The Softer Side of Topwaters
When baitfish are getting blasted at the surface, pummeled indiscriminately by unknown predators from below, I cast out my lucky topwater. My preferred hard bait walks the dog or pops at the surface like a wounded whitebait. Retrieved along the edge of a bait school — not directly in the middle of it — the lure garners plenty of attention.
But picking a favorite topwater might not be so easy anymore. Growing numbers of soft-bait manufacturers produce their own quality versions of topwaters. The different styles available today might even surprise you. Baits with treble hooks, weedless jerkbaits and even concave-head poppers are available, and their soft-plastic build hasn’t reduced casting distance. In fact, some of these baits downright fly off the rod tip.
Check out what’s new with soft-plastic topwater baits.
Walking the Dog
One popular topwater, the spook-style plug — shaped like a frankfurter that zigzags across the surface — has comparable soft-body counterparts. Baits such as Mann’s Saltwater Ghost, D.O.A.’s PT-7 and Paul Brown’s Soft-Dog Surface Walker all impart the same action as traditional hard plugs.
“These baits truly have a realistic feel,” says Mike Tennian, sales manager of MirrOlure and Paul Brown. “When a fish short-strikes, it’s more likely to grab and hold on. I’ve noticed seatrout tend to bite and clamp down a bit longer because of the softer feel.”
Paul Brown’s Soft-Dog topwater is made from buoyant plastic and weighs close to an ounce, but features a through-wire from head to tail and is factory-rigged with a pair of trebles.
Other soft baits incorporate weedless hook placements in the body design to allow anglers to retrieve the lures in situations not suited to traditional plugs.
“Throw into thicker weeds and pilings than you would with a hard-body lure,” says Scott Wall, regional sales manager with Mann’s Bait Co. “The Saltwater Ghost doesn’t make a big splash when it hits the surface and is less likely to spook nearby game fish.”
Mann’s Saltwater Ghost features hollow-body construction, with a dual hook protruding from the rear of the body. Casting the lightweight bait, I noticed the Ghost holds some water inside the body, which actually helps to cast it farther. “If you desire, add a rattle and weight to the lure so it works like a subsurface wakebait,” Wall points out.
D.O.A.’s PT-7 topwater, expected to release in July 2016, measures just a couple of inches in length. The one I used in the brackish marshes of central Florida measured just 3 inches, but I was surprised that such a small lure could walk the dog so well. Mark Nichols, owner and inventor of D.O.A. Lures, expects to produce the PT-7 in a number of sizes, labeled by their length in millimeters.
“The PT-7 is made from polyvinyl [polymer], with a hollow cavity and foam insert at the front of the bait,” says Capt. Ed Zyak, a D.O.A. pro staffer. “Our recommended hook is a 6/0 wide-gap with a screw lock, such as the Owner Beast.” The bait is perfect to skip underneath structure such as boat docks or mangroves due to its completely weedless rigging.
A Bunch of Jerks
If fluke-style jerkbait fishing is your preferred tactic, consider floating options. Hogy, known for its massive fluke-style baits, and Savage Gear both produce weedless jerkbaits rigged with swimbait hooks, though they vary in size and appearance.
“The Savage Gear TPE Mud Minnow comes pre-rigged with a single hook and a small nose cone to slide over your knot when fishing around floating grass,” says Mike Bennett, Savage Gear product manager. “The Mud Minnow is made from thermoplastic elastomer, a cross-bond between standard soft PVC and rubber. This gives you the softness of PVC but the durability of rubber.”
Casting and working the bait, I noticed the Mud Minnow jerked and swam just under the surface, but floated back up when I stopped the retrieve. The baits come pre-rigged for good reason, as the material is very tough — so much so that you’re unable to re-rig with a new hook. But you can catch a ton of fish on it with little damage.
Hogy’s Original Floating baits come in 7 and 10 inches. On the surface, the baits scream striped bass and tarpon fishing, with their fluid, snakelike action. “You can fish the rips for striped bass or cast in thick grass for snook,” says Capt. Ross Gallagher, director of retail sales at Hogy. “Microscopic silicone beads inside our proprietary plastic allow the baits to float.”
Gallagher offers two techniques to work the baits: high rod tip or low rod tip. “With the rod tip up, the action is like a ballyhoo skipping on top of the water,” he says. “Tip down, snap the bait under the water’s surface about an inch and let it float up on the pause.”
Chug and Pop
Poppers don’t have to be hard baits. Z-Man’s floating Pop ShadZ features a unique cupped face and body that’s incredibly stretchy, injection-molded from a proprietary thermoplastic elastomer called ElaZtech.
“I think one mistake many anglers make when fishing a popper is fishing it too fast,” says Daniel Nussbaum, president of Z-Man. “I like to pop the bait and pause and let the ripples dissipate before popping the bait again. Strikes usually come on the pause.”
When rigged weedless, the Pop ShadZ can be thrown in sparse marsh grass, around floating grass, and near laydowns and other surface cover without snagging. Even when the Pop ShadZ is rigged with a single treble hook, it is far more snag-resistant than a topwater plug; the top tine of the treble hook is embedded in the top of the bait, so only two hook points are exposed in the water.
For weedless rigging, Z-Man recommends a Mustad heavy-gauge extra-wide-gap-style hook in the 3/0 size for the 4-inch Pop ShadZ and 5/0 size for the 5-inch Pop ShadZ. For rigging with a treble hook, a size 2 hook works best for the 4-inch, while a 1/0 works best for the 5-inch model.
“I really feel that the improved hookup and landing ratio when this bait is rigged with a treble hook is the primary advantage,” says Nussbaum. “Fish seem to come back for this bait more, they hang on longer, and the large treble has a deeper bite that doesn’t pull free as easily.”