How to Use Topwater Lures
Some fish look down when they're hunting for food. Called "Inferior" fish, their top jaws are longer then their lower jaws. Redfish come to mind, and sure enough, if you know them, you are more likely to use a jig that bounces on the bottom with a small soft plastic 'tail' or real shrimp tail (better yet) then you are to use a splashy topwater lure. In this article we are going to talk about using topwater lures. You can sure catch redfish on a topwater, even though their mouth is on the bottom and they were constructed by the Divine to eat shrimp, crabs, and other crustaceans from the bottom of the water they live in. They will "roll" onto their sides so their mouth is along the surface, and able to swallow an injured bait. But their natural food is below them. Not so with all the species we target and (maybe) love to harvest for our tables.
Why Topwater Lures Work
We have talked about the bone structure of fish before, and how you can tell by the mouth of a fish whether they more commonly eat baits above them, in front of them, or underneath them. If their top jaw is longer than the bottom jaw, they are "inferior eaters". Not lower on the social fishy scale, mind you, but their mouths are designed to eat stuff underneath them. Their eyes are better at looking down, too. A fish like a mackerel or a tuna (and billfish, too, despite the bill) have parallel upper and lower jaws. And their eyes can look in all directions with equal efficiency. They eat stuff in front of them. They tend to eat in open waters, too, where their marauding schools can chase and even herd schools of smaller fish. They are called "terminals". Like any fish, if they see an injured fish flashing around on the surface and acting like it is in trouble, they will stop doing whatever it is they are doing at the moment and eat whatever it is. They will also eat live baits struggling below them, too. Tarpon will eat baits very near the bottom.
But the third kind of fish - the "superior" fish like snook, largemouth bass, or a tarpon - has a lower jaw that is longer then their upper jaws. They were constructed by the Divine or some random scattering of five elements to eat stuff swimming above (or near their sides) them in the water column. The reason you will often have a redfish roll on a topwater is because they happen to be close enough to see and hear them. When they are deep they will glance up but rarely grab a popper or propeller lure; but they are far more likely at any time to hit a bouncing jig.
When to Use a Topwater Lure
The best time to use a topwater lure is when the water is relatively calm. Personally, we do not think that the days when the air is almost dead are the best of days, but there are many days when there is a decent breeze cooling the air, and a good strong tidal flow, but the surface is so flat it looks like a paper plate. Other times the breeze puts a pattern on the surface, but it's not what we call "snotty". For a topwater to work well, the surface of the water has to be calm enough so the lure is making 'noise'. By noise we do not necessarily mean clicking, popping, or singing some kind of electronic song, although some lures do just that. We are talking a about surface noise. Surface noise can be almost invisible and certainly silent; but fish will see it.
The bottom line is you can have success with a surface lure as long as the wind's not blowing so hard the lure doesn't make its presence known to the fish below it. The one exception to the "calm surface" theory is when a school of fish is boiling the surface eating baits. If you throw a topwater into a school of tuna in the middle of the ocean while they are chomping down on a herded school of bait you will connect to a fish. The same it true of bluefish, jacks, and one of our personal favorite surface fish - ladyfish. Ladyfish? Ladyfish. Try throwing a topwater of any kind into a school of feeding ladyfish and the kids on your boat will have the time of their life. And quickly learn how the lure works, and what happens when a fish grabs it from below. Just make sure that gray slime that ejects from the fish's anal orifice stays off your clothes. And boat.
All that said, playing with topwater lures will often result in powerful, surprising, and entertaining strikes.
Different Kinds of Topwater Lures
Well, sort of. All topwater lures are designed to make noise. Some splash, some pop, some bubble, and some vibrate. A few do various combinations of splashing and bubbling or popping and clicking, but they all make noise of one kind or another. Like we said, some seem silent to you but very noisy to a fish in the water, so noise is relative. But all are designed to simulate an injured fish. Injured fish are having a hard time swimming, and many have a hard time staying down in the water where they're normally found. The very fact that they flash above a waiting predator is enough to grab their eye. Sounds attract predators too. They are built not only to see unusual things, but to hear them as well.
Let's look at topwater lures. There are several different kinds, and they are all designed to do different things. We are using a few different manufacturers' products, and they all work. We are friends with the people who manufacture Mirrolures, but for the sake of your picking lures you find effective, our bias is based on the fact we have caught more fish using L&S products than lures from any other company. What is important to understand which lures work best for which fish, and one man's popping cork is another man's propeller.
Popping lures do just that: they pop. The front of the lure is concave, meaning they are carved out so there is a cup in the front where the line's attached. When you snap the lure, it pushes a great deal of water out of the cup. The harder you snap, the louder the pop. They seem very effective on largemouth bass, and we use cork poppers on fly rods to catch them out of lilly pads.
The best example of a prop lure are the ones made by Mirrolure. The more classic variety of the lure comes with two propellers attached to the front and back of the lure. We have been using them for decades, and on calm water, they are deadly. Arguably the best single lure for catching speckled trout on the grass flats, they bubble on slow retrieves, and can be simply reeled in slowly to draw strikes from the popular and very tasty species. The new one comes with two props too, but we haven't thrown away the front crop on those. Yet. They might just sit well judging by their look and apparent weight. If you have fished with them we would appreciate your feedback. It gets read here and shared on all the social networks.
For the decades we have been using them to catch trout, redfish, and snook on our flats, man has been modifying them. With both propellers attached - the way they come from the factory - they tend to make a little too much noise. The front prop also tends to catch the leader on the cast, too, and we started long ago to unscrew the front ring (the one you tie onto the leader) and removing that front prop. The results are that the back-end of the lure sites ever-so-slightly low in the water, the lure casts without tangling sometimes, and she (we call all lures 'she') seems to draw more strikes. You are certainly invited to use the lure the way the manufacturer and designer meant it to work, and leave the front prop on, but it works better - for us - modified.
A lure like a Mirrodine - very popular and thought by some to be a topwater lure - is actually called a "Suspension" lure. Designed to sink to a certain depths, suspenders can be programmed by design (not computer yet) to sink to a few inches (like the Mirrodine) or fairly deep. A true topwater lure always floats, and can be defined as a floater lure.
One of our favorite lures that make clicking sound - are also "jumpers". (There is a lure called the Rattletrap that is a mid-column swimmer, and a thousand others, that click loudly but not on the surface) The Bagley Jumping Mullet has caught fish for us everywhere from the local mangrove islands to waters holding northern pike and muskellunge near the North Pole. They float if you do not move them. But if you start a retrieve and snap them, they jump a little out of the water amazingly like a finger mullet (juveniles about finger-sized). Inside is a small ball bearing in a hollow space, and its movement causes the click.
Blades or Buzz Baits
The last kind of topwater lure is those insane blade lures that have been winning bass tournaments for the last 100 years. Call a "Spinner Bait", they are comprised of a piece of wire bent and looped so it holds a jig on the bottom and one or more blade propellers at the top. Reeling them quickly causes them to ride very near the surface, where the blades spin and create a wake and a bubble that would frighten a dead log. But if a largemouth bass sees one or hears it from a hundred feet away they will do anything to kill it. They do not seem to hit them because they are hungry, and other than a rattlesnake on crack running from the abominable snowman on a field trip, nothing known to man makes that kind of sound or splash on the water. But largemouth bass, more than any fish we have ever caught, strike in anger. And quite frankly, if something that sound like a spinner bait came through your living room you would grab the AR15.
We have caught a lot of redfish with spinner baits. They are not something we keep in our flats box, but we have taken them with us for the hell of it, and they worked like mad. The only reason we do not keep them in the box is to avoid being seen by one of our friends with one alongside the Gulp! Baits. But if you fish freshwater for largemouth bass, they are the topwater of choice.
The Ubiquitous Gold Spoon
If you are fishing for largemouth bass on a regular basis, you know good spoons. Tossing a gold spoon - one called a Johnson Minnow - with a piece of pork rind hanging off its backside and running it fast over lilly pads will often result in over-sized black bass coming out of the water with a sound you have to hear for yourself. The same spoon fished much like a jig - especially for redfish on a drop-off next to a grassy flat in the fall - will catch fish repeatable. Just retrieved slowly it works for both bass and redfish (and snook, trout, cobia, and a gaff topsail catfish now and then). But drug fast across lilly pads it is a topwater that cannot be beat. It probably works over skinny grass flats, too, but we cannot call on personal experience. Catching bass running them over pads is in our personal fishing logs.
How to Work a Topwater Lure
The trick to making any lure work is how you work it. Even a spoon (which retrieved quickly makes an effective topwater for surface-feeding feeding fish) works different if you reel it fast then if you bring it in slowly with pauses that let it sink and rise in the water column. But topwater lures are in a class of their own when it comes to effective retrieve.
They need to get quiet to work. That means that when you cast the lure and it first splashes on that calm or slightly breezy water, you have to let it sit there for a while. Let it get quiet. Try to cast it so it lands gently (a little high and "loopy" lets them fall of their own weight, as opposed to throwing it hard directly onto the water). When it hits the water, it will make rings the same way a bowling ball would make big rings if you dropped it from the sky. They are smaller than bowling ball rings, but they are rings. Let them slow down and disappear. Let the lure go quiet.
Once it does, if it is a popper, snap it. Once it pops and makes new rings, let it quiet down again. Pop it once or twice and let it get silent. Repeat until it is so close to you you can be sure there is nothing big and curious following it. You will be amazed at how often you will see a ten or twelve pound snook, or 26" speckled trout behind the lure. If you do, you know you are in the right place. The comment about curious is true, too; you will see fish look and not eat a lot when you are fishing topwater. Another thing you will see is a boil - a swirling and flattening of the water - behind a topwater. And more often than not, the strike will come when the bait is silent - the rings and splashed water have disappeared.
If you are fishing a propeller lure like the Mirrolure 7m, try letting the lure go silent, and then retrieving slowly for maybe ten or fifteen feet. Then let it go silent. There are times fish will hit them on simple slow retrieves with no pauses and silence, but again, they are curious about the noise - and there is not telling which slight variation in the retrieve will draw a strike. But if fish are there and interested, they will hit them at some point.
Cadence and Topwater Lures - Walking the Dog
Different lures, as we said, do different things. How a lure acts on its own - without any twitches, pauses, lifts, snaps, or vibrations on your part - is said to make one lure better than another lure. According to the manufacturer, anyway. When working one or another topwater lure, you will need to develop experience over the difference between popping a rebel and the speed at which you buzz a buzz bait for bass. That said, you will expand your fishing skills if you learn to "walk the dog" with many topwater lures. Simply retrieving them - with the exception of buzz baits and fast gold spoons over lily pads - is improved if you apply the technique.
Here is a great YouTube video showing you the concept in action. You will absolutely love the star of the movie. That's all we'll say. But do us -- and yourself -- a favor and tell him how helpful his very cool video and even cooler personality is to us. I hope we could get this guy to publish here on a regular basis. He's that good. He shows you how to use a Zara Spook. And it isn't a snook he's working over.