Aside from a few relatively rare exceptions, soft plastics are denizens of the subsurface. We Texas-, Carolina- and wacky-rig them, or fish them as add-ons to jigs or specially weighted hooks.
We get down. And it works wonders.
When the bite’s on the fishes’ ceiling, however, most of us abandon our plastics and throw only buzzbaits and the usual hardbait fare.
That is, aside from today’s most savvy bass anglers—members of this select group have learned to use soft plastics as boisterous topwater lures and are increasingly using them in place of traditional surface baits. And the trend is catching on as manufacturers produce plastics specifically geared for the top, while retaining the sexy subsurface qualities anglers have learned to lean on.
Although these baits range widely and include more traditional “creature” lures with modified flipper arms, the newest and most exciting are frog-style creations with legs that function like miniature buzzbait blades.
Rigged weedless and weightless on a wide-gap hook, they produce a subtle sound and undulating surface action bass simply haven’t seen. Even better, the baits open up vast expanses of thick cover because they can be fished in the nastiest slop without hanging up, yet still produce their signature topwater action.
Cleveland, Ohio, bass pro Frank Scalish is one of the select anglers who has begun to see the potential of these plastics and has developed a precise system for fishing them. His favorite is a soon-to-be-released bait he fished with members of the North American Fisherman staff on Arkansas’ Lake Ouachita, the
Yum Buzz Frog.
Like other members of this new breed of plastic, the bait sports a frog shape
and a heavy, horizontally flattened body with flipper legs. Scalish says the feature that sets it apart is the shape of its feet. “Its legs have wedge-shaped feet—like the tail of a Yum Samurai Shad. They produce the look and sound of a plastic-blade buzzbait on a straight, steady retrieve,” he says.
“The really unique thing is that when it’s at rest, the legs spread apart. This lets you to kill the bait during the retrieve in a promising pocket, let it sink for a moment, then pop the rodtip. The legs slap together like a real frog and any following bass pounds it.”
Although new frog-style plastics lend themselves best to topwater presentations, other softbaits traditionally fished on jigs, Carolina rigs or as subsurface jerkbaits work on top, too. Rigged weightless, the Gary Yama-moto Kreature, for example, can slide across the surface while its rear appendages whip the water.
The Yum Houdini Shad is another good crossover, with one minor tweak—cut a diagonal slit halfway through the paddle part of its tail. The altered bait gurgles and splashes across the surface (see page 44) on a steady retrieve. This begs the question: Why not use floating rats and frogs for these same situations? Aside from increased action, the reason lies in the hooksets. “Soft plastics, especially the new frog-style baits, are far more effective than floating frogs, because you have that one single hook. Your ratio of bites to landed fish goes way up,” he says.
Hook size and shape is crucial for maintaining this edge, however. Scalish relies on 4/0 and 5/0 wide-gap hooks to ensure hooksets on the meaty plastics. “The key is using a hook with a gap that’s twice the bait’s width (belly to back),” he says. “The Excalibur Tx3 Wide Gap is great because of the relatively short distance between the eye and gap. This lets the plastic get out of the way when a bass strikes.
Soft plastics also excel over floating frogs because you can let them sink and fish them as jerkbaits on a whim, triggering reluctant bass. Try that with your conventional topwater lures.
Scalish fishes surface plastics whenever bass come shallow and relate to heavy cover like matted vegetation, but also timber, brush and gravel piles.
“You can throw them almost anywhere—they come through unbelievable stuff without hanging up,” he says. “Actually, I’ve learned they’re effective just about anywhere I’d fish a typical topwater bait.”
Some of his favorite places are matted weedbeds, and he has a unique mindset when fishing these gardens that lends itself perfectly to plastic.
“I look at mats as if they are actually underwater humps: the mat itself is the top of the ‘hump’ and the fringes and scattered clumps off the main mat are ‘breaks,’” he says. “Those breaks are the place to throw first—most strikes come in pockets and fringes, where you can pause the lure, let it sink momentarily and pop it before resuming your retrieve.”
Scalish also makes hay fishing wood, which he breaks down into two types: “hard” wood like fallen timber, and “soft” wood like willows, pines and other brushy cover. He’s dialed in a specific approach for each.
“When fishing hardwood blowdowns, I position the boat and cast parallel to the trunk. Most strikes occur where the root system or thickest part of the trunk meets the bank,” he says. “Another usual spot is the first major fork in the tree, where branches begin to spread from the main trunk. The third spot is the outside edge of the limb tips.”
To hit all of these spots without spooking fish, he begins by positioning his boat a cast length from the limb tips and buzzing the bait through. He then moves to the tree’s first major fork and then onto the root ball, although he makes sure to watch for patterns and follow them.
“A lot of times, for example, I’ll get all the strikes on that first big fork, but not on the branches or root ball,” he says. “When that happens, I move right in and cast the frog to the forks.”
When fishing soft wood, he runs the bait right through the brush, hitting every inch, but especially any variations within the cover itself. In the rare scenario where the brush is too thick to allow pulling the bait through, Scalish positions his boat to the side of the cover, which lets him make angled casts to the brush edges. This forces the bait to make contact with the cover during much of the retrieve.
“It’s absolutely critical that the plastic bumps the emergent twigs and branches,” he says. “Bass are often holding tight within these piles and need that contact to trigger them to strike.”
Scalish lets the bass dictate retrieve style, but starts with a straight, steady retrieve, letting the bait buzz across the top. “If that doesn’t trip their trigger, I’ll go to a pull-pause-pull-pause retrieve, which looks like a bullfrog making it’s first few kicks as it tries to escape a predator,” he says.
Setting hooks requires perfect timing and patience—something that isn’t always easy given the nature of the strikes this presentation triggers.
“Remember to wait on your hookset until you can feel the fish pull. Then set that hook—not before,” he says. “It takes some getting used to because these are not subtle bites, even compared to the type of blow-ups you get when fishing other topwater baits.”
Scalish generally fishes surface plastics on 20-pound fluorocarbon in open water, but goes to braided line in slop because of its low stretch. Cast length factors in, too. “If I know I’m going to be making long casts, I’ll definitely use mono or braid—even in open water—because these lines float and keep the bait churning water on top,” he says. “Fluoro sinks and makes it more difficult to keep the bait up on a long cast.”
He predicts that topwater uses for such plastics are only the beginning. “Although it’s something currently only being seen on the professional circuit, some guys are already Carolina rigging frog-style baits and flipping them in pockets like they normally would a craw or tube,” he says. “We have only begun to see the applications.”
As always, NAFC members who stay on top of these trends and use them to pioneer new bass fishing techniques will stay more than a few steps in front of the masses.
Ring My Bell (See Photo 5)
Surface soft plastics are no doubt versatile right out of the package—they can be rigged almost any way and because they’re softbaits, you can easily modify them. Adding sound is a prime example.
Uncle Josh staffer Matt Bichanich likes to add rattles to increase the surface commotion of the Sizmic Toad. “Push a worm rattle into the soft plastic body, and it really adds to the presentation,” he says. “It’s important to insert the rattle in the head of the bait.”
According to Bichanich, that’s another way in which these lures beat hollow-bodied floating frog baits. When anglers add rattles to those lures, they tend to roll to the back of the body cavity on the retrieve. “When a fish hits, the rattle gets in the way and prevents good hooksets. But with these solid-body baits, you can position the rattle in front, and it stays there,” he says. Bichanich also adds bells. “I like to thread a small bell, like you find at craft stores onto the hook shank—those with with a single BB inside.” Adding a split ring makes it easier to slide them onto the shank.
Lead-The-Way Lead (See Photo 4)
Bass pro Randy Howell loves topwater plastics. For good reason—he pulled off a sixth-place finish in the recent Bassmaster Southern Open while fishing a prototype of Berkley’s new Gulp! BatWing.
Howell says the bait excels because it creates an unparalleled scent trail—an added trigger when bass miss the bait on their first attempt. Stall the bait and let it drop into the cover after a miss, and bass often inhale it.
Although the bait’s dense Gulp! body makes it heavy for its size, Howell finds it’s better to add some weight when conditions call for burning the lure across matted grass and other subsurface cover. “If you really crank it in, the head can lift up and the lure will start skipping across the surface,” he says. “It’s like trying to fish a spinnerbait with a big blade and a light head—you’re not going to be able to retrieve it too fast and maintain the right action.”
To adjust, Howell pegs a 1/16-ounce bullet weight immediately in front of the hook eye. It’s simple, but effective. “That head stays down so you can hit the speed you need to trigger fish.”
Tweaking The Toad (See Photo 6)
Palestine, Texas, bass pro David Gregg is among the growing cadre of innovators using today’s topwater plastics, and his favorite is the Zoom Horny Toad. “Whenever the water’s 60 degrees or above, you can fish this lure like a buzzbait,” Gregg says. “Bass love it.”
To get the most from the bait, he pushes a wide-gap, 5/0 Mustad hook into the bait’s nose and out the bottom, just as you’d begin a typical Texas rig, then alters the bait before completing the rigging. “I cut it lengthwise between the legs about 1/4 inch, then skin-hook the point along the cut surface of either leg. This accomplishes two important things: First, the legs become longer and more flexible, so they produce a better surface action. Second, it allows for better hooksets because the point doesn’t have to penetrate as much plastic before sticking a bass.”
Gregg adds a dab of Super Glue behind the hook eye before sliding the Toad’s head in place, as it has a tendency to slide back in heavy vegetation. Zoom also offers a new hook designed to increase hooksets and keep it on the hook. The aptly-named Horny Toad Hook features an extra-wide gap and screw-in attachment.
Keep Your Overbite (See Photo 3)
When rigged correctly, today’s new topwater soft plastics offer excellent hooking percentages, especially when compared to hookup rates of hollow-bodied plastic rats and frogs, as well as other conventional topwater baits.
When fishing the new Yum Buzz Frog Frank Scalish makes sure he’s setting hooks into bass jaws rather than thin air by carefully choosing hooks. “You need a hook with a gap that’s at least twice as wide as the thickness of your bait’s body,” he says.
Scalish also isn’t sheepish about going big—a 5/0 Excalibur Tx3 Wide Gap is his go-to hook.
Bead It (See Photo 2)
Reaction Lures designer and owner John Dean has developed a simple yet highly effective trick for fishing topwater plastics like the company’s Ribbit: simply adding a bead, like one used in a Carolina rig, to the line in front of the hook eye. “The bead breaks the flow of water hitting the front of the lure, keeping the bait upright and running true,” Dean says. “The bead also helps guide it through cover and keeps off grass and other weeds.”
Although subtle, little tricks like this make the topwater plastic presentation even more effective.