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Tactical Topwaters

Catching bass where the water meets the wind
by: Field Editor, Colorado
Published on
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There's a happy coincidence in the bass fishing world. Every spring, summer and fall, one of the easiest ways to catch quality fish is also the most fun. The water is generally as warm as it is likely to ever get. Bass are exercising their spot at the top of the food chain, and in Colorado at least, they mostly feed shallow. What does all this add up to? Topwater time, of course!

Its been said by many writers before me that catching a bass on a surface plug is one of the most exciting experiences in freshwater fishing. If that's true, than it's no wonder bass are the most popular game fish nationwide, because topwater fishing is really very simple. After all, you can actually see your lure – how hard could it possibly be? Well, there are some details that will up your odds as you head out to the ponds, lakes and reservoirs in your area this summer and fall. Timing, tackle, and technique come to fruition when your plug is Tidy-bowled by Big Mama.

As spring arrives and the water begins to warm, bass begin their annual migration to the bank to do the dance of love. In Colorado, this generally occurs as water temps enter the high 50's for a few days on end. If you're tuned into nature, or don't have a temp gauge, watch the trees – when they leaf out almost overnight on a spring warming trend, its probably that time. Walk the bank of your local pond and see a variety of tiny sunfish in the shallows, then its definitely time. Ponds will warm first, followed by lakes, and finally reservoirs. On the calendar, topwaters should usually get a workout starting in early May in ponds and mid-to-late May in reservoirs. Generally. By and large. Not a rule. Consult the ponds in your area for exact timing.
A walking bait (L) and popper, ready for action.
A walking bait (L) and popper, ready for action.
Topwater fishing can be good all summer and fall in Colorado. Our waters are generally cooler than in Dixie, where the bass originated. They are also deeper, leading to a stratification of sorts. If you've ever jumped out of your boat on a hot summer day into Horsetooth reservoir, you've undoubtedly noticed that the water is a lot cooler, maybe even cold, five feet under the surface. This fact is not lost on the bass, who will spend as much time as possible in the nice, warm surface layer if there is any cover present to give them security. This phenomenon is most notable in the deeper lakes and reservoirs, but occurs in ponds in spring as the surface warms first. The difference is, in ponds the entire water column will eventually become warm and comfy for the bass, allowing them to use the deepest waters as viable living space. Our water temperatures rarely exceed those preferred by bass like they do down south, so they can be caught "looking up" a large percentage of the time in whatever waters you fish.

Micro timing, that is the timing within the day you are actually fishing as opposed to the time of year, can be important, too. We all know that dawn and dusk are the classic times to toss a topwater plug. The surface is usually calm and it's a prime feeding time. But bass anglers who limit their topwater fishing to these times are missing out on a bunch of fun. Overcast, low hanging cloud, low barometer days are another great time for surface baits. These are also prime feeding times. But high sun doesn't always put a halt to the fun. Particularly in spring, bass will get giddy as the sun warms their house a degree or two, and happily smash your plug in bright sun if its in the right place. Even on hot, muggy summer days topwaters will catch fish all day if presented around shade lines, overhead cover like docks or flooded bushes, or directly on top of the "slop" that forms on many of our ponds.

Just as there is no single good time to fish topwater baits, there is no single best way to present them. Or single best bait for that matter. Surface plugs will range in size from diminutive to gargantuan, and can be fished in everything from open water to grass mats. Thus the well-equipped angler will vary the rod selection accordingly. A big, stout baitcasting rod, like the one the pros refer to as their flippin' stick, is a good choice for fishing on the slop where even a smallish bass will mire in the weeds during the fight. Conversely, a nice medium action spinning rod is appropriate in open water where a giant has nowhere to go and thus can be played carefully. If you have to have the simple answer, go to Sportsman's Warehouse and get a six foot six medium power St. Croix Triumph rod and Shimano 2500 spinning reel. Have the shop spool it with 14-pound Fireline Crystal and cover all your bases. Or basses, as the case may be.

While they're spooling your reel take a stroll over to the lure section. The total variety of surface baits available will become immediately evident, even overwhelming, if you're not a seasoned topwater tactician. But don't despair, you don't need one of each. You really only need a few well-selected baits to cover Colorado surface action. Of course, in fishing, need and want are synonymous, but that's a whole other story.

Basically, topwaters can be categorized into poppers and prop baits, walk-the-dog types, buzzbaits, and weedless frogs, which are all the rage these days. Floating minnows, like original Rapalas, can be added to the list, though most folks retrieve them under the surface. As with other types of lures, the color range available is bordering on ridiculous. Simplicity is the key. Focus on getting the right type of bait for the conditions in the right fishing spot with the right retrieve and the color is rarely an issue.

In early season, baits that are slow and stay in the strike zone the longest are generally good choices. This means poppers and prop baits, which can be twitched and then left in place. Smallmouths love this presentation. Toss a light colored popper, like a Frenzy Pop, as close as possible to a riprap bank on a calm day, pop it once, and let it sit motionless for 15 seconds. Watch the bait closely as it is common for a fish to swim up and look at the bait for several seconds as if daring it to move. Twitch it ever so slightly to trigger the bite - and your pulse.  
  The fish's view of a popper at rest.
The fish's view of a popper at rest.
When working a popper, you should actually here it pop. Short, crisp rod tip-down twitches with a minimal amount of forward motion by the bait is the goal. Largemouth or smallies, the strike will usually come on the pause. Same goes for prop baits, like a Tiny Torpedo. Twitch, pause…bang – got ‘em! These baits are best deployed on calm days throughout the fishing season. If it gets breezy like on an approaching front, you can still work the popper. Just pop it slightly harder and faster. The weather will often turn up the bite and a more aggressive retrieve will allow you to cover more water in search of actively feeding fish.

In ponds, a popper worked around weed edges is a fun way to get bites. Same technique, only now work the baits parallel to the weedlines, or over the weeds if they have not grown to the surface yet. Focus on green weeds and fight fish with the rod tip up to keep them from burrowing in any worse then they already are on the hookset.

An important detail when hooksetting topwaters is to avoid the hair trigger. With hooksets, speed kills, or at least misses fish. Give the bass a chance to turn down with the bait in its mouth before sweeping the rod down and away from the bite. If you miss the fish completely, which will happen commonly especially with smallmouth, leave the bait in place for several seconds sitting motionless. Equally as often as you miss, the fish will come back for round two. If you have jerked the bait completely out of the strike area, you probably set it too hard but all is not lost. Reel it back quickly and immediately toss it back to where the strike occurred. Again, they will often come back more aggressively than the first time.

Floating minnows, with a standard # 9 Rapala being a perfect example, have almost become pop-culture among fisherman of all types. They are often retrieved steadily or with a quick jerking motion, either of which causes the bait to run a foot or so under the surface. And they catch all kinds of fish this way. But cast to likely cover, allowed to sit motionless "until the rings dissipate" like our grandpas taught us, and then given a light twitch, the bait takes on a whole different persona. This twitch, pause, twitch retrieve, again with long pauses, is money for spring bass in all environs. Aggressive pre-spawn bass will sometimes jump completely over the bait without touching it, before coming right back to engulf the minnow. This will certainly test your self-control…and maybe your heart.

As the season progresses through summer and the water temperatures are nearing their yearly highs, walk-the-doggers and buzzbaits come into their own. These are both excellent "search baits", since they are relatively fast retrieves and they trigger bites from both active and in-active fish. To walk the dog, cast a Zara Spook or similar bait across a main-lake point and work it back with a series of tip-down twitches while throwing slack into the line between each twitch. Crank the reel handle a half turn or so as you lift the rod tip for the next twitch. The goal is to cause the bait to sachet back and forth very rhythmically. The new "sway back" styles of walkers are easier to operate. The retrieve takes some getting used to, but its well worth the effort. Besides, how bad can it be to practice fishing? Warning: This presentation has been known to cause explosive strikes from rogue wipers who have no respect for you or your fancy tackle.
This chunky largemouth exploded on a softly twitched floating minnow.
This chunky largemouth exploded on a softly twitched floating minnow.
Buzzbaits are much easier to work. Chunk and wind is the deal here. Run them parallel to cover, over shallow flats, or around docks. Fish will come from serious depths to hit a buzzbait chuggin' along at a medium speed, even pace. Alas, the problem with the buzzbait is that many fish will swipe at it without getting steel, so the hook-up percentage is lower than with other topwaters. The flipside though, is that you now know where the finny creature is and can throw another bait back while it is still fired up. Adding a trailer hook helps, especially with smallies, and throwing the buzzer back is a good idea. But having another, slower bait on deck and ready whenever you're fishing a buzzbait will make you look like Bill Dance to your fishing buddy the first time a bass misses your buzzbait and you boat it anyway on the popper you had ready to throw back at him.

The hottest bait on TV these days is the weedless frog, typified by a Zoom Hornytoad or Berkley Batwing Frog. These are summer baits really, and are perfect for Colorado pond fishing where the weed growth reaches the surface. They are very weedless, which is another way of saying they are hard to hook fish with. But slowly dragging one over the top of an algae or weed mat is a recipe for pure joy as bass, even in the heat of the day, will blast through the goo to get at a frog above. They will often make several attempts to get the bait and sometimes never will. Take solace in the fact that these fish are not really reachable with any other bait, and at least you got to see them. If this happens, try another topwater around the edges of said weed mat. Or drop a heavy weedless rubber worm on top of the mat and hope it breaks through. Be prepared to peel your bass like a banana if you get one; they will be a ball of seaweed by the time you lay your hands on them. This is a test even for your braided line.

At the end of the day, catching bass where the water meets the wind is a very satisfying way to fish. The visual aspect is intoxicating and the memories will stay with you for a lifetime. That anyone can do it and it is effective on all kinds of water adds to the allure. So make room in your box for some tactical topwaters and put some serious fun in your bassing.  


© 2024 Chad LaChance
About the author, Chad LaChance:
Known as Fishful Thinker, Chad LaChance is a professional fishing guide, author, and instructor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. He is the host of "Fishful Thinker TV" on Altitude Sports Channel and guest host and weekly contributor on FM102.3 and FM 105.5 "ESPN Outdoors". Chad is a seminar speaker at various consumer shows including the International Sportsmen�s Expo, a columnist for Sportsman's News, and a field editor for Equally at home with fly or conventional tackle, he has been featured in the Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Fishing & Hunting News, Western Outdoor News, The Coloradoan and others. Fishful Thinker is proud to be sponsored by Sportsman�s Warehouse, Toyota Trucks, Pedersen Toyota, St. Croix Rod, Evinrude, Berkley, Abu Garcia, Camp Chef, Ranger, Lowrance, Bullhide 4x4, Fuel Off-Road, Costa, and Crowley Marine.
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