Rising To The Occasion

A surface strike from any fish is thrilling, but bass seem to rise with extra enthusiasm, making an angler's heart accelerate a little quicker. Right now, stirred by cooling water temperatures, bass are coming to the surface all across the country, and the skillful lure fisherman will have the best chance of the year of catching a big bass on top.

Of course, both largemouth and smallmouth bass will feed on top at any time of the year, unless the surface temperature is too hot for comfort. If I was forced to do my bass fishing in a single month, however, I'd choose October, because this is when the fish are highly active and have their sights set on the surface for a chance at an easy meal.

My bass angling repertoire was expanded by a pith-helmeted angler who demonstrated how to cast lures with a baiting outfit. He would spend many hours tossing surface plugs with great precision. I stood in awe as he launched casts 70 feet or more across the pool and hooked bass after bass on a noisy surface plug that featured a propeller and a wiggly skirt fashioned from split leather.

Today, modern tackle enables the angler to fish for bass with surface lures in a variety of ways. Bait-casting, spin-casting, and open-faced spinning equipment can all be used effectively, and the determining factors in your choice of tackle are lure size and line weight.

Lighter lines are more challenging, and larger bass seem to prefer larger lures. Depending on the character of the lake or river, 6-, 8- or 10-pound-test monofilament is the ticket. Twelve-pound mono is about as heavy as I go on water that has an abundance of weeds or floating flotsam. Here, a stout bait-casting outfit is best because of its pulling power. Generally, however, hangups are not as frequent when surface fishing because it's possible to avoid them by "steering" the lure through obstacles -- a lot of fun in and of itself.

Surface lures that buzz, bubble, and pop are perfect for casting into the angling minefields of lily pads, stumps, stick timber, and assorted junk along the shorelines. Accuracy doesn't have to be world class; but you'll catch more fish if you crank carefully, switching the rod tip from side to side as you weave the surface lure through the riprap. This extra lure manipulation is much easier with a fairly stiff rod and a small line diameter, as is a quicker strike reaction and more seductive lure movement. Making the surface lure do "tricks" is the key to top water success.

When it comes to lure design, virtually anything goes. Ever since fishermen discovered that bass could be caught on floating contraptions wearing hooks, thousands of outlandish devices have been invented. Amazingly, most of them have caught a fish at one time or another, so never laugh at any surface lure until you try it.

Many anglers laughed at some of our now-famous surface lures when they arrived on the scene; the now near-legendary Zara Spook is a fine example. This is one of the top half-dozen surface lures of all time, and although there are a heap of similar lures on the market, the Spook remains the leader of its class. It's not as popular as it ought to be, however, probably because it doesn't do anything by itself. It has no propellers, noise-making lips, or wiggle fins. Nevertheless, when reeled in with a side to side flipping of the rod tip, the Spook comes to life. The resulting back and forth sashaying is called "walking the dog" and watching an expert doger is quite impressive. Even more impressive is the waterspout created by a 5 pound bass as it attacks a swaggering Spook.

Some topwater lures fool bass with little additional action from the angler. Well designed propeller lures, for example, coax fish with a minimum of effort; you simply cast  ‘em out and reel 'em in.

There are several dozen highly effective propeller lures on the market today. The most alluring models all leave a prominent "V" wake and have blades that rattle and buzz noisily. Some propellers require some adjustment to create the best action.

A wonderful attribute of propeller lures is that bass will frequently smack one a second time if they don't become hooked on the first lunge. Their vicious strike, combined with the interference of whirling blades, may prevent an initial hookup. This seems to make bass really angry, and they often come back for another try. If you see a big boil and the line doesn't tighten up, keep the lure moving if your nerves allow.

Another group of lures that create their own commotion are top water gurglers. The stocky Jitterbug, with its wide lip, is one of the most popular bass lures of all time. Sleek, minnow-shaped lures also gurgle during retrieve if they are not reeled in too frantically. A host of  floating minnow lures can be jerked, popped or reeled in slowly to impart a noisy action.

Hollow-headed, popping lures require more effort on the part of the angler and, like the "walking the dog" lures, can be manipulated to perform enticing tricks. Jerked smartly, poppers give off a sharp bloop sound that wakes up even the sleepiest bass. Artfully done, a series of bloops can be mixed with some silent skimming movements and even dog-walking motions.

While these lures comprise the basic topwater types, other, oddball models sometimes drive bass bonkers. The ancient Heddon Crazy Crawler is the most outlandish example. It features hinged lips on each side of the mouth and rolls from side to side in the weirdest way without much assistance. The goofy action of oddball lures doesn't always interest bass, but it certainly adds color to the sport.

Just about every color combination has adorned surface lures at one time or another, and all of them have probably enjoyed some success. Some anglers maintain that bass can't distinguish color in surface lures. The flashing blades may fracture the image enough to make color on prop lures incidental, yet I still have my preference for those and other floating lures. Most of the time, I pick black, brown and yellow frog, and red and white. I've often wondered why a red-and-white finish is not offered on floating minnow lures (fish-scale patterns are the common color), because I've repainted several models this way and enjoyed great success.

In the fall, as minnow schools gather near the surface, tadpoles of the year become frogs, and land-born bugs find their way into the water, river smallmouths and deepwater largemouths rise up to take advantage of the surface bounty. The fisherman who casts to the shallows with surface lures now will feast on one of angling's wildest experiences.

By Jim Bashline – Field & Stream