May 29, 2022
By Craig Holt
It's humbling to consider the way nature works, with life giving life in intricate relationships that are easy to see on the surface yet deeply inscrutable.
Acorns fall when deer, bears and squirrels need them most, saltwater baitfish migrate and help sportfish survive winter, and ground insects are plentiful just when wild turkey chicks need them.
The same is true for largemouth bass and baitfish species. At most lakes and rivers, various varieties of bait fish swim in proximity to largemouths during the post-spawn. Both move from shorelines to depths of 6 to 16 feet in June.
Alewives and blueback herring have expanded topwater areas at many lakes by luring bass farther offshore and make them "roamers," similar to stripers, rather than shallow-water brush-huggers. And a once short-lived topwater bite has become a month-long adventure in late spring.
Two former bass pros and one current professional angler with a combined 60 years of competitive fishing offer tips here how to fish for today's topwater-tuned June largemouths.
STONE-COLD GOOD ADVICE
Marty Stone retired from the professional bass-fishing ranks after banking nearly $1 million on the Bassmaster and FLW circuits.
He believes the influx of alewives and blueback herring (two distinct species of the genus Alosa) has changed the feeding habits of bass and topwater fishing.
"The first thing I look for now is if a lake mainly has bluebacks and alewives or shad," he said. "It took me a while to catch on (to the change in largemouth feeding habits)."
When he fished lakes that had these baitfish, he discovered if he didn't fish on top, the bite wasn't hot.
"Now in June I fish open water near long points," Stone said. "Bass seem to bite walking (lures) the best, probably because those lures resemble an injured (baitfish) in the water."
If bass aren't responding to Zara Spooks or Top Dogs, he'll try a River2Sea Whopper Plopper.
"It's been a great lure for me for topwater action," Stone said. "But in June it's about covering water. It's not like you can see (bait schools) with a depth-finder. You have to find a point with a ledge where bass have got baits backed up and bass push them toward the top. You can win tournaments at such places."
Blueback herring seem to prefer lakes with clay/rock banks and rocky shorelines. However, where the predominant habitat is "good bank grass that's not milfoil or hydrilla," Stone casts small bream-colored, shallow-diving crankbaits.
"That's another thing you can target -- bluegills," he said. "They love to eat bass fry. And bass fry like to hang out at permanent boat docks attached to the shoreline with pilings in the water or at floating docks.
"Bass are hard-wired to eat bluegills to protect their fry, so if you can throw a small popper, such as a Pop-R, near a boat dock, it'll look like a bream attacking bass fry. And bass will slam those lures. If you like casting with a fly rod, you can really have some fun with poppers.
Essentially, the first thing to do is figure out what the forage base of your lake comprises. The most common forage fish are smaller members of the sunfish family, the herring family or the shad family.
Lakes with that have really good bank grass, Stone says, are places anglers can have good results with buzzbaits and swimming jigs in June.
However, Stone says most Bassmaster tournament lakes seem to feature bluebacks and alewives.
"I had several top-15 to top-20 finishes in the Elite Series at alewife/blueback lakes and I used topwater lures," he said.
Then there are combination days when the bite changes from morning boat docks and grass to afternoon offshore alewives and bluebacks.
"One year I fished a team tournament at a lake that had good bank grass," Stone said. "My partner was sick, so I fished by myself and threw a buzzbait at bank grass and boat docks in the morning and the Whopper Plopper over rocky corners when the sun popped out. I caught a 5-pound kicker (bass) under a boat dock, weighed in 21 pounds on five fish and won the tournament.
"When bass come off the beds, they're tired and beat up," he said. "But at the same time bluegills and threadfins (shad) are spawning so bass and baits kind of collide.
"It's neat the way Mother Nature takes care of fish and fishermen."
Like Marty Stone, Dustin Wilks has moved away from competitive bass fishing but still earns his living from the sport.
He takes the practical approach when it comes to topwater fishing.
"I like whatever (lure) they're biting at the time," the six-time Bassmasters Classic qualifier said with a chuckle.
Weather is the factor that determines where he fishes at big reservoirs during June.
"If it's a really warm spring, most fish move offshore at big reservoirs," he said. "But if the water temperature is 80 degrees or less, they may be shallow."
He notes that at some point as spring moves into summer, the topwater bite tails off, but if you're fishing a river, the whole month can be terrific.
With lower water temperatures, he generally casts topwater poppers, frogs or walking lures near grass or weeds.
"In heavy cover, (plastic) frogs come into play," he said. "At rivers with stable water conditions or slightly falling water, topwater lures can be excellent. The water's usually getting clearer (in June) and bass can see farther. You also can get topwater schooling action below dams. I always have a walking bait ready at tail races."
He likes to throw buzzbaits, buzzin' frogs and especially a 4-inch-long Culprit Incredi-Frog at rivers with laydowns or lakes with heavy shoreline vegetation.
In rivers with a great deal of shoreline cover, he says you have to fish fast (to locate bass), which works well with an Incredi-Frog.
He's also invented a fluke-style lure called the "Skinny Jerk" that's 6 inches long instead of 5 inches and fitted with a 4/0 wide-gap hook to prevent bass from shaking loose.
Many pro anglers prefer prop baits because they can be cast long distances to prevent scattering skittish schooling bass.
"Also by late June, bluegills spawn, and bass hang around bluegill beds," Wilks said. "Bluegills will be near bass fry under docks."
At some lakes, the dock bite can last all day, he notes.
He chooses lure colors to match the relative clarity or dinginess of water.
"If I'm fishing early and it's still dark, I like dark-color topwater lures," he said. "I'll also use dark colors if the weather's stormy or at dark-color rivers. A lot of baitfish are really black (because of black bottoms or tannic water), so I'll use dark topwater lures."
During bright days, he matches topwater lures to bone or white threadfin colors.
Wilks prefers 6-3 or 6-6 short rods for walking baits and poppers, but 7-foot rods for frogs and buzzbaits. He spools 15-pound-diameter braid for main line in heavy cover and sometimes with buzzbaits. Otherwise he sticks to 12-pound-diameter braid.
"I throw flukes with lighter line and spin tackle," he said. "They're good to skip (lures) at docks."
POINTING TO TOPWATER
Randy Howell of Birmingham, Ala., a multiple Bassmasters Classic competitor and 2014 Classic champion, believes in topwater bassin' at points.
"I like to target points at big flats right after the spawn," he said. "In the postspawn, bass are coming off the beds and school up at big points, especially sand-bar points."
He looks for buoys, poles or any type of structure that maps show as shallow spots near deep water.
"That's where you'll usually have baitfish moving out," he said. "I look for schools of shad. They'll be balled up and moving toward deeper water. Also, shad will spawn in May over deeper bars.
"Most bass spawn before shad, and they'll be waiting on shad to come back to deeper water at the ends of points.
"At most lakes that's the indicator of a big-time topwater pattern. Bass also look for and push bluebacks."
Because there's no effective way to pinpoint moveable schools of many species of baitfish, Howell likes to cast long to reach bass suddenly exploding on topwater baitfish near his boat.
He prefers a signature 7-foot, 4-inch-long Daiwa Tatuela Elite medium-heavy rod casting rod with a reel that retrieves at a burning 8:1 ratio.
"It's easy to make a bait respond on a super-long cast," he said. "I use Daiwa J braid in 50- to 70-pound-test. The diameter is like 8-pound-monofilament. I can fish a lure 60 yards from my boat."
His favorite topwater lures include the Livingstone Walking Boss and Walking Boss Part 2. Color preferences include Natural Shad, Translucent See-Thru, Beauty Shad and the Ginrin Shad (yellow back, white bottom).
If he fishes closer to shore (some bass are late spawners), he'll cast a Walk-N-Pop 67 or 77.
"I like them too if I've got a lot of bream on the beds," Howell said. "I'll uses natural bream or true bream colors -- bone with a black back."
Howell said fishing topwater bass lures effectively has helped him cash several big checks during his tournament career.
"The Walking Boss also is a really good river lure," he said. "Sometimes topwater patterns are hit or miss. But if you can find a good pattern, you can catch four or five nice-size fish in a few minutes."
- This article, orginally published in 2017, has been updated.