When the first schoolie stripers of springtime migrate in, cool waters and scarce bait leave them grubbing around the bottom for the first week or so following their arrival. But, as the water warms and more baitfish arrive, the bass start looking upward, and fishermen can properly celebrate the new striper season with some light-tackle topwater fishing. Here are ten tips to bring more schoolies to the surface this season.
1. Have a soft touch
The most important part of catching stripers on topwaters is using tackle that can bring the plugs to life. Captain Lou Tirado of Diamond Pass Outfitters in Maine likes a rod with a moderate tip to get the lure dancing. “I find that a faster rod with a stiff tip causes the plug to skid and drag more than dance.” This is true of both walking baits and poppers. A rod with a softer tip helps create more natural, wounded, fleeing baitfish action.
2. Throw them for a loop
When attaching topwaters, use a loop knot. The nonslip mono loop is an easy-to-tie knot that gives the lure freedom to move without weighing down the nose of smaller walking plugs with a snap or clip.
3. Mow the lawn
When fishing from the boat or kayak, cast as close to the shoreline as possible. Bass hunt along the sharp edges of sod banks and sedge islands, so grazing the spartina with your cast can be key to getting bites. This can require long, accurate casts, so light braided line is a must. In backwaters with little structure, where most stripers fall into the “schoolie” category, 15-pound-test braided line is plenty.
4. Cut it some slack
Fishermen who aren’t getting the desired walking action out of a topwater probably aren’t giving the bait enough slack to move freely. After twitching the plug, quickly point the rod tip back at the bait to allow the lure to glide unencumbered. By varying the time between twitches and the amount of slack given to the plug, you can adjust how tight, or wide, the lure walks.
When prospecting for bass that aren’t showing themselves on the surface or actively feeding, a slower, wide-gliding presentation is best. When bass are chasing bait, or swing and miss at your plug, a snappier retrieve, resulting in a tight zig-zagging action, is more productive.
5. Play keep-away
Captain Brian Williams, who specializes in light-tackle topwater fishing in South Jersey’s backwaters, says that when a fish misses the plug, don’t stop the retrieve. “You can always get him on the next cast, until he gets so close that he sees the boat.” Williams also said that if you play keep away, often a larger bass will follow the smaller ones that missed the lure.
6. Use any color … as long as it’s bone
There’s nothing wrong with hatch-matching or using dark lures on dark days and light lures on light days. It works, probably almost as well as just keeping a white-colored topwater tied on. Just about any baitfish fleeing from stripers to the surface has a white or light-colored belly. Cream-colored white, known more popularly among anglers as “bone” is, according to popular belief, even more productive than pearl, white, or other light-colored variations.
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7. Lead the bass
Williams also advises giving the bass a wide berth when sight-casting with topwaters. When a striper is cruising, leading them by 10 feet will get your lure noticed without spooking the fish. For bass sitting against a sod bank or current break, Williams notes that it’s important to cast past the fish, then work the lure into its strike zone. Do not, he says, cast the lure right on top of the fish, or it’s likely to spook.
8. Accept your fate
“I tell my clients to envision the plug as a running back who blew out his hamstring on the far side of the field and is struggling to get out of bounds,” says Tirado. “Pretend that a linebacker is bearing down on you and think about the fear running through that player’s mind, knowing he is about to meet his doom. As much as he tries, it isn’t going to matter—he’s gonna get whoopped. A wounded baitfish has the same process,” Tirado continued. “You can watch a banged-up herring and see it struggle. It tries, but it knows it’s doomed. Your topwater should look like that—a lot of trying, but also accepting its fate of being eaten.”
9. In rough water, make a riot; in shallow, calm water, be seen but not heard
The addition of a rattle, or better yet, a knocker, in a topwater plug can really help call in the stripers, especially in rough, stained water or low-light conditions. However, noisemaking topwaters aren’t for all conditions. In shallow or calm water where stripers can be spooky, a silent walking plug presents a more natural presentation that will pass muster with wary bass instead of sending them running for deeper water.
10. Switch to singles … but use the right ones
If fishing light tackle with schoolies as the target, there’s no good reason to leave trebles on your topwaters. Most of the schoolie-sized surface plugs require a hook change after being taken out of the package anyway, so swapping in some inline singles should be no problem.
When trading in trebles for singles, a size-for-size swap won’t work. Hook sizes are determined by the gap between its point and the shank, so a single that matches the weight and fish-gripping potential of a treble will be several sizes larger. For a 4- to 5-inch topwater, a 4/0 inline single hook is a good starting point. With walk-the-dog baits, try a larger hook on the belly rather than on the tail. Too much weight on the back end of the plug could hinder its walking action, though this is less important with traditional poppers.
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