By Rick Lawrence
There is probably nothing more exhilarating in fishing than having a big pike or bass blow up on a topwater lure. Some of my favorite all time catches have been on top water lures, so I live all spring for this- counting the days and watching the water temperature to get to that magical time when fish are looking up to take a lure on the surface. But trust me, it’s not for the faint of heart! The first and most important thing in getting fish to hit topwater baits in the later spring is water temperature. Most of the time I don’t get too excited until the water hits that magic 62 degrees or so mark when I know bass will hit topwater baits. Although 62 is a good starting place on water temperatures, in some conditions I have caught bass in water temperatures as low as about 54 degrees if conditions are right. Most of the time that I have gotten a bite on topwater was in somewhat colder water is when the main water body was colder and fish had moved shallow to find the warmest water available. A great time to break out topwater baits is if the main lake or river is in the low 50’s but you find a back cove that’s 3 feet deep or less, and the water temperatures are 5 to 10 degrees warmer than the rest of the lake. The other thing that is somewhat important is what time of day it is. Generally speaking, topwater baits work best in the lower light conditions like early morning or at dusk, but cloudy and rainy days can provide great topwater conditions as well, as long as the water temperatures don’t drop significantly.
There are 4 main types of topwater lures: poppers, buzzers, walk the dog lures, and floating plastic baits.
I will start with my favorite bait for smallies: a popper. I don’t think you can throw a better bait for smallmouth on a summer morning or evening than a popper. My popper of choice is the Rebel Pop-R, however, Strike-King makes a bait similar to the Pop-R, but just a little bigger. This is a very easy lure to fish- just cast it out and make short, hard pops with your rod tip all the way back to the boat, with some long and short pauses in between the pops.
My second favorite lures for topwater are buzzers. A true buzzbait is an inline bait is made up of a thin wire or titanium shaft, a skirted hook, and metal or plastic blades. It is these blades that provide lift to the lure, and allow it to sputter and gurgle along the surface of the water. Although the wake and sound this lure produces ultimately triggers the hit, it is the skirted hook that fish key in on and strike. Due to this upturned hook design, the buzzbait is generally weedless when fished under most conditions. Because of this benefit, throwing these lures into the thick jungle of snags and weeds that Mr. Ditch Pickle calls home is advisable and expected. Some of my favorite areas to toss a buzzbait are across open flats, adjacent to and through lily pad beds, stump fields, laydowns, dock areas, and, of course, shoreline structure. Seeing a big bass explode on topwater buzz baits is sure to get any angler's heart pounding. One trick to remember when tossing buzzbaits is to start your retrieve the moment your lure hits the water, and maintain a steady cadence in order to keep your lure buoyant and on the surface of the water.
Although not a true buzzer, I will include Whopper Plopper’s in this category. This type of bait is a great search bait, as you (for the most part) have to keep it moving- so you can cover a lot of water with this group of baits. I like to throw this type of bait near cover but not into it: next to docks, weed beds, sunken logs, brush, or under trees (if you can cast it in there).
Next are the Walk-The-Dog baits. These are your Zara Spook type baits as well as about a million other brands. Some work better than others, but all will catch fish if the conditions are right. For me, this is a more open water type of bait, such as when I’m fishing the main river channel for smallies on a late summer evening, or fishing a submerged weed bed for Large Marge on a foggy summer morning. The key to fishing this type of bait is getting the cadence down to make the bait work side to side properly.
Last are the floating plastic baits such as hollow body frogs and buzz frogs. My favorite in this group is the Zoom Horney Toads. This is a bait you can throw into heavy cover but still use as a search bait to cover a lot of water. Although it doesn’t actually float with a hook in it, it’s not hard to keep it buzzing on the surface and fish will blow-up on this thing- so you better get a good grip on that rod. I know a lot of guys like the hollow body frogs, but I have never had good luck hooking fish with this type of bait, so I opt for other baits I can fish the same way. One bait I love is a floating mouse bait I invented. “Mighty Mouse”, as I call it, has produced some MONSTER bass for me over the years. I always hoped to be able to market this bait along with some of my other creations, but never was able to do it. It is a soft plastic over a hard body, so they are fairly difficult and time consuming to make. You can see it in one of my photos here.
My last tip and most important one is, DO NOT set the hook when you see a fish hits your topwater bait. Wait for it to take the bait underwater and turn with it. This is usually a “1001” count or “1 Mississippi”. Whatever you need to do to slow down your hook set about a second will help you put a lot more fish in the boat.