Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat — smallmouth bass can be caught on big topwater plugs. In fact, big topwater lures are often the most effective way to catch bigger smallies. I can cite my own experience as an example. My personal best smallie was caught on a large walking style lure, and when I landed her I found an 8-inch perch sticking out of her mouth. That’s a big baitfish, by any definition you want to use.
I’m going to mention the lures I fish with so that you know what I use in the Bassmaster Elite Series. They are not the only good lures around. They are, however, the ones that have the features that I believe are important.
With that out of the way, let’s start talking water temperature.
I live and guide in Connecticut. Most of my clients want to fish for smallies. We start on top whenever the water temperature gets to 55 degrees or above, and we don’t stop until the water goes above 72 degrees. I’d say that 65 degrees is the perfect temperature for the topwater bite around here, if there is a perfect temperature.
Walking baits are some of the most popular topwater plugs especially when there’s not a lot of light and the weather’s stable. I usually fish the biggest ones I can get away with, but that’s not just because they make a big profile. It’s because the ones I fish have a wide swing when they walk, and I can make a lot of noise with them. That noise is especially important. It’ll help pull smallies up from deep water.
My favorite is the ima Little Stik 135 Walking Bait, but don’t let the name fool you. This is not a small bait. It’s 5 1/2 inches long and weighs a full ounce. I use it a lot when the bass are deep over grass and when they’re aggressive. I try to match the hatch when it comes to color.
When I need to quiet things down a little, like when the weather’s unstable or it’s a little cool, I go with a popper or with a prop bait. Poppers are great because they make for a small strike zone, and you can fish them in open places around heavy cover. I like the ones that’ll walk and pop a little. I want less commotion than I get with my walking sticks, but I don’t want total quiet.
The thing about a prop bait is that you can get their attention with an even more subtle action. You can turn the blades slow or fast but not necessarily make a lot of noise. The trick to catching smallmouth on them is the pause. Every day is different, but I have the most success with long pauses, the kind that kill you while you wait.
My favorite small popper is the ima Finesse Popper. If I want to go big I tie on a Deps Pulsecod Popper, and if I’m going to fish a prop bait I go with the ima HeliPs Propbait. Translucent, natural-type colors work best. The bass can see them, but they don’t make a strong contrast.
There are probably a hundred other things I could say about topwater smallies but we don’t have the space here to do that. The things I suggest you keep in mind is that big topwater baits make for big smallies and subtle is OK if the conditions warrant it. But don’t ever think that’s what you should always be doing. It isn’t.