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Top Secret..Traditional Topwater for Bass

Very little is more exciting than watch a big bass burst through the surface to hit a topwater lure. In its’ infancy many artificial lures were surface baits. There was little technology to produce diving baits, much of the fish available was from the bank or a small unpowered boat and it was unnecessary since the unpressured fish would hit about anything cast to them. Chunks of brightly painted wood had hooks crudely attached and casts were limited to a few feet because of the awkward, poorly designed rod and reel combinations of the day but again the fish would readily attack any intruder.

top secret top water bass
In the swamps and backwaters bass anglers would be armed with a long, stout bamboo pole that had the heaviest six-foot section of line they could find firmly affixed to the tip. Tied to the end was a bladed bait, the predecessor to todays buzzbait. While slowly weaving their boats through the mazes of trees, lily pads and any heavy cover they made sweeping motion along the edges and sometimes just made a figure eight presentation until the bass emerged to “eat” the buzzing bait. Other baits had hollow faces to create a “blurp or bloop” still others had small propellers to again add sound to the sight of a surface swimming creature. The super stealthy approach of a kayak is an enormous advantage to the topwater angler.

Today’s topwater bass angler has a ton of technology but the concept is still the same. The use of visual and audio clues to “lure” bass into busting a surface lure will always be a thrill. Personally, while I love the mystery of the jig bite, I’m addicted to topwater. Even when I test the boundaries of the baits, those being water temperature, water color, cover, depth, speed and other considerations, I continue to throw them unapologetically. Here’s few of my observations:

Topwater Fishing Factors –

The biggest indicator for me is water temperature. The surface temperature determined by tossing over a thermometer and getting a reading after a minute or two is the mood of the fish. Is it pre-spawn, spawn, post spawn? In warmer water temperatures the bass digests more quickly and hence eat more often. Ideally anything above 65 and below 80 degrees makes them eating machines. Below 65 or higher than 80 degrees I slow down my retrieve speed. Other natural factors include water color and wind velocity. Murky or even muddy water usually positions bass in shallower water, one to six feet. Wind velocity will alter the amount of sunlight penetration in the water and help or hind the bass in its search for food. In either case I use noisier baits in discolored water or in windy conditions. Right along surface water temperature moon phases is something I monitor closely. The spawn of the bass as well as other fish are closely tied to the moon phases. Insect hatches and other forms of fish food are also affected by the moon. My records show a lot of BIG bass activity around the three days before or after the full or new moons.

Techniques and equipment,

I’ve tried them all, from an ultra-light spinning outfit, a “buggy whip” five weight flyrod to a heavy action rod suitable for musky for fishing frog baits in the heaviest of cover. Conditions, cover, bait size and weight all determine the rods, reels and line choice I go with. I’ve caught trophy size bass on small flies and the flyrod. Good knots, a capable leader and the ability to play the fish all enter into drawing the strike, the hook set and successful playing the bass. My normal topwater set up is a seven and half foot graphite medium heavy rod for throwing buzzbaits (my favorite) or big plugs. My reel has a 6.3:1 gear retrieve ratio and the line is usually 14-pound test monofilament. The longer rod facilitates the hook set and the playing of the fish. I can’t stress enough to always, in any form of fishing, let the equipment do the work it was designed for. You can’t “horse” a big bass in on lightweight equipment and light line. Once the hook is properly set the rest is academic if your line is strong, you have a good knot and the drag is properly set on your reel. Keep steady pressure on the hooked fish and make up line as you can. Many topwater lures have multiple hooks which is great until you try to lip a trophy size bass, especially a smallmouth! A rubberized landing net (and a good set of pliers) are your friend, this makes it safer for the fish and you.

Old School or New Age?

Minnows and frogs dominated the early topwater offerings. The fly fishing folks threw in any bug pattern imaginable as well as field mice and other creatures. Varied are the looks that produce surface hits. These are including but limited to..swimming, darting, shallow diving, wobbling, chugging, flight, fright, injury and more. Many of the old lures still work but unfortunately are gathering dust in the bottom trays of tackle boxes. Classic example the Arbogast Jitterbug, been around well over fifty years. Some of the oldies are dismissed for not being as sexy as the new models. Almost a lost art is the presentation and use of a minnow “plug”. Because tournament fishermen are working against the clock, they want fast moving baits at least to find fish. The old school minnow presentation started with a long cast usually on spinning equipment, and then the patient practitioner would let the bait rest on the surface until the ripples generated by the landing disappeared. Often before the ripples are gone a bass will eat the phony minnow. If not, once the bait is motionless a twitch that moves the bait a few inches is followed by another by long pause and repeat. For the impatient, in a hurry angler this is difficult, but the payoff is a bunch of topwater bass. Another undiscovered aspect is the sound of a wooden bait versus a plastic surface lure. The action is likely different, but the sound is definitely different than the bait constructed of natural wood. Does it make a difference? The fish will let you know.

Varying the speed of your retrieve is the last puzzle piece. It changes with several factors. Water clarity, water temperature, moon phase and event current in moving water all play a part in the topwater bite. A fast retrieve for aggressive fish is fine, for the lazy largemouth an agonizingly slow return may be necessary. Once again when you get it right the fish will signal you with a giant vortex as your lure sinks into the drink. Sometimes there’s the subtle take and still there are other times that the surface strike turns into a visual and audio explosion that’s liable to splash you with spray. Those times, my friends, are why you toss topwaters!