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.
Over the years, I have come to loathe certain statements made about smallmouth bass whether the subject is river or lake fishing. One is the oft-repeated line about how "I'd rather catch them on top than any other way." The problem with this is not that catching smallmouth on top is no fun; the problem is that often the people who say this then go on to state that they feel this way even on days when smallies aren't smashing surface offerings.
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.
HEDDON TINY TORPEDO
Hands down, my all-time favorite topwater lure for smallmouths is the Heddon Tiny Torpedo. This prop bait has basically been in its current size and configuration since 1952, but its ancestors began appearing in the 1930s. Two excellent reasons exist why this bait has been made for so long: It draws smallies like few other artificials and it can be retrieved at least three different ways.
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.
The Tiny Torpedo may be my favorite all-around topwater, but the Rebel Pop-R is the one I most often turn to when I am desperate for a quality smallmouth. I rarely fish tournaments, but the Pop-R is a money bait if there ever were one.
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.
RAPALA ORIGINAL MINNOW
When I was a teenager and first started driving, I felt like an adventurer when I would drive to a smallmouth river some 30 miles away from home. My bait of choice back then in the 1960s and 1970s was a Rapala Original Minnow and it produced quality smallmouth after smallmouth for me.
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.
RAPALA SKITTER POP
Although the Rapala Skitter Pop is a chugger just like the Pop-R, they feature different configurations, with the former possessing a smaller head that is not as concave as the latter's. As such, sometimes smallies will prefer one lure over the other, but on many outings they will clobber both.
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.
HEDDON ZARA SPOOK
The Heddon Zara Spook comes in a variety of sizes and is certainly a classic lake largemouth lure. However, I rarely see river smallmouth anglers employ this cigar bait and infrequently observe impoundment smallmouth enthusiasts do so. That's a huge mistake.
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.
STORM CHUG BUG
Some two decades or so ago, the Storm Chug Bug hit the market, and it became all the rage for a number of years. One of the first smallmouths that I caught with it measured just a tad under 20 inches, and I have been a fan ever since. As is typical of the fickle angling public, the Chug Bug seems to be not utilized as much as it used to be, which is baffling to me.
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.
PHILLIPS CRIPPLED KILLER
Created over 60 years ago, the Phillips Crippled Killer has always been sold by smaller mom-and-pop companies, which, I guess, explains why this prop bait has never had much of a national presence. But over the years, I have met more than a few smallmouth addicts that were passionate about this double prop.
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.
My all-time favorite buzzbait is the 1/4-ounce Hart Stopper, which has not been made in a number of years. Fortunately, I hoarded a dozen or more 20 years ago and have a few left, which I will go to extreme lengths to unsnag from various obstructions.
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.
The Arbogast Jitterbug was introduced in 1938 and certainly deserves its classic status. It is mostly known as a nighttime largemouth lure for lakes and especially ponds. But this dancing, wiggling lure is an outstanding option on your home smallmouth river or lake.
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.