On Top of the World

Nothing compares to the thrill of catching a big fish on a surface lure, and here’s what you need to know to use them effectively.

Chalk it up to being in the right place at the right time.

My brother-in-law and I had called it quits and were trying to make it back to the launch before dark. Our evening fishing excursion had been mostly unsuccessful, and now the sun was fading fast and night was descending.

We were still a couple miles from the launch when we saw shrimp jumping just ahead of our flatboat. We could see and hear the trout popping on the surface, just like the sound a good cork makes when you pop it.

We killed the outboard and drifted to within casting distance of the action, and tossed out a topwater plug. What happened for the next hour is permanently etched in my memory. Trout, BIG trout, exploded under our topwater baits on every cast. They fought with each other over our baits. They mauled our lures. They broke our lines. They made us laugh, cry, yell and laugh some more until it was so dark we could no longer see our baits on the surface of the water.

We left exhausted and exhilarated with our limit of trout, all ranging between 3 to 4 pounds. You never forget a trip like that, and once you catch fish on topwater plugs, you yearn for the thrill of more. Nothing quite compares to the adrenaline rush of having a large fish explode under your topwater bait. It’s downright addictive. Since that trip, I’ve fished topwaters extensively over reefs, around islands, along shorelines and structures, and I’ve caught my share of both redfish and trout in the process.

But it’s only been recently that I’ve learned who to thank for the thrills.

The first topwater lure

Legend has it that back at the turn of the 20th century, James Heddon, a newspaperman and beekeeper (and avid fisherman) was whittling on a piece of wood as he waited along the Dowagiac River in Michigan for his fishing buddy to return.

Heddon threw the whittled plug of wood into the river, and a bass immediately struck it.

That led to an idea, and a new industry began. Heddon reportedly sat at his kitchen table and carved his first lure from a broomstick handle.

Eventually, he started a lure company, producing the first “Dowagiac Surface Casting Bait,” or Slopenose bait, in 1902. Heddon’s company quickly rose to prominence, producing numerous classic baits, and his antique lures have become the most sought-after and most valuable of any ever made.

One antique Heddon lure sold on e-bay last year for over $31,000, and collectors have paid almost twice that amount for certain lures in particularly outstanding condition. Many anglers fish with Heddon products today, with lures bearing names like Torpedo, Lucky 13, Zara Spook and others, all of which have origins dating back to the original bait company, which remained a real innovator in the industry and among the largest of the lure companies until the 1950s.

Other companies were not far behind, however, and Creek Chub, Pflueger, Shakespeare and others produced a variety of quality baits, now all highly prized by collectors.

Today hundreds of companies, large and small, produce topwater or surface baits. Some appear to be relatively unchanged from the original models first fashioned out of wood by Heddon and other pioneers in the industry.

Since the 1950s, plastic has been substituted for wood, but designs still basically resemble a floating cigar.

Other lures are more elaborate — molded, formed, vulcanized, with rattle chambers, joints and a variety of eyes, coming in a stunning array of colors, shapes and sizes. And all are designed to produce some of the greatest thrills an angler can experience.

According to Mike McPherson, Director of Operations for Mann’s Bait Company, there is a significant difference in surface baits because each is designed with a specific purpose in mind.

“Generally speaking, poppers and spitters are short and squat baits. They are large in diameter and short in length, giving them a stubby appearance,” he explained.

“Chuggers are smaller in diameter but longer in length, and take on more of a cigar-like appearance. The blunt face of these baits is intended to make a lot of commotion on the surface, move a lot of water, and make a lot of sound. Some manufacturers put rattles of various kinds in them to produce even more sound. These baits have a straightforward, splashing motion as the angler makes short, sharp wrist movements, and are intended to imitate the splashing sound of fleeing baitfish.

“Prop baits have a small propeller on the front, rear or both ends of the lure. We call these twitch baits, or jerk-and-pause baits, because that’s exactly how you fish them. They are designed for rougher water conditions, when wave action and wind sound has to be overcome by the bait.

“Poppers and chuggers are best for calm-water conditions, but prop baits will make a lot of noise on those marginal days when surface lures have to be otherwise abandoned.

“Surface walkers are a breed all their own. These are finesse baits designed for the more-experienced angler, and designed to catch bigger fish.”

Heddon’s Zara Spook is the classic surface walker, and has its origins back in the 1920s.

The “walk-the-dog” erratic motion of the bait is imparted by the wrist action of the angler, causing the bait to mimic a fleeing minnow or mullet.


Lure manufacturers seldom rest on their laurels. They can’t afford to. There is an inherent restlessness among anglers constantly driving them to find something new or different to fish with. New lures, new colors and new styles are half-jokingly said to “catch as many anglers as they do fish,” but without their introductions the industry would quickly stagnate.

That restlessness is well known in the tackle business, forcing manufacturers to continue to refine their products, modifying and adjusting them for a wider variety of applications. The angler is the beneficiary. Today’s tackle industry produces the widest variety of baits ever know, and quality and life-likeness continues to improve.

Many of the modifications we see today are variants of styles introduced in the early 20th century. For instance, Rapala, well known for their quality jointed baits, can thank Heddon, Creek Chub and others for introducing the concept before the 1920s.

It’s true what King Solomon said, “There is no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Originally these baits were strictly intended for the bass fisherman, but marsh and coastal fishermen everywhere have adopted them, finding new thrills in the process. And the new applications brought further adjustments.

Mann’s made a slight modification to the surface-walking bait, and introduced a Tail Dragger model of their Tidewater series.

McPherson said the down-sloped tail remains in the water acting like a rudder, allowing the bait to make more of a side-to-side motion and less forward motion, keeping the bait in the strike zone longer. The best feature of the bait is its ease of use.

“You don’t need the finesse wrist motion to walk this bait,” he said. “All you have to do is reel it in using short, quick turns on your reel handle.”

I tried the bait in my backyard swimming pool, and he was right. Short, quick turns on the handle of your reel will make you an instant expert at “walking the dog.”

Creek Chub recently introduced a jointed surface bait called a Knuckle-Head, and quickly followed it with the Knuckle-Head Jr. The bait falls into the niche or multi-function category, attempting to combine a chugger-style bait with the side-to-side action of a surface walker. It has a blunt-face chugger or popper design intended to produce surface commotion while the joint at the gills wiggles the bait in a wounded minnow style.

Texas bass pro Zell Rowland, whose reputation as a topwater expert is well known, says the Knuckle-Head “has more swimming action from left to right, sort of like you’re walking the dog,” and producing more action than many other chugger baits.

L&S Baits introduced the Popa Dog and Popa Dog Jr., their latest entries in the surface bait market. Their MirrOlure brand entered the surface lure market in 1997 with the Top Dog series, and rapidly expanded to include several other models with differing sizes, amounts of flotation and lower and higher pitch rattles. The Papa Dog combines the popper-style blunt front of chuggers and poppers, yet is also capable of the walk-the-dog motion of surface walkers.

Eric Bachnik, vice president of sales and marketing over at L&S Lures, said their original surface walkers, the Top Dog and Top Dog Jr., had a single low frequency rattle. The surface-walking action combined with a rattle made for a very effective bait.

Later lures, such as their She Dog, had double higher-pitched rattles, were more buoyant and were found to be more effective in rougher water conditions.

As for colors, Bachnik had a few suggestions.

“If you are a newcomer to surface baits, I’d advise you to pick a few baits in bright colors, like chartreuse or pink, colors that are easy for you to see,” he said. “That way, you’ll easily be able to see how you are working the bait. Start out by making short casts and working at it. You’ll gain confidence as you use it, and once you catch a fish on it, you’ll be just as hooked on topwater baits as the fish you catch.”

Bachnik says anglers should “match the hatch” in choosing which color lure to use.

“Try to use a lure that looks like the baitfish in the water,” he advises. “Otherwise, choose a color according to the water conditions.

“In stained water, we find the gold-colored inserts or sides and bright colors, such as orange, pink, chartreuse, etc., work best.

“In clear water, use a natural-colored bait, such as a green back, silver side, white belly.”

Rods and reels

Bachnik says baitcasting reels are the preferable tool-of-the-trade when working surface lures, but many anglers fish very successfully with spinning gear.

“A baitcasting rig does seem to give the angler a bit more control and probably a slight advantage over one using a spinning rig, but with some practice, both can be used very effectively,” he said.

And as for rods, shorter is preferable over longer, and stiffer is better than limber, he said.

“Personally, I save my 7-foot rods for other applications, and find that a 6-foot-6 rod, or even a 6-foot rod, is the better length for fishing surface lures,” he said. “And a stiffer-action rod, a medium-heavy, works better for me than a medium-action rod, which is too limber. Naturally, not everyone will agree with that, but overall we find it to be true.”

And everyone who fishes surface lures will agree on a few other facts as well. One, try to cast downwind, especially in very windy conditions. That will help keep as much bow out of your line as possible. Slack is the No. 1 enemy.

Two, never try to set the hook by jerking your rod backwards. You’ll pull the bait away from the fish, and you’ll propel that bait back at you with rocket speed. It’s a frightening sight to see all those treble hooks flying toward you.

Three, topwater baits are most effectively fished in water that is 3 feet deep or less. These are shallow-water baits best fished along shorelines, over reefs and flats, and around structure and islands.

Most anglers find them most effective in the spring, early summer and fall, and in early mornings and late evenings. There are other anglers who fish them all year long, and do so very effectively.

Bachnik says there are also some drawbacks or hindrances to topwater fishing.

“Grass poses a problem, as do high winds or very rough water conditions,” he said. “Surface baits just don’t perform well under those conditions.

“And whenever you fish surface baits you will miss some fish. Not every hit results in a hook-up. In fact, if you have a 60 to 65 percent hook-up ratio, you’re doing pretty good.

“It’s true, you probably won’t catch as many fish using surface lures, but the fish you do catch will generally be larger. Much larger.”

One last thing. If you’re not fishing with surface baits, it’s not the lure companies who are missing out.

It’s you!


Those interested in learning more about old and antique fishing lures, can contact The National Fishing Lure Collector’s Club (NFLCC), 197 Scottsdale Circle, Reed Springs, MO 65737, (417)338-4427.

The organization publishes a quarterly magazine, holds national conventions, and hosts a website at www.nflcc.com.


About Rusty Tardo 371 Articles
Rusty Tardo grew up in St. Bernard fishing the waters of Delacroix, Hopedale and Shell Beach. He and his wife, Diane, have been married over 40 years and live in Kenner.