Mike Iaconelli’s Three Topwater Alternatives

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by Mike Ferman

BASS Elite Series Guntersville Day One Leader Mike Iaconelli - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Mike Iaconelli on the Guntersville Stage – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

When I think of late summer fishing the first thing that pops into my head is the joy of a good topwater bite. It’s not only visually appealing to see a fish come up to the surface and crush your lure, but the rush and physical shock can be darn near heart stopping as well. For Bassmaster Elite Series pro Mike Iaconelli it’s the same thing. “When I think summertime, I think topwater,” said Iaconelli. “That’s one of the primary techniques that I think about for sure. It’s an amazing technique for the heat of the summer and is not only super effective but a down right blast to throw as well.”

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Mike Iaconelli’s Topwater Alternatives – Molix Lover Buzz, Berkley Havoc Subwoofer and Rapala X-Rap Pop

Although the hollow bodied frog is an amazing tool for fishing topwater in the dense vegetation of late summer. Iaconelli has other topwater baits he utilizes this time of the year. As with any technique, the where and how are critical. The following is his top three list of midsummer topwater alternatives to the hollow bodied frog, he details how he utilizes each along with a few unique modifications.

Bait #1 – Popper
Iaconelli’s first choice was simple he said, “My favorite is probably the Rapala X-Rap Pop popper because of how much control I can have on it, he said. “If I have open water or sparse vegetation the X-Pop is definitely the first thing I’ll reach for.”

He likes larger topwater baits, but loves the precision of the X-Pop. “Don’t get me wrong, I love a walking bait in sparse cover; but a popper allows me to be more target specific and spend more time with my bait in the strike zone,” he said. “If I’m fishing a floating boat dock for example a popper is the deal because I can throw it directly at the target and keep it there as long as I want to try and entice a strike.”

Iaconelli putting in work with a Perch X-Pop

Iaconelli putting in work with a Perch X-Rap Pop

Iaconelli suggests keeping color choices simple. “I carry basic colors for my poppers; anything to match the forage where I’ll be fishing,” he said. “That usually means Chartreuse Ghost and Pearl Grey Shiner to imitate baitfish, a Yellow Perch to imitate yellow perch or bluegill, and a dark one like Mossback Shiner for low light conditions.”

Although Iaconelli says he generally fishes it right out of the box he added that there are two modifications he makes to these lures. The first is to leave three or four of his old knots on the line tie. “Something I do with both my poppers and walking baits is after I’ve used something a few times to leave my old knots on the line tie,” he said. “By leaving a few old knots it forces my line to ride high on the line tie which helps the bait walk, spit, and move much easier than when the line has slipped to the bottom.”

The second is to add suspend dots to the bottom of his bait. “I know it may sound crazy but one of my favorite changes to make to my popper is to add one or two suspend dots to the bottom near the rear treble,” he said. “This help the bait sit at more of an angle in the water. I believe that not only helps the action but also catches you a few more fish when they are just barely nipping on the back hook or coming up and bumping the bait but not fully committing. I also carry some markers so I can color the suspend dot if need be to help it blend in with the bottom of the bait.”

For gear Ike prefers a 6’4” Abu Garcia Ike Delay Series casting rod. “I’ve always liked a shorter rod than most for fishing a popper,” he said. “A popper is mostly wrist cadence so I want a rod with a shorter butt to allow for that. It’s a composite construction, which makes it very parabolic so I can still launch the bait quite far.”

Close-up of Ike's old knot mod

Iaconelli’s Old Knot Trick for Keeping the Line Properly Positioned

To that rod, he attaches an Abu Garcia Revo Premier in a 6.4:1 gear ratio. “I generally like a middle of the road speed reel here,” he said. “If I’m targeting smallmouth specifically I won’t hesitate to bump up to a faster reel such as the MGXtreme, it seems like sometimes you can’t make the bait move fast enough for them.”

When it comes to line Ike says it’s a fifty-fifty proposition. “50-percent of the time I’m throwing Trilene Sensation monofilament by Berkley in 12 to 17-pound test. The rest of the time, I’ll throw 40-pound-test Spiderwire Stealth braid. I let the water clarity, type of cover I’m targeting, and distance I need to cast decide which line to use. If it’s super clear I’ll generally throw monofilament with 14-pound-test being the sweet spot. Likewise if I’m fishing hard cover or the water clarity is low or I need to make an exceptionally long cast I’ll choose braid.”

Bait #2 – Buzzbait

While the popper is great in open water or sparse vegetation a lot of the areas we target with a topwater in the summer revolve around heavy cover; that’s when Iaconelli pulls out a buzzbait. “I like the action of a buzzbait around heavy cover,” said Iaconelli. “Whether it’s wood, like standing timber, bushes, and flooded willows; or super dense vegetation like hydrilla, milfoil, eel grass, lily pads, or even water chestnuts like I saw the other day. That’s when a buzzbait comes out to play.”

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The Lover Buzz in Action

Although he has no qualms about using a regular clothespin style buzzbait in open water; when it comes to dense cover he prefers a special form of buzzbait with a few key features. “The Lover Buzz by Molix is my bait of choice for a few key reasons,” he said. “For starters it’s an inline style buzzbait. What that means is unlike a traditional shaped buzzbait where the hook rides under the surface – the inline shape of the Lover Buzz not only makes it rise quicker but it forces the entire lure to ride on the surface greatly reducing the amount hang ups and snags in dense vegetation.”

Iaconelli continued to explain. “The second reason I prefer the Lover Buzz is it comes right out of the box with the modifications I would make already done to it,” he said. “One of the key pieces of a buzzbait getting bit is the sound that it makes; it’s that whine and squeak of the blade,” he said. “I remember back in the day you’d have to hang your baits out the window of the truck on your way to the lake to wear the hole in the blade and the rivet out enough to get them to squeak right. The Lover Buzz not only comes right out of the package with the rivet and hole modified for maximum squeakage; it also comes with a grass cone to help it stay even more weed-less and operate in dense vegetation.”

He explained his technique. “When I’m throwing that Lover Buzz I want it to change direction on every single cast that I make; just like crankbait fishing. I’m never just reeling it in and having come straight to me; I always want the crankbait to change direction,” Iaconelli continued. “There are two ways I am able to accomplish this. First, I can bounce or crash it off hard cover like a limb or stump. That’s easy to do and I bet 75-percent or more of your strikes will just after the bait changes direction.”

Topwater Chunk

An Iaconelli Topwater Chunk

The other way is to use your rod position to manipulate direction. “The second way is when the cover is soft like a giant field of duckweed or surface matte and there’s nothing to bounce it off of,” he said. “In that case I’ll make the lure change direction myself with my rod and reel. I’ll make a cast and start my retrieve with my rod tip at about 10 o’clock and every tenth crank or so I’ll pop the rod tip up to 12 o’clock, pause, and then reel in the slack before continuing my retrieve. This will cause that direction change as well.”

When it comes to color selection Ike again likes to keep it super simple. Suggesting you carry 3-4 basic colors to imitate the local forage. He said, “I typically use whites and blacks for most conditions,” he said. “The only caveat to that general rule is when I’m fishing for smallmouth, I’ll carry what I call bright or shock colored blades, like pearl or bright chartreuse, or orange. Smallmouth really seems to love a painted blade.”

For his buzzbait rod selection he prefers a 7’ medium action graphite casting rod. Although not generally known as a buzzbait rod, Ike tells us he prefers it because of the soft tip. “I fish my buzzbaits on my 7’ medium action Abu Garcia Ike Power Series rod because a buzzbait at the end of the day is a topwater so I want a small amount of a delay in my hookset,” he said. “A medium action graphite rod with a tip that is a little whippy allows me to add a little delay without sacrificing the benefits of it still being a fully graphite rod.”

As for the reel and line Iaconelli likes an Abu Garcia Revo MGXtreme in 7.1:1 gear ratio or the 7.9:1 Revo MGX. Line choices are almost the same as the popper in that it’s again a fifty-fifty proposition. He still chooses 40-pound braid the range for mono bumps up to 14-to 20-pound-test depending on the water clarity and density of cover.

 

Bait #3 – Soft Plastic

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Iaconelli Loves the Berkley Havoc Subwoofer Around Pads

The last bait Iaconelli brought up is a small soft plastic best known for being used as a subsurface swim worm or as a trailer for a swimjig or chatterbait; the Berkley Havoc Subwoofer. “While I designed it as a trailer, it works great as a topwater,” he said. “I absolutely love it, the best way I can describe the sound and action is like a subtle little 1/8-ounce buzzbait.”

When it comes to where and when he employs his little secret weapon he was very specific. “On days when those fish are chewing I’ll use the popper or the buzzbait. So, when they’re aggressive and eating I’ll use the popper and buzzbait because I want to cover water,” he said. “But, that doesn’t happen all the time in the summer.”

The summer conditions can make fish lethargic. “A lot of the time on a hot bluebird day, the water is crystal clear because the vegetation is filtering it well, there is a lot of boating pressure, and the fish are not chasing bait as much; a lot of times, they just come up and look at it or knock it,” he said. “At those times the buzzbait and popper aren’t going to produce as well; that’s when the Subwoofer takes over and begins to really shine.”

He said the bait is very versatile. “One of the neat aspects of that bait is its ability to mimic different forage. That little gurgling sound it produces sounds a lot like a shad skimming across the top. It also sounds like a bluegill slurping and popping or sucking on the surface, & I can also make it look like a dragonfly or even a small frog; it does a really great job imitating a wide range of natural forage for a bass.”

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The Berkley Havoc Subwoofer with Dye modifications

Iaconelli went on to explain how he fishes the Subwoofer. “I make super long casts past my target and that’s when a lot of bites come; on the end of the cast. As soon as that thing hits the water I start my retrieve, but mainly I want it to be changing directions just like a buzzbait or crankbait. The only added difference is that I absolutely love to just kill the subwoofer and let it sink,” he said. “I’ll be bringing it back through the pads and come to a hole and all of a sudden I stop and bow to the lure with my rod tip. When you do that it immediately starts to fall and while it falls it shimmies and the tail keeps kicking.”

He said this feature is also effective when fish swipe at it and miss it or are waking behind the lure. “98-percent of the time if you kill it, it drives the fish nuts and they have to commit,” he said. “Because of the fact that I can fish it anywhere I can fish the popper and buzzbait and do things with it I can’t with those the subwoofer is by far the most versatile of the three baits.”

Because it is a light lure, he usually uses spinning gear. “Long Casts are extremely important with this bait and the entire offering doesn’t weigh very much so it needs a rod I can still throw it a country mile with,” he explained. “I designed a 7’6” medium-heavy spinning rod for the Ike Series called the Long Cast Special. It’s 70-percent backbone and 30-percent tip which really lets me cast light lures the distance I need and gives me the power to set the hook at the end of that long cast.” To aid him in making extra-long casts even more Ike opts for a 40 size Abu Garcia Revo Premier and 20lb test Berkley Fireline.

He uses a specific hook for the application. “When I fish it, I rig it weightless obviously, with the bend in the tail facing down & away from the hook on a 4/0 VMC Ike Approved Wide Gap hook,” he said. “In light cover or open water I use the standard wire but will bump up to the heavy duty wire for heavy cover like trees or dense vegetation.” His choice in hook style and size allows for tremendous hookups. “When you rig it that way, the whole bait is basically a hook except for the tail, which is exactly what I want for those fish that aren’t eating.”

When it came to talking color choices versatility was again a major feature. “One of the coolest things is what can be done to this bait with a dye marker.” Iaconelli said. What he’s referring to is how well the plastic itself takes and more importantly blends color from a dye pen. This opens up a whole realm of customization for anglers to easily and affordably make custom colors to suit our needs.