Pop, pop, kaboom, the sound of a speckled trout striking a topwater lure travels through the ears and into the brain. Blood rushes to every muscle, the eyes dilate, hairs stand up on the back of the neck, and the mouth lets out a whooping holler.
In all the excitement, as the angler reacts to the violent strike, he will often yank the rod hard and pull the hooks from the fish’s mouth. The central challenge of topwater fishing is controlling the enthusiasm until the fish is on the boat.
It takes nerves of steel and highly technical tackle to get the job done. PENN Fleet Captain Chris Condon cut his teeth fishing the shallows around Charleston, South Carolina. He learned early on that the local reds could be enticed with a topwater lure.
Early morning and just before dark are a notorious time to throw a topwater, but Condon also employs the technique when he’s fishing over an oyster bar. “Topwater is the only way to fish without getting snagged,” he explains. He especially likes topwater fishing in calm conditions with no wind when the lure has the best chance to get the fish’s attention.
Condon’s favorite application is when a school of redfish is crashing shrimp along a marsh bank. As a school of redfish works its way down a marsh edge, Condon will land a Berkley J-Walker 100 a few feet ahead of the pack. “When the pack gets close, start to twitch the lure,” he says. The J-Walker is a Berkley hardbait designed for use in freshwater, but Condon has found that it serves him well in saltwater scenarios as well.
For increased accuracy, Condon chooses a seven-foot, fast-action, medium power Fenwick HMG Inshore. “A fast action rod is stiffer,” Condon explains, the higher power helps cast a heavier topwater lure. “It also provides more action to the lure,” working a walk-the-dog lure with a tighter pattern.
A redfish’s mouth faces down, so the fish must pounce on a topwater lure. The fish may knock the bait several times before sucking it up. As long as the fish is playing cat and mouse, Condon says never stop working the lure.
Condon matches the rod to a Clash II 2500 reel. “The reel is light with a full-metal body to reduce flex,” he starts. “That’s very important when I’m casting and working lures all day.” Most important, Condon adds, the HT-100 drag picks up smoothly. “A sticking or surging drag could pull the hook,” he says.
700 miles away, Captain CT Williams, a PENN Fleet Captain from Shell Beach, Louisiana, turns to topwater lures for gator trout. Like most anglers, Williams throws topwater lures in low light conditions and over snaggy bottom. But when the sun comes up, he doesn’t give up on his favorite tactic.
During the day, Williams goes with a Berkley J-Walker 120. “I like a reflective lure in low light,” he says, choosing a combination blue back and chrome color called “Blue Bullet.” During the brighter part of the day, Williams switches to a Bone colored lure. The solid color presents a darker target for fish stalking below.
After years hosting anglers as an inshore guide, Williams says the biggest challenge to topwater fishing is hooking the fish. A big trout strikes with a violent explosion, shaking its head, and throwing water everywhere. Trout are famous for a paper-thin mouth. Williams points out, “A big trout has the same thin mouth as a little one.” This makes it especially hard to hook the fish. “Even with nine hooks the fish will hit the lure and swim away,” he laughs.
Hooking a trout is a matter of timing. “Wait for the fish to grab the lure and pull away before setting the hook,” he says. Success happens in a split second. As a big trout approaches the lure, it creates a wave of water that pushes the bait into the air, then opens its mouth and attempts to suck up the lure. Only after the trout closes its mouth and sinks its needle fangs around the bait, should the angler come tight on the line.
But Williams says setting the hook takes a delicate touch. Many anglers, he laughs, yank the rod as soon as they see the strike. “I duck a lot of flying lures on my charters,” he chuckles. Instead, Williams suggests letting the tackle do the work.
Williams chooses a softer, parabolic rod with a long, slow bend. “A limber rod gives me a better shot of setting the hook,” he says. Williams explains the rod absorbs the shock of the strike to prevent the angler from jerking the lure out of the fish’s mouth.
Once the fish takes off, Williams relies on a Clash II with super smooth drag. When fighting trout, Williams says the lower end of the drag pressure is more important than maximum drag. “Smooth drag through the range applies steady pressure through the fight,” he says. A lighter drag setting keeps the hook from pulling while the softer rod absorbs the trout’s famous headshake. “It’s all about understanding how the tackle works,” Williams stresses.
Topwater fishing isn’t only effective, it’s fun. The excitement of watching a predator attack its prey gets the heart racing and blood flowing. But it takes ice cold veins and fine-tuned tackle to set the hook and fight the fish.