Splish-splash, slosh-slosh, gurgle, pop, swoosh — wham! The sounds of topwater fishing perform a sweet symphony to bass addicts. We all dream of days when noisy topwater baits make bass pounce, but you may draw more strikes by turning down the volume and taking a finesse approach.
Topwater wizard Zell Rowland often does well by going finesse, as he did on the first day of a September Bassmaster Top 150 tournament on Lake Champlain. His hot bait was a 2-inch, 1/8-ounce Rebel Small Pop-R. He tossed the little popper lightly to sandy spots less than 3 feet deep behind grassbeds in quiet water.
"I was working the bait extremely slow," recalls Rowland. "I'd twitch it twice, wait 10 to 15 seconds, and pop it one more time. That's when they'd take it. I must have caught 30 smallmouth bass that day. I culled a limit that weighed 16 pounds."
Though blustery weather killed the finesse topwater bite the following days, Rowland's opening round helped him nail down an eighth place finish with nearly 50 pounds of bass.
Rowland's finesse baits
The largest lure Rowland regards as a topwater finesse bait is the Excalibur Pop'n Image Jr., which may be worked with a subtle dog-walking action. More often, he relies on smaller baits, such as the Small Pop-R and the 2 1/2-inch F50 Rebel Minnow. When twitched on the surface, the F50 Minnow responds with an especially subdued action. Other effective finesse minnows include Rapala's No. 9 and No. 11 original floater, Lew's 1/6-ounce Minnow, Abu Garcia's 2-inch Tormentor, and Norman's 1/8-ounce Minner.
"As with any type of bait, smaller topwaters catch more bass," says Rowland. "But, the fish tend to run smaller than what you'd catch on bigger baits."
Rowland breaks out his finesse topwater arsenal when he fishes waters that produce few bass over 3 pounds. The little baits often produce a quick limit, and give Rowland the option of switching to larger lures that appeal to bigger bass.
"I've had days where little topwater baits got me started on a 20-pound limit," says Rowland.
Finesse topwaters don't have what it takes to attract bass on choppy surfaces, but they excel on flat water where a big, splashy lure may put bass off. The little baits land lightly and are more likely to draw bass than spook them.
"I work little topwater baits the same way I do bigger ones," says Rowland. "Because they're small, they make tiny splashes and softer vibrations."
Anytime Rowland fishes topwater baits, he constantly changes the rhythm until he gets a strike or two. Then he continues to play the tune that triggered the initial strikes. The action can vary from long pauses between gentle twitches to a continuous popping or walking cadence. Rowland's ability to determine the day-to-day retrieve nuances that appeal to bass is the reason for his topwater success.
"Big bass are very intelligent fish," says Rowland. "They can get very specific about how they want a bait to act. If the bait doesn't look real, they won't go for it."
Rowland usually reserves finesse topwater baits for water less than 3 feet deep. The exception is when bass suspend in the tops of standing trees, tall flooded bushes, or submerged grassbeds that come within 3 feet of the surface. In these instances, the water may be deeper than 10 feet, but the bass lie well within range of finesse topwater presentations.
Any cover capable of holding shallow bass is a potential target for Rowland, including nasty tangles that intimidate anglers who fear snagging lures that sport treble hooks. Rowland casts to brush, logs, boat docks, grass, lily pads, boulders, and whatever else looks promising. It's a process of elimination that eventually tells him which cover yields the most strikes per cast.
"You have to throw the bait where the bass are," says Rowland. "If you pass up a target because you're afraid of getting hung up, that's probably the spot that would have produced a bass."
Shallow bass usually won't move far to take a finesse topwater bait. Rowland casts beyond cover whenever possible and works the bait back within inches of the object. But, there are times when he has no choice but to drop the bait dead on target. Casting accuracy is critical.
Rowland casts bantamweight topwaters with the same 6 1/2-foot All Star TWS baitcasting rod he employs with larger baits. He designed this signature rod with a limber tip so it doesn't react too quickly at the hook set and inadvertently pull the bait away from the bass. The only concession Rowland makes for little topwaters is to downsize from 14- to 17-pound Silver Thread to 8- to 10-pound test.
Times for finesse topwaters
Finesse topwater baits are at their best when bass move into calm, shallow water. Kentucky Tour angler Mike Auten knows that this occurs most often through the spawn and postspawn phases.
"I start thinking topwater in the spring when the water temperature gets up in the mid-60s," says Auten. "I do best with it when bass are around the beds, and when they're guarding fry after spawning."
These days Auten's go-to topwater bait is Lucky Craft's 3-inch Splash-Tail 90, which has props fore and aft. Though many anglers don't regard prop baits as finesse lures, Auten claims that it's all in how you work the bait. Gilmore's 1/4-ounce Baby Jumper is another effective finesse prop bait.
"I let the Splash-Tail sit for several seconds at a time and then barely move it," says Auten. "The Splash-Tail's props spin with the slightest movement, because they turn on bearings. They give the bait a lot of action without much forward movement."
Though the Splash-Tail may also be worked with an aggressive "swishing" action, Auten goes with this ploy only when power fishing in open water.
Before Auten got hooked on the Splash Tail, Bagley's tailspinner Bang-O-Lure was his go-to topwater bait around spawn time. This balsa minnow features a tail prop that imparts flash and sputter when the bait is twitched. He put the Bang-O-Lure to good use while fishing a spring Bassmaster tournament at Kerr Lake.
During practice rounds, Auten eased through a protected cove and saw several cruising and spawning bass near flooded bushes and other shallow cover. He made the spot his first stop when the tournament began. The dim morning light prevented Auten from seeing the bass, so he began casting the Bang-O-Lure around shoreline cover and fishing it with long pauses and gentle twitches.
Every now and then a bass would come up and roll under the bait. Few of them took the Bang-O-Lure on the first pass, but they revealed their locations. By repeatedly casting over the fish and working the Bang-O-Lure with a finesse presentation, he goaded many of the bass into striking.
"Sometimes I'd have to leave a fish and come back for it later," says Auten. "If I couldn't get it to take the Bang-O-Lure, I'd follow up with a floating worm. That worked pretty well.
"When you're fishing a topwater bait around the spawn, the bass usually show themselves on the first cast," says Auten. "Then you have to keep casting the bait over them until they bite."
Auten claims he has made 30 or more casts to the same bass before making it bite, but he normally switches to some type of soft plastic bait if the bass doesn't nab the topwater plug after 10 to 15 casts.
More finesse topwater baits
Another bait Auten uses for finesse topwater fishing is Lucky Craft's new Wake Tail. It features a single prop on the tail that rotates on bearings. The nose has a minnow shape that is conducive to a subdued dog-walking action. A host of other tail-propped lures also serve well for finesse topwater fishing, including Heddon's 1/8-ounce Teeny Torpedo and 1/4-ounce Tiny Torpedo, Rapala's 1/4-ounce Skitter Prop, and Yo-Zuri's fat 1/4-ounce Arms Swisher.
Dog-walking stickbaits, like the 1/4-ounce Zara Puppy and 1/8-ounce Zara Pooch, shine when finesse topwater tactics are called for. Walk these baits just like their big brothers, and they perform a quick sashay that suckers lure-shy bass.
Auten usually slings finesse topwater baits with a medium-heavy baitcasting rod and 12- to 14-pound monofilament. He swaps this outfit for a 6-foot medium action spinning rod and 8- to 10-pound test when casting for smallmouth in streams. This opportunity occurs in the spring when Auten treks to Missouri to hunt turkeys. After a morning hunt, he sneaks off to nearby smallmouth haunts.
"I rarely catch anything bigger than 2 pounds, but I have lots of action with smaller bass. Those smallmouths really charge tiny topwaters when I walk them past boulders and next to cover along the bank."
Rowland's tips for tuning prop baits
When Zell Rowland fishes a prop bait, such as the Devil's Horse, he bends the blades to modify the lure's action. In the spring, he bends the blades forward to create more resistance for a finesse presentation.
"The farther forward I bend the blades, the less distance that bait moves when I twitch it," says Rowland. "That lets me jerk the bait, say, six or seven times within a foot and a half radius of a bush before it moves out of the strike zone. That's crucial when bass are up around shallow cover."
In the summer, when bass feed actively in clear, open water, Rowland bends the blades back to create less resistance. This allows the bait to move farther with each rod twitch, and to generate more commotion and cover more water.