Practical tackle


If exciting fishing is what you are after then topwater lures are for you. Sadly they do not work everywhere. My local canal should be an excellent surface fishing water, it's shallow, with quite a bit of weed of various types, water clarity is good and there are plenty of pike. But despite considerable effort with a number of topwaters in various sizes no pike have come my way off the surface. I have worked over a patch of subsurface lilies with a Jitterbug for at least ten minutes with no response from the pike that I was sure were present. My initial reaction had been to put on a minnow bait, but I resisted the temptation in order to see if I could get a pike up on the surface lure. Switching from the topwaters, and first cast twitching a Bang-O minnow very slowly just over the leaves, so it was dipping into the clear spots, resulted in a take!

Just as surface lures don't work everywhere, neither do they work all year round, so you have to make the most of it when the pike are on them in a big way. It doesn't matter to me how small the pike are that are hitting, or trying to hit, my topwaters. The thrill is just the same. The biggest problem with discovering that surface baits can catch plenty of pike is that you start using them when you know you should be using something else. If anything, they can be even more addictive to use than jerkbaits. I have Dave Scarff to thank for turning me on to topwater piking. As an experienced bass angler (largemouths in Africa) Dave had used a lot of surface lures for them, and naturally used them for pike un-hindered by the U.K. angler's usual aversion to topwaters.

The main categories of topwater lures are poppers or chuggers, stickbaits, crawlers, buzzers, and propbaits. There are some that could fall into a couple of groups, too. A few poppers have propellers, and some can be crawled across the surface. Some crawlers have propellers too. These 'noisy' baits could all simply be put down as surface commotion baits, which is a phrase that also covers stickbaits that have a spinner blade at the back end, and other combination lures like Mouldy's Hawg Wobbler.

Buzzers are the odd one out amongst surface lures as, in the main, all the other types float at rest. Looking a little like a spinnerbait they have a wire frame with a single hook and a lead head, the blade being either aluminium or plastic with two to four wings. There are dual arm versions of these lures and also in-line ones, but as you can imagine all these baits have to be retrieved fairly rapidly to keep them on top where they sputter and gurgle their way across the surface. Thumbing the reel before the lure hits the water and starting the retrieve as soon as it splashes down is the best tactic, especially where you are fishing over thick weed. You might find that some buzzers require the rod to be pointed slightly upwards to keep them on the surface if a sensible retrieve speed is to be maintained. The design of the lead head is such that it helps plane the bait to the surface and the upward facing single hook is intended to be weedless. Double bladed buzzers, which usually have contra-rotating blades, have more lift than single bladed models, and as a result can be worked more slowly. They also make twice as much noise.

In very weedy water buzzers can be the only lure that can be presented with anything approaching confidence of remaining weed-free. As with spinnerbaits these lures were originally designed for bass fishing, a very surface oriented fish, but have been expanded into pike and musky fishing with the introduction of correspondingly larger baits. I have to confess to no experience whatsoever of catching pike on buzzers, although I know anglers who catch loads on them.

Propbaits are essentially plugs with spinning blades at one or both ends. Some, mostly musky lures like the Poe's Awaker and Hi-Fin Teasertail, have a tail section (or even two) that spins. These latter baits are often referred to as tail-spins (which is a little confusing as there is another type of jigging lure that is also called a tail-spin), or sometimes bodied buzzers. All create much the same commotion as buzzers, but have the advantages that they offer a bulky profile to the pike, and they can be twitched or left static on the surface. Propbaits can either be cranked straight back to you, or fished in fits and starts. Use your imagination and experiment. As I tend to have a few casts with one of these baits, and then switch to a surface lure that I have more confidence in, I am not surprised that my success rate is low. However, I intend to spend more time with them in future because I know they will work, and in conditions that don't favour other surface baits, stickbaits in particular. It's only a matter of time before I get the hang of propbaits and so on.

I have a feeling that the continual casting and steady retrieving of a large propbait over a pike that is lying up can annoy it so much that it strikes at the lure. In swims where there is pike-holding weed coming to within inches the surface, maybe reaching the top in places, a big noisy lure like an Awaker might just do the trick. These baits are good for covering a lot of water quickly too, and I like to work over a section of water with a surface bait to stir the pike up, and then put a slower sub-surface lure through the same water. This method really does score. Perhaps that's what happened on the canal with the Jitterbug/Bang-O combination. You don't always get follows or takes on the topwaters, but their action definitely stirs the pike up and they hit the diving lures. Gliding jerkbaits that run about two feet down and minnows have done best for me in these instances. There is no doubting that the usefulness of surface lures as 'wake-up' baits should not be underestimated. Maybe the surface commotion draws the pike up in the water. It certainly seems to make them more aggressive.

Poe's Awaker. Blue Fox Double Buzzer with added trailer grub and stinger hook. Poe's Giant Jackpot. Fish Eagle Top Doctor. Hi-Fin Creeper. Arbogast Musky Jitterbug. D.L. Dicer.

When steadily retrieving an Awaker you might get fish following it back, tailing it closely, or if the lure is moving quite quickly striking just behind it. This is, I am sure, due to the fact that they are attacking it from the side - and it has moved away from them. Nige Grassby told me of watching pike weaving from side to side behind an Awaker, which I interpret as a preparatory stage to coming alongside and hitting it. Nige has also had fish come out of the water and take surface lures on the way back down. Weird!

Why I can catch pike on a popper twitched to kick up a fuss, but not on propbaits is a mystery. I have witnessed a pike come up and sit below a slaptail fished like this for Dave Scarff, so I know they do draw the attention of pike. I then caught it on a jerkbait, which illustrates the point I made earlier. Funnily enough the popper I can catch on is one I designed myself. It resembles the Bomber Popper, but is about twice the length and has a lip. As a result it can also be used as a crawler, which is just as well because it is also one of the few I can catch on creeping over the surface! Now I am well aware of the efficacy of crawlers like the Arbogast Jitterbug, Heddon Crazy Crawler and the similar, but larger, Hi-Fin Creeper. One thing that all these commercial lures have in common is that they tend to throw up an amount of spray, bubbles and commotion as they waddle across the water. My lure doesn't. Dave made me a couple of these lures, which I christened the Dicer.

All crawlers seem to have a critical speed. Too fast and they flip, too slow and they don't wiggle or crawl. Creepers with the folding arms like the Hi-Fin can be scurried in bursts, or just crawled steadily along. The Magnum Jitterbug can be fished rapidly, scuttering it across the surface, when it makes a commotion similar to that of a tail-spin but with a wagging body. Having the surface disturbance at the head of the lure might make for more accurate strikes from pike on such a rapid retrieve. If you try to scurry a Jitterbug it has a tendency to leap out of the water, planing up on its large wobbling-plate.
When any crawler is worked steadily, at tick-over speed, it provides a target that is easy for the pike to home in on and so they tend to be more accurate when having a go at these lures than other faster or erratically working lures, buzzers or stickbaits for example. The advantage that my Dicer has over a straight chugger or popper is that the two retrieves can be combined in one. A true popper will not run very well, and so has to be cast to the precise spot you expect a pike to be lying in, and popped there to make the fish strike. A crawler can be twitched to some extent, but not as effectively as a true popper. I find that popping works best over the top of weeds, and next to fish holding cover like overhanging grass and so forth. The usual advice for fishing lures in this manner is to cast out and allow the ripples to die away before popping the bait. I tend not to wait quite that long, sometimes the lure gets twitched as soon as it hits the water. Pike still slam it. The first time I did this I thought I had overdone the popping as the water erupted. Only when the rod bent round and the line cut through the water did I realise a pike had taken the lure!

The ultra slow chugging approach takes a great deal of patience, long pauses between pops are hard to endure, but they do work. After the initial gurgling chug wait a while, as long as you can stand, and then try it again. The first pop alerts the pike to the lure's presence, subsequent pops draw it in and, with a bit of luck, provoke the strike. This sort of dead-slow fishing is completely different to the usual view of lure fishing. It requires complete concentration and I find it very tiring to carry out for long periods. Select the spots carefully and work them over for just a few casts in order to maintain concentration. This really is a thinking way of catching pike on artificials. Popping close to far bank reed beds is when the Dicer comes in useful, because popping is most likely to work close to cover. The Dicer can then be crawled back over open water. Pausing the lure for a few seconds can often result in a hit as soon as the retrieve restarts. A couple of chugs can pay off in mid retrieve too. Try anything that you might think will turn a follower into a taker. I am not pretending that the Dicer is the crawler to end all crawlers, it is simply the one that works for me, so I don't use the others too much. But I am sure that same general principles will apply to fishing any crawler. Surface lures require an even bigger dose of that all important ingredient, confidence, for success to be assured. Certainly when you are first getting into topwater fishing. That pike take topwaters never ceases to amaze me. I have seen ducklings swimming about unmolested in the very same swim that pike after pike has been snaffling surface lures. Why? And how come you can catch pike on surface baits from waters where you never see a pike strike or roll? There must be a very strong trigger from a lot of these baits to make pike, apparently, change their behaviour.

Although I have had quite a bit of success on my Dicer when crawled and popped I find that stickbaits, and gliders fished on the surface, get me far more takes. I admit to spending more time fishing them though. Even so there is something about that side-to-side action that triggers pike, whether the lure is on the top or below the surface, unfortunately it also makes it difficult for pike to target the lure at times, and the faster it is moving or the wider its path the more this is so. While stickbaits have a strong visual attraction with their action, they also make quite a lot of noise if fished energetically, despite their lack of rattles, wings or propellers. Most comes from the way they slap the surface of the water, but some comes, too, from the hooks rattling on the hangers and banging against the lure's body. This latter feature is, in fact, common to just about every lure - especially jerkbaits, and crankbaits with tight, exaggerated wiggles. So much so, that I doubt if adding rattles to such lures will enhance things all that much. Therefore, all lures rattle to some extent - even the ones I try to silence!

Anyone who thinks that jerkbaits look hopeless will think much the same about stickbaits. The most famous stickbait is the Heddon Zara Spook, and this does catch pike - lots of them, but I reckon it's a little on the small side at 4« inches. My preference for topwaters is 6 to 7« inches. Something like the Top Doctor or Giant Jackpot. Not only do stickbaits have no lip, or cut out face like poppers, propellers or anything else that might give them a bit of action, but they look even less like a pike's food. Let's admit it, pike don't eat sticks. And that is what stickbaits look like! It is not surprising that they are sometimes called do "nuthin' lures". Because that's just what they do if you simply wind them back in. However, the way they are weighted, towards the back end, gives them an amazing action when they are fished in the right way. All that said, my biggest lure caught pike to date took a Top Doctor, four or five twitches after I had zipped it straight along the surface for almost ten yards! Who was most surprised, me, or the three other anglers watching my admittedly light-hearted cranking, is hard to say. Even when I saw the fish roll at the bait, I thought it had missed it. Only realising that I had a fish on when the rod pulled round. The pike had hit the lure in such a way that only an inch or so of its nose was visible. I, and others who witnessed the incident, have tried this straight-cranking tactic time and time again - so far without a single repeat take.

Now, there has been a lot of misrepresentation about walking-the-dog in the U.K. It has often been stated that the rod must be held pointing to the sky, to keep the line off the water. Or that the rod must be moved from side to side to get the lure to walk. Neither practice is necessary. Stickbaits are worked with the rod in the same way as jerkbaits, with downward strokes. The key to successful dog-walking is to get the rhythm right, and all baits have a different rhythm. The first twitch makes the lure move to one side, the next twitch moves it the other way and so on. As with jerkbaiting, keeping the line tight to the lure is the way to make the lure keep on working. It is a lot easier to pick the technique up by watching someone doing it. It only took me a couple of casts to get the knack after Dave Scarff showed me how it was done. Having said this, some people I have demonstrated the method to have had problems getting the co-ordination between the right and left hands going. Try not to think about what you are doing and it should come naturally. You should even be able to walk-the-dog with your eyes closed!

A stickbait caught pike goes berserk as Martin McDerby gets his pliers ready to flick the hooks out.

I examined the way I work the rod the other day, and I hardly move my left hand (the one holding the reel handle) at all. My left forearm is tucked in to my body and I sort of wind the rod and reel (rather than the reel handle) as I sweep it down and up. Just as with jerkbaits, once you have mastered the basic retrieve you can start to vary it. One thing that is worth noting is that in a bit of a wave you get a more pronounced action from a stickbait when casting with the wind, than against it. Working against the ripple it kicks up even more fuss and spray, and has a wider, and more violent walk. A limited number of stickbaits are more like surface gliding jerkbaits. In fact some jerkbaits can be fished on the surface by using a slow steady sweep of the rod rather than a violent jerk. These lures shoot over the surface in a wide zigzag, and certainly draw strikes. The hit ratio is pretty low in my experience though. Nonetheless a useful tactic when a more subtle surface tactic is called for. Perhaps when the water is cool but the pike are still located in shallow water.

When the waves get to the stage that white caps are starting to form stickbaits can be almost impossible to work, except when cast with the wind. Fishing them into, or even across, the wind results in them surfing and sliding across the water, stalling as they go. Coming in on the waves the lure glides more and the commotion it creates is lessened. This is the time to work a propbait across or through the waves, or a crawler into the wind, although neither cuts through a gale on the cast as well as a stickbait. The bank angler is limited in these conditions, but if you are afloat then you can position the boat to make the most of the prevailing wind, and more often than not present the bait you want in the way you want it.

It's a funny thing, but in high summer, a rapidly worked stickbait can draw more strikes than a slowly fished one. The trouble is that the pike miss them more often. If you see a pike following your bait in, try slowing it down, this might just give the fish a chance to get a better shot in. Of course pike are contrary beasts and are just as likely to turn away when you slow the lure. So an alternative is to speed the retrieve up. There's no telling which tactic will work from day to day. Even stopping the lure altogether can work at times, the take will normally come as the lure moves again, but it might be taken while static (like the Bang-O mentioned in the minnow chapter). This seems pretty bizarre behaviour on the pike's behalf, and something I wouldn't have believed until I first saw it with my own eyes under slightly different conditions. When I watched Dave Scarff's Top Doctor (a lure of his own design) get taken while stationary it hadn't been worked at all. Dave had cast his lure towards the bank and was doing something or other before starting the retrieve. As I was working my bait back to the boat I saw Dave's lure disappear amidst a huge swirl on the surface and his line start to tighten. I gave him a shout and he found himself playing a nineteen pounder. It's a funny old world!

When a pike engulfs a surface lure, as that one did, and turns away from you there is little difficulty in setting the hooks. More often, though, it is less simple. The usual advice is to wait either until you see the line begin to tighten, or until you actually feel the weight of the fish before striking. This is easier said than done, and the natural reaction is to make your strike as soon as you see the pike hit the lure. What happens next is that the lure flies through the air having been snatched out of the pike's mouth. Striking downwards will at least keep the lure on the water. I have to admit that I hook more pike on surface lures when I am not watching the bait, than when I am keeping it under close observation. There is a lesson here. What I try to do now is to keep up the retrieve when I see a pike have a go at my surface bait and set the hooks when I feel the fish pulling back. By doing this I keep the lure working even if the fish misses it altogether, and if it has hit the bait I have a good chance of connecting. There are times when this approach is difficult in the extreme. Like when a pike takes to the air with your lure between its teeth! It's happened to me and I don't have an answer.

If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I would never have believed it. Dave Scarff's nineteen pounder that took a static Top Doctor. Note the tidy boat.

It has been said many times before, and I make no apologies for repeating it here, but the colour of surface lures makes little practical difference. Light ones work just as well as dark ones, and in the same light conditions. I accept that dark lures will most probably give the crispest silhouette, yet I doubt that this matters too much. I have caught on a yellow bait when everyone else was catching on dark grey versions of the same lure. I have also caught on a dark lure when a mate was catching on an orange bellied lure in the same swim. I returned a couple of days later with an orange lure and caught again under similar light conditions. No, I don't think it matters, they might just as well all be black! Having said that, bright lures show up better to the angler in some circumstances, which is why a lure that is yellow or orange on its back and black underneath is worth using. If you think pike might see the lure from the side, which they may well do in clear, shallow water, then paint just the top of the head of a dark bait in a bright, hi-vis colour. This looks odd at first, quite a few people have thought that lures finished like this have been painted upside down - the bright head looking like a throat flash. Once on the water the benefits soon become apparent. In low light all you will see of a stickbait painted like this is the bright blob moving from side to side.

Except in unique situations, topwater lures are at their most productive from May through to September when the water is at its warmest, and pike are actively feeding. Water temperature seems to be the key factor in determining how well pike will respond to surface lures. A sudden cool spell will quickly turn pike off topwaters. If this happens and the pike are still in the same areas the way to catch them might be on a very shallow running crankbait or gliding jerkbait. Why they will take a subsurface bait that is within inches of the surface, but ignore topwaters themselves is one of those mysteries of piking. But they will do at times. One time I had been fruitlessly casting topwaters over a spot that had produced to stickbaits on the previous session. Switching to a jointed wooden Grandma, that will only run two foot down on a fast crank, I had a take first cast followed by a couple of fish and another hit. Perhaps the pike had wised up to the action of the stickbaits, or maybe they were just too noisy for them. Who knows. Either way a change of tactic paid off. Don't persist with a certain lure just because it worked well last time.

Mid-June and the pike are usually cooking on topwaters. The author with another one that slammed a Top Doctor and then went airborne at the side of the boat.

In spring topwater fishing can be a little hit and miss, as pike location is never easy at this time of year and water temperatures can fluctuate widely from day to day. When pike are massed on the shallows it can be a little too cold for good surface action, and they are not always interested in feeding. Once they have spawned they will slam surface lures if the water warms up quickly and stays warm. Pike will be in close proximity to shallow water, and weed beds that are starting to grow up, maybe to feed on spawning prey fish. Come summer and the pike spread out, but are hunting more so takes can be expected anywhere you would hope pike to feed. The problem with fishing weed beds at this time of year is that they are full of small pike, and although they will provide plenty of sport to topwaters fished around the weeds, bigger fish are less likely. As always they are in the more open water, or using bigger structure as cover, drop-offs, ledges and dam walls for example. Top waters will work well in these situations, but are at their best in clear water. Around weed where there is little depth, water clarity is less critical.

When summer fades into autumn topwater sport will slow as the water temperature drops, but will last longer on some waters than others. If pike are fry feeding there is often a lot of surface activity as the small fish are herded to the surface. Topwaters can work in this situation, but fry feeding pike can be very preoccupied and all too frequently resist all our efforts to catch them. For the dedicated topwater angler I am sure that pike will come in the depths of winter but sport will be inconsistent to say the least. Trying to catch pike on topwaters in December is fishing to prove a point rather than for fun. But I, for one, keep trying.

Light intensity is often mentioned when topwater lures are discussed, and the received wisdom is that low light is best for surface fishing. I have to go along with this to some extent as a lot of my surface action comes on evening sessions as the light fades, and when it is so dark I can't even see the orange flash on the head of my lure. All I can see are the ripples of its wake. I know too that quite a few anglers catch on surface baits through the summer nights, which rather hints to me that these lures provoke strikes from non-feeding fish as this is not a period of day when I have caught many pike on natural baits. Perhaps it is the commotion they make on the surface that attracts the pike at a time when other lures would be less visible. I have already said that I can only make out the water disturbance of my lures when fishing into dusk, so why shouldn't the pike experience something similar? Having admitted that dusk is a good time for surface fishing I have to say that I don't rate dawn quite as highly. Perhaps it is because the water has cooled a little overnight making the pike slightly less active, or perhaps I have just been unlucky.

While I might not like the first few hours of daylight for topwater fishing I do like it for other lures, but come midday with a nice ripple on the water and the sun beating down from a clear blue sky I go against the grain and put a stickbait on. I don't have a ready answer for why pike should take surface lures in these conditions, but they do. I can see in my mind's eye many strikes at topwaters when the sun has been sparkling on the water. I think the key is the wind, any experienced pike angler will tell you how a bit of ripple will keep pike feeding outside their normal feeding spells. So perhaps it is no surprise that they will hammer surface lures too.

Rods for fishing buzzers, propbaits and crawlers need not be too specialised, and any outfit that you like to use for spinnerbaits, will do for buzzers and a crankbait outfit for the others. It might be worth stepping up your line strength for fishing near weed, or swapping to braid, to deal with the abrasion from weed stalks. Stickbaits are better fished on a rod of 5« to 6« feet. This is because the downward rod action used being so similar to that used to fish jerkbaits demands the shorter length. However, such powerful rods as you would select for jerkbaiting are not needed, and a lighter but still fairly stiff rod will work stickbaits very well (the reel I usually opt for is the Ambassadeur 5501C3). Too stiff a rod, particularly if used with a braided line, can make walking stickbaits tricky as it is all too easy to put too much in to the lure and overdo its action. A light touch is required for walking baits with braid. When it comes to traces for topwaters I don't subscribe to the view that they need to be as short and light as possible. This has arisen from the days when small bass-sized baits were the norm and a heavy trace might have sunk a lure. I find a fifteen inch 60lb test trace sufficient for the baits I use. Only for smaller buzzers do I consider using a lighter trace, say 30 or 40lb.

Fishing with small surface baits does have one advantage, pike find them a little easier to hit. Some people also feel that large topwaters frighten, or spook, pike in confined spaces. This is not something that I worry about. If a pike is spooked by a bait hitting the water, or the disturbance it makes, then I think that it has probably been put on edge by something else already. Perhaps the angler's approach. If you are worried by throwing large topwaters, take a little time to learn how to feather them down on the cast. The judicious application of your thumb to the reel can be used to slow a big lure so it lands like a feather on the water. A heavy feather admittedly. It takes practice, but practice that is well worthwhile.

Mouldy's Hawg Wobbler, a jointed crawler with a tail prop. Although I haven't caught on this one yet I am told it works well at night.