Topwater Tactics for Spring Bass

News & Tips: Topwater Tactics for Spring Bass

In this article: Overview of Topwaters in Early Spring | Topwaters and Methods for Early Spring Bass | Tips for Catching Early Spring Bass on Topwaters

As an avid bass fisherman, I enjoy the pristine nature of this sport — the beautiful sunrises, the serenity of the wind and waves, the rhythms of casting and retrieving, the poetry in the pursuit.  

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Early spring is a great time to cast topwater lures for big bass. These fish will strike surface baits well before most anglers  realize they will.

However, there is also a darker side to bass fishing, one which mirrors the realities beneath the surface. There is no serenity in violence and quick, slashing death. There is nothing poetic about a primitive predator stalking its prey. There is no peace — and also no remorse — for a panic-stricken baitfish about to be gulped into oblivion.  

Indeed, the murky world of bass is a primordial combination of opportunism and split-second reaction. These fish aren't intelligent. Rather, they are creatures of ruthless instinct and habit. Anglers who understand this nature and tailor their tactics accordingly will attract many more strikes than those who stop fishing to watch the butterflies.  

So how do these theoretics translate into real life fishing? Consider an experience I had a half dozen years ago on Kentucky's Lake Barkley. It was a warm, overcast morning in mid-April, and the delicate blossoms of dogwoods frosted the hills. If ever there was a day for topwaters, this was it, and I was giving my best shot.  

So far, however, my efforts had gone unrewarded. I'd tried bobbling a Rapala around flooded buck bushes. I'd schlopped a Pop-R through open lanes in the same cover. I'd danced a Zara Spook alongside several logs and a riprap bank without drawing a swirl.

Still, I prefer topwater fishing over all other presentations, and I decided to try just one more trick before giving up and switching to a worm. I tied on a Tiny Torpedo, then idled into a line of docks whose owners had sunken brushpiles around these structures to attract crappie. The top branches of several piles poked out above the surface. Others, completely submerged, appeared as dark shadows in lighter water.  

I cast over the first brushpile, ripped the prop bait aggressively up next to the cover, then stopped it. Twitch, twitch, twitch, twitch, twitch, twitch, twitch, twitch, twitch, twitch, twitch, twitch, twitch, twitch, twitch, twitch, twitch.... Wham! A large bass exploded on the bait, and I snatched back and sailed the plug and treble hooks past my ear.  

After two follow-up casts, I trolled to the next brushpile and repeated the process: Threw past the limbs; snatched the bait up to the cover; made as much commotion as I could. Then, after a short rest, I set up the same continuous twitch in the bait, not moving it, but barely sending out ripples. And this time I was prepared.

Wham! When the strike came, I stifled my jerk reflex and waited for the fish to pull the bait down. Then, when I felt tension, I set back, and in short order a surprised three-pounder was flopping in my net.  

These two experiences set the course for the remainder of the morning. Most every brushpile harbored bass, and my Tiny Torpedo and that stay-put, irritating retrieve were the keys to catching them. Those fish never hit when the lure first gurgled into range. Instead, it was the twitching that changed their mood from neutral to aggressive. By tantalizing them long enough, the lure triggered their instinct to kill the "helpless prey" even though they weren't hungry.  

So this is the object with topwater lures, to present bass with a vulnerable, unaware "creature" that is an easy target, then allowing nature to take its course. In the process, fishing surface lures can bag the biggest fish in any given water, especially when egg-heavy females are moving up shallow to spawn. Following is a simple blueprint for fishing floating lures during this special, exciting season.  

Overview of Topwaters in Early Spring  

Regardless of where they live, bass follow the same general life cycles. The two primary influences in their lives are spawning and feeding, and both figure prominently in topwater patterns in spring.  

Here's why. During winter, bass hang in deep water, normally in large schools, and they vacillate between lengthy periods of inactivity and short, frantic feeding sprees. They generally hold in main lake areas or near the mouths of large feeder creeks. Typically, these fish suspend along channels or bluffs where they have immediate access to sanctuary areas.  

But when winter starts giving way to spring, these large schools break up as bass drift away toward spawning areas. This breakup and migration occur when the water temperature nudges into the 50s, and this is the prelude to topwater time.  

As the water temp creeps progressively higher, bass move closer to their spawning areas: Rocky or sandy shoreline banks; flats bordering channels and ditches; small pockets etched into the sides of embayments; submerged roadbeds in the backs of creeks; and other shallow, hard-bottomed, protected structure. If cover is present — logs, reeds, brush, stumps, grass, docks, etc., so much the better. These are the type places on which topwater anglers should focus.  

When the water temperature cracks 60 degrees, it's time to begin throwing surface baits. Now the bass are fully active, and they're feeding heavily to prepare for the rigors of sweeping nests, laying eggs and protecting against predators. Crawfish, sunfish, shad and other subsurface creatures are regular items on their menu. Still, any bait that appears alive and struggling on the surface is a likely candidate for attack.  

Topwaters and Methods for Early Spring Bass  

Several types of surface lures will seduce bass during the pre-spawn and spawning periods, but some work better than others.  

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Early spring, topwater lures and big bass are a combination  sure to please any angler, including the author, pictured here.

High on this list is a long, slender, floating minnow, such as the Floating Rapala or Rebel Minnow. This is the traditional "first topwater" for many fishermen, and for good reason. When the water temperature hits 60 degrees, bass still aren't far removed from the lethargy of winter. However, on a calm, warm day in early spring, these fish will attack a floating minnow which is bobbled within easy striking distance. This bait's delicate presentation matches the fish's reticent mood this time of year.

Because they are bantamweights, topwater minnows must be fished on fairly light tackle. An ideal rig would be a medium-light baitcasting rod/reel spooled with 10 or 12 lb. line. A suitable alternate would be a medium action spinning combo with 10-pound test.  

The best strategy with these baits is to cast them where there is little wind disturbance: Pockets, back bay areas, protected shorelines. Because floating minnows make very little commotion, they should be used only in quiet, relatively shallow water (1-6 feet) where bass are more likely to notice their subtle surface disturbance.  

The technique with a floating minnow is simple. Cast it into likely areas (near cover, if any exists), reel up slack and wait until all ripples disappear. Then, simply twitch the bait with the rodtip, bobbing the head down with a minimum of forward movement. Next, wait for these new ripples to spread away, then repeat this process.  

Many pro anglers describe floating minnows as "twitch baits" because of this tedious bobbing method. They are most effective in confined target areas rather than along broad banks or flats. Since they are worked slowly, bass have a chance to examine these lures before striking. A floating minnow's lifelike appearance and natural, helpless-looking action pass the closest inspection.  

As water temperature climbs into the mid-60s, bass' metabolism rises correspondingly. Now faster, louder baits come into play. Three standards choices are poppers, propeller baits and walking baits. Popular examples of poppers are the Rebel Pop-R, Storm Chug Bug, and the venerable Arbogast Hula Popper. In prop baits, the Smithwick Devil's Horse and Heddon Tiny Torpedo are winners. And standby walking baits include the Heddon Zara Spook, Lucky Craft Sammy and Rapala Skitter Walk.  

Poppers (also called chuggers) are concave in the front. When pulled with short repeated jerks, a popper makes the "slurp, slurp, slurp" sounds of bass surface-feeding on minnows. This noise excites fish within hearing and seeing range and draws them in from long distances.

The best tackle for fishing poppers is a medium action baitcasting rig and 12-20 pound line. Basically, these lures are meant for covering broad, random areas rather than small targets. Anglers should work poppers down banks, over shallow flats, parallel to weed or grass edges, through standing timber or along other, similar structure. True, these baits may also be used around specific targets such as logs or stumps. However, their forte is covering water quickly and attracting scattered fish.  

Propeller baits come in several models and blade configurations. Some are thick like a wiener and have large blades fore and aft. When jerked, these lures cause maximum disturbance on the surface. They are appropriate when the water is choppy or stained, and plenty noise is needed to gain the fish's attention.  

At the other end of the spectrum are pencil-thin prop baits with small blades at front and back or perhaps only at the back. These lures stir far less water than their noisy counterparts. Thus, they are best for calmer conditions and/or when the water is clear.  

Prop baits are equally good at fishing broad areas and small targets. Like poppers, prop baits can be worked with a pull-stop, pull-stop action along linear structure. Or they can be thrown past a specific target (stump, brushpile, etc.), jerked up to the prime strike zone, then stopped and quivered as explained in the opening anecdote of this article. When a bass is eyeballing a prop bait floating overhead, and those blades barely rotate, he can't stand it! Prop baits are noted for inciting savage attacks.  

Walking baits cut an enticing trail along banks, standing timber, roadbeds, docks, etc. These cigar-shaped plugs should be fished with medium action baitcasting tackle and 15 or 17 pound test monofilament. The rod is held near the water's surface, and the rodtip is jerked in a steady cadence with the wrists. When done properly, this causes the bait to walk back and forth through the water with a pronounced zigzag action.  

Normally, a continuous retrieve is most effective on bass. However, if some object lies along its path, the angler might pause the bait momentarily beside the cover, then start the walking action again. Frequently this restart convinces a stalking bass that its "prey" is getting away, and a lunging strike results.  

Certainly other topwater lures will take bass in spring: Wobblers (like the Arbogast Jitterbug), buzzbaits and weedless frogs/rats. However, these baits are better in the post-spawn when water temperature is warmer and bass are "chasing." In early spring, floating minnows, poppers, prop baits and walking baits are wiser choices because of their slower, hesitating actions.  

Tips for Catching Early Spring Bass on Topwaters  

So which of these baits is best on any given day? Actually, the right pick is easy; the selection is based on weather/water conditions and preferences of the fish.  

Again, slender minnows are tops for the pre-spawn period when water is calm and relatively clear. However, if the water is choppy and/or dingy, try one of the other three.

For reasons known only to the bass, some days they prefer one type bait over the other two, and this preference can change from day to day. So to cover broad areas of water, alternate between a popper, prop bait and walking bait, and be alert as to which one draws the most attention. Once the bass indicate their choice, stick with it.  

Perhaps the biggest mistake most fishermen make with floaters is working them too fast. It is critical to avoid being in a hurry with these baits, especially when working specific target areas (as opposed to broad, general areas). After casting a surface lure, an angler should wait at least 30 seconds before starting his retrieve. This allows spooky fish to get over the intrusion of the bait in their territory and to become curious or even enraged about its presence.

Time of day is very important in fishing surface lures in early spring. Periods of low light — dawn and dusk — are always good bets when bass are hitting topwaters. However, in early spring, noon through mid-afternoon may be the magic time. This is because the warmest daily water temperature occurs in the early p.m. hours on sunny days, and this is when bass may be most active.

Another factor that affects water temperature, hence surface feeding, is size and depth of the lake or pond. Smaller, shallower waters warm faster than larger, deeper ones. Therefore, surface activity normally begins up to two weeks earlier on stock ponds, watershed lakes, oxbows and sloughs than it does on large reservoirs in the same region.  

In the same vein, certain areas on these bigger waters warm up quicker and offer earlier topwater action than do other areas of the lake. Sheltered pockets along northern shorelines enjoy a southern exposure and catch direct sunlight for longer periods of the day. Also, since these pockets are shielded from north winds, their waters don't chill as much when cold fronts blow through. Therefore, anglers hunting for topwater activity should check out these spots first.  

Because topwater fishermen work thin, often clear water, they should take extra precautions to avoid spooking bass. Approaches to fishing areas should be quiet and made with the electric motor instead of the outboard. Casts to specific targets should be fairly long to keep from getting the boat too close. A fisherman's shadow should never fall across a stump, log or other object where he expects a fish to be.   Topwater anglers should maneuver their boats in a manner that is appropriate to the area/target they are working. For instance, a fisherman working long linear structure (banks, weedlines, docks) should position his boat so he can make long casts parallel to the structure. This allows him to keep his bait in the prime strike zone through most of the retrieve.

On the other hand, when working single objects, this angler should first decide where a bass is most likely to be, then he should place his boat in the most advantageous position to cast to that spot. For instance, on sunny days bass like to hang in shadows next to stumps or logs, so this fisherman should hold that first cast until he can hit the shadowed side.  

When fishing topwaters, it is imperative for anglers to keep constant eye contact with their baits and to concentrate on working it as effectively as possible. Sometimes, especially with floating minnows, bass suck the bait under instead of smashing it. Fishermen who are daydreaming will miss their chance.  

And finally, when a bass does strike, don't set back too soon. As I learned that day on Lake Barkley, it's possible to be too quick on the trigger and yank a topwater away from fish. Instead, prepare yourself mentally to "feed" the bait to the bass, literally waiting until you see that the lure has disappeared and your line is swimming away. Then drive the hooks home, and chances of a solid hookset will rise appreciably.  

Summary: Topwater Fishing Provides Four-Star Thrills  

Years ago I fished in southeast Texas with an angler who was in his mid-70s, and he refused to throw any lure that didn't float. "I'd rather catch one bass on the surface than 10 down deep," he told me. "It's just more fun."  

He also proved that when conditions are right, topwaters can outproduce subsurface lures. I started the day out dragging a worm. By the time I switched to a floating minnow, he'd caught almost a dozen fish to my two.  

Since then I've always kept a floating plug tied onto one of my rods, and I always cast it some — maybe a lot — whenever conditions are remotely amenable for doing so. In the process, I've come to appreciate topwater fishing for what it is.

Nothing in the sport offers more anticipation or excitement. You're a hunter looking for game. You put personality and intrigue into your baits. You see, hear and feel the strikes, some of which sound like boulders dropping in the water. You fight bass at close quarters, frequently as they bull their way toward nearby cover.

Twenty-five years after that morning with that old Texan, I can report with certainty that topwater fishing provides four-star thrills and pleasures, and spring is the best season to experience them. If you don't believe this, go and sample them for yourself. After a few fish you'll be a topwater fanatic like me!