I’m a guide. Of the hundreds of big smallmouth bass my clients have caught over the years, half were taken using topwater lures. Topwater smallmouth fishing isn’t just exciting, but early summer smallmouth bass are suckers for surface baits.
There are a variety of topwaters and greatly varying fishing conditions, so offering the fish the right lure, the right way, is essential for consistent success. Let’s look at each situation you might encounter and what topwaters would best match the conditions.
CHOPPY OR STAINED WATER
Let’s start with one of the more challenging topwater situations. A choppy surface is common on larger, wind-swept bodies of water, and in some areas so is heavily stained water. That means fish can’t detect a surface offering nearly as well as they otherwise might. It also means you probably can’t see any fish or their nests. But smallmouths are very aggressive during the late pre-spawn and early spawn periods, so some will still come up under those conditions.
These are times when I use either a 1/4-ounce buzzbait or large popping plug. Both create the kind of noise and surface disturbance that allows smallies to key in on them.
BUZZ, BUZZ AND BUZZ
Some of the best buzzbaits for choppy water are triple-bladed models, since they ride higher and “buzz” better in a chop. While with flat surface conditions, one pass of the buzzer over a spot is often enough, when water visibility is low or wind has riffled the surface, multiple casts to likely targets are better. When working an appealing shoreline or downed tree, I like to make at least three retrieves over the same area. Always be sure to keep an extra-close eye on the bait. A fish swirling by a choppy-surface buzzbait isn’t easy to see. If you do spot a telltale swirl, cast right back. That fish is likely to hit again.
POP IN THE CHOP
You can’t cover water nearly as fast with a popping plug, but for thoroughly working smaller target areas a loud “pop” is hard to beat. The plugs with tails (like the Pop-R and Skitter Pop) often do best, probably because their tails are so visible, dancing enticingly below the choppy surface.
A lot of guys who fish popping plugs work them too fast, with a rapid-fire pop, pop, pop. But even when the surface is disturbed, a 2- or 3-second pause between pops is generally better than the machine gun retrieve. You should give the rod tip a little sharper snap to increase the noise, but not so much that the lure moves more than a few inches during each pop.
Where there is current or significant surface chop, you can “pop-in-place” by working the bait directly against the wind or current. On the pause, the moving water will push the topwater back to its original position. That allows you to work the lure in one spot for extended periods, giving even fussy fish ample time to be coaxed into striking.
HIGH CLARITY CONDITIONS
Aggressive bass around their spawning sites during low-light conditions or in slightly stained water can offer some of the fastest topwater action of the year. With swirls, smashes, sips and swallows — fish nail topwaters every which way and create fond memories that last a lifetime. However, we tend to forget those times when the smallmouths weren’t so accommodating. In fact, when the water is clear, the surface is smooth, and the sun is shining, many fish will be much less aggressive. And after the spawn has been going on for several days, the nest-guarding males can seem downright shy. Fast retrieves with any type of bait might solicit a short follow from the fish, but rarely a strike.
This is the time for smaller and quieter topwaters like Heddon’s Tiny Torpedo or Rebel’s junior Pop-R model. Drop your quiet offering right over or near the nest and then work it extremely slowly. With this retrieve, the bait seems like an overhead “intruder” that’s in no hurry to leave. After casting the lure, let it sit motionless for at least 5 or 6 seconds. Then, with a slight rod-tip twitch, make the prop bait “buzz” or the popper quietly “pop” and then another long pause. The idea is to keep the topwater over the same small area for at least 20 seconds. That really agitates even a non-aggressive male bass, and he often will strike at about the time you’re ready to make another cast. Don’t get impatient or inattentive.
Once a pal and I were fishing along a lakeshore with only limited success. My partner hadn’t had a strike in an hour and his attention was waning. He made another cast with a popping plug and gave it a single twitch, then set his rod down in the boat and picked up a sandwich.
That lure sat motionless for at least 30 seconds and he was halfway through his turkey and cheese when — Yikes! A big swirl and the lure disappeared. Sandwich pieces scattered as a huge smallmouth shot skyward! Easily a 21-incher, the giant cleared the water by 3 feet and threw the hook. Sadly, we never hooked that fish again, but for the rest of the day, Harry stayed ready to set the hook.
During bright midday conditions, fanned out nests or the fish themselves can be seen in clear water, making target identification easy during the spawn. Unfortunately, if the light is poor, the surface is disturbed, or water is stained, you need to blind-cast to spots that you only suspect hold fish. That makes it important to understand where early-June spawning smallmouths are most likely to be.
One reproductive requirement is enough gravel substrate so that fish can fan out a nest. It also has to be shallow enough for sunlight to penetrate to the bottom — anywhere from 18 inches to 8 or 10 feet deep, depending on water clarity. In rivers, spawning sites also need to be away from moderate or strong current areas. Large bank eddies often fit this criteria. (A good way to learn all the particularities of river fishing is from the book, River Smallmouth Fishing at www.smallmouthangler.com). In both lakes and rivers, smallmouths readily seek out overhead cover (downed trees) or side cover, like boulders, to build their nests under or next to.
On gravel-bottomed shorelines with little cover, fish will nest next to even small sticks. But large downed trees are the honeyholes of wood cover. As many as three or four different fish may use a single tree, including some of the largest specimens in that area. However, in a lot of rivers and lakes, wood is in short supply, and so fish relate heavily to big rocks, especially large unevenly shaped boulders. That is because boulders with crevices or overhanging sides offer more protection for the nest and allow the fish to get partially under the rock.
FIRST CAST, BEST CAST
To best fish these potential fish-holding spots, plan your casts carefully. For large boulders, make your first cast toward the side that looks the best. With a prop or popping plug, try to drop the lure lightly right above the target. If you’re using a buzzbait or stickbait, cast several feet past the spot so that the bait goes directly over the target when you retrieve it. For a large log or downed tree, consider areas next to the wood that look the most promising and make an accurate cast to each spot.
I want to re-emphasize that “make your first cast the best cast” advice. Too many eager beavers don’t wait until they’re in a good casting position or don’t bother to consider where the best fish-holding spots might be. They simply start hurling inaccurate casts while still a long distance away. Lots of baits bombing down randomly several feet away from a smallmouth will more often alarm the fish, rather than appeal to it. If a fish does happen to strike, it’s often missed when the casting distance was too great. Try to stay in the “fatal 50s” range (50 to 60 feet away) when making a cast. That’s close enough to make accurate casts and consistently hook fish, yet far enough away not to alarm them if watercraft noise is minimized.
Spawning is quite temperature dependent, and during warm springs reproduction for some smallmouths can be over by the first week of June. When that occurs, these fish will start moving away from the shallow bays, bank eddies and gravel-bottomed shorelines that held their nests. For four or five days after leaving their fry to fend for themselves, smallmouths will be pretty lethargic. A few of them can still be caught by persistence, but the best bets are fish that have already gone through their short post-spawn funk and are starting to feed once again.
In their post-spawn, early-summer feeding period, smallmouths typically are spread along cover-laden shorelines, over rocky flats and around newly emerging vegetation that’s growing on a hard bottom. In rivers, the heads and tails of pools will hold a lot of feeding fish. In a lake with only moderate clarity, early-summer fish can be found shallow during much of the day, certainly shallow enough to be caught on topwaters. Even in extra-clear waters, many smallmouths will be shallow and topwater accessible in the mornings and evenings.
BUZZ ’EM, OR WALK THE DOG
To find those scattered fish, use a topwater that covers water quickly. Buzzbaits are good, but when it’s very calm and clear, a smaller 1/8-ounce buzzer can be more effective than larger models. While smaller buzzbaits are harder to cast and a little harder to keep buzzing properly, the payoff can be more strikes. A stickbait often produces even more strikes from scattered fish than a buzzbait does. Try walking the dog with a sticklike topwater such as a Sebile Bonga Minnow or Heddon Zara Puppy.
Even though stickbaits make very little sound, their wild side-to-side, zigzag action will drive smallmouth bass wild when the surface is smooth and the water clear. It takes a little practice to perfect the rod-tip rhythm and retrieve speed required to keep a stickbait steadily darting side to side. But it’s worth it. Walking the dog really shines when working large rock flats and reefs, or retrieving parallel to a rocky bank.
Perhaps the biggest downside to darting stickbait topwaters is that a good percentage of mid-sized smallmouths won’t hook themselves on the strike. While these fish may try again on the next cast, a more reliable way to hook them is to have a “come-back” lure at the ready.
If you have a fishing partner in the boat, that person should immediately “come back” to the missed fish with a propeller topwater or small popping plug. If you’re fishing alone, drop your stickbait rod, grab the other rod and cast back as quickly as possible. Fish seem to lose interest if you wait too long, but when the second plug is dropped over their heads within a few seconds, they’ll hit again 75 percent of the time.
Recently, one of my two guiding clients was using a Zara Puppy, while his pal was using a small Pop-R lure. The stickbait elicited plenty of strikes from 12- to 14-inch fish, but only five fish were actually hooked and landed on it. However, the fellow using the “come-back” lure got 16 or 17 of the missed fish to hit again on the popper, and he landed almost all of them after that.
Sometimes cool weather can extend even into the early summer feeding period. Especially when there are unusually cool nights, water temperatures in the morning will be downright chilly. During those times, the bite in the morning is likely to be slow to nonexistent. But don’t give up on topwaters. On sunny days, water temps will probably rise several degrees by early to mid-afternoon, dramatically energizing the fish. I’ve seen plenty of those coolwater days where only a couple of fish were caught before 2 p.m., but a couple of dozen were landed after 2.
Topwatering isn’t always the best option, but it’s without question one of the most exciting ways to catch bass. Don’t miss out.