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Surefire Topwater Strategies for Early Summer Bass

Employ these winning tactics and lures for wild post-spawn bass action.

Surefire Topwater Strategies for Early Summer Bass
The splash and noise that poppers create draw curious bass to investigate and then convince them to attack. (Photo by Shane Beilue)

As I waited out a lightning storm and its accompanying downpour in the cab of my pickup, I realized I should’ve listened to the weatherman. Through the sheets of water cascading down the windshield, I caught an occasional glimpse of my intended destination on the lake. A smattering of green bushes peppered the water’s surface, evidence of the series of shallow ridges less than a quarter-mile from the boat ramp.

With the storm’s passing came the calm and a slick surface. Even before I launched the boat, a flurry of 3- to 4-pound bass raiding schooling bait right on top caught my eye. The frenzy confirmed my suspicions that post-spawn bass were emerging from the creeks, and they were turning the shallows of the main lake into their breakfast buffet.

My lure of choice that May morning was an old Zara Spook that donned only part of its original chrome finish. Watching that well-worn topwater disappear amidst the boils and swirls made the prolonged wait in my truck worthwhile.

bass strikes a topwater lure
Berkley’s J-Walker and similar topwaters mimic a hurt or distressed baitfish on the surface, and largemouth bass can easily track them down. (Courtesy of Pure Fishing)

MAYHEM BEGINS IN MAY

In most Southern fisheries, the start of summer puts predators and prey on intersecting courses, resulting in violent interactions played out in the thin band of water covering lake shallows and making the topwater approach a prime tactic. The majority of bass have spawned and are returning to frequent feeding. This coincides with various forage species carrying out their life cycle in the same areas. The availability of bait and panfish, and the way that largemouths push them toward the surface and charge them recklessly from below, makes it a favorite of anglers addicted to the excitement of topwater fishing.

What follows is a rundown of intel to pinpoint places where you can target post-spawn bass effectively with topwaters, as well as the best tactics to score big with three time-proven lures. Check those reel drags, as this is some of the best fishing of the year for quality bass.

LIKELY WHEREABOUTS

When exploring for suitable spots to give your topwater lures, arms and back a good workout, any of the spawning areas loaded with healthy female bass just a few weeks prior is an excellent starting point. The backs of pockets, flat points outside of creek mouths and expansive flats within a lake or river’s tributaries are likely to hold pods of bream searching out places to make their honeycomb network of spawning nests. The bass that spent days defending their nests from raiding panfish now turn the tables and eagerly gorge on the spawning bream.

As summer temps arrive, the shad spawn is another event that attracts nearby bass like a beacon. Look for the telltale sign of shad rippling the water’s surface near shorelines, especially over or near hard surfaces such as rocky shores, wood cover or even clay points. While the bite is usually confined to the low-light hours of early morning, it can be somewhat unpredictable. So, if you come across aggregations of the spawning baitfish, casting your topwater in their vicinity could be worthwhile.

Shallow ridges and humps in the main body of a lake that top out within 5 feet of the water’s surface can hold the last wave of spawning bass on that body of water, as well as post-spawners moving toward their summer residence. Targeting these shallow areas with a topwater at first light or during periods of cloud cover is another great approach.

largemouth bass at the boat
Most post-spawn bass on the prowl for a meal find the frantic zigzagging of a surface walker simply impossible to resist. (Photo by Shane Beilue)

ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS

While the variety of topwaters that do the job on post-spawn bass is broad, three timeless classics, quite different in design from one another, remain at the top of my list because they enable me to vary the retrieve. Those three types are, in no particular order, the popper, the walker and the prop bait. Each boasts a distinctive action and sound, but for best results, they should all be fished at close range, whether from a boat, a kayak or shore.

POPPERS

Perhaps no other topwater design is as versatile as the iconic popper, which differs significantly from chuggers like the Heddon Lucky 13, which have a deeper, more concave mouth designed to displace more water on each pull. By contrast, the shallower mouth of revered poppers like the Rebel Pop-R, Yo-Zuri 3DB, Strike King KVD Splash and Yellow Magic, a popular Japanese counterpart, allows the angler to impart varying actions resulting in different surface acoustics that more closely imitate a shad in distress.

The standard splash-splash-pause retrieve is ideal for working the lure near shallow, shady cover, be it scattered wood or the edges of emergent vegetation. However, increasing the retrieve speed to a nearly constant, fast-twitch action simulates a frantic baitfish being chased on the surface and is another superb way to draw the attention of nearby bass and provoke strikes.

The spitting of spray produced by a fast-moving popper perfectly mimics the flicking sound of a panicked shad. To achieve this skipping and spitting effect, you must keep as much of your fishing line out of the water as possible. To do this, make short twitches with the tip of your rod held high initially, then progressively drop it toward the water as the lure approaches the boat or bank.

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WALKERS

Certain bass lures have a penchant for attracting larger bass, and the cigar-shaped surface walker, with its rhythmic, side-to-side movement, is among the best. The original Zara Spook, the quintessential surface walker, offers a large, 4.5-inch profile that helps bass home in. But this lure undoubtedly owes its big-bass appeal to the wounded baitfish attitude that results when the angler imparts the proper action, commonly known as “walking the dog.”

Surface walkers afford you the ability to cover a significant amount of water. However, pausing the retrieve now and then to let it just bob nose-up next to shallow cover can also prove deadly. Feathering a cast among scattered cover, bringing the lure near to as many shallow ambush points as possible, will further increase your odds of drawing out bass.

Walking baits are just as irresistible in a light surface chop or dead-calm conditions. When fishing in a slight breeze, imparting more aggressive action with the rod tip helps bass track down the lure despite the surface disturbance. Short strokes with the rod tip produce a tighter and quicker walking cadence, while slower, more deliberate rod pulls result in a wider zigzagging glide. Varying the action, you’ll figure out the fish’s preference and catch more.

Besides the famous Heddon Zara Spook, there are many productive lures of similar design. Top options include the Lucky Craft Sammy, Berkley J-Walker and Strike King’s Sexy Dawg. And some manufacturers, like 6th Sense, offer oversized surface walkers in lengths approaching 6 inches for targeting trophy bass.

PROP BAITS

Easily distinguished by their metal propellers at one or both ends, prop baits have also been around for decades and have long been considered a staple in grassy lakes. But these unique topwaters will work on any lake throughout the South, especially when bass are feeding among spawning bream or shad.

This type of lure should be fished with short, 6- to 8-inch rips or twitches, with the rod tip pointing toward the water. The slushing sound the blades make when the prop bait is ripped across the surface attracts bass, though fish often attack the lure during a pause in the retrieve. The thin metal blades can be easily adjusted to create softer or more pronounced noise and disturbance. You simply bend them back to lessen their sound in calm conditions, or forward to increase the noise as desired. The propellers also let the angler work the lure without having to move it far, providing enough water resistance to limit forward momentum.

Bass lounging near bream beds are quick to strike when a stray bluegill wanders too close. Twitching a prop bait like Cotton Cordell’s Boy Howdy, Smithwick’s Devil’s Horse, Greenfish Tackle’s Beer Belly or Rapala’s Skitter Prop on the perimeter of bream beds can have the same effect. In fact, letting it rest four to five seconds between twitches can activate bass lurking in nearby shade.

bass caught at sunset
Rods no longer than 7 feet and baitcasting reels with a high gear ratio make the ideal combo for working topwater lures. (Photo courtesy of Pure Fishing)

TOPWATER TACKLE

  • Use the proper rod and reel to get the most out of your surface lures.

Shorter rods, high-speed reels and either monofilament or braid with a mono leader make ideal setups to fish poppers, surface walkers and prop baits. Rod lengths of 6 feet 6 inches to 7 feet provide a quicker response when imparting the necessary twitches. And baitcasting reels geared for a 7:1 or faster retrieve take up the slack line faster, making it easier to achieve the desired cadence with any topwater lure.

The higher density of fluorocarbon causes it sink and makes it a poor choice to fish any of the aforementioned topwaters. You want a line with some buoyancy so it won’t hinder the action of the lure. Monofilament stays on the surface, and since line visibility isn’t a concern when fishing topwaters, why not opt for 17- to 20-pound test in case a lunker engulfs your offering?

Braid’s lack of stretch helps ensure a solid hookset at the end of a long cast. It’s imperative, however, to add a 3- to 5-foot mono leader, otherwise the lure will invariably overrun the limp braid between twitches and the line will become tangled in the hooks.


  • This article was featured in the May 2024 issiue of Game & Fish magazine. Click to subscribe.



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