We spent daybreak live-chumming scaled sardines along a mangrove shoreline tinseled with pelican poop. The baits, purposely squished and half-broken, circled on top trying to swim away from unseen danger. Drawn from their hideouts by the breakfast bell, snook and snapper arrived with a vengeance.
Our chum baits soon started to disappear behind the boat. One angler pierced a light-wire circle hook to a crippled whitebait and made a cast. I grabbed the rod with the topwater and chucked the plug toward the mangrove edge. We both hooked up straightaway, though I had expected the live bait to out-fish my surface swimmer.
Which morning of fishing is better: five blowups on topwater plugs or 10 bites on live baits? The answer to this question likely determines if you’re a topwater addict or not, thus whether you would’ve grabbed the rod with the pilchard or with the popper.
Neither technique is wrong, but one scenario gets your heart racing faster and blood pumping harder. Any fisherman who experiences success sight-fishing with a topwater will fall in love with surface plugging.
For all those topwater enthusiasts, we contacted ten major lure manufacturers and their field staffers to find out what’s hot on top in inshore saltwater fishing.
The Bomber Badonk-A-Donk is available in both high-pitch (HP) and low-pitch (LP) models. The HP topwater is recommended by Bomber for windy days and stained-water conditions because of its loud rattle, while the LP is better for calmer days and clear waters. All Badonk-A-Donks feature saltwater hardware, with two sizes, measuring 31/2 inches (1/2 ounce) and 43/4 inches (1 ounce).
Expert: Capt. Chris Holleman, Jacksonville, Florida
When to Fish It: For choppy or deeper waters, Holleman uses the high-pitch lure, especially for aggressive schooling fish such as ladyfish, jacks and bluefish. He prefers the low-pitch model for finicky, skittish redfish in shallow waters less than 2 feet or in clear, calm waters.
Topwater Trick: Holleman uses the high-pitch Badonk in the St. Johns River to target spotted seatrout on flats close to deeper drops. “The strikes come where the flats drop from 3 to 7 feet deep,” he says. “Fish loose drags for trout because of their tender mouths, but for redfish, tighten up to prevent them from taking you into the grass.”
Tackle of Choice: For gear, a 7-foot-7-inch G.Loomis spinning rod with 30 inches of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader gets the nod. “It’s a soft, fast-action rod and walks the lure nicely,” says Holleman. “The biggest mistake I see people make is setting the hook too early. You have to be patient, and let the fish bring the bait beneath the surface and put a bend in your rod before setting the hook.”
2. Egret Zombie Ghost Walker
A legendary Texas-coast topwater bait was brought back to life by Egret baits. The Ghost, originally built by Producers Bait Company 25 years ago, is now manufactured as the Zombie Ghost Walker. Egret updated the strength of the hardware and cosmetics, but no changes were made to the dual sound chambers. Length is 41/4 inches, and weight is 1/2 ounce.
Expert: Capt. Lee Daughdrill, Calcasieu Lake, Louisiana
When to Fish It: Trout eat topwaters all year long, but late winter into spring is a prime time. “The number-one variable is water temperature. Anything above 68 degrees and bites should heat up,” says Daughdrill. “A second factor is water clarity. In clean, clear waters, use natural colors, and in dirty waters, use black with a chartreuse head.”
Topwater Trick: Walking the dog is a proven approach, but changing the cadence can increase the number of strikes. Daughdrill uses start-and-stop retrieves. “Often, fish will hit after a stop,” says Daughdrill. “After a blowup and miss, I’ll let the lure sit at least five seconds and then start a straight retrieve to get another strike.”
Tackle of Choice: Daughdrill prefers to use 12- to 15-pound mono main line because of the stretch factor. He wants the line to react like a bungee cord, really imparting action into the lure, something braid — lacking any stretch — can’t do. He uses a medium-heavy 7-foot rod with moderate action, and a baitcaster with an 8.1-to-1 gear ratio to help prevent pulling hooks.
3. Halco Roosta Popper 80
The Roosta Popper 80, a popper from Halco Tackle Co., has wide appeal for a range of tropical and temperate species. The size-80 model, measuring 80 mm, is the third-smallest offering in the Roosta Popper series. The 31/4-inch-long, 5/8-ounce popper pushes an impressive amount of water for its small size.
Expert: Capt. Davenport West, Jupiter, Florida
When to Fish It: West fishes the Roosta Popper primarily in tropical creeks and inshore waters near surface-feeding fish and bait schools. “The plug has an added bonus of being equally effective in fresh water,” says West. “I catch a ton of largemouth bass on the RP80.” In fact, he likes to keep a popper rigged and ready in his truck at all times should he come upon productive-looking waters while driving around town.
Topwater Trick: Generally speaking, the color of the popper is less important than the action used to fish it. “The elevation of the rod tip can easily vary the
sound of the lure in the water,” says West. “I prefer a low-rod-tip retrieve because I think it simulates the sound of a surface-feeding snook. A high rod tip makes for a shorter pop and is less likely to tumble when fishing in high winds.”
Tackle of Choice: West fishes mostly 10-pound-test braid on spinning gear with 7-foot-plus medium-light rods for longer casting distances. “I incorporate a 2- to 3-foot section of fluorocarbon leader, usually 20-pound, between the braid and lure,” says West. “And I always use a loop knot to maximize the action of the lure.”
4. Heddon Chug’n Spook Jr.
Heddon incorporated a cupped chugging mouth that can spit water while retaining proven walk-the-dog action in its Chug’n Spook Jr. Its junior model measures
31/2 inches, compared with the original 47/8-inch Chug’n Spook. A saltwater version of the Chug’n Spook Jr. features No. 4 2X saltwater treble hooks.
Expert: Capt. Danny Barrow Lake Worth Lagoon, Florida
When to Fish It: Throw the Chug’n Spook Jr. in surface conditions with a chop up to 6 inches. When fish are focusing on topwater but a chugger is necessary to draw a strike, Barrow likes to throw plugs in natural baitfish colorations. “On days when snook want a bigger bait, I’ll throw the original,” says Barrow. “But when smaller baits are around, I’ll throw the Chug’n Spook Jr.”
Topwater Trick: Barrow likes to utilize what he terms “stop-wristing.” That means not only is he walking the dog with the plug, but he’s snapping his wrist hard to get extra action. “That action pushes the bait slightly underwater,” he says. “I think it creates a noticeable bubble trail, and the fish go crazy for it.”
Tackle of Choice: One top option is a 7-foot casting rod with a Shimano Curado baitcaster. For spin, Barrow will cast a 7-foot-6-inch medium-heavy rod and Shimano Sustain spooled with 10-pound braid and 30-pound leader. Although Barrow targets snook with the plugs, he favors the lighter leader for more hookups and better lure action.
5. LiveTarget Mullet Walking Bait
The LiveTarget Mullet walking bait’s profile, anatomy and coloration imitate the real thing to perfection. A built-in rattle has two unique sounds, a large-ball knock and small-ball ping, to create a cadence that calls fish. The smaller lure model for reds and trout measures 4 inches; a larger size appropriate for bull reds, jacks, tarpon and snook is 43/4 inches long.
Expert: Capt. Geoff Page, Tampa, Florida
When to Fish It: Page uses the larger Mullet walking bait on windier days, preferring the smaller version for calmer days. “I’m not afraid to pull out [the plug] in 10 mph-plus winds, and they’re not afraid to hit it,” says Page. In ideal conditions, he throws the topwater in mostly clear waters, some wind and a touch of sun, targeting snook, redfish, seatrout, blues, mackerel and jacks.
Topwater Trick: For topwaters, the noisier the better, says Page. Make exaggerated walk-the-dog motions to create a disturbance in the water. “There’s no need to be stealthy,” says Page. “I’ll even try to create some chugs and other erratic pops to draw explosive strikes.”
Tackle of Choice: Page prefers a 4,000-size spinner that handles 10- to 20-pound braid and a spinning rod measuring 7 to 71/2 feet long, medium heavy, with stiff action. “I prefer 3 feet of 20-pound mono as leader because it allows more stretch and floats to better produce lure action.”
6. MirrOlure C-Eye Pro Dog Jr. Surface Walker
The MirrOlure C-Eye Pro Dog Jr. (C85MR) features 3D eyes, contemporary finish and premium black-nickel hooks. With a twitch retrieve, the surface walker darts from side to side to attract strikes. The C85MR incorporates a precision weight design for longer casting distances and a reflective, luminescent insert to attract fish. Length is 4 inches, and weight is 3/4 ounce.
Expert: Capt. John Ochs, Pine Island Sound, Florida
When to Fish It: Ochs casts the Pro Dog Jr. first thing in the morning during calm conditions. As the day progresses, he does something a bit different. “When I chum with customers, sometimes fish blow up baits far away from the boat,” he says. “You can cast this lure far to reach those fish, and it tends to have a great hookup ratio.”
Topwater Trick: The C85MR topwater is an option most months of the year in Florida, and serves as a perfect search bait when probing the flats. “I like it because it’s a heavier bait,” says Ochs. “Fish really can’t pop it out of the water when striking it, so I think that leads to more hookups.” Ochs uses the plug as a walking bait, catching mostly snook but also redfish and seatrout.
Tackle of Choice: Ochs uses a 4,000-size spinner rigged with 10-pound braid and 30-pound mono leader. For a rod, his regular preference is a 7-foot-3-inch medium-heavy outfit. Many topwater anglers prefer medium-action rods because they offer good distance when casting but still generate a strong hook-set.
The innovative V-Rap belly design of Rapala’s Skitter V topwater creates drastic directional changes from quick rod snaps but also allows the lure to glide during pauses in the retrieve. “The belly acts a lot like a keel on a boat,” says Capt. Rick Murphy, host of Sportsman’s Adventures. A single ball bearing emits a fish-attracting noise. The Skitter V measures 4 inches, weighs 1/2 ounce and uses two No. 4 VMC black-nickel hooks.
Expert: Capt. Jim Ross, Mosquito Lagoon, Florida
When to Fish It: Ross casts the Rapala Skitter V in 3 to 4 feet of water over submerged grass flats. In addition to the flats, he’ll also cast the plug around bait pods, pockets of mangroves and docks to catch seatrout and redfish. “This really isn’t a fast enough lure for jack crevalle,” says Ross, pointing out the bait should be worked methodically to get the best action.
Topwater Trick: “This lure creates an exaggerated walking-style motion,” says Ross. “So work it slower, and don’t give it too much action.” A slower retrieve of the lure creates more side-to-side movement that keeps the plug in the strike zone longer. Ross particularly likes to fish the topwater near bait schools because it mimics injured prey.
Tackle of Choice: Ross prefers a medium-action spinner or baitcaster setup. “This is a lighter lure than the standard Skitter Walk (5/8 ounce), so I’ll lighten my tackle.” For rod choice, stay away from a fast-action rod because an angler’s reaction can pull away a lure too quickly during the strike.
8. River2Sea Whopper Plopper 130
The River2Sea Whopper Plopper operates at speeds from superslow to fast, able to create a little noise or a deep, hollow sound. A glance at the plug and any angler will notice the Plopper’s unique tail, which spins in a circle as it’s retrieved. Measuring 5 inches and weighing 13/8 ounces, the Whopper Plopper 130 really flies during the cast.
Expert: Larry Dahlberg, host of The Hunt for Big Fish
When to Fish It: “Topwater is always my first choice,” says Dahlberg. “Under specific conditions, this lure can be heard from as far as you can cast it.” Dahlberg uses the Plopper when he must make casts to a specific spot to draw fish from where he can’t reach them. The Whopper Plopper 190 size is better-suited for bull reds and nearshore species, while the 90 size is popular with speckled trout anglers.
Topwater Trick: Dahlberg reels the Whopper Plopper throughout an entire spectrum of speeds, often in combination with short rips. An unbalanced propeller causes the lure to shake as it rotates. “I let the fish decide what they want,” he says. “On open water, I throw it as far as I can cast. When fishing specific targets, I run it tight and parallel to cover.”
Tackle of Choice: Dahlberg casts the Whopper Plopper 130 on an 8-foot Temple Fork Outfitters rod paired with a compact Lew’s baitcaster. “I like to keep as much line out of the water as I can, and the added length and adequate butt allows for good long-range hook-sets,” he says. “Smaller reels appeal to me as I get older, and as they improve so much that you can use them for larger critters.”
9. Savage Gear 3D Suicide Duck
The 3D Suicide Duck topwater was meant for musky and pike fishermen, but then Gulf Coast redfish anglers got their hands on it. Savage Gear’s 3D-scanned details and hard ABS body, with semisoft and durable feet, create a lifelike bird presentation. The spinning feet create splashing action, leaving a bubble trail similar to a buzz bait. Sizes are 41/4 or 6 inches; weights are 1 and 21/2 ounces
Expert: Capt. Sonny Schindler, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
When to Fish It: “I first got the idea to catch a redfish with a duck back in 2007, when I pulled a baby nutria out of a redfish’s stomach,” says Schindler, of Mississippi. He likes to use the duck during fall redfish bites in ponds far back in the Biloxi Marsh. Most of the ponds are in 2 feet of water or less, so redfish pushing wakes or tailing are easy to spot.
Topwater Trick: Schindler works the 3D Suicide Duck down a shoreline where reds are feeding. “The rotating feet on this lure throw a ton of water, and I want it to make a commotion,” he says. “If a redfish chases it but doesn’t bite, I stop and pop it to get them to strike.”
Tackle of Choice: Schindler uses bigger spinning reels, such as the Okuma Inspira 40, tying the lure straight to 20-pound PowerPro braid. “This lure has some weight, and grabs a bunch of water when you pull it,” he says. “My lighter speckled trout rods can’t handle the strain.” He prefers to use a medium-heavy 7-foot Okuma Reflexions spinning rod.
Shimano’s Pop Orca 90, measuring 90 mm (3 1/2 inches), is the pint-size version of its offshore saltwater popper. The popper can be fished three ways: steady retrieve, small sweeps to create chugs, or large sweeps to take it subsurface. A unique bubble-chamber open-mouth design sprays water from the top, or creates a long bubble trail when retrieved subsurface.
Expert: Capt. Mark Phelps,Charleston, South Carolina
When to Fish It: The smaller-size Pop Orca popper was designed for inshore and nearshore fishing, best used early in morning low light when fish are looking toward the surface for baitfish. The popper can also be used late in the day or at night near dock lights, says Phelps. “The Orca is deadly on any busting fish because you can cast it a mile,” he says, “although it works best when the water is not too choppy.”
Topwater Trick: “The great thing about this popper is that it’s easy to use,” says Phelps. With your rod tip near the water’s surface, and a tight line to the plug, a simple jerk will make plenty of commotion. A hole in the top of the plug forces water into the air. The Shimano Orca 90 can be used for a variety of inshore fish.
Tackle of Choice: Your target species will help determine the rod and reel you want to use. Phelps likes a rod with a soft tip, but one that has enough backbone to cast the plug and handle unexpected larger fish. “I use a G.Loomis NRX Dropshot rod, with a 1000 Shimano Stradic CI4+ reel spooled with 10-pound PowerPro Super Slick braid,” says Phelps.
11. Yo-Zuri 3D Inshore Pencil Floating
Designed to fish in shallow waters, the Yo-Zuri 3D Inshore Pencil topwater is a strong choice for grass flats, oyster bars or back bays. A patented 3D prism finish and internal hologram sheet emit flashes of light to attract fish. The deep, elongated shape mirrors a variety of the baitfish, while intentional weight position creates a side-to-side action. Length is 4 inches, and weight 1/2 ounce.
Expert: Capt. Will Burbach, Anclote Key, Florida
When to Fish It: Burbach prefers to use the 3D Inshore Pencil in low-light conditions, especially as a search bait. When fishing tournaments, he uses the plug to locate fish on the flats. “If you find a school of reds, throw off and to the outside of the school,” he says. “A single fish will come out and get it, and hopefully not disturb the rest of the school.”
Topwater Trick: Besides walking the dog, Burbach utilizes a medium-speed retrieve with an erratic jerk. In particular, he’ll start with an erratic action to see how aggressive the fish are. “If they respond to that aggressive presentation, then you can throw on top of their heads and they’ll still eat it,” he says. “For most conditions, I use a slower pop-pop-sit retrieve.”
Tackle of Choice: A 71/2-foot medium-heavy spinning rod with medium action is Burbach’s preferred stick. He couples it with a 3,000-size reel, 20-pound braid and 40-pound Yo-Zuri TopKnot fluoro leader. This versatile setup catches most species in and around the Anclote Key and upper Tampa Bay areas where he guides his charter customers.