On Tuesday morning I welcomed aboard Fred Cabanday and his adult nephew, Christian Rodriquez, for a morning of white bass fishing on Belton Lake.
Neither of the men had ever caught a white bass before, nor had either ever seen fish school on the surface, forcing shad to the top and feeding on them there, thus making an audible commotion.
They got so excited about seeing this that I decided then and there to write this week’s column about catching fish at the surface so more folks can enjoy this kind of fishing when it occurs.
By now, most of us are seeing topwater action become more and more reliable as our weather becomes more stable and summer-like, and as the growing young-of-the-year threadfin shad are starting to be corralled to the surface by white bass and hybrid striper at least around sunrise and sunset, if not during brighter conditions.
The following are tips to help you put more fish in the boat, even when the fishing is easy, as it often is with aggressive, schooling fish feeding on topwater all around you.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “Those topwater fish are so aggressive, they’ll hit anything; I don’t really need advice on that.”
I would agree that those fish on topwater are certainly quite aggressive, yet every year at this time I see anglers make 10 or 15 casts to catch just one fish on topwater, when the potential is there to catch a fish on every cast, or at least every other cast.
First and foremost, be courteous. Do not be the person who motors into a group of boats already working topwater fish, throw your boat’s wake over those fish and ruin for everyone, including you,
what could have been 45-60 minutes of easy fishing.
Instead, cut the outboard 100-150 yards out, then use your trolling motor to close the distance.
Remember, white bass, striped bass, yellow bass, white perch and their hybrids (which are all of the fish in the temperate bass family) prefer feeding under low-light conditions. Do not sleep until 8 a.m., get to the lake at 9:30 a.m., and expect to get into topwater fish. On a gray, cloudy day you may find some scattered fish still around by mid-morning, but 30 minutes either side of sunrise and sunset are absolutely key.
Long spinning rods excel for launching lures over top of a school, thus allowing you to retrieve through the entire school.
A well-filled spinning reel will cast much further than an underfilled reel. Fill spinning reels to within 1/32 inch of the spool's lip. Fill casting reels to within 1/16 inch of the top of the spool, or to the fill mark, if engraved on your spool.
A large diameter spool will cast much further than a smaller diameter spool. For this reason, I use Pflueger's Arbor spinning reels for my topwater rigs.
A longer rod will cast further than a shorter rod. For this reason, I keep a specialized set of topwater rods on my boat from the St. Croix panfish series. These rods are 8-feet long and limber. They load up and fling the bait with minimal effort. A rookie or kid can throw a bait with this rig as far as an experienced angler with a 6 1/2- or 7-foot rod.
Use a pair of 6-inch curved-tip forceps/hemostats to remove hard-to-remove hooks. Topwater action only lasts so long. You really need to make hay while the sun shines on this kind of fishing. Fooling around for two or three minutes trying to unhook each fish you catch costs you precious time when you could be loading the boat with fish.
Using a swivel and leader will prevent line twist. I've really come to love the Aquateko Invisaswivel in 35-pound test. It is a fluorocarbon swivel which, instead of tearing up your rod's tip when a kid or rookie reels it up too far, will neatly plug into the rod's tip, thus preventing the damage which a brass or stainless steel swivel can inflict. Keep your leaders short so they don't hinder your casting -- 14-16 inches should be sufficient.
Finally, use light line. My topwater-specific rigs have 10-pound test Sufix 832 braid connected to a 15-pound test fluorocarbon leader via a 35-pound test Invisaswivel. Light line will improve your casting distance dramatically.
I developed a lure and introduced it to the public last summer called the MAL, which stands for Maindelle’s All-Purpose Lure.
This lure is designed for vertical work, for horizontal work using a sawtooth method, and for topwater action. The MAL Original weighs 5/8 oz. and casts a country mile. The MAL Heavy weighs 7/8 oz. and casts even further. This is what Cabanaday and Rodriquez took their fish on, and what I keep tied on for topwater opportunities all summer.
Another solid choice for topwater is the #13 Luhr Jensen Pet Spoon. It does not cast as far, but it is a good shad imitator. I like the silver with white feather as a first choice and the silver with chartreuse feather as a second choice.
When I was first developing the MAL, the very first fish I caught were schooling largemouth bass over on Stillhouse Hollow Lake, even though the target species I developed the lure for were white bass and hybrid stripers.
MAL lures are found here: www.WhiteBassTools.com and at National Athletic Supply in Belton’s industrial park.
Modifying your MAL Original or MAL Heavy by cutting off one of the three treble hook tines will make unhooking fish much quicker and safer with less trauma to the fish for those of you releasing fish.
If you can't stand the thought of cutting a bend off your hook, just save the MAL lures you manage to damage the hook on, and set those aside for future use as topwater baits.
If you do snip one of the bends off your treble, snip off that bend which is more perpendicular to the hook's eye. That bend is soldered on, whereas the other two bends are made from a continuous wire.
Hence, you are cutting off the weakest link.
I do not have anything against slabs, in fact, I made and sell the Hazy Eye Slab. But, I can tell you that a slab is one of the worst choices you can make for topwater fish. The slab sinks too fast, retrieves too erratically, is prone to skipping or planing on a fast retrieve, and is simply not intended for horizontal, shallow work. Even if you choose not to use my MAL for topwater fish, please use something other than a slab!
Consider mashing down the barbs on your hooks to make for even faster, more efficient releases. When using barbless hooks, a constant pressure must be maintained on hooked fish, including during that critical transition from water to boat. Barbless hooks do not do well for rookies and kids.
Try not to chase the fish. Rather, observe where they are headed, and try to get ahead of them. This way you can throw to them as they are coming toward you, while they are all around the boat, then as they are heading away, all without having to move your boat.
Make long casts over as many fish as you can to ensure that a maximum number of fish see your bait during the retrieve.
Remember, the gamefish are oriented on the surface where the bait is, so don't let your bait sink far after your cast hits the water. As soon as the lure hits the water, close your bail and immediately
begin a fast, steady retrieve.
Keep your rod tip pointed down low toward the water's surface to keep the lure from skipping out of the water as you retrieve quickly.
Do not jig, jerk, juke or jive the MAL. Just reel it straight back in with a plain retrieve.
Excessive movements only make it harder for the fish to catch your bait.
Do not set the hook when fishing for topwater fish. There are enough fish present that you will hook a fish a greater percentage of the time if you just keep reeling in straight and fast until a fish hooks itself.
This is especially true if you use braided line.
By setting the hook the instant you feel a sensation, you will likely miss the fish that struck (because the pressure wave it pushes ahead of itself caused a change in the rhythm of your spinner, not because the fish had the bait in his mouth yet).
By setting the hook you will also pull the bait farther away from the other pursuing schoolmates, thus reducing the chances of a second, third, or fourth strike on that same retrieve.
To increase your casting accuracy, look where you want your cast to go. Your natural eye-hand coordination will take over and send your cast more accurately than otherwise.
Topwater action will likely persist until September when cooling water causes it to diminish quickly.
These tips, born out of 30 years of fishing on Belton and Stillhouse, should help you maximize your topwater catch.