How to catch fish on surface lures
THE warmer months of spring and summer sees most fish bounce back to life after the winter doldrums. As the temperature rises from wintertime lows, many species will experience a corresponding rise in activity and will more aggressively hunt down a meal.
The warm weather also triggers increased activity in bugs and insects which are a primary food source for many freshwater fish while in the salt. Similarly, baitfish will follow the nutrient rich warm waters inshore while prawns start migrating from the estuaries to open waters. All of this activity sees top water fishing come to the fore and there is nothing more exhilarating than the sight and sound of a determined fish chasing down and devouring a surface lure. There’s more to top water fishing than flicking out a lure and hoping for the best; not only conditions have to be right for fish to be feeding actively on top, the size and style of lure also needs to match what the fish are feeding and be suited to the prevailing conditions.
Cues to indicate using topwaters
There are many cues that suggest that fish will be receptive to a topwater presentation. The first indication is a constant period of warm weather and elevated water temps in spring or summer. A prolonged period of warm weather will recharge and revitalise predators, boosting their metabolic rates and prompting them to feed more often and with vigour. The second cue is the chirping of cicadas, an insect hatch or grasshoppers and crickets jumping about which provide clear indications that both fresh and estuary predators will be cruising the surface looking for an easy meal buzzing atop the water. Baitfish schools rippling on the surface or aggregating around shallow structure are another good indicator that predators will be patrolling the upper section of the water column. Another obvious cue is seeing or hearing the tell-tale signs of predatory fish feeding near the surface. Some days you’ll see surface commotion and birds dive bombing into schools of baitfish pushed up to the surface by predators below. Other times you’ll be fishing the still of the night and hear predators inhaling bugs and baitfish off the surface; seeing or hearing predators indicates they’re feeing on top which increases the odds of them taking a surface presentation.
Where to use top water lures
There are many situations where top water lures come to the fore however a few key rules generally hold true. When fishing salt water, the key conditions conducive to top water success are finding fish holding around structure (which can be natural or man-made), coupled with the presence of baitfish or food source and finally the having some current or flow in the water. When these conditions combine, you’ll often find opportunistic predators patrolling the structure or congregating around the structure in the lee of the current, waiting to pick off an easy meal. Shallow inshore reefs, rocky headlands and foreshores, bridge pylons and marker buoys are all examples of the areas where both inshore and estuary predators will be actively patrolling and darting to the surface to ban an easy meal. In fresh water situations, submerged trees or tree canopies overhanging the water’s edge along with weed lined banks are prime areas for predators to patrol hoping for a hapless insect, bug or hatchling to drop into the water. Highly oxygenated moving water like the bubble line in a fresh water stream is another great location where predators like trout will sit behind a rock out of the main current, lapping up the oxygen rich water whilst waiting for an insect to float by. The key in all of these scenarios is to look for somewhere that predators and prey will naturally aggregate, if you add some current and conditions that lead to the water being alive with nutrients and oxygen you’ll be in the right location to maximise your chances of top water success.
Time of day
Generally speaking, periods of low light such as dawn and dusk or during an overcast day are ideal for top water luring. Some species will bite well into the night providing spectacular fishing as your senses heighten in the darkness; nothing quite beats the still of the night being disrupted by a violent surface strike! You can also catch fish on the surface luring the middle of a bright sunny day however the chances of fish feeding actively on the surface where they can be seen by other predators or birds above is lower when there’s plenty of light about. If you happen to be fishing a spot during the day and find the fish half-hearted or not receptive, return to the spot a few hours later on the tide change or as the sun gets lower in the horizon and more often than not you’ll find the predators will be more active.
Different top water lure types
There is a myriad of top water lures available, each featuring different actions that lend themselves to different situations.
Stick baits – subtle action for calm to moderate water
The most subtle lures are the stick bait or walk-the-dog style lures which zigzag on or just below the surface. They feature a subtle action and generally mimic an injured baitfish that is swimming erratically. They can be fished with short stabs of the rod tip causing the zigzag action or can be retrieved at speed causing them to skip and skate along the surface imitating a baitfish trying to flee from predators. Stick baits often work well in calm water conditions, especially when fish are somewhat cautious or shy.
Walkers and crawlers – moderate action for calm water
Crawler and walker style lure have a cupped lip or wings that make the lure gurgle and wobble when slowly retrieved. These lures imitate a fallen of struggling creature scooting across the surface of the water, desperately trying to stay afloat and reach safety. Big bugs, mice, frogs and small birds are what these lures try to imitate and they’re generally used in fresh water. These types of lures have a moderate action and are best worked at a relatively slow to moderate pace, suited ideally to still or lightly windswept waters.
Fizzers – moderate/strong action for calm waters
Fizzers are lures with metal blades or propellers that spin freely on the front rear eyelets of the lure. As you drag these lures across the source, the propellers spin and churn the surface of the water. This action replicates a beetle, bug or other creature desperately flapping its wings in a last ditch effort to fly back to safety. Fizzers generally work best when retrieved with discrete movements of the rod tip or reel handle with a momentary pause between retrieves. Fizzers are ideally suited to calm or moderate waters.
Poppers - moderate/strong action for all waters
Cup faced poppers are a noisy and popular style of surface lure suited to many conditions. As the lure is pulled along the surface with a sweeping action of the rod, water is displaced creating commotion that predators interpret as distressed prey flailing on the surface and an easy target. Poppers are worked with short or long sweeps of the rod and the trick with working a popper is to pull it with enough force so that it throws up plenty of water but not too much so that it doesn’t tumble and skate along the surface. Poppers are well suited to most conditions and can be worked with subtle action in calm waters if the fish are fickle or you can use a bigger popper and work it vigourously in rougher conditions to ensure it gets noticed amongst the wind and chop.
Other lures and surface imitations
There are many other lures and imitations that also fit into the top water category. These include wake baits, floating swim baits and surface running minnow lures which would be fished in similar situations to stick baits and crawlers. Many soft plastic lures are naturally buoyant and when fished unweighted offer a realistic surface presentation that can sometimes be irresistible, especially on shut down fish. You could also add things like dry flies into the mix to truly round out the list of top water offerings.
Top water conversion tips
The two challenging aspects of using top water lures are: knowing when to strike and how to elicit a strike from fish that are tentatively following your lure. The first rule of thumb is to refrain from striking at all; as difficult as it seems, many fish will often nudge or timidly bite at your lure and a poorly timed strike can yank the lure out of its mouth and spook the fish. I’ll only strike to set the hook when I feel solid weight or if the lure disappears below the water indicating that the fish has it in its mouth. If you find the fish half-heartedly following the lure or not committing to the bite, try something different like short erratic twitches to trigger an attack response. After any missed strike, pause the lure for a little longer than normal before commencing an erratic retrieve to mimic mortally wounded prey.
Finally, if you find that the fish aren’t committing to your offering, try a changing lure sizes or colours. As with any form of fishing, it’s important to “match the hatch” so ensure your lure size and profile matches the prevailing food source of the fish you’re chasing. Another point to note is that surface lures featuring large bibs or large cup faces can be difficult for a fish to swallow if they attack it head first. Most lures come pre-rigged with a treble in the mid-section and at the rear, if you find you’re missing plenty of fish it might pay to remove the hooks from the mid-section and use a single assist hook from the front of the lure or tow point so long as this doesn’t impede the lures action. Don’t be too harsh on yourself if you miss a few bites however, this style of fishing is all about those visual and electrifying surface strikes. Using top water lures really is one of the most exciting and exhilarating ways to catch fish.