Years ago, before soft plastics overtook the fishing world, many bass anglers fished almost exclusively with floating wooden plugs. Some even carved their own temptations. Some designs have changed little in decades and still catch fish.
Nothing gets a fisherman’s heart thumping like seeing a V-shaped wake rushing toward a topwater lure or watching it disappear into a swirling cauldron of fins and frothy water.
“Topwater baits are fun to fish,” said Dean Rojas, a bass pro from Arizona. “It’s all visual. We can see the fish and tell how big they are. It’s also a great way to find fish.”
As the popularity of lifelike soft-plastic creations increases, topwaters sometimes stay in the box, but the old surface favorites still produce lunkers and unequalled adrenaline-pumping action. Bass typically don’t just hit or suck down topwater baits as they would a worm or other soft-plastic creation.
They pulverize them, making shock waves radiate across the surface.
Topwater baits generally fall into four categories: poppers, prop baits, walkers and soft-plastic creatures. Many people consider jerkbaits topwater lures because some float. However, they dive when jerked like very shallow-running crankbaits. Still, jerkbaits can provide outstanding action on or near the surface.
“Although it has a lip, a floating jerkbait is actually more like a topwater bait than a crankbait,” explained John Crews, a professional bass angler from Virginia. “Wooden jerkbaits are more for a topwater presentation. They work very effectively during spawning season by twitching them over bass beds.”
Somewhat resembling stunned frogs or other creatures thrashing on the surface, poppers or chuggers displace water with curved blades or concave noses. When jerked, these surfaces cause the lures to pop, chug or gurgle to disrupt the water. Work poppers slowly, allowing the baits to call fish to them. Toss a lure to a likely spot and let it rest until the ripples fade. Then pop it once and let it rest again. Keep repeating this retrieve. This technique works well for enticing bass not aggressively feeding by offering them an easy target of opportunity.
“After bass finish spawning in the spring or early summer, they come back into the shallows to wreak havoc on spawning bluegills,” said Gerald Swindle, a professional bass angler from Alabama. “When bass are feeding on bluegill beds, the first thing I tie on is a popper. I want to mimic the sound a bluegill makes when it pops at bugs on the surface. I make long casts and slow retrieves. Pop the lure a little and let it sit for a while.”
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Since they produce significant noise and move slowly so fish can find them, poppers also work exceptionally well on warm nights. They also work on choppy days or when fishing murky water. Propbaits also work particularly well during the same conditions for the same reasons. Propbaits come equipped with what resembles tiny aircraft propellers on their noses or tails. Some sport propellers on both ends. These propellers churn the surface as anglers retrieve the baits.
“I love propbaits because fish don’t see many of them anymore,” Rojas commented. “Bass don’t often see something thrashing on the surface except for buzzbaits. A propbait is an excellent bait to use around grass. I rip it and then let it sit in pockets. I only move it six to eight inches so it stays in the strike zone longer.”
Anglers can work propbaits with either a steady buzzing retrieve or use the pop-and-go approach like with poppers. With this method, jerk a propbait forward a few feet and then let it sit several seconds before repeating. The harder one jerks them, the more noise these lures make. Experiment with different speeds and retrieves to see what works best that day.
“At times, bass want something thrashing on the surface,” Rojas said. “At other times, they want something more subtle gliding through the water. When there’s a ripple on the water, I usually use a propbait or chugger that causes more commotion. I’ve had success just steadily reeling propbaits. They make a ‘V’ in the water almost like a buzzbait. At other times, I rip it and pause until I find out what the fish want. When it’s slick calm, I usually use a walking bait.”
Among the oldest and most popular topwater lures, walking or walk-the-dog baits work faster and cover much more water. Make very long casts and work the baits with a scintillating zigzag “walking” motion. These baits generally imitate a sick or wounded baitfish struggling on the surface. Create this continuous walking motion by making short, but brisk, wrist flicks. Since anglers can cast them great distances and cover long stretches of water quickly, walking baits work like dynamite on schooling bass.
Anglers mostly use topwaters in the spring, usually at first and last light, but they might work anytime except during the coldest months. With black and green camouflage to hide them in weedy or woody cover, mouths that face skyward and eyes situated at the top of their heads, largemouth bass make outstanding shallow-water ambush predators so some of them stay shallow all year long. As water temperatures cool in the fall, bass turn more aggressive and frequently feed in the shallows where they gorge themselves on anything they can catch to prepare for the coming winter.
When bass hunker down in the thickest vegetation, anglers might want to throw floating soft-plastic frogs. Rigged with hooks inserted into the plastic, frogs can easily slip over or through the most entangling cover. Run frogs with either a steady buzzing retrieve over matted weed tops or with a plop-and-go motion like with a popper.
Topwater baits date back more than a century and remain on the market virtually unchanged because they still work. When a big bass annihilates a bait on top with extreme violence, the heart of even the most experienced fisherman might palpitate like a novice catching a first fish.