals a couple years ago. "I was casting toward schooling fish when the wind took my cast and I had to speed-reel to pick up line. The X-Plose rode on top and made a cool sound; then it was atacked by spots and largemouths. So, while it's technically a spybait, I started fishing it as a topwater."
For Beaushene, the X-Plose SS became an alternative to the Whopper Plopper for fishing the backs of creek channels, docks, and lanes in buckbrush. And in Canada, he uses it for smallmouths. "I position the boat 20 to 30 feet off the first break, about 40 feet from shore in a lot of places on steep-sided lakes, and cast to shore, working it back over various depths. Smallmouths often follow it all the way to the boat before they strike." He prefers NC Pearl Blue color, a baitfish hue. "I keep colors simple. I think too much shimmer can turn off bass."
He throws the X-Plose SS on a medium-heavy 7-foot 2-inch rod with a soft tip and 15-pound Gamma mono. "Braid can get caught in the props or the front hook if the lure tumbles during a cast, so mono is better," he says.
He's also a fan of the popper-style baits, especially the Lucky Craft G-Splash. "It pops nicely, but with fast twitches you can walk the dog with it," he says. In Canada, he keeps the X-Plose SS and G-Splash rigged from spring through fall. "Once the water warms to 50°F, I fish topwaters, through late September, even later if the sun comes out, warms the water, and gets smallmouths patrolling the shallows."
Hi-Tech Topwater Fishing
"Bass Brawl Outdoors" co-founders Casey Ehlert and Lyal Held have become social media bass celebrities. The duo spends countless hours surveying water bodies, transferring sonar log data into Reefmaster software and Google Earth to pinpoint submerged cover on a lake. "On smaller waters, we may side-image the whole lake, then download that data into the laptop to see cover in a whole-lake view," Ehlert says.
He and Held made headlines a couple years ago after they pursued and caught South Dakota's new state record smallmouth bass, weighing 7 pounds 3 ounces. Since then, they've posted many YouTube videos depicting their high-tech approach.
"When we're scouting, I set my 455kHz side-imaging Humminbird sonar to scan out to 100 or 125 feet to get a general survey of the lake," he says. "Then I go back over it with Mega Imaging set to look 75 to 90 feet out. That gives me a lot more detail. I also use a Humminbird 360 set to 60 feet, roughly the length of a cast. This past year the water level in some local lakes dropped five feet and crawfish and minnows moved from gravel and rock to coontail clumps. The bass followed. So I cast to the openings, holes, and edges in the coontail, sometimes working over the top."
This past year, Ehlert says coontail flats held smallmouths from summer through fall and they would strike topwaters. "Oliver Ngy of 'Big Bass Dreams' came out to fish with us and introduced us to the Megabass X-Plose SS, ripped on top," he says. "Its props throw a lot of water and smallmouths get excited. When you kill it, it dives nose-first straight down as the props spin. They often crush it before it gets to the bottom."
Ehlert fishes the X-Plose SS in NC Biwako Wakasagi pattern on an Abu Garcia 7-foot 1-inch medium-power Villain rod, Revo MGX baitcaster, and 30-pound braid. "I use a fast-retrieve reel to pick up line fast," he says. For this coontail/topwater pattern, he also uses the Megabass Diamante Dog-X and smaller Giant Dog-X in Clear Gill or Perch. "I alternate the two sizes of that lure if bass are neutral to negative," he says. "Often, if I can get one bass to strike, the wolf pack fires up. The Giant Dog-X is the easiest lure to walk. Anybody can fish it."