PROS’ TOPWATER TAC­TICS

WHEN TO RAISE CAIN AND WHEN TO RE­FRAIN

Sport Fishing - - GAME PLAN -

Whether they bloop, swish, chug, rat­tle or plop, all topwater plugs make noise as they move through the water. And all an­glers agree that the ex­plo­sive smash of a game fish on topwater is an adren­a­line-charged strike that’s tough to beat.

But when does the pop of a pop­per or the chug of a chug­ger draw in game fish, and when does it turn them off? When does walk­ing the dog top the pop? How does an an­gler know which to choose, when and why? To find out, I talked to a num­ber of pros from a wide ge­o­graph­i­cal range of topwater fish­eries. Shock­ingly, they all agreed on which choice to make, and when. Al­most.

PLUG­GING IN PANAMA CITY

Capt. “J.P.” James Pic, of JP2 Fish char­ters, has been cast­ing the wa­ters in and around Panama City, Florida, for more than 50 years. And on count­less casts, he has had topwater plugs tied to the end of his line. When asked about pops and chugs ver­sus the clas­sic walk-the-dog style of topwater fish­ing, he has a straight­for­ward and sim­ple an­swer.

“Most of the time, I pre­fer to walk the dog,” he says. “Usu­ally I like a slow walk with a bone-colored Zara Spook or sim­i­lar lure. I’m usu­ally tar­get­ing trout and red­fish, and a loud chug­ger is prob­a­bly my last choice for these species.”

How­ever, Pic ex­plains that he uses a chug­ger for trout when the sun is high and fish are still in­ter­ested in topwater but don’t want to come to the sur­face — though he uses it in a dif­fer­ent way. He re­moves the rear hook and re­places it with a few feet of 20-pound fluoro­car­bon. Then he ties on a D.O.A. shrimp at the end of the line. “Nine­teen times out of 20, a trout will hit the shrimp be­fore the plug,” he ex­plains. “I don’t think the pop­per re­sem­bles any­thing in na­ture, but the noise does get the fish’s at­ten­tion.”

When Pic finds blue­fish or big Span­ish mack­erel in open water, he wants more com­mo­tion. “These fish like a lot of noise on top of the water, and some­times the pop­per will get an ab­so­lutely fe­ro­cious hit.”

He also notes that an an­gler’s topwater op­tions aren’t just lim­ited to these two types of lures. “Some­times when you aren’t catch­ing fish and you need to ex­per­i­ment, rip­ping a prop-bait across the sur­face is a good move,” he says. “I find that the Hed­don Tor­pedo can be ef­fec­tive when other lures aren’t work­ing as well for no ap­par­ent rea­son.”

TEXAS TOPWATER

Many miles west along the Gulf coast, Capt. Allen Sif­ford of Fish On Guide Ser­vice is push­ing his third decade of full-time in­shore guid­ing on the wa­ters of Cor­pus Christi, Texas. Sif­ford starts off with amaz­ingly sim­i­lar ad­vice.

“Walk­ing the dog nor­mally works best for speck­led trout and red­fish,” he says. “The big­ger ques­tion is re­ally how you work the bait. Speed is the key. Usu­ally in warmer water, the fish want it faster, and in cooler water, they want it slower. But some days they just want it mov­ing at a dif­fer­ent speed en­tirely.”

As I dug deeper into the ques­tion, how­ever, ex­cep­tions popped up. “When I’m fish­ing for tar­pon, I might reach for a chug­ger,” he says. “Es­pe­cially when schooled fish are rolling. When they’re com­pet­ing to eat, that’s the time those types of lures work best.”

Sif­ford also notes that at times you do have to be care­ful. “In shal­low water, I do think a loud chug­ger or pop­per can spook some fish, some of the time,” he says. “And some­times, a small pop and then a pause is bet­ter than steady mo­tion. But gen­er­ally speak­ing, I have to say again, I usu­ally walk the dog when fish­ing topwater for the specks and reds, so it’s not com­mon for me to be us­ing them in quiet, shal­low wa­ters.”

I DON’T THINK THE POP­PER RE­SEM­BLES ANY­THING IN NA­TURE, BUT THE NOISE DOES GET THE FISH’S AT­TEN­TION.

CHESAPEAKE CHUG­GER

Along the cen­tral U.S. East Coast, Capt. “Wall­eye” Pete Dahlberg of Four Sea­sons Guide Ser­vice fishes a mix of shal­low water, deep struc­ture and open water dur­ing more than 250 days each year. He too finds walk-the-dog pre­sen­ta­tions best in the shal­lows, when speck­led trout and red­fish are the tar­get.

“When I fish in gin-clear water over weed beds near the is­lands (of the Tang­ier Sound, where speck­led trout and red­fish are com­mon tar­gets), I like the sub­tle look,” he ex­plains. “Par­tic­u­larly when it’s flat calm, that’s usu­ally the way to go.”

When it comes to a wider va­ri­ety of species, par­tic­u­larly more-ag­gres­sive ones feed­ing in open water, he agrees that more-vi­o­lent tac­tics take over. “When rock­fish are ag­gres­sively feed­ing, when they’re com­pet­ing, that’s when I like the pop­per,” he says. “I do think it might pull them in from a dis­tance, and pop­pers seem to get them more ex­cited at times. When there’s an en­tire school of fish feed­ing on the sur­face, of­ten a pop­per will catch the big­gest fish in the mix.”

Dahlberg also points to size as an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion. “I like smaller lures for the specks, for sure, maybe 3- or 4-inch­ers, but I like 5- or 6-inch plugs for the stripers.”

Dahlberg says Stil­lwater Smack-Its and Chug Bugs are a cou­ple of his fa­vorites. He does keep an open mind, though, be­cause in some ar­eas of the Chesapeake, he might en­counter mul­ti­ple species, along with other ag­gres­sive fish such as blues and Span­ish mack­erel. “A lot of the time, I’ll start with two of my guys cast­ing walk-the-dogs and two of them cast­ing pop­pers. You re­ally don’t know which the fish will pre­fer on any one day un­til you try dif­fer­ent things.”

An­glers should note the po­ten­tial dan­ger of us­ing the wrong bait at the wrong time. “You have to be care­ful,” he says. “I do think pop­pers can spook fish when you mis­use them. Some peo­ple move the rod tip too long a dis­tance, and make the lure thrash or jump out of the water, which def­i­nitely doesn’t look right to the fish.”

CON­SEN­SUS OF THE CAP­TAINS

It’s truly rare to speak with three in­shore cap­tains from such dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions and hear them all agree. So I think it’s pretty safe to take their com­mon­al­i­ties to the bank:

•When fish­ing for specks and reds in calm, shal­low water, walk­ing the dog is prob­a­bly your best strat­egy.

•It’s pos­si­ble, par­tic­u­larly in very calm or shal­low wa­ters, to spook fish with chug­gers.

•When fish­ing for ag­gres­sive or com­pet­i­tive fish, es­pe­cially schooled in open water, pop­pers and chug­gers win.

The con­cept of match­ing a plug’s vol­ume level with a fish’s ag­gres­sion level gen­er­ally guides off­shore tac­tics as well. For blue­wa­ter an­glers, lures that make a big sur­face dis­tur­bance are also the most ef­fec­tive.

“Off­shore fish are very com­pet­i­tive,” notes Tommy Theus of Frenzy Big Game Tackle, maker of the An­gry Pop­per, which is specif­i­cally de­signed for off­shore topwater ac­tion. “Plus the water usu­ally isn’t flat calm. You might be try­ing to call fish from deeper water or far­ther away, and on top of all that, the gear you’re us­ing is heav­ier and might not be ideal for walk­ing the dog in the first place. So mak­ing as much noise as pos­si­ble with a big heavy pop­per is usu­ally the best choice for off­shore fish.”

The one other thing all of these ex­perts agree on? Whether that lure is mak­ing a bloop, swish, chug, rat­tle or plop, few things in fish­ing or life beat the thrill and ex­cite­ment of a topwater ex­plo­sion.

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Some­times cre­at­ing noise with topwater baits can act like a din­ner bell for hun­gry game fish. Other times, it scares away ev­ery­thing in the food chain.

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