When is a topwater not a topwater? When it’s, well, not really a topwater. That doesn’t make much sense, of course, but consider this: Most bass lures fall into a few distinct categories. We all know what a crankbait is, and we are at least familiar with jerkbaits. Soft plastics are deadly under a slip sinker, and who doesn’t love to throw a surface bait like a Pop R or a buzzbait? But sometimes, a few lures can’t be put into a specific category. At least, they shouldn’t be put into a certain category. They not only work as they were originally intended, they also work as a topwater even when they aren’t meant to be a topwater.
Take for instance, the common plastic worm. A staple among bass anglers, it’s probably accounted for more fish than any other lure over the history of bass fishing. It’s a safe bet almost all those fish were taken at or close to the bottom as the worm bounced along behind a slip sinker. But a few anglers-and quite a few bass—have figured out that a worm slithering on the surface can draw vicious strikes. It’s simple to rig and even easier to fish. Just use a standard Texas-rig without the weight and you’ve got a weedless wonder that slides through pads and grass and across limbs. Cast it out, hold your rod tip high and reel the lure so it snakes across the surface, stopping it every once in a while to glide toward the bottom.
A 5-inch finesse worm, most often used on a shaky-head rig, also doubles as a topwater. Just Texas-rig a straight-tail finesse worm on a 1/0 Gamakatsu wide-gap hook and twitch it along the surface the same way you might fish a Fluke. An unweighted finesse worm can catch pressured bass and bass in ultra-clear water when larger or more popular lures won’t work. They often work best when they are twitched just below the surface and occasionally allowed to stall. Strikes can either come on the surface or as the lure slowly sinks to the bottom.
Floating crankbaits won’t sink, but they can be just as effective when fished as a topwater. Instead of cranking it back to the boat as soon as it touches water, let the bait sit for a few seconds and twitch it once or twice. That’s often enough to trigger a strike. If not, hold your rod tip high and crank the lure slow enough to keep it on the surface so it makes a V, or wake. A shallow-diving, square-lipped crank works best for that tactic, and some manufacturers have actually started marketing crankbaits that are supposed to be fished on the surface. If you’ve ever seen a stunned shad swimming listlessly along the surface, you’ll know exactly what that waked crankbait is supposed to imitate.
One of the most effective topwaters that isn’t really a topwater is a floating Rapala or similar stickbait. Most anglers simply cast them out and crank them back to the boat just as they would fish a crankbait. Or they fish them with a jerk-pause-jerk retrieve. Both are worthwhile techniques, but sometimes bass want a more sedate meal, so instead of cranking it, let the bait sit for up to a minute, even more if you have the patience. When you can’t stand it any more, give the lure a slight twitch, just enough to create soft ripples. Be ready and pay close attention to your lure. Sometimes, hits are so subtle the lure simply disappears in a soft swirl. Other times, however, there’s no mistaking the crashing strike of a hungry bass.
Another great makeshift topwater is a Texas-rigged, unweighted grub like a 4-inch Yum Wooly Curltail grub. It’s a great alternative to a buzzbait. Simply cast it and reel it back across the surface. The curled tail slaps the water, creating lots of commotion while the deep ribs help move even more water. But unlike a buzzbait, a Texas-rigged grub can be pulled over and through the thickest, nastiest cover you can find. It’s a dynamite technique over pads and thick grass, but remember to use stout tackle. Once a bass in thick cover eats any lure, he’s going to bury himself in that cover and getting him out can be impossible with a medium-action rod and 12-pound line. Of course, if that’s all you got, use it. Half the fun of bass fishing is watching them smash a lure as it sits, swims or slides across the surface.