CHAPTER 3 – TECHNIQUES – LURE FISHING

Splash, Splosh, Wallop!

Like many keen bass anglers, I read lots of articles on bass fishing from whatever sources I can find. The well known titles by successful anglers and authors such as Mike Ladle and John Darling are crammed full of ideas and suggestions as to how to find fish and tease them onto a hook. However, sometimes the most useful information comes from unexpected sources.

Last year I was boarding a flight destined for the States when I noticed a pile of Outdoor Life magazines stored in the flight attendant’s locker. On the cover of the top magazine was a picture of a big fish, so on my way past I casually picked it up and asked if I could read it during my flight. One particular article caught my eye because it was about fishing with surface lures for small and largemouth bass. What intrigued me most was the way in which a lure can be worked to induce a take from a fish – a subject of a great deal of study.

Apparently the accepted way to fish a top water lure used to be that you cast out, let the lure sit motionless until all the water rings had dispersed, then you would make a couple of jerks and wait again, repeating this process for the entire retrieve. Nowadays the surface lures, particularly the more cylindrically shaped Surface Poppers, are being fished differently.

As soon as they hit the water they should be agitated to spit water and cause a commotion. Splash, Splosh …. and expect a Wallop! “Keep ‘em spittin, all the way back”, is apparently the advice now given.

The article, featured in the April 2001 edition, was entitled ‘Sputter, Glub and Pop’. It went on to discuss the merits of both techniques, suggesting that each had drawbacks. The slow retrieve could fail to interest a fish whose natural instincts were to attack a moving bait, whereas a fast moving, spitting, gurgling technique could also be a turn off for a fish that wasn’t ready to put in some effort to catch its dinner. The question then is when to use a particular technique – slow, fast, or maybe a combination of both, and what significance was any of this for my bass fishing endeavours?

I found these questions very interesting because having recently found myself using surface lures back home I wasn’t sure how best to fish with them under different conditions. Where I fish, the season generally begins in mid to late May and the water is still relatively cool. In the States, the technique used on the lakes at this time of year is to fish lures that have a very subtle action and work them without too much fuss.

These lures are often the floating/shallow diving plugs such as small Rapalas. They are twitched in calm waters, or alternatively, a walking lure such as a Zara Spook can be used in calm or slightly rippled conditions. Walking lures have an action often compared to that of a dog on a lead where the head moves from side to side as the body moves forwards.

Once into the spring, the American fish respond well to Poppers and Propeller baits, the Poppers apparently doing the most damage if they are worked tentatively in calm conditions, but more aggressively when the water becomes more choppy. That in itself is worth remembering!

I noted the names of the Poppers that the article mentioned and during my visit I acquired several patterns so I could try them out on our bass. Some of these patterns could be fished as out-and-out Poppers only; others could be used as Poppers and Walkers.

I’ve no doubt other UK bass anglers have already been using these same or similar lures for the bass around our coast, but some of the names were new to me, and I was keen to try them out for myself. With hindsight I now wish I’d bought some propeller plugs. These look like Frankenstein’s toys, but simulate surface feeding fish very well by generating a mass of small bubbles at the head of the lure. Next season they will get their chance to prove the theory once and for all.

Only in America could you graduate as a Bass Behaviourist, and one such gentleman called Dr. Keith Jones, has, in conjunction with a Mr. Christopher Pitsolis, lure researcher for Berkley, studied in depth the actions of all the successful lures available to the bass fisherman. His research involved capturing the action of the lures on video and running the data through a computer to analyse their motion. What a great job! The idea was to bring together the best design elements of the lures and incorporate them into a new lure called the Berkley Frenzy Popper. Part of Dr. Jones’ analysis concluded that fish were triggered to respond to bait that displaces water and produces the correct frequencies at the same time. The fact that the most effective fish-catching lures were often the best spitting baits that also excelled at displacing water was considered a key issue. He isn’t convinced that fish hear the “spitting” made by a Popper at all, it is the water displacement that ‘hits the spot’ for a feeding fish!

I used the Frenzy Popper early on in the year and landed fish up to 4lb, but I couldn’t say for sure that it was more effective than anything else I fished with. It does sit low in the water and has an enticing tail feather that is supposed to trigger takes, in clear water conditions from non-aggressive lake fish. The lure spits really well if you fish it in rippled water with an aggressive action, and it can be made to walk very convincingly. It is a little light for casting from the boat where often you need to achieve extra distance to avoid spooking the fish. If I was stalking fish from the shore and was using something like 12lb braid then I would be very confident in its ability to coax out a decent-sized fish. You might want to change the hooks though, each bend in the treble is offset slightly and they are a nightmare to remove from a fish.

Another similar popper is the Excalibur Pop-R lure made by Rebel. At 21/2 inches it also is a bit light, but I had plenty of small fish on it at a time when I suspect there were only small fish around. This lure can be made to walk if you hold the rod tip down. This technique worked for me at a time when I could see shoaling fish but couldn’t get them to attack a large popping lure.

Yet another lure I brought back was called a Grey Ghost which might also have been a Berkley lure. Unfortunately it has gone missing, but not before it proved a very effective popper/walker and a very reliable catcher.

Another theme discussed in the article on American lure fishing was about how fish can pick up on the rhythm of retrieved bait. For walking lures it is seen as important that the retrieve is steady and unbroken because the fish homes in on the steady rhythm, anticipating when the lure will hesitate between turning left or right.

For the more active Poppers that include lures such as those already mentioned, and others like the Chico Boca, the Chug Bug and large Saltwater Big Bug, it makes sense to vary your technique until you find something that works, rather than just repeat the same retrieve pattern cast after cast.

Bass are very predatory, but often they will refuse to hit a lure for some reason or another. I have seen almost one hundred and fifty bass caught on surface lures, mostly poppers, from my boat during last year, but I have witnessed at least five times that many fish follow, miss, or flatly refuse to take a lure in front of their very noses.

For fish that follow the lure but refuse to hit it, I have found that a one, two, three, stop routine often works best. If this is not inducing some action I will then change to a one, two stop or even a one, stop routine. The fish usually hit the lure as soon as it stops or on the first jerk. In calm conditions I slow right down but put in many more small jerks, usually with a constant retrieve, even if a fish makes a foiled attempt to nail the lure. I used to stop the retrieve when this happened, expecting a strike when I began retrieving again, but I have hooked more fish by holding my nerve and following a continuous course back towards the boat.

Small fish, up to about 3lb, tend to miss as often as they hit. For this reason I don’t worry too much when a fish makes a foiled attempt at the plug, I had a discussion about this recently with fellow B.A.S.S. member Matthew Spence. He convinced me that these misses are probably because the young fish lack experience of hitting surface baitfish. In support of this theory I have found that bigger fish tend to hit a Popper very firmly indeed and they rarely miss unless the water is very choppy and the lure is skidding across the surface in the wind. I have found that a big bass, perhaps more experienced at chasing baitfish in rougher waters, will chase the lure in these conditions, but smaller fish seem to lose sight of the lure and usually make only one attack.

On at least three occasions I have enjoyed the spectacle of seeing a bass hit the lure from below with so much power that it has completely left the water. Once, a 4lb fish that hit my lure rose vertically out of the water and there was at least two feet of air between its tail and the surface. I know people who have fished for bass for many years without having witnessed such an event, but I assure you it happens.

I think most of my fish have been caught within the first dozen jerks of the lure. This could be because I am casting to the spot in which the fish are located, or it could be that the initial splash of the lure entering the water is a major attraction in itself. The biggest fish caught on my boat with a plug during 2000, weighed almost 12lb and it partially beached itself on a rock to attack the plug as it entered the water! Unfortunately for me it wasn’t on my rod!

In 2001, most of my fish have been smaller. Though some late summer fish pushed up the average size to perhaps 31/2 or 4lb. Certainly the better fish this year were all caught within the first five or six jerks. I have now developed a habit of aggressively beginning the commotion as soon as the lure hits the surface, with a brief pause after a couple of seconds before the regular rhythm is established. I think the bass see the lure not as a dying fish or one that is trying to avoid being gobbled up, but perhaps as a small fish which is feeding at the surface. This is why I will be experimenting with propeller baits next season.

A regular fishing partner of mine, Kevin Mitchell, remarked one evening whilst fishing with me, that he couldn’t understand why the bass were attacking the surface poppers when there was no other natural surface activity to suggest we were ‘matching the hatch’. The only indication of activity near the surface was the occasional dimpling effect that a small fish would make as it broke the surface film from below to suck in some small food stuff.

If you accept that there are indeed three ways to learn how to catch bass – by reading, listening and doing, then as winter descends and you become miserable about not being able to fish for your favourite fish, take comfort from the fact that you are only being denied one of the three ways. Keep reading and talking about what you love so much, and think about what you could do different next year to improve your chances of catching a decent fish or two.

Author: Allan Hughes

Historical note: This article was published in BASS magazine no.102 Summer 2002

© Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society 2008

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