Topwater Bass Fishing Basics – getting started.

Fish Catching Travel

Topwater Basics

Spring is right around the corner.  With it comes some of the best topwater fishing of the year in freshwater for bass.  But topwaters are equally as effective in fresh and saltwater, spring to fall, and the same basic principals apply.  So lets talk about getting started.

Almost every lure manufacturer who makes hard baits, and even a few like Texas Tackle Factory who specialized in soft plastics, make a topwater bait.  While some baits are more effective than others of course, the brand you buy is a matter of choice.  As Eric Clapton says, “It is in the way that you use it!”  Topwater baits, each with it’s own action and color, have a time and a place.

And what blows up on a topwater?  Tarpon, snook, bass, trout, redfish, stipers, white bass and even the the occasional catfish, to name a few.  If the fish are up shallow, either chasing bait or looking to spawn, the topwater is one of the most explosive way to catch fish, and definitely the most exciting.  And they work in ponds, rivers, lakes, creeks, inshore and off.

So if you want to start topwater fishing there are 5 different styles that will cover most situations.  And one of each in your tackle box will get you started.

The Basic Five To Get You Started.

The Minnow Baits

One of the oldest, and easiest to use, are the minnow imitators.  They basically come in balsa and hard plastic.  The old standby is the Rapala, but minnow baits are available in multiple sizes and colors, again each with a specific application.

To get started a 5″ Bang O Lure in a black back with silver sides will catch any fish feeding on baitfish.  While that size is the basic for bass and trout for example, the larger sizes are often more effective for larger fish like tarpon and redfish.

The lighter minnow baits can be fished on a spinning rod, baitcaster, or even a Zebco.  Generally a lighter line, 10lb for an example is the best way to go, makes it much easier to cast.  Of course the bigger the bait the heavier the line and tackle you should use.  But for starters 10 or 12lb is the way to go.  The less you detract from the action with a heavier line  the more effective a minnow bait will work.

To use it the most basic retrieve is to cast it out, let it sit and then twitch it, then let it sit.  The old adage used to be after casting it let it sit quietly until all the rings from hitting the water are gone, then twitch it again.   Now that works, but with all topwaters let the fish tell you how they want it.  Right now I am twitching it real fast, pulling it under and then twitching it as soon as it pops up.  So vary your retrieve, being sure you vary it with a purpose.  There is nothing like not catching fish for a while, then catching one and trying to remember exactly how you were using it.  So work your way from slow to fast, the fish will tell you how they want it.

The fish may hit it on top or under the water.  Watch your bait and the splash it makes when you twitch it, if you see something else he is there.  I know it is hard to not immediately set the hook when one blows up on it, but try to let him tighten the line before you set it.  And if you miss him, throw it right back in there.  It is amazing how often you will miss one and then toss it back in there and catch him.

And this is a good time to talk about rigging.  Though most minnow baits will work right out of the box, some baits come with a split ring on the nose and others do not.   If it does not have a split ring I prefer to add one, it allows that bait to move more freely.  Just be sure should you add one, make sure it is not to heavy as to detract from the action.  And like all hard baits, if it seems to run to one side or the other lightly bend the nose eye to the opposite side.  Be sure to barely bend it with pliers and try it again until it runs straight.

And as a rule, I also change hooks on many of them, especially after they have had a few fish caught on them.  I like to use a larger treble, I prefer the red coated hooks, but if I do change them to a larger size I will often substitute a hook on the front and rear, and leave the middle one off.  That allows you to compensate for the additional weight of the larger hooks.

So for starters a minnow bait is the way to go, and if I had to buy one, it would be the 5″ Bang O Lure in silver foil with a black back.

The Walking the Dog Baits 

Walking the dog has been around since I started seriously fishing years ago.  I have caught the all of list of fish mentioned above.  My favorite hit of all time was a 100lb plus tarpon at boat side who smashed it, then jumped 4 feet from the boat and looked me in the eye, at eye level.  While walking the dog is not easy, it is one of the best baits and retrieves to catch truly big fish of any species.

Zara Spooks are probably the best known old standby and my favorite for bass.  But many companies are making variations.  My new favorite for saltwater is the Texas Tackle Factory Gundog.  It casts like a rocket and comes in a smaller size, the Dummy, which should be perfect for trout.  And the other bait I fish a lot is the Rapala Skitter Walk, which catches it’s share of reds and trout.

As far as color goes there are 2 basics, silver and bone.  I am partial to the bone color.  But as you expand your box, the frog pattern is great for ponds, and a blue back or chartreuse for the gulf.  There are tons of colors, but with this style of bait bone or silver is the first color to add to your box.

This bait requires a little heavier equipment than the minnow bait.  It is definitely a casting rod and reel bait, and due to the potential to catch really big fish, I generally use 15lb and above line.  So once you are ready it is time to learn to walk the dog.

Once it hits the water you want a side to side action.  So hold your rod tip horizontal with the water and twitch the tip about 6 inches as you reel.  As soon as the bait slides one way, twitch it again and it will slide the other.  Back and forth, back and forth, twitching the rod tip and reeling just fast enough to keep the line tight.  Keep it moving in a rhythmic pattern all the way to the boat.  With all topwaters, but especially this style, do not give up on it.  Some of the biggest fish will follow it for a ways until they finally make up their mind to eat it.  But when they do, hang on.  I actually had a big bass literally jerk the rod out of my hands into the lake on a rainy day, while I miss that rod, I will never forget that strike. Though I would make one final comment, while a stop and go retrieve will work, this is the one bait that is best used by bringing it back in a constant walking the dog retrieve.

Walking the dog takes practice, and it is not the easiest to learn to use but once you get the hang of it, look out.  Some of the best fish of your life love to eat it, and it is worth your time to learn to do it right.  And do not get discouraged, because once you get it down it will earn a place in your arsenal.

The Chuggers and Poppers 

As we continue to expand the applications of various topwaters lets get to the business of making some serious noise, and the chuggers and poppers are the way to go.  While the minnows and the dog walkers are imitating the actual baitfish, the chuggers and poppers are imitating the actual fish.  So what do I mean by that?

All of us who fish have heard it, the sound of a bass hitting on top, a trout whacking a mullet, or a snook blasting a shad.  It has that distinctive sound, from a small plop to what sounds like a concrete block being tossed in the lake when a striper smashes a gizzard shad at night.  You want the fish to come to see what those other guys are eating.

As far as brands go, either the Storm Chug Bug, or the old standby, the Rebel Pop-R, is all you need.  As I have said about the others, a basic silver style is the place to start.   And the size of course is dictated  by the fish you are wanting to catch.

As far as retrieve goes, start with casting it out and letting it hit the water then giving it a chug.  Again, let the fish tell you how they want it, and it is important to cast and work your way through various retrieves.  The chugging sound is imitating the actual fish hitting bait, and you want that bass laying under the log to think someone else is eating something he wants.

So you are trying to call them in.  If the fish are smashing bait, work it quickly.  If you are trying to fool them, pop and let it set.  There is no right retrieve, only wrong ones.  So add a popper to your box as they have a time and place in your topwater arsenal.

The Prop Baits 

So lets get to the real noise makers, the prop baits.  From a giant one for explosive peacock bass fishing, to the smaller size for other fish, this is the one bait that will call them in when they are in an aggressive feeding mood.

There are 2 of these baits that will fit the bill, the old Smithwick Devils Horse and the Cordell Boy Howdy.  These baits have a propeller on each end and will not only make all the noise you need, they do one thing the others do not do as well, they throw water when you jerk them.  Either of these will do as they both work the same.  And as far as color goes, the same as the other baits apply.

This bait is best for aggressive fish, and again as with the others, let them tell you how hard and fast to jerk it.  There are even the occasional times when you can reel it straight in.  The real secret of this style of topwater is the when to use it.  There are some days when you get to the lake when the wind is blowing and it is not calm enough to use the baits we talked about above.  This is when the prop bait really shines.

I learned my lesson back when I was guiding on Norfork Lake.  I had been catching them on minnow baits but the wind was howling that day so I fished spinnerbaits.  When I got back to the dock there was 2 old timers with one of the better stringers of the year.  They taught me a lesson that day.  They had been catching fish on top, and when they got to the place where they had been whacking them it was just to windy, so out came the prop baits.  By ripping that thing in the waves they were still able to call those same fish up and make them bite in conditions where I just gave up.

So add one to your box.  It has a time and place in topwater fishing and can take a day where you just can’t catch them on other baits from bad to good.  So when the wind is blowing, give it a try.

The Plastic Frog Style

And the final bait to complete your topwater list is the plastic frog.  For some of the most explosive strikes from freshwater fish very little will top the frog.

Many companies make a frog.  Whether you choose a Spro or a Scum Frog, a frog is the final piece of the topwater puzzle.   Whether you are fishing in a big lake with hydrilla or grass, or in a small pond with moss, the frog will allow you to get a bait in to the thickest stuff where you could not get another lure.

Frogs come in many colors and shapes.  Some have swimming legs, some with popper style mouths, and other have skirts for legs.  To get started just pick a frog with that has a set of legs that are made of a skirt material, actually just like a spinnerbait skirt.  As far as color, either a white or a green will do.  If you have a big wallet, just like any of the preceding baits, buy a variety of colors.  But for starters, white and green will do.

Now this is not a spinning rod, light line technique.  This is heavy line, heavy rod fishing because this is one of the few baits that allows you to really get brave.  A huge grass mat, moss so thick it cover the surface, reeds, grass, it does not matter.  This is one bait where 20lb mono is the minimum.  Braid is even better as it allows a solid hook set and when they are buried in the grass will let you winch them out, even cutting through some of it.  Just remember you need a rod and line heavy enough to bring a 5 pound bass along with 5 pounds of grass to the boat, a heavy load.

So cast it in, on, and around it.  Throw it in places you would never think about even fishing.  Have bunch of timber piled up, throw it in there.  Do not be afraid, this is what it is for, to reach those fish that are buried up and others can not reach.

Once you cast it, let it sit.  Now think about a frog.  Have you ever seen one swimming?  It is a hop – hop – hop – then stop.  Then do it again.  This is one time I will actually pull up on the rod as I make it hop.  I am trying to imitate a frog doing the breast stroke as he tries to escape back to safety.  For me it is 4 hops and let it set, 4 hops and let it set over the cover.  Be sure to hop it at least a few feet past the cover before you reel it in and cast again.

If there are holes in the stuff, hop it there and let it set.  Give them a second to find it, and then hold on.  Now you can hop it constantly, but this is definitely a stop and go technique.   And just like all topwaters, let the fish tell you how they want it, and then duplicate it.  So you get a bite, what now?

This is one bait you must let them take it.  That frog is soft, and they are more than willing to hold on to it long enough to let you set the hook.  As I use it by twitching the rod tip up as I hop it,  I hook a high percentage of them by dropping the rod tip straight at the fish and then setting the hook.  It is just like setting the hook on a plastic worm, drop the rod and reel in the slack, then bust them.  This is one bait that as a rule if you set the hook the second they blast it you will miss  them almost every time.  So hop, drop and stick.

Frog fishing is one of the really fun way to catch bass.  So get a couple.  As spring winds down, and the hot summer takes over, it is one of the most effective way to catch bass out of heavy cover.  And a side benefit it catches some of the largest bass in the lake.


So there you have it.  The five topwater baits that will cover almost any situation.  Is there more to it, of course.  I could write pages and pages on each bait but this is like the appetizer to the great meal.  As you become more proficient you can add more to your plate.  But sticking with these five styles will get you started.  So get some and head to your favorite body of water for one of the most addictive styles of fishing you can do.

Good Luck and Tight Lines!

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