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Topwater Talk

By Russ Bassdozer

Background. Topwater fishing is the most exciting stuff of all. You get plenty of visual response from the bass. Even when they miss, it's still pretty intense! You just don't get your pulse pounding like that when you miss a hit on a spinnerbait, jig, or crankbait. Not even with buzzbaits, soft stickbaits or other types of surface lures. Topwaters are the ultimate thrill.

Basic anatomy. The topwaters we are talking about here are handsome. They really look sharp. They float, are made of hollow hard plastic or wood, with lifelike details and the most realistic color patterns. They have a tail treble hook and one, sometimes two, belly trebles. They are aerodynamically-designed lures that you can cast far distances. They have a built-in action - popping or walking the dog - that must be manipulated by the angler.

What's covered here? In this article, we will mostly talk about two basic models of topwaters - poppers and hard stickbaits (aka topwalkers). A brief introduction of each type follows:

1) Poppers: The Rebel Popír is the best known example of the popper type. Among other brands of poppers, there really isn't much variety in the overall shape or size. What I'm saying is they all look very much like the Pop'r. They're all typically small, weighing about 1/4 ounce and about 3 1/2 inches long with an inch-wide concave face and cone-shaped bodies tapering down to pointy tails. Interestingly enough, bigger poppers are rarely used by black bass anglers.

2) Topwalkers: The Heddon Zara Spook is the best known example of the topwalker type. Topwalkers are much bigger than poppers, about 5/8 ounce, 6 inches long, an inch wide, and cigar-shaped. Interestingly enough, smaller topwalkers are rarely used by black bass anglers.

We have only mentioned the Pop'r and Zara Spook because they stereotype what many other brands and models of topwaters on the market look like in terms of size and shape. Differences do of course exist between manufacturers in terms of in craftsmanship, quality, hardware, lure finishes and performance.

What's not covered here? There are other kinds of topwaters too. Propbaits like the Smithwick Devil Horse or Heddon Torpedo, buzzbaits. Soft stickbaits such as the Lunker City Slug-go or the Zoom Fluke. But we will not cover propbaits, buzzbaits or soft stickbaits here.

Topwater techniques. A moderately good angler can easily master a few basic topwater techniques - and have a ball catching bass off the surface!  The techniques are not too hard, but do require practice and there are a few subtle tactics that you cannot easily discover on your lonesome. There's lots of hand/eye coordination involved, especially when a bass is swiping at the bait but has not yet taken it. Of course, the easiest way to learn is to have someone who knows how to do it show you. Second easiest way is to read an article written by someone who knows how to do it. So go thumb through the fishing magazines at the newsstands & tackle stores. Look in the bass mags like Bassin' and also check the multi-species mags like In-Fisherman. Every month, at least one of these mags is bound to have an expert article focusing on timely topwater techniques. Skim them over and decide if it is worth a few dollars to buy, study and practice what is in the article. In 3-4 months, you should be able to find at least a few good articles written by topwater experts. On the Web, check out the site for Pradco. It has a few tips by Zell Rowland on using Popírs. And the Luhr Jensen site has an in-depth article on fishing wooden topwaters. Bass Talk, is a must-read article by Don Iovino. Jerry Puckett tells you how to Spit the Splash. Also check the Bassdozer articles page which links to 100s of expert articles, many of which are sure to focus on topwaters. So, look for the expert stuff in the mags and on the Web, but keep the following advice from Bassdozer in mind.

It start with your eye. Rule number one is never take your eye off the floating lure. Next is the wrist action, which moves the rod, which moves the line, which moves the floater, which you watch with your eye. In this full circle just described, what is the most important variable that you must handle properly for best results? Is it the lure, the rod, the wrist action? You might be surprised to know the most important variable that the topwater angler must master is the fishing line and the slackness or tautness the angler keeps in it. When popping, walking the dog, twitching, or whatever way you work the lure, there should be a slight bit of slackness or play in your line immediately before and immediately after you pop it, walk it, twitch it, snap it or whatever. You must think of your wrist action not in terms of what effect it will have on the lure, but in terms of what effect it will have on the length of line between the tip and the lure.  I can only equate it to pulling a stuck car out of a ditch. You have a tow truck (your fishing rod), a stuck car (your lure), and a tow rope (your line). You need to jerk (pop or walk) the stuck car (lure) clean out of the ditch. How do you do it, and what do you focus on? Well, you snap it out (wrist action), and you focus on the tow rope (fishing line). You make sure the tow rope is laid out fairly straight, but with about ten feet of slack play in it. Then the tow truck driver steps on it. The tow line snaps tight and loads with a tremendous force. For an instant, the tow truck drops out of the equation, and all the energy in the line gets transfered down the line to the stuck car (lure). That power surge in the line should jerk the car clean, and the car, in neutral, may even roll forward slightly on its own - that is exactly what your lure should do too. 

If you can pick up on the points being made in this tow truck story, particularly the importance of the fishing line, and loading it for the "snap", but immediately having slack in just before and after the snap, then you will soon develop a strong understanding of what makes a popper pop well or a topwalker walk well. 

Rod position: An easier concept is where to position your rod tip, which by the way influences guess what again? Right, rod position influences whether your line will tend to stay out of the water (rod tip up) or whether your line will tend to submerge under the water (rod tip down to the side). For instance, on a popper, you can keep your rod high, which causes your line to stay high, thereby causing your popper to splash or "spit" more. Or you can keep your rod tip down to the side, which causes your line to sink, which causes your popper to push water, make more of a muddled wake, and to "bloop" more.

Popular brands and models. We will mention some widely-available topwater baits. First, every topwater angler should own a white-bellied Pop'r and a white-bellied Zara Spook. Storm Lures Chug Bug popper is also popular, and Pradco's Spit'n Image is a newer lure available in many stores. If you want to try topwater at night, pick up a big black Arbogast Jitterbug. Try a soft, hollow Snag Proof Tournament Frog for thick matted grass and reed fishing. Rapala has just introduced it's new Skitterpop for 1999. All of these are widely-distributed brands that should be available in any good tackle shop.

Nervous twitchbaits. Another lure type that is used as a topwater is called a twitchbait. As with poppers and topwalkers, there is a staple model of twitchbait that has been used effectively for many years. Thatís the Rapala Floating Minnow. But here too, all of the newer Japanese manufacturers today also offer their own awesome versions of twitching minnows. Again, it would be hard to make a wrong choice with any of their twitching minnows. Several manufacturer's best models are available online at Fangard. Just make sure you differentiate shallow floating minnows (twitchbaits) from suspending minnows (jerkbaits). From the outside, jerkbaits and twitchbaits all look the same, but jerkbaits are tools to be used for their superb sub-surface suspending abilities, not as topwater twitchbaits.

I love to cast twitching minnows parallel to weed bed edges or along the face of thick reed stands on calm days. Just cast parallel and let the lure sit there until all the ripple rings are gone. You could get hit right away. If not, just wait so long that you can't stand it, then twitch the lure again so it sends out more nervous ripples but does not really move forward. Pause and wait, which is when you get blasted. Do it some more. When you are ready to move it forward, keep your rod tip down next to the water and just as you wind all the slack out of your line, snap the rod tip back to the side and start reeling in at a moderate speed. Turn the handle a few times, snap the rod tip again, turn the handle a few more times, snap the rod tip, and STOP DEAD. The minnow will bob back up to the surface, and as stillness settles in and starts to linger, it should be blasted by a big bass that just can't stand it any longer. If no hits, twitch, wait, twitch, wait, twitch, wait, snap, reel, snap, reel, snap, stop, bob, wait and repeat all the way down the weed edge or reed stand.

Chicken feathers. Go down to a fly tying shop, act snooty and ask the proprietor to show you some of his finest saddle hackles, the good ones with the gauzy webbing. Ask for some white and some chartreuse. Also ask for some waxed nymph-tying cord, size A in scarlet. When the shop owner brings it to you, act shocked and say, "Man, that's fowl. What are you trying to pull here, this is nothing but scrawny chicken butt feathers and red thread!" But buy it anyway, because those butt feathers really add fish-catching pizazz to all types of topwaters. Take the tips of about 3 white and 2 chartreuse hackles, and lash them to the tail hook with the red thread. Leave the hackles about 1 1/2 inches long on a popper, and longer for topwalkers. Tie the curved side facing into the hook. Put the chartreuse on first so that the whites kind of overshadow it. A sparse tail and less thread is better than overdoing it. I sometimes also wrap the same number of feather tips on the belly treble hook, but I don't make it longer than to stick out a bit beyond the hook bend. This takes time and money, and I wouldn't do it if I didn't think it meant extra fish for me. So decide if you want to try it, and form your own impressions of it. And even if you don't think the fish appreciate your attention to details, you can take some consolation from the fact that your fishing buddies will start to treat you like a topwater sharpie!

The exotics. Once you become confident using staple topwaters like those mentioned above, it is worthwhile for a good topwater angler to consider buying a few top-end topwaters to supplement the staple lures, like the Popírs and Spooks you already own. The following lures run $10-30 dollars apiece. In my opinion many of them are worth it - if you can afford them and you fish from a boat. From shore, you can easily lose such a costly lure. In a boat, an expensive topwater can last you all season if you fish it carefully. You really donít get snagged on cover because you do not fish topwater hardbaits often in heavy cover (Use soft stickbaits or buzzbaits for fishing the top in cover). And if you do snag one, miscast one into a tree, or break your line somehow, a topwater floats and you can usually move in with the boat to get it back. So here is a list of some (not all) of the top-end topwaters you should consider trying. Most of them work well. Keep in mind, that underneath it all they are still really only different manufacturerís variations and improvements on a few basic topwater styles. Again, try a few for starters and decide if you think the extra cost means extra fish to you or not. Many of the top-end topwaters are from Japanese manufacturers, such as the Megabass gill-spitting Pop-X and walking Dog-X. Lucky Craft has the Sammy topwalker and Super 8 popper. Daiwa has its TD Popper and TD Pencil. Fangard is a specialty tackle shop that sells selected models of the Megabass, Lucky Craft, and Team Daiwa lures online. Yamamoto offers the Sugoi Splash popper. Viva has the renowned Bug I popper, Bug Stick walker, and Pencil.  Yo-Zuri has its Walkín Dog and Pop ní Splash. Then there are Yellow Magic poppers, which donít look as pretty as some of the others, but that prettiness only counts in the eyes of anglers, not to the bass who love them. And from somewhere in Mexi-Texa-Cali comes Lobinaís Rico popper, which has a fanatical cult following out West. Again, I wouldn't go crazy (or broke) trying too many of these lures at once. Most work well, and besides, it would be counterproductive to try to master too many of them in a single season anyway.

Then there are even more exotic and some say deadlier brands like Bass Mania, Bassday, Duel, Fuze, Maria, Splash Club, Tiemco, Tifa, and Zenith. And at the top, there are rare baits such as Dowluck World's $90 baits, and finely tuned HMNG topwater bass baits personally hand-finished by the legendary designer Horimoto himself, costing $100 dollars on the shelf.

But high-priced exotics are not what this article is about. This article was about basic, productive topwater lures that are reasonably-priced and widely-available at most fine tackle shops. Lures like the Pop-r and Zara Spook are "building blocks" that beginning anglers use to learn how to fish topwaters. We've touched upon some semi-advanced topics such as line control, but I hope it was not too abstract, and it should start to make more sense to you as you get out and begin to study what happens between your wrist, rod, line, lure as you pop and walk your way to the most exciting way possible way to bass fish!

Hope this article keeps you on the top!

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