We all have our favorite surface schemes for smallmouths, but carrying and learning how to use a variety of surface baits will enhance our days on the water.
My first response is why would anyone who wants to catch brown bass (and that is the purpose of pursuing them, right) keep tossing surface -- or subsurface lures -- if the fish aren't inclined to be feeding at those levels?
Having said that, though, I believe that surface baits are often the most effective and consistent way to entice warm-season mossybacks. The following are some of the most consistently effective lures and flies for doing so and when and where to employ them.
The standard way to work this single prop is to cast it parallel or near some form of wood or rock cover, and then begin a slow return with twitches and pauses mixed in. On those blistering hot early summer afternoons, try dead sticking the Torpedo around shaded banks. And if the day is overcast or the time is morning or evening, retrieve the Torpedo rapidly across the surface, almost like a buzzbait.
Insider tip: As much as I am a fan of this lure, the factory hooks are not the best. Replace them with higher-quality treble hooks of the same size and you will likely lose fewer fish.
As a chugger, the Pop-R excels as a "spitting" bait. During the retrieve, if you can develop a rhythm where the lure slightly "digs" into the surface film, you will be able to send forth little spumes of water that are real turn-ons to smallmouths. Another viable retrieve is the "chug-chug-pause-chug" one. Dead sticking is also certainly an option, though the Tiny Torpedo seems better suited for this type of return.
Insider tip: Some lures perform more realistically -- and hard plastic stick baits are one example -- when slack line exists in the retrieve. Leave much slack line while retrieving a Pop-R and you'll soon see the bass that hit this lure jump and throw it.
As the years went by, I used the Original less and less until during a fit of nostalgia about a decade ago, tied one on. And just like those salad days of yore, I caught good-sized bass with this classic lure: it still works. Since "rediscovering" Rapala's signature bait, it has been the first hard stickbait out of my tackle box.
Of course, the Rapala Original excels as a jerkbait, but it also does exceptionally well as a finesse topwater. Cast this lure parallel to any form of cover, let it rest for some 10 seconds, then pick up just the tiniest bit of line with your fingers and impart some subtle twitches. If that tactic doesn't work, retrieve this it slowly across the surface, creating a small wake. With both retrieves, strikes are just as likely to be subtle as explosive.
Insider tip: This is a great bait to use when river or lake smallies, especially the latter, are schooling. Rip it across the surface and hang on.
The Skitter Pop can be retrieved in all the ways that a Pop-R can and that were covered earlier. But here's an additional one that is worth a try. If the water is extremely clear on your home river or lake, chug the Skitter Pop rapidly across the surface. The wild sprays of water sent forth from the spitting action can draw up smallmouths that would have resisted a stationary or slowly retrieved offering.
Insider tip: For a change of action, affix this lure to your line with a loop knot instead of an improved clinch knot. There will be a bit more "swing" in the retrieve and sometimes that can trigger strikes.
The Zara Spook fulfills two niches for me. Of course, I walk the dog with it just as many generations of anglers have. But the second way makes the Spook unique in my tackle box. Of all my surface and subsurface baits, the Spook is the best as a fish finder. If you believe smallies are in an area, but all your surface and subsurface offerings have failed, tie on a Spook. The fish may or may not hit it, but a rapid walk-the-dog motion will many times at least make them show themselves.
Once the fish have been rocked out of their doldrums, make a follow-up cast with a rapidly retrieved crankbait, stickbait, or spinnerbait just under the surface. Like a point guard in basketball, the Spook won't necessarily be the one scoring the bucket, but it will deserve an assist.
Insider tip: For smallmouths, I prefer the smaller Zara Puppy. During the clear water of summer, this size just seems to attract more fish.
That's because though nominally a cigar bait, the Chug Bug also functions quite well as a jerkbait. As a cigar bait, it can be used just like the Zara Spook can. But given its slight concave head and its thin profile, the Chug Bug performs exceedingly well as a, well, chugger. It has a thinner profile and a much different action than either the Pop-R or Skitter Pop do, so it can sometimes fetch up smallmouths when these lures can't.
Insider tip: The Chug Bug has one interesting trait as a cigar bait that the Spook doesn't -- the former can spit water like a son of a gun. Sometimes that trait can be the trigger.
And that double prop configuration explains why the Crippled Killer fulfills a different niche than its fellow prop, the single propeller Tiny Torpedo. I have never figured out why there seem to be "Tiny Torpedo Days" on the water and "Crippled Killer Days" afloat. For it often seems that surface feeding smallies will prefer one but not the other and be quite dogmatic about that preference.
One reason may be that the Torpedo sports a half-smoked cigar shape while the Crippled Killer offers more of an elongated egg shape. And of course there's that matter of number of propellers. Both lures can be retrieved the same way, but the Killer seems to function better when the fish are either extremely non-aggressive or extremely aggressive. I have no idea why.
Insider tip: Although the Crippled Killer cannot be retrieved nearly as fast as a buzzbait, it can be rapidly churned across the surface and leave an impressive wake. Next time things are slow on your favorite body of water, try this retrieve.
That loyalty aside, a buzzbait, any buzzer, is a dynamic lure for river and lake smallmouths. Every summer day on the water -- and I mean every -- we should make at least 40 casts some time during the outing to determine if the fish are amendable to this wildly churning blade bait. The day may be a bright blue sky one or an overcast one and everything in between, but any day can be a buzzbait one -- or not. The buzzer is like the little girl with a curl, "When she was good, she was very good, indeed. When she was bad, she was horrid."
Buzzbaits can be cast to and beyond cover and it will get by or through any number of cover forms on rivers and lakes, but I believe the best way to catch smallies with this lure is to return it parallel to cover. Smallmouths, just like largemouths, seem to follow this bait better and strike it more often when they can follow it next to cover, especially vegetation or downed logs.
Insider tip: If the bass are following but not striking a buzzer, pause your retrieve ever so slightly while making sure that the bait only sinks a fraction, then jerk this bait up and running even more rapidly.
Jitterbugs don't track well in current, so I solely retrieve this lure in eddies and backwaters on rivers and away from any moving water on lakes or tailraces. Never, ever pause this lure when you see a fish rise up on it or track it. Doing so will inevitably cause the smallmouth to turn away.
Insider tip: Don't sweat the color scheme on Jitterbugs. It's the side to side swaying action that draws bass, not what the lure looks like on its back.