Topwater Baits Explained
By Jim Ratley
The excitement of a large or small bass blowing up on the surface of the water is a thrill few anglers soon forget. With springtime right around the corner, it is time to break out the topwater lures and be on the lake as the sun peeks over the eastern shoreline.
Topwater plugs can be broken into five categories or styles; poppers, darters, prop baits, crawlers, and flexible plastics.
There are two basic types of poppers, one pops or chugs and the other spits.
One of the first widely marketed surface poppers was the Hula Popper. The Hula Popper was designed to imitate a frog and the addition of a skirt separated it from most other surface poppers.
All of the original Hula Poppers were made of wood, as were most of the original topwaters. Today only one or two lure companies still make their surface lures out of wood, virtually all are now molded from hard plastics.
The chugger style popping plug worked much like the Hula Popper. However, it was designed and colored to imitate an injured fish. Although both the Hula Popper and Chugger would spit water out in front, both made a fairly loud pop in the process.
The spitting type surface lure came along in the late 1970's, some 30 years after the Hula Popper and Chugger type plugs. The Pop-R was among the first spitters. Instead of making a loud pop, the Pop-R would pop and also spit water several feet in front of the lure at the same time.
The shape and angle on the face of these three plugs determined how they functioned and the sound they made on the water's surface. All of these lures came in a variety of sizes with the 3- to 4-inch, with 1/4- to 1/ 2-ounce sizes being the most popular. AU three lures are still marketed, and avidly fished, today.
The Pop-R type lure has been most frequently copied and is used more by modem anglers. Shad or sunfish colors are more popular on the Pop- R, while frog colors are still popular for the Hula Popper.
All of the above lures are now marketed with rattles inside the bodies for added attraction. Some of the Pop-R knockoffs made in Japan and other places have specialized paint jobs and special feathers on the rear treble hook and can cost more than $20 each. Light action rod and reel combos are best for presenting and working popping lures. A pistol-gripped rod will save a lot of wear and tear on your wrist. Line weights from 10- to 17-pound tests will perform best.
The lure is cast along side an object such as a tree, rock, dock, etc. and allowed to rest a few seconds. Then using your wrist either sharply, or lightly, you "pop" the plug two or three times. Then you allow the lure to rest for 10 to 30 seconds. This series of jerks is continued about half-way back to the boat.
Old-timers believe you should wait for all the small waves from the lure to subside before starting your action following your cast. This may or may not be the truth, since many of your strikes will occur during the time the plug is being actively popped.
You need to experiment with the degree and intensity of popping needed to attract fish to the lure. On some occasions one very slight pop may be sufficient. On another occasion pop ping the lure all the way back to the boat as fast as you can may do the trick.
Bass can be brought up from depths of over 30 feet in clear water from the action of surface poppers.
Bass feeding at the surface are caught most frequently during low-light periods. During the first or last hour of daylight, topwater action can be sensational on some waters. Generally the clearer the water, the better the topwater action. Also the quieter the water, the better the topwater action. Boating activity can kill a topwater bite quicker than any other disturbance.
Schooling activity can circumvent the light intensity factor. Anytime you see schooling activity, tie on a shad topwater imitation and you may be pleasantly surprised at the results.
Darters are recognized from all other types of surface lures by the absence of any type of head or tail modification. Most darters look some- what like a cigar in shape. Their darting action comes from the positioning of the front eye screw. Normally it is placed slightly below the front middle of the lure's nose or face.
Most darters sit with the rear of the plug below the surface and the head out of the water. When you snap the rod tip down from a position straight on with the lure, it will dart to one side or the other. An experienced angler can produce an erratic side-to-side action know as "walking the dog." This action can be done two or three times, stopped and repeated, or repeated all the way to the boat. The walking-the-dog technique is a very effective way to entice a bass into striking the lure.
Speed and movement variations can be changed to suit the conditions. On windy days, the preferred technique may be wild and rather brisk. On still days, a more subtle approach may work best.
The Zara Spook was among the first, and is still the most popular lure of this type. The 3- to 5-inch length and 1/2- to 3/4-ounce weight is most widely used. Normally shad patterns such as chrome/black back, chartreuse/black back or pearl/green back are most popular. The finishes on modem darters are almost fish-like in appearance right down to the gills and scales.
Because most darters are fairly heavy, a medium action rod in 6-1/2 to 7 feet length may perform best for most beginners. However, once you learn to cast the darter with a lighter action rod (i.e., light action 6-foot length), the walking-the-dog technique is easier to perform. Monofilament line in 12- to 17-pound test will work best for this technique.
As with most topwater lures, it is best not to set the hook on the fish until you feel the tug. This delay will result in many more hook ups over the years.
Darter style topwaters have always been big bass producers.
Probably the most popular topwaters are the prop baits. There are two variations. The first has a single propeller on the rear in front of the back treble hook. This style spits water out to one side, or both, and generally sits with the back prop end slightly lower in the water than the head. The second style has a prop on both ends of the bait and makes, as would be expected, twice as much commotion on the surface. This style sits flat in the water at all times. Both styles run fairly straight due to the prop. Both can be worked with a continual retrieve or jerked through the water to create as much commotion as wanted in an irregular method or pattern.
One of the original rear prop baits, the Tiny Torpedo, has been catching lots of fish since the early 1960's. The Torpedo and similar single prop baits are best in the 2- to 3-inch sizes in shad or sunfish colors. However, a clear Tiny Torpedo has been the mainstay for bass fishermen for over 40 years.
Single prop lures seem to be better imitations of shad than the double prop styles. The double prop baits have also been around since the late 1950's. The Cripple Killer and Devil's Horse have been widely marketed since the mid- 1950's. Both of these lures were originally made of wood. A variety of double prop lures, including the above lures, are made today primarily from hard plastic. The double prop lures seem to be a better sunfish or minnow imitator.
Surface lures with props on both ends come in a wide variety of colors. However, the sunfish colors such as chartreuse/green back seem to be more effective.
A light action rod and 6.3:1 gear ratio reel works best on both prop models. Both models come in very light 1/8-ounce sizes made for ultra- light tackle. However, southern bass anglers more commonly use the 1/4- to 1/2-ounce sizes.
Crawler style topwaters are not widely used by southern bass anglers. The Jitter-Bug is the best known of this style topwater. The 2- to 3-1/2-inch sizes are the most popular in black, frog, or perch colors.
Crawlers are used primarily during late evening or at night. A light or medium action 6- to 6-1/2-foot casting rod and reel combo with 15- pound line will work well on this lure.
The retrieve is simple. You just cast it out and turn the handle either really slowly, or as fast as you desire. Keep your rod tip at about 60 degrees and do not set the hook until you feel the fish pull against your rod. A bass may hit a Jitter-Bug two or three times before finally inhaling it.
Strikes on a black Jitter-Bug at night can be an awesome experience.
There is one additional type of topwater bait that is not made of wood or hard plastic. Neither is the material the same soft plastic used in making worms. Instead, it is a thin tough flexible plastic. Most manufacturers refer to these lures as soft frogs and rats, since the most commonly fished models resemble a frog or rat.
Their lightweight, hollow bodies hold air so they will float over the thickest of aquatic vegetation without getting entangled. Nearly all of the models are two to four inches long and rarely weight more than a 1/4-ounce, even though some of the manufacturers list them as 1/4- or 1/2- ounce models. Most colors or color combinations have green, chartreuse or brown backs, with a white or chartreuse belly.
A long shank double hook in 1/0 to 4/0 runs the length of the entire body and is positioned so that the back of the bait guards the point of the two hooks.
Because they are light and awkward to cast, it is best to use a light action 6-1/2- to 7-foot rod. However, you almost need a medium action rod to get an adequate hook set. A 6- to 6-1/2-foot medium action spinning rod and reel combo equipped with 20- to 30-pound braided line, with a 5- to 6-foot 20-pound fluorocarbon leader is very effective.
When you get a strike on a plastic frog, you better not set the hook until you feel a "stick" or you will get what a stakeout victim gets... "all air."
The Scrum Frog is a classic lure of this style. It is not unusual to get four strikes for every bass you catch, but it is still great fun and that's what topwater fishing is all about.
Another topwater category that takes a bit more work, as the lure does not generally float, is the buzzbait.
Buzzbaits are similar in physical appearance to spinnerbaits. They are built with a blade that resembles a butterfly with its wings outstretched and cupped on the tips.
The number of blades and material the blade is made of can differ somewhat among buzzbaits. There are three common blade combinations. The one used most has two blades, while the triple- and quad-wing baits are used somewhat less frequently.
Most buzz blades are made of light weight aluminum or Lexan. Two-bladed aluminum buzz blades are the most popular.
Silver or chrome is the most common color. However, black, chartreuse, white, and gold plated blades have gained in popularity in recent years. Lexan blades are generally black, white, chartreuse, or clear in color. Buzz blades range in size from 1/2-inch in length to up to 3-1/2 inches. Most buzz blades are as wide as they are long.
The buzz blade turns on a wire arm or shaft, similar to a propeller. The buzz blade provides lift, keeping an up to 1/2-ounce lead head on the surface during retrieval.
As the buzzbait is pulled through the water, the blades chop the water's surface and create quite a commotion. A bass sees the action of the blade and thinks a larger fish is chasing a smaller fish and often tries to eat both with a single lunge.
There are two basic shapes of buzzbaits: In-line and U-shaped.
The in-line buzzbait has the blade directly in front of the lead head, just like an in-line spinnerbait. Anglers can keep an in-line buzzer on the surface with much less effort than a U- shaped buzzer of similar weight and blade size. However, the in-line is not as popular with southern bass anglers.
Most southern anglers have at least one or more U-shaped buzzbaits in their tackle box.
A 1/4- or 1/2-ounce white or chartreuse head and skirt combo with a nickel plated blade is universally the most popular. Depending on the weight of the buzzbait, a light to medium action 7- to 7-1/2-foot casting rod and 6.3:1 gear ratio reel works best. Some anglers opt for a softer fiberglass rod. Monofilament line from 12- to 17-pound test will do just fine. Braided line is not recommended for buzzbaits.
A buzzbait is about the equivalent of a Rat-L-Trap, in that both can work you to death. You simply cast the buzzbait past your target, hold your rod tip at a 60- to 70-degree angle to the line and start turning the reel handle. Some days the bass like the bait streaking across the water, other days they want a slow retrieve.
As with other topwaters, try not to set the hook until you feel a tug at the other end.
Grubs and split-tailed soft plastic trailer work well behind buzzbaits. Either trailer adds lift and bulk to the bait. Trailers may also aid in the amount of time a bass holds a buzzer. Trailer hooks can also be a plus on days when bass seem to "short-strike" buzzbaits. Normally, they short strike a lure because the lure is too large or perhaps is the wrong "color." Unless you have a wide assortment of buzzbaits, a trailer hook may be your best choice of options.
Also, it is best to check the hooks on all of your lures and make sure that they are high quality, sharp hooks. Many anglers have lost a trophy because they trusted old line or dull hooks.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or if I can help in any way. You can reach me at our toll free number 877-301-8999.