I am a surface lure fanatic, and for years I only trusted my topwater game to a trio of players—a popper, a walking bait, and a buzzbait.
Groups of three are not new to many of you. If you attended Catholic school, then you know all about the Holy Trinity—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. If you’re from New Orleans, then you likewise know about the other Holy Trinity that forms the basis of Cajun and Creole food—onion, celery, and bell peppers. Steve Jobs applied the “Rule of Three” to all of his product launches at Apple.
When it comes to lures, as with new products, keeping things simple has its benefits. If I know I can use my favorite popper when fish are tight to structure, my favorite walking bait when I need to call them up, and a buzzbait either to cover water or to keep a bait wet and in the strike zone when weeds make the other two impossible. That’s the good side of limited choices. The bad part is that sometimes fish are willing to feed on top, but for one reason or another, my holy bass topwater trinity couldn’t the job done because of the situation.
I learned about this when the hollow-bodied frog came onto the scene. Now I could put a topwater into places where none of the other three could operate—and I could pop, walk, or buzz it along. We finally had our fourth Beatle. I figured there was no more room at the inn.
Then came the River2Sea Whopper Plopper designed by none other than lure visionary Larry Dahlberg.
This bastard child of the musky world molds a condom-shaped head to a turbine rear end which glug-glug-glugs along rhythmically and elicits the most violent topwater strikes this side of the Amazon. I took one to Mexico’s Lake El Salto in October of 2015 when they were just starting to gain a foothold and my popper-addicted guide laughed… until an 8-pounder choked it down. Then a couple of sixes, and a dozen more over 4 pounds. We weren’t getting tons of bites but the lake was over full pool with water running over the spillway. Covering territory and calling fish out of newly-flooded cover was the name of the game. Would they have eaten one of my core three? Almost certainly, but not nearly as violently and I’m convinced that I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as many fish to the boat. They were so aggressive that they often had all 130 millimeters of that Plopper halfway to their butthole by the time they swallowed it. All of us have dreamed of being on a world-class lake with a deadly lure that fish have never seen—and I’m pretty sure (and very thankful) that I got to live that experience at least once before I become worm food.
But even if you don’t live in angling Nirvana, you probably still like to fish topwaters. You do, don’t you? There’s nothing wrong with fishing your tried-and-true favorites until the day you die. They’ll continue to catch fish. But there’s also no written-in-stone rule that says you can’t expand your surface lure circle of trust to include some new categories. For example, if you haven’t tried the Whopper Plopper, you need to get some in the boat, stat. And if you have, be sure to integrate the Frankensteinish offspring of the Plopper and the hollow-bellied frog, like the Teckel Sprinker, which bring that noise-on-a-chalkboard annoyance deep into the thick shit where the biggest bass live.
“Crawler” baits—hard bodies with a circus-monkey-looking metal clapper on each side—aren’t necessarily new. After all, the Heddon Crazy Crawler has been around since World War II. Nevertheless, most “serious” bassers consider it antiquated, bordering on obsolete. Don’t let those guys know about the new generation of crawler baits, including those from Japan that rightfully command top dollar, if you can get them at all. Big beasts like the Deps NZ Crawler and the Attic Lures Pitch’n Crawler act like a drowning 3-year-old hopped up on Pixie Sticks. They’re an easy meal with all sorts of moving parts and a new noise imprint. Even if you can’t stomach the high price for these imports, you can still get in the game with more modestly-priced options like the Jackall Pompadour.
Another well you need to tap is the new wave of rodents—some of them of unusual size. Yes, Heddon (once again, ahead of their time) had the Meadow Mouse for years, and Arbogast made mouse and chipmunk patterns, but this new group shake, rattle, and roll across the surface in a way that screams “protein packed meal.” Some are jointed, some have lips, but they all waddle around and call up the biggest bass on any lake. Do largemouths and smallmouths eat mice, voles, rats, and shrews on the regular? I don’t know, but the action of these lures is so enthralling, and the results so self-evident, that you owe it to yourself to put a few in the boat. Once again, there are super-expensive versions from Japan and California, but one of the best is the SPRO BBZ-1 designed by swimbait legend Bill Siemantel, which comes not only in a jumbo size, but also in “tournament” and “pond-friendly” models, all at a comparatively reasonable price.
There are also categories of topwaters that are about as old as organized baseball that still catch fish despite being relegated to second- or third-string, or even off the roster altogether. If a Devil’s Horse or a Boy Howdy prop bait was your first topwater, you’ll be glad to know that they still work, and they’ve been supplemented by new shapes like deep-bodied bluegills with double propellers. When bass are focused on bream beds, these natural-patterned lures like the PH Squeaky P and the Brian’s Prop Bee are the juice. You may catch fish in these situations on a Senko or a swim jig, but nothing elicits such violent strikes from opportunistically circling bass as the subtle whine of a spinning prop. They’re also deadly before that bite, when shad are spawning on sea walls, riprap, and other hard surfaces, and here in the mid-Atlantic they remain deadly throughout the summer, when 90 degree water temperatures slow fish down, but they still can’t resist the slow movement and boisterous squeal of a prop.
Look, my goal here is not to make you buy more tackle. I’d love to have these bites all to myself for all eternity. I’d be thrilled to carry only the war-wounded popper, the paintless walking bait, and the bent-back-into-shape-a-million-times buzzbait that’s squeaking just right and call it a day. That choice would surely make my boat lighter and my wallet heavier. Nevertheless, if you can expand your topwater arsenal even slightly, you’re going to catch more fish and have more fun doing it.