Make Mine a Topwater Lure

Posted by  Tuesday, April 29 2014 3:00 pm
expert

It's been said that a fish striking a topwater lure is worth five times more than any below the surface. Depending on the fish, that figure may be closer to 10. That's because watching a lure get clobbered on top carries far more excitement than a blind strike. Even a missed strike makes the blood pressure jump. Some people can't handle it; I recently fished with a pro bass-tournament guy in the jungles of Venezuela, (a good ol' boy and a big 'un) who bellowed with rage each time he missed a strike from powerful peacock bass.

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Author with a fine mangrove snapper that hit a Chug Bug in  waters "way down Mexico way."

Our native guide was visibly nervous. Apparently he'd never seen an angler get so upset over peacock bass. For him, the local bass had always been knocking plugs in the air. Our big propeller plugs were getting knocked 6 feet sideways. It was great! 

Using topwater plugs requires timing, eye-to-hand coordination, mental control and a little luck. With the excitement of a topwater hit, it's easy to snatch back too early or late, missing the fish. Compare that to a spoon or jig, where a simple tightening or slacking of the line means a fish is on. That's why an angler should carry a few topwater plugs at all times. A special day with these plugs represents a bookmark, a reference point to remember during a long career of fishing. Below are a few of the best venues and situations.

Florida's West Coast  

For sheer number of fish species, it's hard to beat the topwater action we see each spring on the Gulf side of Florida. Last April and May we caught the following species in three to four feet of water: cobia, a big pompano, seatrout, ladyfish, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, blue runner, jack crevalle, even remora. Big sharks followed the plugs, but didn't grab them, thank goodness. It was enough to make you quit using sub-surface baits, however. On our best trip we had about 100 blow-ups, an exciting day.

The spot is a sandbar, a grassy shallow two miles offshore, which rises to only two feet deep during low tides, making up perhaps 80 acres of three to six foot depths. With grass and even rock bottom all around, it attracts considerable fish. It also has an old abandoned crab trap and buoy that offers a useful point of reference. If we get hits on one side of the buoy or, say, 100 yards west of there, we return for an identical drift -- without having to drop our own buoy. Of course it takes a GPS to find the place on many days.

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Feisty jack crevalle with a topwater plug.

And what action we get out there, before the water becomes too warm in June.

Watching surface-cruising cobia attack a topwater plug is just plain fun, but many of our strikes are blind, mystery hits until we crank the hooked fish in close, where we can ID it. Except for the ladyfish that always jump, and seatrout that wallow.

With spin tackle and seven-foot rods, we can throw that topwater plug a considerable distance, even into the wind without risking a backlash. And with spin gear you get a better fight out of these shallow fish.

Tropical Coastal Waters  

For some reason, tropical waters and southern latitudes with less fishing pressure offer ideal country for topwater baits. I'm referring to Mexico. It's like the fish there take a special interest in seeing these lures suffer; they actually go out of their way to attack. Repeated pops from a chugger-style lure will draw satisfying hits from several kinds of jacks, snappers and barracuda. Permit and bonefish may be the angler's top draw, and require more patience and refined tackle, usually fly rods. Or spin tackle with small jigs. But when you're tired of dealing with those finicky, spookish gamefish, it's time for reliable fun with topwaters.  

This is one venue where you don't want to be caught without noisy topwater baits in that little travel box. Next time I return to Mexico, at least 80 percent of my lures will be topwaters, in a variety of colors. Last time, the silver and blue Chug Bug worked fine. Just make sure those treble hooks are strong enough. We've had them ripped right out of plugs, so I often install bigger hooks. A hook rip-out is not the fault of a tight drag on the reel — some of these fish simply flex their jaws and either flatten or straighten treble hooks.

Offshore Kingfish  

Ever try anchoring and chumming for kingfish during summer? It's an amazing sight, watching king repeatedly blast topwater plugs, the fish jumping 10 feet or more across the water. One summer while anchored offshore, we chummed with a bucket of small, fresh menhaden, which kingfish eat like candy. That brought them in close. We caught plenty of school-size kingfish, which average about 14 pounds in the waters there off Galveston.

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This 8-pound seatrout struck a mullet-imitation,  topwater  plug.

For some reason, I then picked up a 7-foot jigging rod and tied on a topwater plug. To our amazement, the lure drew four or five strikes on a single cast, the kingfish sailing through the air whether they had the lure or not. After landing several kings on 20-pound line, which was serious work, I removed the treble hooks. The strikes continued, but now you didn't have to fight each fish for long. Earning five jump/strikes on a single cast was amazing. If a king clamped down firmly on the hookless plug, he might rip off 30 yards of line before dropping the plug — whereby another grabbed it, and the fight commenced again. My friends in the boat all quit fishing, just to take turns throwing a hookless topwater plug at those hungry kings. The lure, protected by a short wire leader, was soon fuzzy with bite marks. It wasn't a unique experience. The following summer we had a repeat at another spot about 25 miles away. Chumming brought the kings in close within casting distance, and the topwater plug drove them crazy. Both days were fairly glassy calm, by the way. In whitecap conditions, it might not have happened.  

Trout from the Jetty  

Catching seatrout on topwater plugs is great fun. Calm weather is required, and relative quiet, without too much boat traffic. The noise of a popping plug on top imitates, to some degree, trout feeding on shrimp and baitfish, and this attracts trout to the lure. The original cupped styrofoam pop cork, shaped like a chugger-style topwater lure, was meant to imitate the sound of feeding trout, and enjoyed great success for the past half century. Most anglers simply drift the boat over grass bottom for a quarter-mile or so, working the plug and making noise. 

We've also enjoyed some memorable days while walking the jetties in Texas, catching sizeable trout and missing many more strikes. Sometimes the trout simply miss what they attack, and it's no fault of the angler. You simply have to put up with three or four strikes for each solid hookup, and keep your cool. And your balance. Get distracted and fall in those sharp rocks or barnacles, and your day is likely done. We earned some cruel scars this way, but never regretted it. On the other hand, with an electric motor on the bow, your boat can cover a long stretch of jetty wall with safety and comfort. That's a trick older anglers are now using, while letting the young guys walk the rocks. Again, this is calm weather fishing, but a granite jetty wall usually provides a calm stretch of water.   
 

Wading for Redfish in Texas  

Wading and tossing topwater plugs is fun, but also carries hazards. Even with occasional oysters, stingrays, jellyfish and flesh-eating bacteria, countless Texans jump in the water or wade out, eagerly tossing plugs in water up to their armpits. Texas waders mostly stick trout and redfish on quiet shorelines or along the beach, if they can find a quiet spot that hasn't been recently run over by shore-hugging, shallow-running boats.

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Ron Klys of Florida is delighted with this colorful peacock bass that  struck a topwater plug after sunset.

Getting a "blow-up" (that's a clobbered topwater lure) while wading is a classic fishing moment, most rewarding, a real kick. However, the most fun we've had with topwaters was in the back saltwater ponds off the main lakes, still reached by the tides but far away from boat traffic. In knee-deep water, watching a redfish attack your topwater plug is a special moment. Catching two or three legal redfish in such a venue feels great, even after wading a few hundred yards through sometimes soft bottom. You feel like you've earned your fish, which you have.

South America  

Which brings us back to peacock bass. Perhaps no other fish will blast a topwater plug with more consistency, than the three or four species of pavon, or peacock bass. Not all topwater baits are hit equally, however. Last autumn we had great luck with these fish in Venezuela on a variety of lures, but the topwater that worked best invariably had a propeller. There's just something about a buzzing prop bait that turns these fish on, even the older 20-something pound giants lurking in Brazil.

As for us, we (including pro bassers Ron Klys of Florida and Preston Henson of California) were armpit deep in hog heaven, fighting 2- to 12-pounders all day. It was the best wade-fishing I've ever seen, since these fish are so aggressive. Not only will they jump repeatedly, but they're strong enough to spool a reel, will fight to reach cover, colorful, even handsome and quite good to eat. Most anglers stay in the boat in these waters, but we found schools of fish in the oxbow lakes and caught them either by wading or from shore. Our hosts and new friends from the town of Calabozo and the Venezuelan Bass Association put us on serious fish and the trip of a lifetime.  

It really is too bad the peacock bass is so adapted to hot weather all year long. If they adapted to colder U.S. lakes, we would soon run low on topwater lures. And there would be a great many more fishing nuts than currently exist.  

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Last modified on Tuesday, April 29 2014 4:05 pm
Capt. Joe Richard
expert

Joe Richard has fished the Gulf since 1967, starting out of Port Arthur, Texas, but his adventures have taken him up and down the entire Gulf Coast. He was the editor of Tide magazine for eight years, and later Florida Sportsman's book and assistant magazine editor. He began guiding out of Port O'Connor, Texas, in 1994, and later on in Florida. His specialty is big kingfish, and his latest book is "The Kingfish Bible, New Revelations", due for publication in 2013. His website, seafavorites.com, includes a large collection of his outdoor photography.

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