By Luigi De Rose
The most popular of all topwater plugs is a popper. Poppers or chuggers are versatile in cover and open water. With a minnow profile and large concaved mouth, poppers spit water and pop distinctly. Traditionally, poppers where meant for still evening with the bait gently worked next to lilies in a gentle plop, plop, plop fashion. This is fine, but poppers are much more versatile. David Chong a seasoned bass tournament angler and topwater nut from Thornhill loves hunting the mid-depths with poppers. He’s always done well with poppers and last year it helped him seal a victory on Stoney Lake. Stoney, a clear lake with thousands of rocky outcrops is nestled along the northern edge of the Kawarthas. Working both a Frenzy and Splash It popper he landed numerous four pound plus smallmouth all in five to eight feet (1.8 to 2.7m) of water.
Worked next to cover, poppers can be chugged slowly to agitate big bass into striking. With a lot of slack in the line, about two feet, snapping the rod tip will cause the bait to jump a few inches at a time. This way poppers remaining in the strike zone until they’re goggled up. Although great at slow speeds, popper are also fantastic zipped across the surface at lighting speed. Zell Roland, a highly successful tournament angler and topwater guru, resurrected the Rebel PopR popper to superstar status in the mid 1980s. He popularized skittering poppers across the water at high speeds. Anytime the fish are scattered or suspended off mid-range structure anglers can really mop up with this bait. With the rod tip held high, snap the rod tip in 1-foot intervals and collect slack line with half turns of the reel handle. The popper will sputter water as it zigzags towards the boat. As the lure nears the boat, drop the rod tip closer to the water line and continue popping the bait along. Lure cadence should vary according to the furiousness of the bass. Most work the bait in a pop, pop, pause, pop, pop, pause routine. If the bass are eager, anglers can skip the pause altogether. Poppers will draw in fish from great distances especially in clear water, which is ideal habitat for big smallies. One trick to keep the bait running true is to use heavy monofilament line. You need the stretch of mono, but most important is that heavy line like 17lb test, which floats a bit keeping the bait on the surface. It’s not uncommon for smallies to strike two, three, four times and still catch nothing by air. To transforming those misses into solid hook ups add a Storm Suspend dot or strip on the belly of the lure just up from the back hook. The weight keeps the tail section slightly lower. Instead of lying horizontal, the bait sits diagonally making it easier to be sucked in. Be careful not to add too much weight. Lowering the bait’s tail can also be done but replacing the back hook with a slightly larger one. The weight of a larger hook, just one size larger, should be enough to bring the tail down, but not as drastically as the lead strips. Another great modification is adding a feathered trailer to the back hook. Most poppers already come with some type of trailer. Bucktail is common, but feathers are far superior. When making your own trailer add a few strains of mylar for added flash. The trailer should be lively and undulate with the slightest rod movement. A shimmering feathered trailer can be just enough to make a bass eat.
Stickbaits or walker baits are a topwater enthusiast’s master’s degree. The most difficult of all to work they can produce astonishing results. Cigar shaped, this lure imparts no action on its own. All the action is delivered by the angler’s manipulation of the rod. This lure has a seductive zigzag dance affectionately termed “walking the dog”. To walking the dog, a rhythm between snapping your wrist and quarter cranking the reel handle must be achieved. Short, equal distant snaps of the wrist will transmit down the rod through the line to the lure causing it to boogie side to side. Crank the reel just enough to collect line. Some find it easier to work the bait with a least a foot of slack line. A taunt line kills the action. If you’re really trying to work a piece of cover or entice a missed fish, allow even more slack line and this topwater can be kept dancing on the spot. Stickbaits excel in clear, deep water. They cast very well and their ability to call fish from great distances is legendary. A huge topwater enthusiast, David Chong preaches, “Walkers are the best big bass bait. Not great for numbers, but I’ve caught a lot of giants using them. The bigger the bait the better. That’s why I like Heddon’s Super Spook or Lucky Craft’s Sammy 128.” One secrete trick David will divulge is adding two split rings to each hook, one below the other. Due to their huge size and weight stickbaits can be easily shaken free. The extra split rings prevents the bait being spit. Attach the lure with a small snap or loop knot. Don’t tie to the split ring. Medium casting equipment is best. Rods should be bit shorter, 5 ? to 6 feet in length, if you’re taller, a 6’6” rod should be a good fit. Mono is still best. The balance of strength and limpness of 14lbs test is well suited for stickbaits.
Darren Jacko, a native of Tillsonburg and tournament competitor, discovered a very unique smallmouth pattern while practicing for the Canadian Open on Lake St. Clair. The mayfly hatch was heavy in early July that few years back and he could hear and see fish rolling on the surface. Seeing the rings on the water where a smallmouth had surfaced, Darren cast his Sammy, a large stickbait by Lucky Craft, to it. As the bait worked past the area where the fish jump, it disappeared and the battle was on. Realizing this was no fluke; Darren listened carefully and scanned the water for any activity. Once the bass showed itself, he would hit the trolling motor and cruise quickly into casting range. The key to this pattern was having a topwater plug with enough weight to cast like a bullet. Although casting to rising fish is not new, doing it over 18 feet of water to five-pound smallmouth like Darren’s doing is.
Proper baits are one of the oldest bass plugs, but today’s angler sadly neglects them. Most resemble a torpedo with a tiny propeller mounted to the tail. Some have two props, fore and aft. Again, anglers impart action by working the rod tip. Gentle pulls with pauses is a common cadence. If you really want the call bass out of deep water or cover snap the rod tip hard will buzz the propeller sending spray everywhere. This can be really be effective when working prime cover like a single boulder or patch of grass. Prop baits have been my secret weapon for years. Last season, I fished a tournament with Joe Figueira a long time friend. Our first stop was a rocky flat that extended off an island. We wanted to target big smallies early and knew the flat might hold some brutes. The flat was shallow on top but fell steeply into deeper water along its perimeter. With the boat hovering slightly off the ledge we sailed our bait well onto the flat. In the early morning sun we could see a splattering of pale white boulders. I picked a 5” custom prop bait I bought from Fishing Max, my favourite fishing store in Japan.
My lure landed well past a huge boulder. As I worked the bait closer, I ripped it a few times and let it hover over the boulder. I gave it about 5 seconds then moved it once more when the rod buckled under the weight of a big bass. Joe stood to my right ready with the net. The smallmouth was copper with heavy black bars and full of zest. It didn’t want to surrender but I soon slipped into the livewell. We landed four off that flat and had another sail right over my topwater without touching a hook. Topwater fishing is always exciting, a little too hard on the heart when adding the pressures of a tournament. Prop baits are reasonably straightforward. If you’re one to tinker, bend the wings of the back prop forward for added commotion. I prefer a feather trailer on all my prop baits, but omit the mylar; it tangles in the prop. Again, heavy line and casting equipment is best.
Buzzbaits can be truly big bass medicine. Designed similar to a spinnerbait, buzzbait’s sport one or two huge, winged blades. The most common buzzers have one metal blade that quickly jumps to the surface after a few quick turns of the reel handle. This topwater is meant for heavy cover. A buzzbait is most at home riding over emergent and submerged weeds. But will work anywhere active bass and cover coexist. This type of bait is most simple to use. Cast it and reel it in. The trick is to be a good caster. Line up several targets in a row and guide the buzzbait pass each one. Keeping the bait in multiple strikes zones on each cast is what anglers strive for. Casting reels are far more accurate and your best choice. Some like long, heavy action rods. A 6’6” rod with a soft tip and plenty of backbone is my choice. Load the reel with 17lb test or heavier and your set.
Before you make that first cast anglers need to modify the bait a bit. First, add a trailer hook. A trailer hook is an additional hook that rides behind the main hook to catch bass that nip at the bait. Slip on a large 2/0 to 4/0 Siwash or specialty trailer hook over the hook of the bait. Some recommend threading rubber tubing over the eye of the trailer hook, but don’t do it. This practice was common for years, but there’s a better way. After slipping on the trailer hook, pierce a 1cm section of tubing through the middle with the main hook. Then push the plastic tube well passed the barb of the buzzbait’s hook. The tubing prevents the trailer hook from popping off, but still allows it to swing freely. Keeping the lure weed free is a chore, but is a lot easier if the trailer hook swings freely.
Keeping a buzzbait on the surface at slow speeds can be difficult, especially with big buzzers. Luckily, this problem can be easily fixed. Hold your favourite buzzbait with the line tie facing you. Press your thump into the cup of one of the blades. The wing of the blade should be slightly cupping your thumb when held right. Gently push down with your thump while pushing up with the side of your index finger. The goal is to create a deeper cup in the blade. Repeat this process to all the wings of the blade. It’s also important to keep the wing of the blade round. Pliers can be used but they usually kink the metal blade, which warps the action and weaken the metal. Deep cupped blades can be kept puttering on the surface with the slowest turn of the handle. Another neat trick is to drill small holes into the blade, usually one or two holes per wing. This creates more bubbles as the lure wakes across the surface. Buzzbait modification can be endless. In the case with all lures, lure speed and casting accuracy are what most critical.
Big topwaters are not just for quiet, still evenings. Each bait can be effective under a wide range of water depths and conditions. Watch the mood of the fish and adjust lure action and speed according. If you stick with big topwaters long enough to use them well, they’ll probably help you land your biggest bass of the year.