Early Fall Topwater Primer

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9/12/2011 – Story and Photos by Dan O’Sullivan

The days are growing shorter, the nights are growing longer; daytime high temperatures decrease and evening attire requires a sweatshirt over the t-shirt you wore only a week ago. When these conditions start to happen, the logical conclusion is for the surface temperatures of the lake to fall.

Cooler surface temperatures tend to cause a flurry of activity from baitfish. Shad of all types begin to follow cooler water and that means that they will move towards the surface. When they do, the bass usually aren’t far behind, and when the two components meet; a collision occurs.

Bass begin to chase and frightened baitfish catapult themselves towards the only place they can envision safety, and that is typically toward the surface. What happens then begins to mimic the top of a pot of water on a stove as it begins to boil; the smooth surface of the water churns to a froth as baitfish and bass clear the water.

Bass Boiling on SurfaceThis is time for topwater.

Most anglers drool at the thought of a topwater bite. To witness the explosion of bass on a surface lure is truly a sight. The sound is often reminiscent of someone dropping a bowling ball or a large boulder from high above the surface. Water erupts in every direction as the bass wildly swipes at the lure passing above with a spirit of absolute abandon for anything other than destruction.

With the industry producing a veritable plethora of topwater lures, how does one choose which they should throw on their body of water? When is the best time to pick up a surface plug, and how should they be thrown?

When Topwater?
The common thought on topwater fishing is to throw it in low light conditions. Early in the morning before the sun rises high and again late in the evening as the sun starts to sink below the horizon are usually the answers spoken. While that might be true for the dead of summer, in the late summer through the early fall, a topwater bait can be effective at any time of the day.

Because the water temperatures are cooling and baitfish are congregating near the surface, bass become vulnerable to a surface lure. While the majority of anglers have put their topwater rods away once they have turned their attention to bottom roving lures, and angler who keeps a topwater lure at the ready can capitalize on those sudden explosions of activity.

Where Topwater?
During the heat of the day, anglers should look anywhere that shade and an ambush spot come together. A lake with a lot of docks at or near the mouths of creek arms would be a good bet, or even a bank with a lot of overhanging trees can create the right amount of shade to hold bass looking to strike on the surface.

On shallow, natural lakes, throwing a topwater bait around grass lines or isolated clumps of grass can be especially deadly, as can be a bluff wall that features large boulders which can create ambush points for bass to hide behind.

Dave Rush Topwater BassAnother popular spot to find topwater bass; especially on spotted bass lakes, is in a marina where a fleet of houseboats are moored. Bass will suspend in the shade around the boats, and tossing a surface plug in the shade created by the houseboat itself can be very productive.

Choosing Baits
There are several types of baits that are popular when anglers begin to discuss topwater baits. For the sake of simplicity, we will focus on poppers and walking baits.

Popping baits are those with a cupped mouth that chugs the water when twitched. Some anglers may remember the original Hula Popper and the Rebel Pop’R, but like so many other categories, poppers have evolved with time. Nowadays, anglers tend to look to higher detailed models like the Lobina Lures Rico, the River2Sea Bubble Popper and other baits of this type. These baits are at their best when there is fairly smooth water to a light chop.

Walking baits are larger, cigar shaped plugs that feature a “walk the dog” type of action. Plugs like the original Zara Spook are truly the namesake lure of the category, but River2Sea’s Rover, Lucky Craft’s Sammy, Jackall’s Bowstick and the Heddon Super Spook have become darlings of anglers everywhere.

There is one lure that presents an interesting combination of the two styles of baits above; the Lucky Craft Gunfish. The Gunfish features a unique slender profile with a subtle cupped popping mouth that gives the angler the ability to do multiple things with one lure. Gunfish is also a fairly heavy lure for its compact size, which makes it a good choice for casting to fish that have schooled away from the boat.

Topwater Retrieves
Popper baits can be worked in a variety of ways. By keeping the knot in the middle to the top of the line tie, a popper can be chugged with a sharp tug and a pause, or by moving the knot to the bottom of the eye and using subtle twitches of the rod tip with alternated retrieves of the reel handle, the lure will spit and walk across the surface like a fleeing shad.

A good rule of thumb for working a topwater popper is to think of the activity level, along with the species of fish you are targeting. If the fish are aggressive and chasing, then a quick, steady retrieve is best. This is also a retrieve that is favored by anglers targeting smallmouth and spotted bass, which tend to be more readily willing to chase down a shad.

If they are not chasing, or in the middle of the day like we discussed above, a slow, popping retrieve with five to 10 second pauses between can be excellent, especially for largemouth bass. This kind of retrieve is also excellent around isolated pieces of cover. Stumps, dock posts, isolated boulders and small grass clumps can be excellent places for this type of retrieve.

Topwater Bass JumpingWhen using a Spook, or one of the baits mentioned earlier, the “walk the dog” technique is highly effective. Walking the dog is a zig-zagging type of cadence created by an angler who twitches his rod tip with a slight amount of slack in the line at the nose of the bait.

With the rod pointed down towards the water, a short, sharp snap of the rod tip will cause the bait to slide to one side, a second snap will pull the lure back the other way; remember to not keep the line too tight, or you will pull the bait straight toward you without the side to side action. Like the discussion above, keep an eye on the mood of the fish, if they are aggressive, a fast walk is best; if they are not, taking a few seconds to pause in between can be great ways to trigger strikes.

Line Tips
In the past, the only choice anglers had for fishing topwater pugs was to use monofilament line. That however, changed with the advent of braided line. With braided line an angler had almost immediate connection to the lure no matter how far he cast. The high floating properties of braided line also helped keep the baits up on the surface and walking properly. The small diameter and smooth nature of the modern braid also helps the angler make longer casts, which can also be a huge bonus.

Anglers who are concerned with visibility of the braided line can add a leader of monofilament to the end of their line with an Albright Special Knot. One time that braided line could actually have a bad effect is if fish are schooling and you are getting short line strikes near the side of the boat. Choosing to throw a monofilament line during these times can help keep some of those fish hooked, while braided line may not let the fish get the hooks fully when they strike.

Fluorocarbon line should never be used on topwater lures, because it sinks and will pull the nose of your lure under the water, killing action.