Working The TopWorking The Top There's nothing like a topwater strike! Inside you'll find a variety of tricks to try the next time you tie on a topwater.
By Ronald F. Dodson, Ph.D.
Bass fishermen have always had a hallowed place in their hearts for topwater baits. After all, you can't truly explain the excitement of a topwater strike to a beginner until they experience the first explosion of a largemouth bass as it crashes the surface and engulfs a plug. Yet a number of folks will have a jillion soft plastics and only a couple of topwater plugs.
The topwater plugs do have some liabilities as fish producers. To begin with they are warm-water baits and therefore aren't productive for a chunk of the year. Even during the warm-water months they are often considered early, late, and nighttime plugs. The reason for this is simple in that this is when bass are more likely to be in shallower water, or shallower strata, of any given depth where you can get them to hit a bait on the surface. This is in large part because of the fact that the bass would prefer to avoid bright sunlight by playing the shadows or structure as holding places. But a bass is a predator and is also driven by the need for food. Shad aren't as sensitive to concerns about direct sunlight and thus will often "take" the bass with them to more open water. This can result in feeding frenzies where chasing schools of bass break the surface during warm weather.
If we took at some of these points then we begin to get some handle on choosing the right time to throw a topwater plug. You can usually forget topwaters during cold-water conditions, (generally when the surface temperature is below 65 degrees). However it is important to check the surface temperature since brisk air temperatures can fool you in the fall when the water is still quite warm. The reverse is true in the spring when the backs of coves may be as much as 10 degrees warmer than the open water. Particularly this is true on bluebird days, with no wind and on the east banks where the afternoon sun can rapidly warm the shallows. Bass will strike subsurface, even if it is only six inches below the surface when they can't be forced to go all the way up on true topwater baits.
This observation opens the door for a wider range of baits, which float on top, but can be worked for periods of the retrieve as subsurface lures. These are of course the minnow-like jerkbaits such as a Redfin, Rogue, or a Spence Scout.
So, are there simple guides other than the warmth of the water, time of day, and possibly the depth of water (since most topwaters are usually worked in shallower water, with some exceptions we will discuss later)? One interesting indicator is, if you see turtles on logs during the late fall or early spring periods. These creatures are good indicators that there is enough warmth in that area that they are coming up to sun. No this doesn't mean you can fish a pure topwater, but I guarantee that you can get hits on the topwater shallow-swimming jerkbaits because bass have also sensed that warm up.
During the warm months, be alert for any breaking fish. If there are swirls or actual breaks in the area then the bass will take a topwater bait. They will also take subsurface lures at this time so there are only a few rare cases where topwaters are really advantageous in producing numbers of fish over other baits. Schooling bass, as mentioned, will also hit topwaters, but often the size of the plug has to be matched closely to the size of the forage bait. During schooling activity on bright clear days in clear-water lakes, you may actually get more hits from a clear plug than one that shows up too well.
If you are working topwaters for scattered, individual bass you need to recognize the importance of lure size to the number of strikes. A smaller topwater will always get more hits than a larger bait, but the larger the plug the better the quality of the fish. It is for this reason that plugs such as the Zara Spook became topwater plugs of choice by tournament fishermen a few years ago.
Topwater plugs have to be worked in certain retrieves if they are to be most productive on a given day. This can include selected variations in the speed of retrieve on the cast to the amount of noise you cause by the bait on retrieve. Each plug type performs only as well as your ability to resolve the presentation that triggers strikes on that given day. The extremes of the retrieve included the concept of a topwater purist I once knew who swore by the need to let the ripples die before moving the bait. Actually most strikes occur when you are inducing action in the plug either when you start movement, vary movement (if using a more rapid retrieve), or when you stop the plug. Among all of these options nothing triggers a strike from a feeding bass more readily than the concept that food is getting away. That concept has to be somewhat tempered with the fact that we often catch bass particularly on topwaters as they react to the plug. This means you can on occasion force a strike by "irritating" the fish.
The action of some topwater plugs is pretty evident. For example the only difference with a chugger, popper, or a topwater plug with spinner is in the amount of noise you create as you work the bait. On the other hand, stickbaits such as a Devil's Horse or its thicker cousin the Zara Spook have a whole array of presentations available. Perhaps the most common retrieve is to "Walk the dog", which means to dart the bait from side to side by moving the rod tip from side to side as you retrieve the bait. On the other hand these plugs can be made to dip in place and pop back very close to the original position in the water. Obviously this can drive a bass nuts by seeing the critter do a dance over his head.
Choices for colors in topwater plugs covers the whole range of patterns. Basically you need to select a couple of representative baits which will give you the aforementioned actions then select a few colors in the basic food tones. These include chrome-silver or gold, chartreuse, gray, and three extreme contrast colors. These should be a white for reduced light conditions, black for very low light conditions, and clear for bright, clear-water conditions.
If you really get into topwater fishing you will eventually do some experiments with the plugs. For example a bucktail on many of the baits will add an additional fish attracting appeal. Even when the plug is sitting still the slightest twitch or ripple on the surface will cause the bucktail to pulsate. I often have used the bucktail as a contrast color on the back of a topwater to increase its visual appeal. Another variation in the action of a topwater plug can be achieved by adding a slightly larger hook on the tail. This will make it sit more upright and in the case of a chugger allow you to work it with more in-place action without advancing it as far each time you stop and start. Thus it tends to stay in one place longer, which is critical if you are trying to work small strike zones such as when casting to pockets along shaded cover extending from protected banks.
While there are usually a replacement type of lure that will get strikes any time you can catch fish on a topwater plug, there are some times that they are the primary lure of choice for getting to certain fish. These topwaters are the specialty plugs, which are mostly represented by an array of soft plastic baits. The location where they shine is in thick vegetation. You know, that nasty green stuff that some folks don't like such as hydrilla. This mentality, or lack of it, has always baffled me since the greenery offers cover for the bass and generally creates a much-improved fishery. This as well as most other forms of greenery acts as "bass hotels."
Two other particularly unique forms of vegetation are duckweed and water lilies. These forms of water plants attract forage ranging from crayfish to bream, and minnows of all sorts. To visualize the importance of vegetation that grows from the bottom as habitat, think of any of these foods types being in six feet of water mixed in with the vegetation versus the same forage critters in six feet of water over bare bottom. It doesn't take long to envision the value of protection that vegetation gives to all levels of the food chain as well as giving the same effect to bass fry as they develop. While the vegetation has all sorts of virtue as nursery areas and sites where there are large numbers of prey necessary for good bass populations, it also simply provides shade. Bass will therefore not go to deeper water during the day because of the sun if they have cover in which to hide. Getting them out of this green condominium can be done with a very limited assortment of baits. You can "crash" the vegetation with a heavy jig or a pegged worm or lizard. However many a tournament has been won by folks who know how to coax the bass to come up to a bait when worked on top in such cover.
The choices in these specialty baits include products by Snag Proof, Mann's, and Scum Frog. All of these companies offer products, which consist of a double-hook rig, which rests on the top of a collapsible soft body. Some of the plugs have a rubber tail or legs, but these are often more for the impression of the fisherman as he reviews the package than functional in contributing to the action of the bait in the water. The exception to this is the Scum Frog, which has an actual skirt, fitted on the shank of the hook. This addition allows both enhanced contrast, and thus increased visibility for the bass as well as gives the bait a greater mass for the bass to see against the sky. These baits work through any type of mat as long as you keep the rod tip up at the end of the cast so that you can keep the nose of the plug somewhat elevated on the retrieve. While these baits are fairly easy to cast and very weedless, there is a problem with hookset. The bass must be given a second or two after the hit before you set the hook otherwise the plug will come flying back to you like nothing happened. This is the tough part of fishing these plugs since we are instinctively trained to set the hook when we see a strike on a topwater bait.
You can also use a weedless floating lizard in the same type vegetation as a floating topwater. This is often particularly good in duckweed where the bait leaves a trail, but the advantage of the other plugs is that they give a greater silhouette and surface disturbance that lets the bass hone in on the activity going on in his attic.
Will these baits work in water where there is no vegetation? Sure, but why would anyone want to use a plug like these while you have so many other topwaters from which to choose and all have two treble hooks to let you more easily set the hook.
There is one relatively new plug that can be worked in the thick stuff or in more open water and that is the floating buzzbait. The Mister Twister company markets a lure called "Top Prop" which is essentially a molded plastic body which acts like a blade on retrieve and assures the lure floats when sitting still. The trailer hook has a keeper barb so that the soft plastic, curly tail acts not only as an attractant by swimming on retrieve but also assures the bait is weedless until the strike dislocates the barb.
There is another topwater bait which for years was marketed as a "Plummer's frog." Harrison-Hoge is now marketing the lure in a new version. The original had a solid rubber body with two wide rubber bands for legs. The bait had great action in the water. The second generation used a foam like material with the legs being part of the mold. While it looked in the package like the original, the action in the water was not. The new version has a modified leg system which is billed as letting the bait kick in the water so that, as with the original, the legs contribute to the action similar to that seen by a bass from a real frog. The bait has a single hook, which goes through the body and out the belly, thus pointing down. The hook is protected by a weed guard and while this plug is not as good a bait as the soft rubber products for working through the thick mat, it is unusual in that unlike most topwaters which have two sets of treble hooks, it can be used to work through thicker laydowns or in bank areas where there is considerable standing brush. This bait is thus ideal for working such areas and be assured, a bass is well aware of what a frog looks like in the water.
The soft plastic baits as well as the foam frog baits are most productive in brown, chartreuse, black, or white colors. Since these plugs are used to fish through thick cover or vegetation, it is reasonable to use at least 20-pound line. You are going to subject the line to a considerable amount of abrasion and are also going to on occasion have to horse the fish out of the cover if not on many instances have to go to the fish.
The overriding characteristics which topwater plugs have over all other plugs are that they provide a strike where the fisherman usually sees, feels, and hears the experience of the strike. This of course has been the mainstay of the attraction of bass fishing for decades, since nothing in bass fishing matches that surface explosion for excitement.
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