Top Water Fishing for Smallmouth

by | Apr 7, 2015 | Big Blog, Fishing and Hunting | 0 comments

It’s one of those warm summer mornings where tree-top-filtered sunlight dissipates mist over glassy-smooth water. Bass fishing was not my intention when I left the dock, but after an hour of pulling a spinner rig along a steep break, the lake’s walleye are doing little to disturb the tranquillity of the morning.

I round a point and eye a smooth rock shoal looming just below surface. Deep pockets are peppered amidst a smattering of gravel, boulders and weed patches. It’s such a perfect looking smallmouth zone I can’t help tossing a popper and giving it a sharp tug. The lure spits water and emits a deep gurgle. I watch a circular wake radiate from the 2 3/4-inch Berkley Frenzy. Of course you can guess what happens next. While I’m wondering if the lake even holds smallmouth, something blows up on my topwater and I set the hook into living proof. The 19-inch slab is all the cajoling I need to set aside the walleye gear and scan the lake for prospective smallmouth haunts. And for the next few hours the lake is transformed into a boiling cauldron of bronze.

Cooperative Bass

Northeastern Ontario bass are an obliging species. They’ll take everything from flies to jigs to crankbaits with gusto. But what vaults them to the top of my favourite fish list is their propensity to feed on surface and attack topwater presentations. Not only is it an exciting way to catch fish, but topwater bass are generally big bass. Add the thrill of seeing the strike before we feel it, and the topwater stage is the optimum place to experience the best that smallmouth have to offer.


Top water poppers are particularly effective on warm, sunny days.

Shoreline is the most obvious area to look for structure that holds bass. Extensions of points, submerged boulders, saddles between islands and/or mainland, and flats between narrows all hold the shallow warm waters that smally love. A foundation of broken rock and boulder piles provides cracks and crevices to hide crayfish and other bass prey. Such areas get even sweeter when we add cover like a beaver house, fallen tree, lily pads, pencil reeds or shallow cabbage.

Popper Presentation

My favourite topwater lures for smallmouth are poppers. They are basically floating hunks of elongated plastic with a concave face that push water and produce a deep gurgling sound when pulled. Most incorporate built-in rattles for increased noise. Standby poppers include the Rapala Skitter Pop, Berkley Frenzy Popper, Storm Chug Bug, Excalibur Pop’n Image and Rebel Pop-R.

From the vantage of an upward gazing smallmouth, the underbelly of a topwater lure is most visible. The best colour patterns will include bellies of white, beige, brown or green. A splash of red near the head seems to help too, likely simulating the flared gills of a worried minnow or the blood of a wounded amphibian.

There are many ways to work a topwater popper. Presentations range from subtle twitching to a hasty rhythmic retrieve. We want to tailor our presentation to the mood of the fish and the best way to do this is by offering them the full complement, then gauge their reaction.


This Northeastern Ontario smallmouth nailed a Berkely Frenzy pulled over an offshore hump.

In calm conditions start with a small popper coupled with a mellow retrieve. This can mean waiting 20 seconds or more after the initial ripples clear, then twitching the lure with a slight flick of our rod tip. The calm of the scene provides a perfect backdrop to an explosive surface assault. However, if the smash does not come, the subtle stuff quickly wears thin, and we should start cranking up retrieval speed and lure size.

Sharp, hard tugs produce a deep gurgling sound while launching a small wall of water. This sort of action likely represents the death throes of a minnow or frog. Try to simulate this grim reality by varying the time between pulls.

Gearing Up

A seven-foot, medium power, fast action, spinning rod spooled with 10 to 20 pound test superline means long accurate casts. Not only are floating, low-stretch braided lines like Sufix 832 great for quick hook sets, they instantly translate the movement of rod to lure for lively action from surface baits.

When the bite is hot, bass will spit crayfish to attack our lure at the initial splash. Other times they’ll boil up beside it just to have a look. Sometimes they won’t even do that. On the topwater stage, instant gratification can be diluted by long stretches of unanswered anticipation. But when a promising spot seems barren, it’s a good idea to give it a rest and return for another crack. The difference between an ignored lure and an engulfed one is often only an hour or so.

When the topwater stage is set, it’s only a matter of time before the bass perform.


About James Smedley

Professional photographer and writer James Smedley’s contributions - more than 400 written pieces and close to 1,000 images - to U.S. and Canadian books, magazines and newspapers have earned him over 40 National and International awards. In addition to teaching photography workshops, James is Travel Editor at Ontario OUT OF DOORS Magazine. James has fly fished for brook trout and arctic grayling in far northern rivers and continues to cast for trout, bass and steelhead near his home in the northern Ontario town of Wawa where he lives with his wife Francine and daughters Islay and Lillian.