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March 26, 2007

Scratching the Surface

Let topwater plugs to the walking and popping

Anglers have to accept the fact that topwaters deliver a much lower hookup rate than subsurface lures. You're doing very well to hook 65 percent of the fish that strike a surface plug.

An interesting point, but not exactly what you would expect to hear from Eric Bachnik, chief operating officer of L & S Bait Company (www.mirrolure.com) in Largo, Florida, because the MirrOlure brand boasts a kennelful of surface lures bearing names like Top Dog and She Dog. If topwaters prove less efficient than other types of lures, why do anglers insist on using them? You and I both know the answer before Bachnik has to tell us: "We may miss hooking some fish on top- waters, but we still get to see that thrilling, visual strike!"

Conditional Choices
Bachnik decides which type and size of surface lure to use according to conditions and not target species. "Topwaters catch trout, redfish, snook, stripers and more," he says. "A good lure fisherman knows how to select the right artificial in different circumstances."

Inshore topwater plugs come in three basic categories: propeller lures, poppers and surface walkers. Each type brings a distinct playing style to the lineup, so it's a good idea to have all three available for rounding out your game plan.

One or two small blades attached to the nose and/or tail give propeller lures, a.k.a. prop baits, their name. These lures require little skill to work effectively and make an excellent choice for novice or young anglers; however, veterans should not scorn them. According to Bachnik, many fishermen on Florida's west coast favor prop baits. The recommended retrieve calls for briskly twitching the rod tip to move the plug 6 to 8 inches, pausing the lure while moving the rod tip and reeling in slack, and repeating these steps.

"The churning blade attracts predators because it creates slurping noises like feeding game fish," Bachnik says. "I believe prop baits are more popular not only because they seem so simple and easy to fish - pull, pause, pull, pause - but on a calm morning, they're very effective."

Poppers, a.k.a. chuggers, depend on a concave face to generate their trademark splashing and sputtering when retrieved; we'll discuss proper popping a bit later in this column.

Among topwater options, the third type, a surface-walking lure, requires the most skill to fish correctly with a zigzagging, walk-the-dog action that goads fish into striking. Capt. Richie Gaines (410-827-7210; www.anglers-connection.com) of Queens- town, Maryland, often targets striped bass with surface plugs. He throws walk-the-dog-style lures - such as a MirrOlure Top Dog or Heddon Spook (www.lurenet.com) - in calm conditions that call for a subtle presentation.

"It takes practice to learn to work these lures properly. The secret is in the rhythm," he says. "Hold the rod tip high or low, whichever feels comfortable, and twitch the rod tip, pause briefly, crank in a bit of slack, and continue the twitch-pause-crank sequence at a pace that keeps the nose of the lure swinging from side to side while it walks back to you. Each pause lets the lure swing to one side for a wider walk. Working too quickly does not allow the lure to zigzag as it should."

To guarantee a plug's freedom of movement and best possible action, Gaines always ties on surface lures with a loop knot or uses a split ring at the attachment point.

Size and Sound
Bachnik recommends surface-walker lures as excellent tools for prospecting large areas of water in a short time. He adjusts his retrieve to suit conditions such as water temperature, an important factor in determining the activity level of Florida's inshore trifecta of seatrout, snook and redfish. "In warm water, I can use an aggressive retrieve that makes the lure walk in a faster, tighter zigzag. I slow it down in the winter and mix in some stop 'n' go," he says.

Large models - such as Yo-Zuri's 5-inch Hydro Pencil (www.yo-zuri.com), Heddon's 5-inch Saltwater Super Spook, MirrOlure's 4 3/4-inch He Dog or Rapala's 4 3/8-inch Skitter Walk (www.rapala.com) - present bulky profiles and typically prove the best choice when wind roughens the surface. Fish usually have no problem finding smaller plugs in calm conditions.

"Always use larger lures when targeting trophy-class fish," Bachnik advises. "The extra weight and size of a larger lure also helps in situations where you need to maximize casting distance. If you start missing a lot of short-striking fish, try using a smaller plug for better hookups."

Most surface walkers contain sound chambers that emit a steady click-click-click as the lure zigzags along; some (such as the MirrOlure She Dog) produce sharp, high-frequency rattles, while others (like the Top Dog) put out dull, low-frequency vibrations. Once again, Bachnik suggests anglers base their choices on prevailing conditions. "In murky or choppy water, larger models that make higher-frequency sounds excel. The louder the bait in these conditions, the better the results," he says. "Good water clarity and calm conditions are ideal for casting lures with more subtle, lower-frequency vibrations."

As far as colors go, Bachnik prefers mullet-mimicking finishes such as green/silver and black/silver when fishing in clear water. In cloudy or tannin-stained water, he opts for brighter colors like chartreuse and hot pink. "Of course, fish can feel the sonic vibes, but bright colors make it easier for them to see lures in low-visibility conditions," he says.

Gaines follows a basic approach that finds him using light-colored plugs on bright days and dark ones on cloudy days. "The only color that really matters is the bottom half because fish can't see the top of a surface lure," he says.

When using poppers, Gaines dresses the rear treble with feathers or bucktail "to give fish something to aim at." Bachnik also dresses rear hooks on occasion (he says it helps make a lure look larger). However, he cautions anglers to choose material that matches the lure type. "Bucktail works well on poppers, but it can get heavy enough to hamper a surface walker's side-to-side movement," he says. "Dress a walker with feathers to preserve its action."

Striper Strategies
Whether fishing the Susquehanna Flats, points and submerged structure in Chesapeake Bay or around the Bay Bridge Tunnel, Gaines feels comfortable tossing surface lures for striped bass anywhere the water runs less than 12 to 15 feet deep. He especially likes the results he gets with big, noisy poppers - naming his favorite the 5-inch Smack-It from Stillwater Lures (www.stillwater-lures.com) - that call fish from a distance.

Gaines maintains that big stripers have very good eyesight and often swim under a topwater to look at it without striking. "Poppers splash, spit, chug and give off air bubbles to create a disturbance that makes visibility tough so stripers can't see the lure very clearly," he says. "A sharp-eyed fish can't see it for a fake and is more likely to strike."

The guide believes the more commotion generated by a popper, the better, so he encourages anglers to make a lure spit and pop as much as possible. "Don't ever let that popper sit still. Keep it moving with a steady pop-pop-pop, spitting the whole time so it's always in disturbed water and stripers can't get a good look at it."

He also coaches anglers to hold the rod tip low, right next to the water, when working a popper. "A low tip keeps the line parallel to the surface and makes a popper work much better," he explains. "The low angle forces the lure's concave face to dig into the water, pop more forcefully and throw water farther. A high rod tip can make the lure jump out of the water rather than chug and spit."

Hits and Misses
Bachnik admits to frequently making the all-too-common mistake of reflexively rearing back to set the hook as soon as a fish boils on a surface lure. "I get so excited that I sometimes jerk the plug out of a fish's mouth," he says. "On the strike, force yourself to wait for the line to come tight before setting the hook. I know that's easy to say and hard to do."

When a fish strikes and misses, Bachnik dead-sticks the lure and lets it bob for a moment before twitching the rod two or three times. After another pause, he gives it a few more twitches. "The lure looks like stunned prey, so the predator returns to mop up. Don't hurry your retrieve and work the lure out of the strike zone," he says.

Gaines takes the opposite approach. If a striped bass misses his topwater, he goes on working the lure as if nothing had happened. "I've seen stripers slash at a popper four or five times before finally grabbing it," he says. "They're poor surface feeders! Keep the lure moving until a fish takes it. If you stop after a swirl, the fish will turn away and not come back."

Anglers can also follow up a missed boil with a subsurface lure cast to the same spot. When tossing topwaters, Bachnik has another rod close at hand and rigged with a twitch bait, diving plug or unweighted soft-plastic lure. He says the one-two, high-low combination gives him a high-hookup- percentage second chance at fish that miss his surface lure.