Topwater Time

I cast my vibrantly colored popper, and it landed with a gentle splat on the lake’s glassy surface. I twitched my rod tip rhythmically, sending out small ripples each time. Naturally, I paused for a second as the offering neared a promising rock. Suddenly, a bronze-backed bass engulfed the popper. Its take wasn’t violent and flashy; it simply drowned what it thought was a helpless frog skirting the predatory beasts below. Adrenaline rushing, I waited just long enough for my line to tighten, then struck. The fish jumped clear out of the water, its powerful head wriggling to free the hook stuck in the corner of its gaping mouth. Then, it dove to the rocky bottom, attempting to fray my monofilament line to its breaking point. Finally, I got its head to the surface and guided it into my rubber net. Sure, the fight was fun, but the best part was that I got it on topwater.

In my opinion, topwater fishing reigns as the most exciting method to catch fish. Every part of it is so visual, so you don’t miss out on any of the action. From the time the lure or fly touches the water to the moment the fish is set back into the wild, you get to experience everything first hand-not through what you feel translated through fishing line and rod.

This time of year, every species can be taken on the surface. Prolific insect, amphibian, and baitfish activity makes May, June, and July prime months to catch some fish up top. In clean stillwaters, mayfly hatches are common, enticing even the largest fish to sip these large insects. In other ponds, dragonflies and damsels are coming off, having similar effects as the mayflies. In addition, tasty treats like frogs, sunfish fry, and perch fry should be wary of predators looking to ambush. Northern rivers still see strong mayfly, caddis, and now stonefly hatches as trout and salmon season comes to a close. On the coast, pogies, silversides, sand eels, and mackerel bring stripers and other species to the top like growing boys to an all-you-can-eat buffet. With all these food opportunities, catching a fish on topwater this time of year can be as surefire as snagging your favorite lure as soon as someone starts watching.

All the different eating options are fantastic for the fish, but it can be overwhelming for us anglers. To help simplify lure and fly choice when targeting fish on top, here are some of my favorites for different scenarios:

  • Typical warmwater ponds/lakes/rivers–poppers (both lures and flies), dragonfly dries, hoppers, hollow-bodied frogs, and propbaits (especially the Whopper Plopper). I fished one such pond a few evenings ago and had some luck catching small largies on a Rebel Teeny Pop-R. The takes were vicious, and I had a great time despite the hordes of blood-sucking mosquitoes.
  • Clear, clean ponds/lakes (warmwater and coldwater)–hexagenia dries, green and brown drake dries, ant dries, walking baits (Spook), propbaits (Whopper Plopper), poppers, and damsel dries. I was up fishing Sebago Lake in Maine for smallmouth bass last week. The topwater bite was on fire, and everything from seven to twenty inches came up to eat my popper fly and spook. After getting absolutely clobbered one morning while fishing the spook, I decided to get some of the takes on film. Of course, as soon as I shut the camera off I caught a three-pounder that destroyed my lure.
  • Coldwater rivers–hexagenia dries, chubby chernobyls, hendrickson dries, caddis dries, alderfly dries, hoppers, ants, very small popper lures, and small terrestrial-imitating lures. I had the pleasure of visiting western Maine over Memorial Day weekend. Although the conditions were still much more spring-like, I experienced some of the same hatches you can still find if you head a little further north. Little five-inch brookies were constantly slashing at my hendrickson dries, and are still willing to.
  • Inshore salt–large walking baits, poppers, gurglers, propbaits, and wakebaits. I caught my first striper on topwater this year last week, and boy were the fish going crazy for my Spook! When the tide was low and in my favor, stripers seemed to bust on my lure every cast, occasionally connecting with the hooks, but more often than not simply knocking the bait a foot in the air. There is nothing more addicting than schoolies on topwater.
Stripers go crazy for topwater. Photo credit: Ryan Zannoni.
  • Offshore salt–will tuna hit topwater?

Another consideration when topwater fishing this time of year is conditions. When most people begin fishing, they assume the only times you can catch fish are early in the morning and late in the evening. Typically, this is far from the truth, but this time of year it will certainly offer the best chance at a fish on topwater. With daytime highs running in the 80’s and 90’s, fish search the refuge of the depths during the hottest part of the day. During the mornings and evenings, though, they can be found feeding at just about any water level.

The other part of the conditions is weather. As with all fishing, wind is the enemy. A little chop on the water can actually be beneficial, but once it starts getting gusty, the topwater bite will occasionally shut off. The one exception I’ve found to this rule is smallmouth in clear lakes. On the windiest and rainiest day of my trip to Sebago, I caught all my fish on topwater. Usually I’ll start with a Whopper Plopper and switch to a Spook once the lake is too choppy, but this day I had to start with the Spook off the bat. Somehow, the fish tracked my lure as it followed the path of the large, crashing waves, and managed to strike it with vengeance.

Whether it’s sunny, rainy, or cloudy, I haven’t found a real difference in the fish’s interest in topwater. If you go early or late enough, the fish will almost always be munching on the surface. On cloudy and drizzly days, fish can sometimes be taken throughout the day on topwater.

One of the biggest turnaways for people when they want to fish topwater is the hook-up percentage. I’m not going to lie: you will hook fewer fish for the number of hits you get when using topwater lures and flies. If you want to catch every fish that bites, use soft plastics or nymphs. Personally, I prefer to watch the entire scene play out. And frankly, by the time you hook the fish, the best part of the fight is already over. I enjoy seeing smallmouth so small that they can’t even fit the lure in their mouth leap two feet out of the air only to completely miss it far more than any fish caught on any other method. There really is no substitute for the visual aspect of this method.

As the summer continues to progress, so does topwater fishing. For fly fishers, the hex hatch will only continue to get stronger, as will the fish’s willingness to hit poppers and gurglers. Lure anglers will find luck casting frogs into pads and covering water with topwater plugs. Whatever your method of choice, throw topwater this season.

Hexagenia mayflies provide topwater action for fly fishers during the warmer months.

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