Close your eyes, reach into your tacklebox and grab a topwater bait. Chances are, it will catch bass. Maybe not right now. Maybe not even today or tomorrow - but sooner or later, every surface bait you own will pull a largemouth up from the depths and into your boat. Knowing which one to use, however, shouldn't be left to chance, and the country's top pros can't rely on a roll of the dice. They have to know, without a hint of a doubt, which bait will produce and which one won't. Their livelihoods depend on it.
"There is no foolproof system to choosing the right topwater. They are all tools that have a time and a place, just like any other lure. So much of it is trial and error, but through experience, you learn how to narrow the choices and eliminate a lot of lures when you make that first choice of the day," says Florida pro Bernie Schultz.
Mark Menendez, a longtime fixture on the Bassmaster circuit, agrees, and says there are some basic rules he follows when he selects a surface bait.
"There are three factors that determine which topwater I'm going to start with: wind, water color and the intensity of the sun," he says. "There are other variables that play into the equation, but those three are where I start when I make a decision."
Generally, the dirtier the water, the louder the bait - a principle that Virginia pro Curt Lytle follows, as well. Although Menendez will use surface baits when he can see only a foot below the surface, he admits that topwaters may not be the best choice for such conditions.
"My first choice for dirty water will be a Wounded Spook. It's a big bait that moves a lot of water, and it's got props on both ends, which make a lot of noise. I want as much noise and commotion as I can get so the bass can home in on the lure. I also like my lures to have orange or chartreuse bellies, which stand out against the dirty water," says Menendez.
There is no foolproof system to choosing the right topwater. They are all tools that have a time and a place, just like any other lure. ”
Lytle's first choice — and often his only choice for murky water — is a buzzbait. According to the two time CITGO Bassmaster Classic qualifier, those baits are great for calling bass up from shallow cover in dirty water, although they don't always actually catch the fish. In other words, largemouth will take a swipe at a buzzbait, but they don't always eat it.
"I've seen them miss it by a foot or two, but what that does is tell me where that fish is, and I'll follow it up with a floating worm. Nine times out of 10, you can catch that bass you missed on the buzzbait in murky water," he says.
Both Menendez and Schultz will parallel the water color with the color of their surface baits. In other words, the clearer the water, the more natural the bait should appear. Menendez will even use clear Spooks in ultraclear water, and Schultz uses progressively quieter lures as the water gets cleaner.
Wind — or the lack of it — is another critical factor, and all three pros have basic rules they follow when they consider wind. Schultz likes subtle baits, such as Pop-Rs and Zara Spooks, if there is a slight ripple on the water; but he'll go to a noisy buzzbait like a Hildebrandt HeadBanger, which has a clacker, when there is a chop on the water. Lytle will avoid chugger-type baits in rough water, but he will use larger buzzbaits and Zara Spooks. Above all, he avoids small surface lures.
Topwaters are a weakness of bass. If you put the right one in front of that fish, he's going to eat it. ”
Can it be too windy for a topwater? Perhaps, but Menendez recalls a tournament on Kentucky Lake where he was catching largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass on surface lures from a single long point during some pretty rough conditions.
"Three-foot rollers were breaking across this point, and the bass were there picking off the shad that were getting washed over it. I was using a Zara Spook, and I don't know how many times the lure would disappear below a wave and when it should have come back up again, it was gone. A bass would have it in its mouth. You couldn't walk the dog or put any sort of action on the lure, really, but the bass were just crushing it," he says. "It was awesome."
Color and size matter
Virginia pro Curt Lytle may raise a few eyebrows when he talks about color selection and topwaters, but he's convinced that specific patterns and colors make little difference. Why? It's all about the profile of the bait.
"When a bass is looking up at a topwater passing over his head, he can't tell if it's perch-colored or frog-colored. He's going to see dark or light," Lytle says. "All my buzzbaits are either black or white, and my prop baits are only two different colors. I think it's all in the technique and the performance of the lure, and less in the specific color."
Schultz disagrees and says he pays the utmost attention to specific colors. He tries to match the available forage and says when bass are finicky, color makes a huge difference.
"They could look at a bait for 10 or 15 seconds. That's why I think color is important," he notes.
So whom should you believe? Both, of course. Schultz and Lytle didn't climb through the ranks to become two of the world's best bass anglers by making bad decisions and poor judgment calls. They both believe in their methods, and both pros catch fish when others don't. It boils down to confidence in their choices, and that keeps them focused.
They do, however, agree that the size of the bait can make all the difference in the world. Both Lytle and Schultz prefer smaller baits early in the year, when shad fry and other forage are typically smaller. However, rules are meant to be broken, and there are times when all three pros will use larger baits when common sense dictates otherwise.
Not what, but how
What you choose is often less important than how you use it, say Lytle, Menendez and Schultz. Every topwater lure has a primary purpose and action, and every Bassmaster knows how to use Pop-Rs, Zara Spooks and buzzbaits. But America's best bass fishermen got to their advanced level by learning how to break those steadfast rules the rest of us follow. There's more than one way to work a Chug Bug, a Sammy or a Skitter Pop.
Menendez recalls a tournament on Michigan's Lake St. Clair in which the smallmouth wanted nothing to do with the standard side-to-side action of his Zara Spook.
"I figured out that if I reeled it as fast as I could in a straight line back to the boat, they'd crush it. I didn't walk the dog with it or anything. I just burned it. I have no idea why they wanted it that way, but that technique worked great," he recalls.
Lytle had a similar experience on Georgia's Lake Hartwell. Only when he figured out that burning a Chug Bug back to the boat was the "right" technique did he catch fish. Why that? "I didn't know what else to do. No other retrieve was working," he laughs.
Schultz stresses the importance of keeping an open mind and, above all, having patience. If he is confident the bass should be eating surface lures, he'll try a variety of retrieves until they tell him which one they prefer. During the practice period for a tournament on Kentucky Lake, Schultz was catching quality bass from shallow wood and brush on a buzzbait. But when the tournament started, the pattern changed. Instead of eating the buzzbait that worked prior to the tournament, the bass were just slapping at it, so Schultz changed lures and immediately started catching quality fish.
"I went to a Zara Spook, because I could walk it up to the submerged brush and then just park it there. It was a post-front situation, and the bass just weren't going to chase a bait," says Schultz. "I also thought the Spook was the best choice because the rear end rides under the surface, and if the bass were just going to slap at it, I'd still have a chance to hook them."
Turns out, he made a good choice. Not only did he catch lots of quality bass, Schultz went on to win a boat, even though he was fishing water that had already been fished hard.
"It seemed like there were six or seven boats ahead of me all the time, but they were all fishing with spinnerbaits, buzzbaits and crankbaits. They were fishing too fast. The key to catching bass during that tournament was to let the bait sit there for 10 or 15 seconds. The bass would just crush my Spook after it sat there for a little while. I caught fish up to 6 pounds," he says.
How long is too long?
Successful bass fishing boils down to confidence — confidence in the water, confidence in your lures and confidence in your ability to use them properly. So, when should you give up on a specific topwater bait and switch to another? Schultz will stick with one topwater for as long as 30 minutes if all the ingredients for a great surface bite are there. But remember - a slight change in the way he retrieves the bait may be all it takes to get bass interested.
Or, says Menendez, the slightest change in lure style may be the necessary ingredient to success. He learned that from experience while fishing on Alabama's Neely Henry Lake. The fish, spotted bass, were bunched up in schools, but they just wouldn't commit to the Pop-R he was certain would be the right bait.
"They would come up and flash on it, but they just wouldn't eat it. I went through several colors and different retrieves, but I just couldn't figure out what they wanted," he recalls.
Finally, he changed to a Crazy Shad, a prop bait made by Cotton Cordell. It's about the same size as a Pop-R, but it has two propellers and tapered ends. That made the difference. Menendez figures the change from the popping sound to a ripping sound was what triggered the bass to strike.
No rules, just right
Although many anglers insist that topwaters don't account for big bass, Menendez points to an angler who caught two bass heavier than 10 pounds on Tiny Torpedoes during a tournament on Lake Okeechobee, proving that there are no steadfast rules when it comes to choosing and using surface lures. Lytle, Schultz and Menendez have all caught tremendous fish on topwater baits. Truth is, there are no hard and fast rules with any type of fishing.
"Topwaters are a weakness of bass. If you put the right one in front of that fish, he's going to eat it," says Menendez.