Don’t you wish that bass always hit topwater lures? I do! When a bass hits a topwater, not only is the strike felt with the rod, but the visual and auditory senses of our bodies are also triggered. This makes for three times the thrill as our strike detection is triple overloaded. Unfortunately like all presentations in fishing, topwaters aren’t always successful. An angler needs to recognize the conditions that lend themselves to a great day of fishing with topwaters.
Conditions can be thought of in terms of seasonal (the calendar period) and daily (weather, water level, water clarity, water temperature, and water flow) situations. The seasonal timing usually overrides any daily influences. Additionally, the forage base also needs to be taken into account.
Allow me to begin with the seasons. After fishing all over the country for several years, I can safely say that during the cold months of the year, topwaters can be left home. So when late-fall hits and water temperatures drop below 50 degrees, I have little success with topwaters. This trend continues through winter until just before the bass begin bedding in Spring. But even then, I don’t consider topwaters a serious threat until the spawn is well underway and there are plenty of bass fry hatched. From this seasonal point forward through summer and fall, bass can be susceptible to topwater techniques so long as the daily conditions fall in place as well.
Weather has a big influence on the topwater bite because it affects the activity and aggressiveness levels of bass. Those blue-bird sky days following a frontal passage tend to suppress the success with topwaters. Bass tend to lose their aggressiveness under such weather scenarios, so in turn topwaters lose their success too. On the otherhand, stable weather conditions or pre-frontal conditions will have the bass active enough to attack a surface lure.
Changes in water temperature can affect bass activity and aggression. Rising temps through the day usually help while falling temperatures often hurt. The worst is when the water drops several degrees overnight, a phenomena that often relates to frontal weather passes as noted above. Oppositely, if the water temperatures hold steady overnight which doesn’t happen very often, then the sunrise bite can be exceptional.
Generally I prefer low light levels for topwaters, but it isn’t completely necessary, especially regarding smallmouth. They have often surprised me with phenomenal sunny-sky success. Subdued light occurs during sunrise, sunset, and under cloud cover. I love tossing topwaters during sunset after a hot, sunny day.
Other variables concerning water properties such as clarity, flow, and changes in level, don’t have much of an affect on a bass’s desire to take a topwater. These things however, may affect which topwater produces they may also affect which retrieve produces as well.
The last major thing that influences a bass’s susceptibility to surface baits is their prey. It seems the presence of pelagic prey like shad, blue-back herring, and smelt for example, greatly aid in the success of topwaters. It seems as though lakes with this type of baitfish experience some type of superior topwater bite at some point between the spawn and fall. Conversely, lakes where the predominant prey are bottom-dwellers (crayfish, gobies, yellow perch to a degree) tend to exhibit a more temperamental surface bite. Illustrating this difference case in point is Rainy Lake on the Minnesota/Ontario border. This lake used to have a tremendous smelt population and a phenomenal topwater bite. I remember visually observing cruising packs of smallmouth ignore a tube tossed in front of them, but the same day yielding over 50 bass to surface baits. Then the smelt died off and the bass had to change food sources to primarily crawdad. This change has caused the smallmouths in Rainy Lake to ignore topwaters unless conditions are very ideal for them.
In regards to bluegill as a main forage for largemouths, my experience has been that this situation doesn’t necessarily make for superior topwater action unless bluegill bedding areas are being targeted. In that case it can be quite effective. But there is something I’ve seen that I don’t understand that occurs on Lake Minnetonka here in Minnesota. Oftentimes I have observed giant schools of small bluegills swimming around the surface over deep weed beds and structure. But yet, I have never seen a school of bass bust into these bluegills. Why? It happens all the time with shad in southern waters.
No one bass lure draws strikes in all situations. Topwaters are no different in this, so an angler needs to recognize the conditions favorable for this category of baits. Overall I prefer the spawn thru fall period. From there, I want favorable weather, light, and prey conditions. When it does all come together, it makes for some of the most memorable fishing of a lifetime!