Wind up on top with bass

Debbie Hanson, an avid angler and host of a talk show on ESPN Radio, displays the fruit of her labors.

Topwater lures bring out the best in bass fishermen and the loudest in strikes from big fish. Here’s how to decide which of the dozens on the market to use, when and why.

Chuckle, sputter, plop, plop, sploosh! 

Few joys are greater for a bass fisherman than a dramatic surface strike. 

It is an anticipated event that continues to extract surprise and happiness each time it happens. Each time a bass reacts to a topwater offering, it’s like a soothing ointment applied to a troubled soul. Once, while discussing topwater strikes, legendary angler and outdoor writer Homer Circle said, “It’s impossible to be angry at someone when you’re catching fish.”

The selection of topwater bass lures has never been greater. Some are marketed to catch fish, while others are marketed to catch anglers. A few have stood the test of time, and just as many have been left to languish in the bottom of the old tackle box. 

“I would be very hard pressed to choose a favorite surface lure,” said angler Charles Golden of Taylorsville. “I suppose it goes without saying that my favorite is the one I have tied on that is getting bitten with regularity. 

“I grew up in the 50s and 60s when the Hula Popper, Jitterbug, and Devil’s Horse were pretty much all we had for noisy surface plugs — and they worked fine then and work fine now. I can remember getting a Lucky 13 for my birthday, and that big red/white plug caught a lot of farm pond bass. Farm ponds were about we had to fish.

“I fell in love with the Zara Spook when I was in college and learned to walk-the-dog,” Golden said. “These days, there are dozens of baits that emulate the Spook with equal success. Heddon, who first marketed the lure, has made improvements over the years, but the jerky motion continues to make the spook one of my favorites. So I guess I could say if I could have just one surface plug, it would be the Zara Spook.”

Choose based on temps

Alan Clemons, a veteran outdoor communicator from Alabama, chooses different favorite topwater baits based on the temperature.

“Throwing a topwater bait for bass is one of my favorite things to do, almost year-round,” he said. “If the water temperature (is) 50 degrees or higher, I’ll tie on a 1/2-ounce white buzzbait and throw it in the back of creeks or coves. With a slow retrieve, to try to mimic a lethargic shad; it sometimes gets some good bites from big fish, especially in early spring. 

“As spring turns into summer and during prespawn and post-spawn, and especially with any vegetation such as primrose, milfoil, hydrilla or other grass, I’ll usually have a 1/2- or 1-ounce SPRO Bronz-eye Frog tied on. The midnight walker (color) mimics a bluegill, and the nasty shad is if they’re hitting shad.

Grass is a popular hiding place for bass. Many topwater baits are weedless for just this reason.

“My favorite thing to throw, however, is the Whopper Plopper in the 130 (medium) size,” he said. “The large profile and rotating tail — along with the “plop, plop, plop” — are pretty awesome when you get the retrieve that the bass want dialed in. Sometimes it’s slow and others, pretty fast. The good thing about the Plopper is it keeps working even on a burning retrieve. If you stop, the bait floats and sits nose up. Sometimes that draws strikes, too. Like with any topwater, it’s a game of cat-and-mouse to figure out what works best to make the bass strike”

If the wind is blowing hard enough that he can’t see the bait well, Clemons switches to a big spinnerbait or some other tactic. And on a dead-calm day with no wind, he’ll throw the Plopper with an agonizingly slow retrieve. If that doesn’t work, he might switch to something more subtle, like a Devil’s Horse or Pop-R for less noise and motion. 

The Hoot Gibson Frog

Hoot Gibson of Philadelphia gets a lot of credit for the development and promotion of the plastic frog, sometimes called the Hoot Gibson Frog. It was Gibson who started the Scum Frog craze, and for good reason: they catch bass.

“I like to fish Neshoba County Lake,” Gibson said. “Naturally, it’s close to home, so it’s convenient, but it also offers a lot of cover in the form of aquatic vegetation. As spring turns to summer, bass will feed in more open water, but heat and sun will push them under the weeds. Anglers will find patches of open water among the cover, maybe as small as your hand, but bass will track a frog across the surface and anticipate it coming to one of those openings. That’s when you need to be ready.”

Gibson said a slow retrieve is generally best when fishing a frog. Teasing the fish is one way he describes his presentation. 

“I think it says a lot that so many companies are making frog-like lures,” Gibson said. “There is plenty business to go around and people (fishermen) know they work. No matter the type of cover, frogs can get it done.”

The Devil’s Horse

At some point, a genius decided to equip a surface plug with little propellers that fussed noisily as the plug was retrieved, and a whole new generation of baits was spawned. Not only was the Devil’s Horse a product of this effort, but also the Torpedo and Spin-Ditty. The Devil’s Horse is a favorite of David Rainer, a former Mississippi resident now living and writing about the outdoors in Alabama.

The Devil’s Horse can be retrieved in short, staccato blasts with intermittent pauses, or at any speed the angler chooses for a constant sputter. It may take some experimentation to get the speed the bass favor. According to experts, it’s best if the lure is in some motion throughout the retrieve. It’s believed this more emulates the action of a live offering.

These two nice smallmouth bass were taken from weed beds in Pickwick Lake. Even smallies like topwater action.

Floaters such as the old reliable Rapala can be fished from a dead stop to a slight dive before the lure is allowed to resurface. A few twitches followed by a pause while the concentric circles disappear can trigger a strike. This injured-minnow technique works well, and bass will often slam the lure when if goes from rest to motion. 

You can’t discuss topwater plugs without a mention of the master of darkness, the Jitterbug. While they come in many colors, the black model is hands down the best night-time surface bass plug ever made. Fish it parallel to the bank or just outside weeds and floating vegetation with a non-stop retrieve. It makes a racket bass find difficult to resist. Start fishing it about sundown and continue it into the night. 

The Whopper Plopper

The Whopper Plopper, made by River2Sea, was originally designed as a pike and muskie bait. Some angler decided to try it for largemouth bass and enjoyed instant success. The noise is much like the Jitterbug, and it reportedly performs well on spotted bass in tailrace waters of Barnett Reservoir and the Low Head Dam. Spots favor swifter water wherever it is found. 

Not last or least in topwater offerings are the poppers. Leading this pack is the Hula Popper, which has been around longer than many readers of this article. The plump, little body with the skirts of many colors makes a loud plop when jerked. The skirt then wiggles, and the lure turns a little one way or the other until the angler takes up the slack in the line and makes it pop the water again. It may as well be saying “Here bass, here bass.” 

These lures give way to others such as the Pop-R. This nifty little bait comes with some impressive miniskirt colors, including a red thread or two that mimics an injured minnow. An erratic retrieve is the ticket to using the Pop-R to its potential. It may well be the best topwater bait on schooling bass.

Coronavirus should have little impact on fishing

COVID-19 is running amuck in our lives as we know them. The adjustment to this Biblical-like plaque has been a fluid progression not unlike a tsunami. 

You can practice “social distancing” very easily from the banks of a pond or lake with a topwater bait tied on and hungry bass waiting for it. (Photo by David Hawkins)

With so many negative things being said and done, there is one activity that remains steadfast; fishing. Bass tournaments will be cancelled because the weigh-in crowds would exceed the mandated 10 or fewer people, but boat ramps are open. If you’re lucky, you have a private lake or pond someplace where you can fish. A mess of bass filets will go a long way in filling larders, both yours and for someone needy. 

Respect social distancing and make your stops at bait shops and service stations as safe as possible. When pumping fuel, wear nitrile gloves or use a single-use disposable paper towel. Continue to wash your hands rigorously and avoid sneezing or coughing into the air. Cover you cough with a tissue or at least the inside of your elbow. 

This may be a good time to mention the importance of spray-on bait scents. The hand sanitizers in daily use almost everywhere are easily transferred to bait surfaces. These alcohol-based sanitizers do not encourage a fish to hold the bait. Bass have many taste buds and can quickly distinguish between possible food and danger.

Sunshine includes UV rays that act as a natural disinfectant but are not a cure for the virus or its spread. So sunshine is better than a closed environment that is not sanitized. 

There are no plans as of this time to close lakes and rivers to fishing, but some buildings, cafes, bait shops and gatherings will be impacted.

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David Hawkins
About David Hawkins 189 Articles
David Hawkins is a freelance writer living in Forest. He can be reached at

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