If I had to pick one type of bass fishing that provides the most excitement and enjoyment, it would be topwater fishing for smallmouth. I just love the whole visual nature of the strike. Sometimes they’ll crush it, sometimes they’ll roll on it, sometimes they’ll nip it, and sometimes they’ll hover below it, and sometimes they’ll turn away before actually striking. And besides all of this extra excitement, topwater fishing can be a superior technique for putting smallies in the boat. I have won and finished high in smallmouth tournaments where most of the bass I weighed were caught on top! But like any other technique, certain lures are better choices than others. So let’s discuss that.
When the topwater bite is hot, just about any lure will draw strikes. But like other techniques, some do it better than others and some hook and hold the fish better too. Plus, some can be fished faster allowing an angler to cover water more quickly. The characteristics of a topwater lure that influence drawing power, hooking power, and speed efficiency are size, design/action, and color.
A lure’s size affects both drawing and hooking power but not so much speed (unless you go extremely small which will slow things down). Because smallmouths have little mouths, they are unable to inhale larger topwaters. When they strike a big lure, often they may not get hooks inside their mouth but instead get impaled around their face. This makes for poor hookups and greater numbers of lost fish. Therefore I prefer smaller baits that have a better chance of hooking a bass inside the mouth.
On the counterside of small baits, sometimes the bass prefer the larger offerings instead. I may observe this bigger size preference when bass are keying on larger prey, when they are being called up from deeper water, when light conditions are low, or when the lake’s surface is choppy. In the case of deep water, low-light, or choppy lake surfaces, I think the added size is better able to get noticed by the bass.
The design/action of a lure also affects drawing power, hooking power, and speed efficiency. I clump smallmouth topwaters into three groups – poppers, propbaits, and walkers (crawling/swimming type topwaters I don’t use much for smallies and I don’t know why). I like to test each style on a given lake until I determine which is the best for drawing strikes. It may not matter much because great commotion can be created with each style and they all can be fished more subdued as well.
If the bass will go for a popper, that is my first choice because I get the best hookups with this style. A propbait has a prop that occupies a portion of the rear treblehook’s gap. This prop can interfere with a clean hookup on that rear treble. Walking baits have a cleaner rear end as compared to propbaits, but they are generally a bit more bulky in the body as compared to a popper. More bulk results in more treblehook interference. Poppers usually have a leaner, more sleekly tapered body resulting in the least hook interference. But unfortunately, poppers are the slowest to cover water. Propbaits are the best and easiest for that, while walkers are somewhere in between. The other benefit of a propbait is it will get better targeted strikes. Propbaits track in a straight line, giving bass an easier target to zero down. Whereas poppers and walkers can be all over the place on faster retrieves resulting in more wildly missed blowups.
Color is a tough one to sort out because it seems to be never that obvious. Most importantly, understand that the key color is on the bottom of the lure because that is what faces the bass when the bait is resting still. The bass will get flashes of the sides and top as the bait is retrieved.
Despite the endless color selections out there, I have developed a couple of general rules that I go by. I like orange bellies when smallies are relating to weeds and/or there are a lot of yellow perch around. White, mirrored, and clear bellies are for when the smallies are eating other baitfish. I’ll go for the white over the mirrored/clear more often if the water has low visibility or there is cloud cover. Two wild card belly colors are black and chartreuse. Although I don’t fish in the dark hardly ever, black is supposedly a good night color because it casts the most noticeable silhouette against a dark sky. Chartreuse on the belly is my choice when I feel like I’m having trouble getting the lure noticed. I probably should use it more.
Now what about the sides and top color? Play the theme – are you going for yellow perch or baitfish? I personally lean towards the more solid colors under cloudy skies or low-light periods while going with the clear themes and mirrored varieties under sunny skies.
When the smallie topwater bite is hot, it may seem like anything works. But in my mind, there is always a “best” choice. It is not the easiest to figure out, but with the generalities that I use based on a lure’s size, design/action, and color; I feel like I get close. And I’ve seen where being close can yield more than double the production of a lesser option.