It’s exciting when you feel a bass pecking on a plastic worm, or connect with a solid, wrist-popping hit from an unseen bass on a crankbait running along ten feet down — but watching a bass bust the surface to shreds as it inhales a topwater lure will send shivers through you! With that said, topwater fishing is at best a minor art with many of today’s bass anglers. The advent of soft plastic baits — including the highly popular swimbaits that dominate so much of today’s big bass fishing — worming and flipping rods, and a host of electronics to locate submerged bass, have turned most bass fishermen into deep-structure specialists. Topwater fishing has taken a back seat to these highly productive methods — and that’s a shame.
Topwater bass fishing — successful topwater fishing, that is — requires rethinking a bit of your technique and remembering how bass relate to the surface of their underwater world. The separation point between water and air is both a highly productive food-gathering zone for bass and a place of extreme danger.
At the surface, bass come into contact with both underwater and terrestrial food and, at the same time, must expose themselves to a variety of threats. Besides bass fisherman, bass come under constant attack from herons, ospreys, eagles and other fishing birds. There are also many land animals that relish a bass breakfast if they can catch it.
This puts shallow-feeding bass on the defensive, and gives the topwater angler his first clue on lure presentation. While it’s true that “a shallow bass is a biting bass,” it’s also certain that “a shallow bass is a nervous bass.” I was reminded of this a few months ago while fishing a small bass lake a few miles from my Southern California home.
I had decided to leave the boat at home and walk the shore with a small collection of lures and a two rods, one a bait-casting rod capable of throwing good-sized lures, and a light spinning rod for smaller, lighter lures. Hiking a narrow, foot-worn trail across a point, I came across two men casting from a bass boat. Both were raking the shallow, weedy water with surface lures. Their technique was to cast, then retrieve the lure with a quick, splashy action. From my vantage point on top of the point, well above the water, I could see frightened bass scooting for deep water well ahead of the ruckus.
I let the noisy duo fish through the area, and after a few minutes of quiet, moved down and started working over the same water. Knowing the bass were nervous in the clear, shallow water, I elected to fish a small floating Rapala. Weighing just a fraction of a hardwood or plastic lure, the little balsa-bodied Rapala was an ideal tool for cautious bass. Casting well beyond the weed-line with the spinning rod, I inched the floating minnow into range as silently as possible.
Halfway through the second cast, I was rewarded with a fat 2-pounder, and a couple of casts later, came up with a dandy bass just ounces short of the 5-pound mark — out of the same water that produced nothing for the energetic anglers in the bass boat. I might have caught even more bass in this obviously good spot, but another boat came along, so I reeled up and just watched. They were fishing crankbaits, and had no success. They left and I rested the spot again for several minutes.
Putting the little floating minnow into action once more, I was rewarded with another decent bass, a couple of hits I couldn’t hook up, and finally a sharp tap from a really large bluegill. It seemed to me that a quiet approach to fishing this small, weedy cove was exactly the right medicine for the mostly unseen bass and panfish that congregated there.
As a cross-check, I tied a buzzbait on the bait-casting rod and made a few casts with the vibrating, thumping lure with no results. Switching back to my light, floating lure that could be worked slowly brought me two more nice bass in a half dozen casts. Finally, a hawk flew over the cove and the fishing came to an abrupt halt as its shadow passed over the weed beds.
That’s the first step in selecting a lure for topwater action — judging the type of retrieve action you’ll need for the existing conditions. Clear, shallow water with little or no overhead cover demands a sneaking approach. A big bait that crashes down hard, or a whirling, flashing, noisy lure isn’t the best choice where shallow bass spend much of their time “looking over their shoulder.”
Small, light lures that float at rest are best for this situation. Slender minnow lures, such as those made by Rapala or Rebel, and other baitfish shapes work well. I’m partial to old-fashioned stickbaits like the Heddon Dying Flutter, a skinny stickbait with tiny props at each end that can be worked all the way from a “do nothing,” dead-as-a-doornail retrieve all the way to a noisy, bubbling skitter across the surface. That bait is an antique now, but modern equivalents would be Smithwick’s Devil’s Horse or Lucky Craft’s Splash Tail 90.
Another old lure that works very well is the Smithwick Tooth Pick, also an antique. It’s a slender lure that floats in a vertical position. With any wave action or input from the angler, it nods and bobs like a injured baitfish. While it’s no longer produced, Tooth Picks can be found on eBay and various collectors’ Web sites. Any of the floating, popping lures can be fished as gently as these lures. I particularly like the Rebel Pop-R with or without the feather tail, and there are many similar poppers from other manufacturers. All can be fished slow and gentle, then worked up to a noisy, water-spitting flurry if necessary to bring cautious bass from a distance.
A frog, especially today’s soft, hollow-bodied models, or mouse-shaped lures called “rats,” can also be used effectively, but are even better when there’s overhead cover such as floating logs or lillypads that would support small prey as it walks around near water. If you’ve ever watched a good hand with a fly rod work a deer hair mouse or frog near cover, you have a good idea of just how effective these two critters can be on bass.
The frog has now been joined by the “toad” — a bulky, soft plastic with kicking legs that cause tremendous disturbance on the surface. Unlike frogs, which can be paused over openings in cover, most toads have to be kept moving. Also, while frogs have built-in dual specialty hooks, toads are simply rigged on extra wide-gap offset worm hooks, usually in 4/0, 5/0 or 6/0 sizes. Examples include the Kicker Fish X Plodin Toad, Sizmic Toad, Stanley Ribbit and Zoom Horny Toad.
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