May 03, 2011
Of all the ways you can catch bass, nailing a big one on a topwater bait comes closest to the ultimate thrill in fresh-water fishing.
By Richard Alden Bean
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.
One dynamite, quiet topwater bait that almost nobody thinks about anymore is a plastic worm. Normally thought of as a deep bait, an unweighted worm cast on light spinning tackle can be snaked through just about any surface cover with just enough action to interest a bass. You don't even have to look around for floating model plastic worms. My favorite tactic is to thread a Betts Carolina Floater (available from Bass Pro Shops) on the line ahead of the worm just like a worm weight, and use it as a means of suspending the worm on top. Additionally, if I reverse the conical float, the blunt end makes a pretty good popping lure out of the worm if I need to make a bit of noise to attract bass to the lure.
In California, where so many of our excellent bass reservoirs get weekly stockings of hatchery rainbow trout, a whole industry has grown up offering replicas of a trout as a bait for bass -- especially giant bass. It started a several years ago with Alan Cole's famous A.C. Plug, a big, jointed wooden plug with a flexible, soft plastic tail. Optimum's new OP Minnow is very similar to Cole's ground-breaking plug, but has a short, clear lip and wakes the surface. Other recent surface-running, hard-bodied swimbaits eschew a soft plastic tail, but are dead-ringers for stocker trout. These include Spro's BBZ-1 Floating Swimbait, Strike King's King Shad, JSJ's Wakebait, Castaic's Rock Hard Rainbow Trout (Floater) and Mike Shaw's Slammer. These big topwater plugs can be worked as slowly as you can stand and will catch bass looking for an injured or dying trout to make a meal of.
Casting the more active topwater baits such as buzzbaits, spook-type stickbaits, prop baits and the larger popping plugs is more effective in discolored or deep water, or in windy conditions. At this point, you need to let the bass know where the bait is by introducing noise and flash to your retrieve. This is where heavy spinning sticks or, better yet, quality bait-casting gear comes into play. For working big, noisy lures, you'll want monofilament line in 14- to 20-pound test. Mono floats, unlike fluorocarbon, so it doesn't interfere with your presentation, and heavier mono floats better than the lighter stuff. To pull fish out of thick vegetation when fishing frogs or toads, expect to have to use 65-pound braid.
Fishing in or near thick cover such as milfoil, dense lillypads or heavy stands of tules or bullrushes requires enough sound and fury to pull interested bass to the source of the noise. Where bass must rely on sound and pressure waves to home in on potential food, you can become a lot more aggressive in your retrieve. A buzzbait is an ideal tool for getting the attention of a bass hiding in cover. There's just something about all that sound and vibration that pulls bass like they were on a rope.
This is also true of actively feeding bass. A school of bass ganging up on baitfish will put up with -- and respond to -- a lot more disturbance than individual bass hiding in a weedbed. A Zara Spook, or some other noisy, splashing topwater bait tossed into a melee of feeding bass is likely to get knocked into the next county by the first bass that can reach it!
These noisy lures are also useful in "calling" bass from deeper water to feed on top. I once watched a friend fish a buzzbait across a clearwater pond with an average depth of some 10-12 feet. The cover holding the bass was at least 8 feet below the surface, yet time after time, bass rose through the clear water to nail the buzzbait as it churned away over their heads.
Determining how much sound and action will work on the retrieve for a given topwater situation is a big part of the game, but it's only the first half. The way you present the lure is the other. On active fish who have sufficent overhead cover, such as lillypads, docks, or perhaps a fallen tree laying in the water, a lure falling on them with a loud "splat" may provoke an instant strike response. A favorite tactic of mine in such a spot is to toss a weedless topwater bait on the cover and slide it into the water with a soft plop that signals a waiting bass that some unfortunate creature made a misstep.
In a situation where the bass has little overhead cover, whanging a lure down on his head doesn't signal food, it promotes instant fright -- and flight! Here's where casting well beyond your selected target and working the lure into sound and sight range of the fish in a natural manner works a lot better.
If you simply remember that you're presenting a lure to a bass in what he feels is a danger zone as well as a place where a rich supply of food can be found, you'll increase your topwater catch.
In those places where a little noise and disturbance is necessary to alert the bass to the presence of a possible meal, the direct approach can be taken. By considering the factors of depth, water clarity, and the bass's feeding behavior at the time, you can select the proper lure and presentation to consistently take bass on topwater baits.
Once you master these simple steps to determining the correct lure and the right method, you'll find yourself relying on topwater for more of your bass fishing. It's productive, practical and -- most of all -- fun!