If a smallmouth bass striking a top-water lure is not the pinnacle of freshwater fishing, it’s right up there.
Unlike the typical submarine bite, which at best an angler only feels, a bass leaping from the water to smash a floating lure also thrills the angler’s senses of sight and sound.
In fact, that aural and visual show can be so stimulating that many an angler, including myself, has reflexively jerked the lure away from the fish before it actually had it in its mouth.
Top-waters also have the additional advantage of being nearly impossible to snag on rocky river bottoms — the preferred haunt of many smallmouth bass — though the lures’ buoyancy, I’ve found, will not keep them out of trees.
If those aren’t reasons enough to add top-waters to your arsenal, they also attract a higher percentage of bigger fish.
I “know” this from my own impressions, fueled most memorably by an evening on the Wapsipinicon during which I caught 30 smallmouth, none bigger than 12 inches, on a plastic-tipped jig; then, fishing the same water with a top-water popper, caught eight bass, none smaller than 17 inches.
My anecdotal evidence, accumulated less dramatically on many other occasions, was strongly supported earlier this year when Tim Landwehr, proprietor of Tight Lines Fly Fishing Company in De Pere, Wis., told me top-water lures accounted for 45 of the 62 20-inch smallmouth caught last year by his guides and clients.
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Landwehr also disputed the widely accepted belief that top-waters are a specialty lure, effective primarily in lowlight and slack water conditions in the depths of summer.
Based on the results of 600 guided trips per year, Landwehr and associates have found top-waters give their clients their best chance to catch smallmouth — and especially big ones — from the first of May through the end of August.
Having subscribed to the specialty lure theory, I was intrigued to learn a myth may have been limiting my enjoyment of top-water bass fishing, and I looked forward — hopefully and with some skepticism — to trying it this spring.
Because river smallmouth tend to dwell along rocky banks, I prefer to stand in the middle of the river and cast toward them. But wading has not been an option in this spring’s consistently high, swift water.
I found three spots along the Wapsipinicon River where I could stand on the bank and retrieve top-waters parallel to the shore. The three spots, each encompassing no more than 30 yards of shoreline, had current flowing over submerged rocks and grass.
My initial skepticism receded in a cloud of spray when, on my second cast, a smallmouth leapt from the water to inhale a mini-buzzbait dressed with a plastic grub.
In succeeding days I’ve worked other top-waters into the rotation. While all have caught fish, the bass find the Berkley Choppo, with its water-spitting tail propeller, especially hard to resist.
Now, with a boxful of new top-waters and no doubt about their summerlong efficacy, I look forward to catching more big smallmouth and maybe even moving beyond other mythical limitations.