The hypnotic side-to-side gait of a topwater lure, such as a Zara Spook or a Lucky Craft Sammy, can produce vicious and predictable strikes, but when the fish fail to connect it can leave an angler scratching his head.
Conditions may be perfect for topwater fishing, but sometimes the bass just won’t fully commit. Instead, they’ll swim up, boil on a lure and head back down unscathed. That’s the situation that confronted Rapala’s Mark Fisher last fall while filming a TV show in Minnesota, and it led him to pick up a bait he’d had a hand in designing, but had not yet really figured out.
“We were side imaging schools of bait on a ledge,” he recalls. “The smallmouth were running deeper breaks in 18 to 20 feet of water. We’d been catching them on topwaters, but on film day it just wasn’t happening. I picked up a Rapala SubWalk, which we’d released six or seven years ago. I threw right back to where I’d had the blowup, made two pulls and got throttled.”
Meanwhile, nearly a thousand miles away in Alabama, guide Jimmy Mason encountered a similar problem. “In the late summer and fall on the Tennessee River, the smallmouth start schooling on points and on gravel flats, but some days they just won’t break the surface,” he says. In that situation, he employs a Bomber Badonk-A-Donk, a saltwater lure designed for species like snook and redfish. “It has a really loud rattle,” the former Elite Series pro says. “Not only does it attract smallmouth from a longer distance than a soft jerkbait, but it works in dirtier water, too.”
Farther west, 2012 Bassmaster Classic qualifier Andrew Upshaw has found a similar lure, the Strike Pro Baby Buster, to be deadly on largemouth — and, in particular, kicker fish — in vegetation. Slow sinking walk-the-dog lures are a largely untapped genre, so when fish explode on your topwaters and don’t connect, it may be time to take your walk-the-dog cadence slightly under the surface.
“The toughest challenge in bass fishing is still suspended bass,” Fisher says. The times when fish suspend include early prespawn, in the immediate postspawn, and then again in the fall. While they’ll often chase a topwater during those periods, that bite can turn off like a light switch.
“Up North, I like the SubWalk in June, July and August,” said two-time Classic qualifier Terry Baksay. “A lot of times in the postspawn they’re interested but don’t want to eat something like a popper. They’ll blow up and miss it, but he thinks he hurt it. The SubWalk is the ultimate comeback bait. It’s so subtle, he thinks it’s in the death throes so he’ll come back and get it. It’s perfect in places with a lot of grass like the Potomac. It sinks so slowly you can almost walk it in place.”
Upshaw agrees that the subsurface walkers are deadly around submerged vegetation. On his home lakes of Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend, he’ll pull out the Buster where others might throw a lipless crankbait, or even a suspending jerkbait before the grass gets up. “It has a bigger profile, which makes it more of a target,” he said. “It draws bigger strikes.”
The bite re-emerges in the fall. In largemouth country, that’s because the shad get bigger and the bass get more aggressive, Upshaw says. Where smallmouth are involved, it preys upon their wolfpack mentality.
As for ideal conditions, Upshaw says inclement weather is best. “When it’s a bit windy, it makes it better,” he explains. “But cloudy days are better than anything.” Indeed, when wind makes it less likely bass will be able to get a good shot at a topwater lure, the subsurface walkers shine, delivering the same alluring action while maintaining a predictable rhythm.