Late spring tips and tactics made for taking your bass fishing to a higher level -- right up to the surface!
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
When it comes to catching Kansas bass on topwater lures, don't think of this month as May. Topwaters will work now, and they'll work as well as -- if not better than -- any other kind of lure you might care to use on Sunflower State largemouths.
There's a lot going on below the surface of your favorite bass waters right now, and from now into the waning days of spring, that activity will catalyze an affinity for topwater lures and techniques among the bass there. Still more significant is the increase in water temperatures, which should be getting near where they need to be for post-spawn bass to start turning really aggressive. Equally important: No matter the size of the fish or the dimensions of the lake they swim, most largemouths in Kansas waters ought to have pretty much totally recovered from the stressful effects of the spawn by this point in the year.
Think about how you feel after the most taxing assignment you perform every year at your job. You need time to recover -- often both physically and mentally. Now think about how you look at life when you get back to feeling like yourself again. Chances are good that you're upbeat, and primed for enjoying all there is around you.
Well, maybe this is a stretch, but bass aren't dissimilar, and for the bucketmouths inhabiting Kansas' lakes and streams, "enjoying all there is" in their environment means going on the prowl for easy, regular meals. Happily, a topwater bait fits the profile of one of those readily-devoured morsels quite well -- as I learned at first hand at a southeast Kansas strip pit one May afternoon.
The bass had been biting all day, hitting early and often as I fished a split-shot enhanced Carolina rig with a straight 4-inch plastic worm. Virtually all of the bites came as the lure began to tumble down the steep banks of the pit at the end of my cast. It quickly became apparent that the largemouths were holding shallow in less than 4 feet of water.
Shadows were just beginning to lengthen when, off to my left, a fish swirled along a weedline against the shore. I remember thinking: Hmm -- I wonder if it's time to try topwater?
Indeed it was. In the time it took for me to switch from that light-line Carolina rig to a popper, the little two-man boat had drifted to within casting range of the bass I'd seen swirl. That fish pounded my bait as soon as it hit the water, and from then until it was too dark to see where I was casting, largemouths hit the popper on practically every cast. To this day, that remains one of the finest topwater outings I've ever enjoyed.
You probably shouldn't expect to get that kind of action out of every bass trip you make this month. But you can reasonably anticipate getting your fair share of fish by taking the topwater tack with your May fishing.
WHERE TO GO
The strip pits in the southeast corner of the state are among the best topwater bass-fishing destinations in all of the Great Plains. Most of the pits are accessible either from shore or by boat. Some even have the kind of launch areas that will permit you to use your big bass rig -- but you won't need it. These are the kinds of waters on which little two-person boats or float tubes really shine.
The same can be said for farm ponds, which might be a better choice if you live more than a couple of hours' drive time from the strip pits. Think of your local potholes as similar to the strip pits. None of them will likely be as deep as the ponds reclaimed from coal companies' strip-mining operations, nor will many of them be as clear, but farm ponds are wonderful places to fish topwater baits this month because they, too, are easily accessible -- and because the bass in them seem always ready to smack topwater lures with reckless abandon.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that the preceding three paragraphs are meant to suggest that small waters are the only waters holding promise for topwater fishing -- that's not the case at all. Give me any major Kansas impoundment with (1.) largemouth bass, (2.) shallow coves and bays through which feeder creeks meander, and (3.) fairly clear water, and I'll be there this month, and armed with little else besides topwater gear.
Cedar Bluff is a good bet for that reason, as is La Cygne in Linn County. Indeed, La Cygne's status as a power-plant lake with a year-round growing season might be a reason to regard it as the place for connecting with a truly large bass. This is the month for throwing topwaters in the coves up near the La Cygne dam, and also up the major feeder creek arm.
Other big lakes to consider around the state include Fall River, Hillsdale, Clinton, Melvern and even Wilson. You might disagree with some of those selections, but the fact remains that the Sunflower State's largest impoundments generally will offer you decent topwater bass action right now.
Just below them in size are the myriad state fishing lakes scattered around Kansas, some known for years for their better-than-average bass fishing -- places like Leavenworth State Fishing Lake, and my personal favorite, Osage SFL. The many locally managed community impoundments -- spots like Shawnee Mission Park Lake in Johnson County, for example -- merit consideration also.
Basically, just about any lake that you know of whose bass fishing can be good ought to be great for trying your hand with topwater baits from now all the way into early June.
WHERE TO FISH
Here's a rule of thumb to guide you in selecting locations appropriate for throwing your favorite topwaters at this time of year: If you're going in the morning, concentrate on the east sides of the lakes you're visiting; in the afternoons and evenings, start out on the west sides.
The reasons for this rule are pretty simple. Eastside banks are the last to get direct sunlight in the morning, while westside banks are the first to get shade in the late afternoon. Experience over the years has pretty much convinced me that bass will stay more active in the morning shade, and start getting more active first in those areas in which the shadows first start to lengthen.
Main-lake points are tough to beat as specific targets for your topwater lures, especially early in the morning. As spring slowly begins warming up into summer, bass begin moving up and down those main-lake points throughout the day. They'll be up shallow early in the morning, and often will stay within the strike zone of a topwater bait until midmorning.
If you're headed out in the afternoon or evening, my experience has been th
at you won't get lots of action around main-lake points on topwater baits until just about dark. You'll be able to catch fish around them all day, sure -- just not on topwaters.
For me, the best afternoon/evening locations will lie along weedy west-side shorelines and in those shallow coves and bays with some decent structure like blowdowns, stumps and rocks. And the best of the best are those spots that allow me to make long casts that will cover lots of the structure during one retrieve.
We all know how dynamic Kansas' weather can be at this time of year. Thunderstorms -- vicious ones, at that -- can blow up seemingly out of nowhere. You shouldn't even think about fishing when conditions are ripe for severe weather. You should, however, think about where at your favorite bass lake you might find some flowing water to fish after a spring storm front passes.
Let's say that you're aware of the feeder creek on the south side of Osage SFL, and that you know that, after a rain, some fairly significant current will be flowing into the lake from that creek. Bass are going to work with that current a lot like trout in eastern freestone streams do -- that is, they'll pick off easy meals that come drifting into the lake from upstream. Places like the one described (an actual site, incidentally) can prove amazingly productive after a storm, and later in this article, we'll go into more detail on just how to fish them.
On the smallest lakes recommended in this story -- the farm ponds and strips pits that collectively boast such wonderful Kansas bass action -- the best places to fish are any of those that you can reach with your favorite topwater. Accordingly, you should cover those little gems as thoroughly as is possible, because bass will hit your lure just about anywhere on them.
WHAT TO FISH
Take your pick. Poppers are my choice, because I have the most confidence in my ability to fish them effectively. Some anglers prefer "walking" baits; others opt for buzzbaits. As far as this story's concerned, soft-plastic jerkbaits qualify as topwaters; your approach when using them will consist simply in keeping them from getting much below the surface film of the water.
Here's a little tip that can save you some money and help you catch more bass. Don't throw away your hard-plastic diving stick baits if you happen to hit a rock with your cast and the diving lip snaps off.
That happened to me one morning. Instead of just reeling the bait right back in and tying on another, I decided to fish out the cast just for the heck of it. My rewards were a keeper largemouth bass and an eye-opening fishing lesson.
From that point on, I have never been afraid to try a stick bait with a broken lip, especially when there's some chop on the water. I just cast it and use a quick, jerky retrieve -- not unlike what you'd use with a walking bait.
If you try it, I'm sure you'll be very pleasantly surprised with the results! -- Tim Lilley
The same can be said for the venerable safety pin-style spinnerbait. Topwater purists might disagree with their inclusion -- the soft-plastic jerkbaits' too, maybe -- but the fact remains that they can be most effective fished right at the surface, and this is the time of the fishing season when those approaches are most suitable for fooling the bigmouths.
And if you've ever wanted to take a crack at catching bass on a fly rod, try it now, because deer hair poppers and frog patterns are killer when the topwater bite is on. Fishing them is as easy as learning to cast a fly, and there's nothing to that.
All things considered, some conditions will see certain baits working better than others, which might mean that you'll need to depart from your favorite topwater offering. In my case, choppy water makes poppers at least slightly less inviting to bass than they appear to be when I fish them on calm or almost-calm waters. When there's a slight chop, the walking baits seem to work better -- and as we all know, in Kansas you're more likely than not to encounter at least a little chop.
Back to basic spinnerbaits for a second. They might be the very best choice for a topwater bait on those Kansas days when spring winds are howling. Why? Well, think about what's happening then, especially at the state's largest impoundments.
When the topwater "chop" is actually wave action of a foot or two, wads of baitfish often get blown into the bank. If you can rip a spinnerbait just under the surface along any of those windblown banks, you're going to catch bass. Your biggest obstacle will probably be boat control, and trying to keep your boat oriented so as to achieve the most effective presentations can definitely be frustrating work. On the other hand, when the surface is rolling, bass tend not to spook quite so easily, so you at least won't have to worry about that if you're having to move the boat repeatedly as you strive to maintain optimal casting and presentation positions.
HOW TO FISH
There's no perfect way to fish any topwater bait. Well, maybe there is: You need to give it the look and action the bass want to see that day.
This is particularly true with poppers or topwaters with props. Both of these styles of lures -- and the broken-lip stick baits mentioned earlier -- can sit motionless on the surface for as long as you like. So can deer hair flies.
If you enjoy using any of these baits -- or if you'd like to switch from, say, a "walking" bait to one of these -- just try it. The key to your success will lie in figuring out the pace at which bass want that bait moving before they'll strike it.
During May, it's safe to say, they'll be pretty aggressive. The most promising approach might be to let all the surface commotion settle after you cast and then begin a steady popping retrieve back to shore or to your boat. If you don't attract any interest after a handful of casts, slow things down, and keep slowing down until you have the day's retrieve rhythm established.
Or, if you prefer, do it the other way around: Start fishing really slow. Pop the bait a few times, and then let it sit until the surface is dead calm again before you move it. Maybe even let it sit there longer. The choice, really, is yours. Just remember that for these kinds of topwater baits to work most effectively, you have to figure out the speed that bass want to see that bait moving at on any given day.
You don't have this kind of flexibility with a buzzbait or a spinnerbait, or even a walker. Sure, you can pause the latter, but they're designed to work best when walked across the surface.
Provided that the fish are in an aggressive mood, you can be catching bass on a fly rod less than an hour after you pick up this kind of gear for the first time. If you catch a bass on a hard-pl
astic popper with your regular rod and reel, you can switch to a fly rod and keep right on catching fish.
You can learn all you need to cast competently wherever on dry land you can strip off 25 to 30 feet of fly line. For your best "beginning" setup, you should probably select a rod at least 8 feet in length that's rated at minimum for an 8-weight fly line. (In the fly-fishing world, line is weighted because it supplies the mass necessary for casting lures that weigh next to nothing.)
OK: Now you've got 25 to 30 feet of line out on the ground in your back yard. Using a snap of your wrist, pick that line up off the ground and, holding your rod tip at 12 o'clock, watch the line straighten out in the air behind your head. Just as it fully straightens out, bring the rod tip forward to the 10 o'clock position. As the line straightens out in front of you, bring the rod tip back to 12 o'clock. Continue doing this until you literally can feel the rhythm of this back-and-forth motion, which is called the false cast.
When you're ready to make your first imaginary cast in the back yard, bring the rod tip forward with some power from that 12 o'clock position, and let the line straighten out and then lightly touch down. Bingo -- you're fly-casting!
If you can complete casts like this out to 30 feet, you can catch bass on topwater flies. Just beware: This kind of fishing can be very addictive.