The object with topwater is to present bass with a vulnerable, unaware “creature” that is an easy target, then allowing nature to take its course. In the process, fishing surface lures can bag the biggest fish in any water, especially when egg-heavy females are moving up shallow to spawn. Here’s a simple blueprint for fishing floating lures during this special, exciting season.
Regardless of where they live, bass follow the same general life cycles. The two primary influences in their lives are spawning and feeding, and both figure prominently in topwater spring patterns.
• Here’s why. During winter, bass hang in deep water, normally in large schools, and they
vacillate between long periods of inactivity and short, frantic feeding sprees. They generally hold in main lake areas or near the mouths of large feeder creeks. Typically, these fish suspend along channels or bluffs where they have immediate access to sanctuary areas. But when winter starts giving way to spring, these large schools break up as bass drift toward spawning areas. This breakup and migration occur when the water temperature nudges into the 50s, and this is the prelude to topwater time. As the water temperature creeps progressively higher, bass move closer to their spawning areas— rocky or sandy shoreline banks, flats bordering channels and ditches, small pockets in the sides of embayments, submerged roadbeds in the backs of creeks and other shallow, hard-bottomed, protected structure. If cover is present — logs, reeds, brush, stumps, grass or docks — so much the better. These are the places topwater anglers should fish. When the water temperature cracks 60 degrees, it’s time to begin throwing surface baits. Now the bass are fully active, and they’re feeding heavily to prepare for the rigors of sweeping nests, laying eggs and protecting against predators. Crawfish, sunfish, shad and other creatures are regular items on their menu. Still, any bait that appears alive and struggling on the surface is a likely candidate for attack.
• Several types of surface lures will seduce bass during the pre-spawn and spawning periods,
but some work better than others.
High on this list is a long, slender minnow (Rapala Original Floater, AC Shiner, Bomber
Suspending Long A, XCalibur Xt3 & Xs4). This is the traditional “first topwater” for many fishermen, and for good reason. When the water temperature hits 60 degrees, bass still aren’t far removed from the lethargy of winter. However, on a calm, warm day in early spring, these fish will
attack a floating minnow that is bobbed within easy striking distance. This bait’s delicate
presentation matches the fish’s reticent mood at this time of year.
Because they are bantamweights, top-water minnows must be fished on fairly light tackle. An ideal rig would be a medium-light baitcasting rod/reel spooled with 10- or 12-pound line. A suitable alternate would be a medium-action spinning combo with 10-pound-test.
The best strategy with these baits is to cast them where there is little wind — pockets, back
bays or protected shorelines. Because floating minnows make very little commotion, they should
be used only in quiet, relatively shallow water, (1 to 6 feet) where bass are more likely to notice their subtle surface disturbance.
•The technique with a floating minnow is simple. Cast it into likely areas near cover, if any exists, reel up slack and wait until all ripples disappear. Then, simply twitch the bait with the rod tip, bobbing the head down with a minimum of forward movement. Next, wait for these new ripples to spread away, then repeat the process.
Many pro anglers describe floating minnows as “twitchbaits” because of this tedious bobbing method. They are most effective in confined areas rather than along broad banks or flats.
Since they are worked slowly, bass have a chance to examine these lures before striking. A
floating minnow’s lifelike appearance and natural, injured action pass the closest inspection.
As water temperature climbs into the mid-60s, bass’ metabolism rises correspondingly. Now faster,
louder baits come into play. Three standard choices are poppers, propeller baits and walking
baits. Popular examples of poppers are the Rebel Pop-R, Storm Chug Bug, Luhr-Jensen P. J. Pop,
and the venerable Arbogast Hula Popper. In prop baits, the Smithwick Devil’s Horse, Heddon
Tiny Torpedo, Ozark Mountain Woodchopper and Luhr-Jensen Nip-l-Diddee are all winners. And
standby walking baits include the Heddon Zara Spook, Ozark Charlie Campbell Woodwalker and
• Poppers (also called chuggers) are concave in the front. When pulled with short, repeated jerks, a popper makes the “slurp, slurp, slurp” sounds of bass surface-feeding on minnows. This noise excites fish within hearing and visual range, drawing them in from long distances. The best tackle for fishing poppers is a medium-action baitcasting rig and 12- to 20-pound line. Basically, these lures are meant for covering broad, random areas rather than small targets. Anglers should work poppers down banks, over shallow flats, parallel to weed or grass edges, through standing timber or along other, similar structure. True, these baits may also be used around specific targets such as logs or stumps. However, their forte is covering water quickly and attracting scattered fish.
• Propeller baits come in several models and blade configurations. Some are thick and have large blades fore and aft. When jerked, these lures cause maximum surface disturbance. They are appropriate when the water is choppy or stained and plenty of noise is needed to get the fish’s attention.
At the other end of the spectrum are pencil-thin prop baits with small blades at the front and back or perhaps only at the back. These lures stir far less water than their noisy counterparts. Thus, they are best for calmer conditions and when the water is clear.
Propbaits are equally good at fishing broad areas and small targets. Like poppers, propbaits can be worked with a pull-stop, pull-stop action along linear structure. Or they can be thrown past a specif-c target, jerked up to the prime strike zone, then stopped and quivered as explained earlier. When a bass is eye-balling a propbait overhead and those blades barely rotate, he can’t stand it! Propbaits are noted for inciting savage attacks.
• Walking baits cut an enticing trail along banks, standing timber, roadbeds and docks. These cigar-shaped plugs should be fished with medium-action baitcasting tackle and 15- or 17-pound-test monofilament. The rod is held near the water’s surface, and the rod tip is jerked in a steady cadence with the wrists. When done properly, this causes the bait to walk back and forth through the water with a pronounced zigzag action.
Normally, a continuous retrieve is most effective on bass. However, if some object lies along the bait’s path, the angler might pause the bait momentarily beside the cover, then start the walking action again. Frequently, this restart convinces a stalking bass that its “prey” is getting away, and a lunging strike results.
• Certainly other topwater lures will take bass in the spring. Wobblers (Arbogast Jitterbug), buzzbaits (Lunker Lure, Norman Triple Wing) and surface skimmers (Rat, Snagproof Frog) all take their share. However, these baits are better in the post-spawn, when water temperature is warmer and bass are “chasing.” In early spring, floating minnows, poppers, prop baits and walking baits are wiser choices because of their slower, hesitating actions.
So which of these baits is best on any given day? Actually, the right pick is easy; the selection is based on weather and water conditions and the preferences of the fish.
Again, slender minnows are tops for the pre-spawn period when water is calm and relatively clear. However, if the water is choppy and/or dingy, try one of the other three. For reasons known only to the bass, some days they prefer one type of bait over the other two, and this preference can change from day-to-day. So to cover broad areas of water, alternate between a popper, propbait and walking bait, and be alert to which one draws the most attention. Once the bass indicate their choice, stick with it.
• Perhaps the biggest mistake most fishermen make with floaters is working them too fast. It is critical to avoid being in a hurry with these baits, especially when working specific areas. After casting a surface lure, an angler should wait at least 30 seconds before starting his retrieve. This allows spooky fish to get over the intrusion of the bait into their territory and to become curious or even enraged by its presence.
•Time of day is very important in fishing surface lures in early spring. Dawn and dusk are always good bets when bass are hitting topwaters. However, in early spring, noon through midafternoon can be the magic time. This is because the warmest daily water temperature occurs in the early afternoon hours on sunny days, and this is when bass may be most active.
Another factor that affects water temperature, hence surface feeding, is the size and depth of the lake or pond. Smaller, shallower waters warm faster than larger, deeper ones. Therefore, surface activity normally begins up to two weeks earlier on stock ponds, watershed lakes, oxbows and sloughs than it does on large reservoirs in the same region.
Similarly, certain areas on these bigger waters warm up quicker and offer earlier topwater action than do other areas of the lake. Sheltered pockets along northern shorelines enjoy a southern exposure and catch direct sunlight for longer periods of the day. Also, since these pockets are shielded from north winds, their waters don’t chill as much when cold fronts blow through. Therefore, anglers hunting for topwater activity should check out these spots first.
Because topwater fishermen work thin, often clear water, they should take extra precautions to avoid spooking bass. Approaches to fishing areas should be quiet and made with the electric motor instead of the outboard. Casts to specific targets should be fairly long to keep from getting the boat too close. A fisherman’s shadow should never fall across a stump, log or other object where he expects a fish to be.
• Topwater anglers should maneuver their boats in a manner that is appropriate to the area/target
they are working. For instance, a fisherman working long linear structure (banks, weed lines, docks) should position his boat so he can make long casts parallel to the structure. This allows him to keep his bait in the prime strike zone through most of the retrieve. On the other hand, when working single objects, the angler should first decide where a bass is most likely to be, then he should place his boat in the most advantageous position to cast to that spot.
For instance, on sunny days bass like to hang in shadows next to stumps or logs, so this fisherman should hold that first cast until he can hit the shaded side.
When fishing topwaters, it is imperative for anglers to keep constant eye contact with their bait and to concentrate on working it as effectively as possible. Sometimes, especially with floating minnows, bass suck the bait under instead of smashing it. Fishermen who are daydreaming will miss their chance.
And finally, when a bass does strike, don’t set back too soon. It’s possible to be too quick on the trigger and yank a topwater away from fish. Instead, prepare yourself mentally to “feed” the bait to the bass, literally waiting until you see that the lure has disappeared and your line is swimming away. Then drive the hooks home, and chances of a solid hook set will rise appreciably.