Lures Deciphered

How to Get Slammed with Artificials

Capt. John Rivers March 17, 2009

If you were to ask any inshore angler what type of fishing brings the most enjoyment, most would say that a topwater bite is the pinnacle of all strikes. There’s nothing like witnessing your lure get slammed by an aggressive redfish, snook or seatrout – especially when there are several fish competing over the same floating fake!

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Topwater plugs are effective on nearly all inshore game fish. Photo: Bluewaterimages.net

Topwater lures are commonly referred to as hardbaits or plugs, and include walking and popping variations. Walking baits are the original topwater offerings and have been around for many years. The Zara Spook is perhaps the most talked about topwater plug of all time and was first introduced in 1939. When worked properly, walking baits create a deadly twitching action that is referred to as “walking-the-dog.” As you cast and retrieve your offering, point your rod tip toward the water at a 45-degree angle and gently twitch your rod in an effort to create a zigzag motion while reeling at a slow but steady pace. With practice you will find a rhythm and eventually work your offerings with a smooth back-and-forth motion. Don’t hesitate to throw a little pause in between twitches, as vicious strikes often come while the plug is at rest. This type of offering works best when targeting ambush predators, which hide near cover and wait for the prime opportunity to strike. While coercing a strike with a walking bait will require a convincing retrieve, the time it takes to perfect this deadly action will be well worth the effort.

While producing a strike with a walking bait will require a convincing retrieve, the time it takes to perfect this deadly action will be well worth the effort.

Popping baits, often referred to as poppers or chuggers, are similar to walking baits except they are outfitted with cupped or concave faces that splash water and create irresistible surface commotion. With these offerings a long pause can be the ticket to success. When working poppers and chuggers it’s imperative that you keep your rod tip close to the surface of the water, and during your retrieve gradually lower the tip even further as the lure nears the boat. The loud popping sound is an effective attractant and a great way to entice nearby game fish hungry for a free handout.

When targeting areas with poor water clarity, it will be beneficial for you to choose a plug with a bright pattern that will be easy for inquisitive game fish to locate. A chrome or bone pattern will be your best bet when fishing muddy or tannin water due to the harsh difference in contrast. The same theory applies to Florida Keys anglers who target bridge tarpon at night. If it’s a moonlight evening, dark colors will stand out against the moon, while a white or bone pattern will be easier for fish to locate on moonless nights.

The specific lure you choose will determine the noise and vibrations it will emit. Walking baits don’t offer a whole lot of noise-producing attributes when compared to popping baits outfitted with cupped faces. In general, poppers rely on sound to attract game fish, while walking baits’ effectiveness are determined by the finesse and lifelike action of your retrieve.

As a full-time guide in the Panhandle, I was curious to see if topwater fishing is the same throughout the state. It is, and it isn’t. Confused? Well, sharpen your pencil and jot down some notes for your next topwater excursion. I’ve consulted with a number of top guides throughout the state in an effort to keep you hooked up.

Northeast
In Northeast Florida tides play a crucial role and dictate many anglers’ tactics and techniques when fishing topwater plugs. Captain Dave Sipler (www.captdaves.com) tells me that tidal ranges in his region vary from two to nine-feet, and that his absolute favorite time to fish topwater lures is during slack tide. If the water is moving too fast, topwater plugs won’t produce fantastic results. A unique way that Captain Dave fishes topwater plugs is similar to the good old bait and switch. Captain Dave’s favorite topwater for this application is the MirrOlure Top Dog Sr. in the mullet pattern. When an inquisitive game fish charges his offering but misses the target, he has a client throw a suspending lure into the boil. Once the lure hits the water, he instructs the client to let it sink and directs the angler to give it a few small twitches. Captain Dave says that most of the time it’s fish on! With dirty water in and around the St. Johns River, Sipler prefers topwater plugs that create a lot of noise to signal the presence of bait to nearby game fish.

East Central
On the picturesque Mosquito Lagoon, Captain Neal Goodrich’s (www.fishingfrenzy.org) favorite topwater offerings include the legendary Zara Spook, reliable Chug Bug and proven Skitter Walk. According to Captain Neal, anglers interested in topwater success in his region should target their efforts in the late summer when the air temperature is just beginning to drop and the water is still warm. He even advocates the early fall with overcast skies and a cool breeze skimming across the surface. Early mornings are the best time to get out and throw some topwater lures, but don’t wait until mid-morning or you just might miss the bite. Captain Neal has a unique rigging technique that is similar to fishing a popping cork. First he takes a Chug Bug and removes the back treble hook. In its place he adds a 12-inch leader and a DOA Shrimp. If the fish are hungry, you could literally pull in two at a time! How’s that for fishing!

Florida Keys
Down in Key Largo, Captain George Clark, Jr. (www.rodeocharters.com) tells me that he employs these productive offerings both inshore and off. In the Everglades Captain George normally targets skinny-water where redfish and snook chase mullet schools around area mud flats. Since these ambush predators are already crashing mullet on the surface, you can effectively employ topwater techniques to your advantage. Bone colored Skitter Walks work best in muddy water, while black/gold patterns work well in cleaner water. During the warmer months, Clark tells us you will also find plenty of tarpon inhabiting the surrounding waters of the Keys and many will fall victim to these visually appealing floaters.

On the offshore front, dolphin and tuna are suckers when it comes to wobbly lures that float on the surface. Even hungry sailfish can be taken on these plugs. When targeting pelagics, blue/white color schemes produce the best results. No matter what species you’re targeting, it’s definitely best to focus your efforts around early mornings or late afternoons.

Southwest
When fishing the prolific, estuarine waters of Southwest Florida, Captain Van Hubbard (www.captvan.com) throws topwater plugs for a variety of species including, redfish, snook, trout, ladyfish and surprisingly, pompano. He’s also found that aggressive Spanish mackerel and feeding tarpon respond well to a properly presented plug. During the winter season, cobia can be found circling buoy markers and crab traps and a MirrOlure Top Dog is sure to attract the attention that you are looking for. Moving inshore to the grass flats of Pine Island Sound, Bull Bay and Turtle Bay, trout and redfish will readily smash a topwater that mimics an injured baitfish. Captain Van says that if you’ve had lackluster results fishing topwater plugs, slow your retrieve and let your offering pause longer between twitches. A rip…rip…pause…retrieve often instigates explosive surface strikes when nothing else will. The enticing tactic works equally well around the state.

West Coast
Along the Nature Coast, Captain Rick Burns (www.reelburns.com) is blessed with plenty of fertile structure for all species of inshore game fish. Some of the reliable fish havens he targets include jagged oyster bars, lime-rock outcroppings and healthy, lush grass flats dotted with distinct potholes. Because of the super-shallow grass flats in his region, to be effective you either have to fish a topwater plug or an offering that’s totally weedless. Typically, the first thing an injured, wounded or dying baitfish does before giving up is gulp for that last breath of air on the surface. A lot of topwater lures mimic this wounded action and therefore, produce violent surface strikes. Captain Rick tells me that its important to attach your topwater with a loop knot because it will provide your offering more freedom to perform its intended maneuvers. Low light conditions will also lean the odds in your favor.

Panhandle
In my region of the Panhandle, an influential factor that dictates what type of topwater plug I’m going to select is the current weather conditions. If it’s cloudy, I’ll generally pick a dark lure with some noise-making attributes such as a MirrOlure Top Dog Jr. in chartreuse with a black body. On sunny days, I prefer a lure with a little flash. A good choice would be a MirrOlure Surface Walker in black/silver or red/gold. When it’s windy I still like to throw topwater, but I don’t recommend it when it’s blowing over 15-knots. The best plugs to use when there’s a slight chop on the surface are popping baits that create a large splash. Poppers give the appearance of an injured fish or feeding frenzy, which will tempt nearby game fish to investigate.Whatever region you live in or plan on visiting for your next angling adventure, make sure you have a few of these trusty offerings in your tackle bag. When it comes to fishing in Florida, topwater lures are sure to bring you out on top!

Rig It Right!

Those in the know realize that inshore game fish are equipped with powerful jaws designed to crush tough opponents. Most plugs are equipped with cheap components that don’t stand a chance against powerful inshore targets like tarpon, snook and redfish. It’s a good idea to outfit your plugs with stainless steel split rings and Gamakatsu, Owner or Mustad 4X trebles. Regardless of your target species, don’t rely on factory hardware to bring home the bacon.

The Strike

When a curious game fish strikes your topwater offering you cannot set the hook like you would with any other lure. Many anglers incorrectly try to set the hook on the initial strike, which more often than not leads to dismal results and plenty of missed opportunities. The fish is simply pushing the lure out of the way with the wake and forward momentum it created while charging the bait. To properly set the hook when fishing topwater lures, hold off on swinging until you feel the weight of the fish. Otherwise you will pull the lure from the fish’s mouth every time.

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