Bass Fishing: Best Times to Use Top-Water Lures

Who doesn’t love seeing ferocious strikes from bass on a top-water lure?

It has to be my favorite type of fishing because of the whole visual nature of it. A fisherman can watch the lure’s action start to finish. And the strikes are so exciting! But like any form of fishing, it has its limitations and windows of opportunity. And it can vary between smallmouth and largemouth. So here’s a few notes from what I have learned about when to use surface baits and when not to use them.

Water Temperature Key

A good place to start is with water temperature. Any time the water temperature is below 60 degrees, I am leery of having success with top-water lures. And below 50 degrees, I can’t ever remember catching a bass on a top water. But there still can be isolated cases of success in that mid-50 range. In fact, last week (a late October day) I was fishing a Minnesota lake with the water temperature at 56 degrees. The top-water bite was strong because the bass were relating to shallow Eurasian milfoil that reached the surface. Whenever weeds touch the surface, only two options are available – either casting top waters or flippin’/pitchin’ jigs or Texas-rigs. I started this day fishing a bit deeper with crank baits, but the dimpling baitfish up in the shallow milfoil caught my attention. Not really expecting to catch any on top waters that day, I had to dig out my frog rod from the bottom of the boat’s rod locker. It only took a couple casts before a bass hit. Surface lures proved to be the best thing going that day, which I seldom see at 56-degree water temperatures.

Jim Moynagh (Photo courtesy of FLW Outdoors)
Jim Moynagh (Photo courtesy of FLW Outdoors)

So with temperature in mind, we can see that top waters are primarily a strategy for the warmer months. In the spring, I rarely have success until the bass start bedding, which is typically around 60 degrees. And then it eventually fades out in the fall. But in between, top waters can be highly effective, but even then, like any technique, it isn’t a given.

So even during the warmer months when top waters are at their best, an angler still has to identify those windows of opportunity. Top waters will produce nothing if fished under the wrong situation.

Steady Water Temps Better For Fishing

So again, let’s go back to water temperature. Just because water temperatures are more than 60 degrees doesn’t mean top-water lures will work. The key to look at is the short-term trending of water temperature. Is it going up or down? Cold-front weather systems and their chilling of water temperatures kill top-water action. It doesn’t seem to matter at what temperature either. The same plummet in top-water success occurs whether water temperatures drop from 95- to 88 degrees, or 77- to 70 degrees, as an example. Chilly, overnight air temperatures can also drop water temperatures enough to dampen morning top-water action.

The ideal temperature trend conducive for successful top-water action is for water temperatures to remain steady or on the rise. It seems like the whole food chain is more active in this situation. Surface activity from baitfish and predators will generally be more noticeable.

Another major influence on top-water success is light. Low-light levels often bring out some of the best top-water action. So this means sunrise and sunset, and/or cloud cover. This is not a complete certainty, however! Exceptions do apply! There is even a difference between largemouths and smallmouths in regard to light. I always feel smallmouths will be more willing to strike top waters in mid-day sunshine as compared to largemouths. But again, many exceptions do apply!

A fall smallmouth caught by the author on Rainy Lake.
A fall smallmouth caught by the author on Rainy Lake.

Another Consideration: Water Depth

Now let’s consider water depth. I always believe that the closer a lure (any lure) is to a bass, the more likely the bass will strike it. So with this in mind, I generally prefer top waters in shallow water. I absolutely love it when bass are ultra-shallow so I can run a surface lure right above their nose! Incredible reaction surface strikes can occur under such a situation. Fantastic top-water action can still occur in deeper water, but it is generally less reliable. I can remember catching over 100 largemouth bass in seven hours from a clear Minnesota lake, all on top waters fished in 6 to 20 feet. At least half the bass were from the deeper depths. Other sub-surface presentations barely caught anything despite my fishing partner’s best efforts. Then, of course, how about the many times bass are chasing schools of shad, herring, smelt, or other pelagic baitfish offshore? These bass roaming over deep water often will fall for top waters as they crash the schools of bait on the surface.

Note The Wave Action

Another important factor is wave action. Ripples or wave action can sometimes be a benefit or sometimes be a detriment depending upon the situation. Be observant and try to determine what the case might be for your given situation.

Taking all of the above into consideration, I view the perfect storm for top-water action to be as follows. Give me a lake where:

1)  A large number of bass are in three feet of water or less;

2) There haven’t been any recent cold fronts;

3) Water temperatures have been rising;

4) Water temperatures are above 65 degrees, and;

5) It’s the last couple hours of daylight.

Anytime I find myself in the above-mentioned situation, I can almost guarantee success with surface lures!

Visit Sportsman’s Guide for a great selection of fishing lures and other fishing gear!

Leave a Reply

Commenting Policy - We encourage open expression of your thoughts and ideas. But there are a few rules:

No abusive comments, threats, or personal attacks. Use clean language. No discussion of illegal activity. Racist, sexist, homophobic, and generally hateful comments are not tolerated. Keep comments on topic. Please don't spam.

While we reserve the right to remove or modify comments at our sole discretion, the Sportsman's Guide does not bear any responsibility for user comments. The views expressed within the comment section do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of The Sportsman's Guide.

2 Responses to “Bass Fishing: Best Times to Use Top-Water Lures”

  1. Richard

    You just have to remember what part of the country your fishing in (north/south/middle) and what season, unless your fishing in Florida then you can use top water all the time.

  2. Richard

    Merry christmas an have a blessed day (note: I’ve been fishing for Bass (both lg/sm) 65yrs – you’ll will catchup some day keep learning