Staying on Top of the Bass Action
Author: John N. Felsher
Still shrouded in darkness, I heard the popper ping off the rocky riprap lining the shoreline and splash into the mirrored water.
The plastic popper plopped between two clumps of floating weeds and sat motionless like a stunned frog that had just belly-flopped into the water. In the awakening dawn calm, the commotion attracted attention. Something swirled about six feet away in the weeds.
With just a twitch of the line, the floater sent concentric ripples reverberating across the placid surface. Almost immediately, a V-shaped wake rushed toward the ripples. I popped the lure once and let it rest as the onrushing wake deflected the fading phosphorescent ripples.
Moments later, the bait disappeared into a swirling eruption of fins, frothy water and grass as a 5-pound largemouth bass tried to obliterate the floating morsel. Fighting against instincts, I let the fish take the bait a moment before setting the hook with a side-arm motion. Armed with multiple treble hooks, topwater baits usually either hook fish themselves or miss completely.
"Seeing a fish strike a topwater is very exciting, but you need to give the fish time to get the lure in its mouth," said Joe Thomas, a four-time Bassmaster Classic competitor from Milford, Ohio. "The biggest mistake people make is pulling the hooks out of the fish's mouth by setting the hook too quickly and too hard. When fish hit a topwater bait, strikes are so visible that it is really important to make sure you feel pressure before setting the hook on the fish."
With the popularity of soft plastic worms, lizards, tubes, jigs, grubs, crawfish, minnows or other tasty lifelike creatures, topwater baits fell out of favor in recent years. Moreover, people learned how to find and catch bass in deep water. However, the old surface favorites still produce lunkers and unparalleled thrilling action. Watching a wake homing in on a surface target, or shattering shallow water in finned fury still pumps angling adrenaline. Bass don't just hit or suck down topwater baits as they would a worm. They pulverize floaters with intense hatred that radiates across the lake surface.
"Nothing excites a bass angler like a big green mouth exploding out of shallow water," said Mike Auten, a Bassmaster Classic veteran from Benton, Ky. "Bass hunt in shallow water because limited water reduces where forage species can flee."
Although bass drop into the depths, some largemouths never leave shallow water. Many marshes or weedy lakes offer nothing but shallows, but they usually provide incredible excitement.
Bass hunt in shallows because more forage lives there. Minnows and shad hug shorelines and hide among weeds, logs and rocks. Crawfish crawl along the bottom. Worms wash into the water after a rain. Bream make beds in sandy shallows. In addition, weedy shallows may offer more oxygen than cold depths. Bass stay where they can find food, cover, and oxygen.
Ambush predators, largemouths prowl shorelines or weed patches waiting to attack prey. They seldom run down morsels in open water. With short, stocky, but powerful bodies, they prefer to hide and strike without warning at close range, like a viper in the jungle shadows.
Nature designed bass to hunt in shallow water. Black and green camouflage hides them in weedy cover. Their mouths face skyward, unlike suckers or drum whose mouths point downward. With eyes situated on top of their heads, they see better when looking up. They can more easily spot baits silhouetted against the sky than they can detect creatures crawling around on a dark or weedy bottom.
Tossed near shallow structure, topwaters baits work well from late spring through early fall. In summer heat, they work best at first light, late in the afternoon or at night. They work best in clear, calm water. Although topwater baits might pull fish from 10 feet deep or more, anglers typically use them around structure in four feet of water or less.
Floating baits generally fall into several categories such as walkers, poppers, prop baits and soft plastic creatures. Some people consider jerkbaits, or lipped minnow lures, as topwater baits because they provoke strikes near the surface, but they actually dive when jerked like very shallow-running crankbaits.
Walking baits, such as Zara Spooks, Top Dogs, Frenzy Walkers, Spit'n Images and similar baits, work faster and cover considerably more water. They work well for finding bass with long casts as they zigzag from side to side with a "walking" motion. They generally resemble a sick or wounded baitfish struggling on the surface. Create this continuous motion by making short, but brisk, flicks of a wrist. Walking baits perform best on bright, calm days in calm water.
"For dead calm, slick conditions, I use a Zara Spook," Thomas said. "Buzzbaits, prop baits and poppers all work best with a little bit of chop on the water. It is important to keep the bait around some type of cover."
Poppers or chuggers displace water with curved blade or concave surfaces on the noses when jerked. This causes lures to pop, chug or gurgle with considerable commotion. Poppers require slow, deliberate movement. Pop them once and then stop, letting baits remain motionless until the ripples fade or anglers run out of patience. Then, repeat the maneuver.
Somewhat resembling stunned frogs or other creatures thrashing on the surface, poppers work well on choppy days or in murky water. Since they produce significant noise, they work exceptionally well at night.
On choppy days or in murky water, many anglers also use prop baits such as Tiny Torpedoes, Sputterbuzzes, Skitter Pops, Devil Horses and any other floaters with propellers. Prop baits come equipped with nose or rear propellers. Some employ propellers on both ends for more action. Propellers churn the surface as anglers retrieve baits.
Since prop baits make plenty of noise, they work well at night. The harder one jerks them, the more noise they make. Anglers can retrieve them with a steady motion almost like a floating buzzbait or use the stop-and-go approach. Experiment with both methods to see what fish prefer. Sometimes, they like to look at baits before hitting. At other times, buzzing propellers provoke reaction strikes. They don't work well in weeds because grass fouls the propeller blades.
In thick vegetation, unweighted floating plastics perform best. Rigged Texas style, they can easily slip over or through matted weeds. They combine the scintillating realism of soft plastics with the excitement of topwater action. Skitter them subtly over the surface, pausing atop weed clumps or lily pads and dropping into pockets between grass.
"Using unweighted plastics is probably one of the best ways to fish heavy cover, like matted grass, or grass within a couple inches of the surface," said Jim Morton, a Storm/Rapala Lures bass pro staff angler. "It's a good technique for lily pads or tangled brush in shallow water. I crawl or swim a lizard or worm across the pads or limbs. I've had bass blow up right through heavy cover and hit it."
Other floating soft plastic temptations closely resemble natural bass prey, such as frogs, mice, or even baby ducklings. Hooks typically point upward, allowing them to slip over logs or weeds without entangling.
Among the oldest and simplest bass lures ever created, topwater baits remained on the market for decades because they still work. They also still palpitate the heart the way few other lures can.
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