As the sun began to peak over the horizon, it turned the glass surface we floated on a faint shade of orange. I moved the skiff along the sod bank as grass shrimp and silversides shaped small rings on the water’s surface. Those windless summer mornings in my home waters were always spectacular and the anticipation of hooking into a big striper certainly added to the scene’s natural beauty. As I clicked on an electric trolling motor, a few large fish spooked off the mud flat we were moving parallel to, and I knew we had picked just the right place at the right time.
“OK, David,” I said to my partner that day, “see if you can get that popper right against the sod bank and work it over the drop-off.” David quickly whipped out a perfect cast, putting his floating rattling popper right against the edge. As he worked it back I could almost feel what was coming. It spit and chugged toward the drop-off, but before making it there a boil formed under it.
“Stop!” I whispered as loudly as I could. David paused his retrieve and nothing happened. “OK, give it another yank,” I said. David popped it again, and a large tail smacked the popper, sending it airborne. “Don’t move it,” I ordered. Then a big striper in the 36-inch range came almost completely out of the water and pounced on it.
Almost in unison, David and I both yelled in excitement as line screamed off the reel and the lunker headed toward deeper water. Ten minutes later, I lipped a gorgeous striper as iridescent shapes of purple and pink radiated off the fish’s flanks. After a quick high-five, I popped the hooks out and watched the handsome fish disappear into the tannic water.
It doesn’t get much better than that in my book. Catching big, fat stripers on topwater baits is without a doubt the most intense form of striper fishing. The strikes involved in this type of angling are the most violent and the most exciting in the business. Seeing the follow, the indecisive boil, and then the breathtaking hit is the purest form of excitement I can imagine. Getting that fish to the boat is just the icing on the cake!
The magic of topwaters
Unquestionably, topwater baits catch exceptionally big stripers. Some of the largest bass I’ve ever seen fell for these lures. Furthermore, surface baits seem to work even in those instances when the fish don’t seem to be visually feeding on the top of the water column. In addition, topwater baits produce strikes, even when the bait predators are eating look and act nothing like the quiver of surface forages. These are undeniable truths. But why are topwater baits so effective in a number of unlikely situations?
Based on more than 10 years of guiding and 20 years of fishing surface baits for striped bass, my guess is that stripers will, most of the time, hit a surface bait out of pure instinctual aggression. The fact of the matter is that striped bass are assertive, territorial animals. They are top predators in a hostile eat-or-be-eaten world. They can be described as the Tony Sopranos of the inshore waters. If you are another fish or crustacean, you just don’t mess with a big striper. If something moves through a striper’s realm that makes all kinds of noise on the surface, it is going to get noticed very quickly, and more than likely, it is going to get punished by any striper in the area.
With that being said, I believe stripers aren’t necessarily trying to eat that popper at first glance but may just be trying to give it a wallop for creating that sort of commotion in their realm. A striper just can’t resist that desire to take a crack at a popper. You can compare this behavior to that of a salmon traveling upstream to spawn. It’s been proven time and time again that these fish are not in the rivers to feed, but still, if you swing a fly in their face, they will hit it out of instinctual aggression; out of a need to punish it.
This theory applies mainly to situations where there is small bait around that does not resemble in any way, shape or form the surface plugs that we use, but stripers still go after them. The theory makes a lot of sense to me, particularly during grass shrimp, worm or small crab hatches. When I fish a noise-making surface bait in these situations and a striper takes a whack at the plug, it generally swirls and boils on it several times before actually going after the plug with its mouth. But when bigger bait is around (like menhaden, finger mullet or herring) that resembles (at least in size) a popping plug, a striper will go after it with its mouth on the first go around and is far easier to hook.
One thing is for certain, however, poppers and other surface baits get noticed by predators quickly. Their noise-making ability can and will draw big stripers in the area, particularly when they are worked in water 10 feet deep or less. In other words, you don’t have to pull them directly in front of a fish’s nose to get a strike. Getting a bait noticed, especially where there’s a lot of the real thing around, is half the battle.
I can recall with great clarity fishing an exceptionally large grass-shrimp hatch out in East Hampton, N.Y., when I was in my early 20s. There were big bass boiling and rolling everywhere on these tiny critters. On almost every cast, I was getting a boil and a perceived strike from a striper, but I kept pulling the popping bug out of the fish’s mouth each time. I knew what I was doing wrong, but still I kept doing it. I just couldn’t help myself.
It’s quite difficult for any red-blooded angler to resist setting up on a big striper when you see it come up on your offering, but nine times out of 10 you are going to miss that fish. This is particularly true when the lure looks and acts nothing like the real bait and those stripers are just giving it a good look and perhaps a whack for being there and making so much noise. If the fish are not eating that popper, you’re obviously not going to hook them. So, the trick is really to practice some willpower and resist that instinct most anglers have to set the hook on the fish every time they perceive a strike. Waiting until you actually feel tension on the line before setting the hook is absolutely imperative if you want to stick the fish.
Making noise is also imperative. The true value of a surface bait is its ability to get noticed by predators. Therefore, the more noise it makes the better, and your object during your retrieve should be to make your plug or fly sputter and spit as much as possible. You’ll have to get a feel for the specific plug or fly, but quick jerks and hard strips usually do the trick. I believe surface baits with rattles really increase strikes as well. Remember that most of the time, these fish are hitting these baits not necessarily to eat them, but because of the ruckus they are making.
I’ve also learned through a lot of trial and error a pause during your retrieve will result in a greatly increased strike-to-hookup ratio. Once I see that initial boil or tail slap, I immediately instruct the anglers on my boat to pause. By doing this, the big bass that just boiled or slapped the plug or fly with its tail believes it stunned whatever it was that it just took a swipe at and will often come back for it, this time with the full intention of eating it. We have caught a lot of big stripers over the years on the pause. Allowing for a pause during your retrieve also keeps the plug or fly in the water longer, giving any stripers in the area extra time to seek it out.
Times for topwaters
Because the magnificent strikes surface baits get, I’ll always give them a try under most circumstances. However, I’ve found there are a few specific conditions where they seem to be particularly effective in catching big stripers. The first is early in the morning, right when the sun is beginning to show itself.
Just about everywhere, but in the Northeast specifically, that hour when the sun creeps over the horizon is an incredible window of opportunity for surface action. As the sun begins to drop, that hour before and during dusk is primetime for working a surface bait as well. Stripers are definitely more prone to feed on the surface during these low-light periods. Overcast and particularly foggy days are classic topwater conditions. We’ve had our most consistent success during these sorts of days, particularly during the spring and fall months.
Low-wind conditions are also a good time to fish a popper, for the sole reason that the popper is more visible and more audible. Last and probably the most obvious factor is when there is surface activity. Anytime you see the slightest indication of a disturbance, toss a surface bait near it and odds are whatever is making the disturbance is going to nail it. Of course it probably goes without saying, but it’s still worth mentioning; if you manage to get into a striper blitz, throwing a surface bait is always a good bet.
Rock outcroppings (jetties, bridge stations, riprap, etc.) are very good places to throw surface baits. Bass often hold tight to that sort of structure, and if you can place a topwater bait up against a rock, if there are fish around, it’s likely the bait will get hammered on the first crank. If you can find rocks and a stiff-moving current, you have an ideal situation to work a topwater bait, even if those fish aren’t showing. Big, opportunistic stripers wait in these rocks for baitfish and eels to get swept by. A loud popper will often get them to eat when nothing else will.
Casting surface baits along sod-banks in the salt marshes is also a good bet. Big bass often cruise these areas looking for grass shrimp, small crabs and worms. Because this water is shallow, you can get a big bass’s attention from afar with a noisy popper. Working the topwater baits along the drop-offs in these salt-marsh areas can be very effective as well.
When working the suds on ocean beaches, it is always a good idea to try a surface bait. Big striped bass, particularly during the September and October finger-mullet run, get up into the wash (white water created by waves) and will pounce on a topwater bait, sometimes completely clearing the water to get it. Some aficionados consider this to be the most pure, the most challenging and the most exciting form of striped-bass fishing, and I have to agree. There is something magical about catching a striper in the 25-pound-plus range on a topwater from the beach, and really, most of the larger fish taken from the suds are taken this way.
What works and what doesn’t
As I mentioned above, the more noise a topwater bait makes the better. With that being said, I gauge the effectiveness of topwater baits by their noise-making ability. When fishing shallow or calm water, however, you don’t want to be throwing a 3-ounce popper, as just its entry into the water will scare off some predators. So, unless I’m fishing from the beach and need exceptionally long casts and heavier tackle, I prefer to fish smaller poppers on light gear.
This is not to say that I still don’t prefer the noisiest plugs, however. First on my list would have to be the Gag’s Grabber schoolie popper. These 3/4-ounce, 3.5-inch plastic floating, rattling plugs have accounted for more large bass than anything in my box. If bass are on big bait like mullet, menhaden or herring, I’ll go to the larger 5-inch, 1 1/4-ounce version.
There are plenty of comparable poppers on the market, though, that will work just as well. They just need to conform to the following set of criteria: First and foremost, they must float. It makes no sense to me to have a popper that sinks when you stop retrieving it. I mentioned already, we account for a lot of fish on the pause during our retrieve. If you try this pause during a retrieve with a non-floating popper, it just sinks, and it takes a few more turns to get it back to the surface. These plugs should also have a rattle. Again, the more noise they make, the better. I’ve found color takes a backseat to noise making, however. I prefer highly visible colors like white, yellow or chartreuse.
There are certainly times when poppers just don’t work and a more subtle, yet still enticing presentation is called for. These times tend to be when the sun is high, or perhaps when the water is shallow and fish are particularly spooky. When this is the case I’ll reach for a 9-inch Slug-Go. I fish these big soft-plastic baits on a big weedless hook, working them in a walk-the-dog fashion across the surface. If they spit and make a small amount of commotion every two or three cranks, you’re doing it right. The action on these baits when worked correctly is exceptionally enticing, and big stripers just can’t resist them. If you want to really provoke a big striper, try making a small incision in your Slug-Go and inserting a glass bead rattle into the plastic. Zara Spooks or other stickbaits are a good second choice in these situations, but the action really doesn’t compare to the larger and more effective 9-inch Slug-Go. At night I use the solid-black version, but during the day I’m partial to the purple and white alewife color. If it’s overcast, I have had a lot of luck with chartreuse or pink Slug-Gos.
When there are mullet around, nothing beats a pencil popper. Long a favorite of surf casters in the Northeast, pencil poppers are designed to deliver long casts. Within the tail section of these topwater baits is a small weight that forces the lure to sit tail down, so when it is retrieved in a walk-the-dog fashion it bobs and spits like a fleeing mullet. These things drive hungry stripers nuts. During the mullet run, the blue and silver Cotton Cordell version is deadly.
If you prefer to use a fly rod, I’ve found that soft-body foam, cone-shaped poppers work best. Big, boilermaker-style poppers create a lot of commotion in the water. Banger-type poppers also work great. I use EdgeWater Boilermaker Component No. 2/0 small bodies on a 4/0 long-shank hook. I use the 1/0 bodies with 2/0 long-shank hooks for flies I plan on tossing with a 7- or 8-weight rod. Of course some retail fly shops carry these flies pretied, but they’re not so easy to find. In addition, if you tie your own, you can tweak them to get just the kind of action you desire. Also, poppers are probably the easiest, least time-consuming fly to create, not to mention it’s just downright fun to have a fish hit one of your own personal creations.
Casting these big flies can be difficult. Generally, I’ll use a 9-weight rod with an 11-weight, weight-forward floating line. Over-lining my rods like this allows me to punch that big fly through any sort of wind and it gives me the velocity I need to turn over the large wind-prone fly.