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Refining Top-water Techniques for Big Stripers The Next Level - Chesapeake Light Tackle

top1There is nothing quite like catching a big striper on top-water. I’ll never forget my first top-water explosion. I was twelve years old, walking the muddy banks of the Holston River in Eastern Tennessee with my father. The lure tied onto my fiberglass rod and Mitchell 300 reel was a wooden Chugger Spook. In my over-sized rubber boots, I was having a hard time keeping up.

“Check your drag,” Dad commanded from his vantage point just below a large set of shoals. “Now, cast right into the “V” where the water runs through and start jerking.” As instructed, I reared back and slung my rod as hard as I could. I overshot the target and landed my lure upstream of the shoal. “Just let her drift down and pop it along,” he said.

Nothing in my limited experience of bank-side pan fishing could’ve prepared me for what happened next. The swift current pulled the chugger quickly down the rip and I popped it a few times along the way. Suddenly, the water blew up as if someone had thrown a hand grenade. A jolt of adrenalin shot though my arms as I felt the line tighten and heard the drag scream.

“Run!” Dad yelled, pointing downstream. Jumping completely out of my boots, I took off as fast as I could, stumbling though the mud, holding my rod tip high in attempt to catch up with the biggest fish of my life. Though a combination of a well-set drag and a lot of luck, I pulled a 22-pound striper onto the riverbank. My dad whipped out his Polaroid Instamatic and shot a shaky picture. He asked if I wanted to let it go, but I would have none of it. “I want to mount it!”

I never managed to save enough allowance to pay for taxidermy, but I kept that big fish in our deep freeze for several years. Whenever my friends came to visit, I’d take out my frozen trophy and proudly show it off.

I think I’ve spent the last 35 years trying to recreate that exhilarating moment.

top2Top-water fishing in the Chesapeake Bay has its own set of challenges for the light-tackle angler. The conventional wisdom says that top-water doesn’t work in clear water, especially with a lack of cover near deep ledges – which is why you don’t see many fishermen throwing top-water plugs except in the late fall when the fish move up into the rivers. For me, however, the intensity of the strike and awesome visual of a big fish attacking a lure makes it worthwhile to try top-water first before any other technique. And it’s paid off in an amazing summer of fishing. I’ve landed up to 40-inch fish on surface lures, particularly in low-light, high-current situations.

The Gear:

Let’s start with the basics. As much as I prefer casting reels, they aren’t practical for throwing big lures on the windy Bay. My reel of choice is a light action spinning reel designed for 8-14-pound test line. A fast retrieve and a smooth drag are essential. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on a spinning reel to see results. If I get two or three seasons out of one, it’s done its job. I like the 2500 series reels or similar with a price point between $50.00 and $75.00.

top3Just as in jigging, the rod is more essential than the reel to properly presenting a lure. Unlike the fast rods I use for jigging, for surface lures, I prefer one with some whip in the tip. My choice is a 6’6″ medium or medium-heavy action rod with moderate or even moderate-slow speed. I’ve had some rods custom made for a steeper taper so I can throw lures much heavier than the rated weight, but a rod off the shelf will work fine. Sensitivity is not a critical factor in a top-water rod.

As much as I like braid for jigging in the Bay I much prefer monofilament for top-water fishing. Braided line sinks while monofilament floats and improves the action of a lure. But the primary reason is because mono slows down the reaction time. A keen-eyed fishermen with good reflexes will miss top-water strikes from setting the hook too fast. Mono makes up for occasional mistakes. Similarly, a big fish hooked on the surface requires some “give” in both the line and the rod tip. Braided line on a fast action rod gives the fish way too much opportunity to throw the lure in the first dramatic moments of the fight. I consistently out-catch other fishermen by using mono and a slack rod. I’m not a better fisherman, I’m better equipped. Increase your strike to catch ratio by using equipment specific for top-water fishing.

top4Anyone who has fished the Chesapeake for any length of time has heard the adage, “bigger lures catch bigger fish.” That is especially true for top-water fishing. My favorite lures are chuggers – lures that float high on the surface and have a cupped face that creates a splashy bubble in the front when jerked along. I would never consider a sinking surface lure. I start with fairly large lures first, working my way down if I’m not getting strikes. The 1.5-ounce Lonely Angler Mega Eye, the 1.25-ounce Stillwater Smack-It, and Heddon Super Spooks are always the first out of my box.

The Presentation:

top5One of the most critical moments in the retrieve is the instant the lure hits the water – it should move. I engage my reel while it’s still in the air, and give it a little jerk a split- second after impact to immediately attract the fish’s attention. They’ll spook at first, but come back to investigate when they see movement. A couple of weeks ago I was fishing at Mountain Point at the mouth of the Magothy River. I made a long cast toward shore and watched as a big rockfish bolted. Since it was so shallow, I could see the fish’s dorsal fin out of the water as he made a wide circle back and smacked my lure four feet into the air. Now that’s excitement!

Shallow water stripers are often very aggressive. They’ll sometimes hit a top-water plug when they’re not particularly hungry, and even when the lure looks nothing like the available bait source. Because of their territorial nature, I think they can be aggravated into a strike; they’ve staked out their territory and they’re going to defend it from intruders. They’ll often turn just before biting the lure, not because they’ve identified it, but to slap at it with their tail to get it out of the area.

Bigger fish have very good eyesight and a lateral line that increases sensitivity to noise and vibration. For this reason, the lure should make a racket.  Lure makers put rattles in top-water baits.  Look for lures with a lower pitched rattle because deeper sound waves travel farther through the water.  Fishing with the boat engine running puts the fish on guard and masks the rattle of the lure. If you want to catch big fish on top-water, kill the engine. When fishing a chugger in aggressively feeding fish, I work the plug as fast as I can across the water, usually with very few pauses, keeping the rod tip high until the plug is almost back to the boat. Under optimum conditions, my line hardly touches the water during the retrieve. I whip the rod rapidly, allowing the spring back to assist in the action to the lure.

top6Since lots of splash around the lure will blur the picture to that keen-eyed trophy striper, I use a fluorocarbon leader. The heavy leader material actually slaps the water in front of the lure during a violent retrieve. Sometimes fish will even attack the leader-slap before they hit the plug. A fluorocarbon leader will also decrease the odds of breaking off when the fish dives for cover and make it easier to get a big fish into the boat.

The only time I slow down my retrieve is when the fish are holding very near the shore and not feeding aggressively. In that case I’ll often slow down a little and pause between pops. This is also when I like to change over to a walking-style lure like a Heddon Super Spook or Lonely Angler Spook or maybe even a pencil popper. When the “walk-the-dog” action is performed correctly, the plug looks like an eel in the water. As with the chuggers, a leader adds to the action. Walking-the-dog effectively takes a little practice, but it often pays off with big rewards. I’ve seen some huge rockfish attack lures fished in this manner.

The Location:

top7My favorite areas for top-water fishing on the Chesapeake Bay are places where there is a lot of current. An east-west ledge, or some other structure that breaks up the normal flow of the tides usually causes rips where the fish congregate to ambush bait. The Bay Bridge,
the Cedar Point rock pile, and the Kent Island Sewer Pipe are three examples of prime top-water locations. Areas that provide fast current and deep water close to shore such as the Kent Narrows are even better.

It’s easy to overlook locations near boat ramps and docks. One of my biggest top-water fish this year came out of the grass beside the canal at the Sandy Point State Park boat ramp. How many fishermen motor right by that grass and never give it a thought? Marinas are usually located in deeper water, so look for jetties, breakwaters, and other underwater structure nearby.

Finally, private docks can hold very nice fish. I prefer docks located near points. Shorter gangways usually mean deeper water, so look to those first. Lighted docks will often hold fish after dark, so don’t give up when the sun sets. I put a street lamp on the end of my dock last summer so I can sneak out at night and cast a few times beneath the light.

The Strike:

top8One of the easiest mistakes to make once a fish strikes is to set the hook too quickly. It’s very tempting to jerk the bait as soon as the fish is visible. Wait. The fish rises to the surface before it attacks the lure and can trail along behind for a few seconds while it investigates the commotion. It’s possible to see the fish before it attacks the lure. The best rule of thumb is “wait for the weight.” When a strike is perceived, maintain the retrieve until the line picks up and the weight of the fish is apparent, then, slam it home.

Often, a fish will miss the lure entirely. When this happens, I might allow the lure to pause momentarily, but I then resume the action faster than before. My thinking is that it appears to the fish that the bait is stunned, then bolting to get away. A hungry rockfish can attack a lure many times during a single retrieve.

top9Chances are, most anglers have a few surface poppers in their box that are only brought out when encountering smaller breaking fish. Breakers are lots of fun, but the real excitement of surface fishing comes from enticing big fish out of cover. Few experiences in fishing compare to watching a big striper explode on a top-water lure. Mark me as one who would rather catch a few quality fish on a surface lure than a lot of fish with other techniques.


Posted Sunday, October 19th, 2008 at 1:04 pm
Filed Under Category: Articles
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