The Topwater Bass Secret
Ninety-degree noontime sun scoured my neck. Anchored along a weedline, fishing weightless plastic worms 17-feet deep, water reflected in our faces, dead calm, making line control easy. We set hooks into average-size bass. When chop began to build, I looked around, thinking of an alternative to finesse. A boat ventured onto the large weedy flat behind us, and I witnessed a terrific surface strike. One of two guys lifted high, moments later, a largemouth of at least three pounds. The sky informed me why. Clouds thickened, not enough to block sun entirely, but the amount of light endured a process of change. Minutes later, they boated another bass just as big and I rowed to try Hedden Torpedoes well aside from their fun.
Once July heats up, the word among bass anglers is early and late until about mid-September. Traditionally, we think it’s because of relatively cool temperatures, but largemouths and smallmouths have an eye structure that advantages them to see prey, like shiners and sunfish that don’t see them as well when light is changing. This is what university research has suggested, though bass don’t have the tapitum lucidum retinal eye structure that allows walleye to see well in darkness, but something a little different. According to what I’ve read, it’s a chemical structure specific to light in transition from brighter to darker, or vice versa, and not necessarily light occuring early and late.
Changing light helps explain why topwater plugs, buzzbaits and soft-bodied weedless lures like Phat Rats and Scum Frogs are so effective in the morning and evening for bass. Bass scoot along below, looking upward to better see the outline of forage, and our friends the apex predators of so many waters go on the attack. Naturally, if bass have this advantage, they’ll use it, choosing to feed especially when they best can. But what many anglers don’t know is that topwater lures can be deadly effective in the middle of summer afternoons, so long as the degree of light is changing.
We know about topwater bass at night especially during August. Changing light doesn’t explain how good the fishing is, especially for lunkers, unless the moon shades in and out of clouds, perhaps. Surface action can be terrific on rainy afternoons when cloud cover remains constant, too. Changing light doesn’t explain everything. It can, however, make you more confident in a surface lure when it happens.
When my son and I approach bass in the morning, we get to the pond or lake well before sun-up. We’ve had to contend with bears active in the lingering dark, but never have reneged on our enjoyment in taking advantage of the full spectrum of transition from night to day. We start fishing with some blue to the east. I feel as if every cast is golden, and always target very shallow spots first. Experience has informed me that big bass like very shallow water a foot or two deep. They feel comfortable and emboldened to feed in the quiet. Very early and late into dusk is when we find them in skinny water.
Even on Round Valley Reservoir, Fred Matero and I have nailed smallies on Torpedoes right up against the banks among rocks after sunset. At 18-acre Mount Hope Pond, I once took the liberty of what felt like a perfect first cast into a corner a foot deep. “Bloop, bloop, bloop—kabam!” Minutes later, I lifted a bass of nearly five pounds that hit as if previous hours stored gusto in its muscles just for this release.
I’ve spoken to some anglers who feel topwater fishing is strictly a shallow water affair, three or four-feet deep maximum. Nevertheless, especially when bass strike on the surface during the afternoon, topwaters may be effective over 10-foot depths. Usually, this is weedy water, though not always. Smallmouths strike topwaters fished over rocks 10 or 12 feet below the lure at times, invariably a matter of clear water.
On lakes like Hopatcong and Wawayanda, reservoirs like Spruce Run and Round Valley, all of these waters in New Jersey, finding bass may seem more of a challenge than need be. Hopatcong and Wawayanda are loaded with weedy habitat for largemouths, and yet a morning’s outing can seem slow as if bass are scarcer than places evidently serving as good habitat. Make every cast count. If nothing hits, you’ve eliminated water. This doesn’t mean no bass is present. None may be interested. If I feel a dock with lots of vegetation deserves more than one cast, I’ll offer the plug again, perhaps angling it in closer to a sweet spot, but I’m more interested in covering a range of water before the sun gets up. Experience has taught my senses to leap to alertness when, for examples, a particular open pocket in weeds or a corner along a weedline seems fishy, but I don’t stay too long. I’m always looking ahead for further spots to make casts wortwhile.
This principle of selective casting doesn’t depend on having already figured out a lake, knowing what to expect. When my son and I visited Jefferson Lake on an August evening last year, fishing began slowly and I felt a little bewildered fishing here the first time. I caught the first bass after 20 minutes or so on a Torpedo, and then fell right into the groove. An hour and a half later as we got out with darkness approaching, I had caught four more, not a big catch, but satisfactory. My son didn’t mind that he got skunked, but he was a little curious as to why. I told him he has to feel the purpose behind every cast he makes by learning to sense where bass might be, based on previous success.
Likewise for bronzebacks. Once they turn on at about sunset at Round Valley Reservoir, I forget my leech jigs entirely. Every cast has expectation behind it, because I know these bass are active and it’s only a matter of the plug coinciding with interested quarry below. During the day, Round Valley smallmouths hang tight to rock piles (not only along the dikes) in water as deep as 35 feet or more, and as shallow as about 15. Mostly, the bottom is sandy gravel and fist-sized stones vacant of bass, but the situation loosens as sunset approaches, smallmouths spreading out actively after forage and invading shallows where shiners take refuge. I work topwaters fervently, often by quick-paced retrieves. And the hits come—in foot-deep shallows and over 10 feet or more of water.
Whatever it is that drives us to fish the surface, whether it’s the thrill of the strikes or the tantalizing uncertainty of figuring out whether bass want a slow cadence on calm surface or quick chase, whether it’s the awe of provoking big bass to erupt through vegetation so thick only a weedless soft plastic suffices, or if it’s the slam a buzzbait draws from between stick-ups, we seem to fish this way ultimately for very similar reasons bass hit. It’s in our nature to pursue.