Best Striper Topwater Lures

There's nothing like watching a striper smash a topwater. These are the lures you need to get it done.

Striped Bass caught on Doc
Saltwater Sportsman Editor-in-Chief Nate Matthews with a hefty striped bass that ate a Doc fished slowly outside a bunker school. Nate Matthews

Topwater striper lure bites come when you least expect it. You’re fishing seemingly dead water, casting to a sod bank, or some other structure. Then out of nowhere, KABOOM! Your topwater fishing lure disappears in a ball of white water.  It is violent, savage and truly magical at the same time.  

In my 25 years of guiding anglers for striped bass, I have yet to see anyone that didn’t get excited about seeing a nice striper smash a topwater lure. Every time I see it happen, I still flip out in much the same way I did when I was a kid and experienced it for the very first time.  

During an all-out blitz, just about any topwater fishing lure will work. But, such feeds don’t happen all the time. Stripers get finicky, particularly when they are in shallow and/or very calm water. So, picking the right topwater lure for the conditions is important. And, not all saltwater topwater lures are created equal. 

I’m going to detail my favorites here, based on my many years of experience. I’ll cover each topwater striper lure I’ve found to be particularly effective, and discuss the conditions where each excels.

What Makes a Great Topwater Striper Lure?

Topwater lures are anything that swims on the surface, pushing water or causing a wake. And most importantly, they cause violent, adrenaline-inducing surface eats.

You can break topwater lures down into four major categories: poppers, pencil-poppers, sliders, and floating jerk-baits. Let’s take a look at each, and what they do.

Poppers

Poppers are probably the first saltwater topwater lure to come to mind when targeting striped bass. Though they vary in shape, most feature an aggressively cupped head, a slim neck, and a fat body that tapers into a cone where the back hook goes. And the best ones produce a loud raddle sound when you shake them, further inciting a striper’s prey drive and triggering strikes.

Stripers are angry, territorial, aggressive creatures. So, it’s no wonder that they often try to destroy these noisy topwater lures. Though you can often imitate the profile of local forage species, stripers arguably don’t hit poppers because they “match-the-hatch.” I often use topwater lures like poppers during small grass-shrimp or even cinder worm hatches, relying on striper’s killer instincts to take over.

Working a popper is fairly straightforward. Pop with the rod tip, take a turn on the reel to eliminate slack, and pop again. Be sure to work it all the way to the boat—lots of strikes happen at the boat. I’ve found that slow retrieves peppered with solid pauses tend to work better than a faster retrieve—stripers often hit when it’s stopped.  

Pencil Poppers

Pencil poppers differ quite a bit in size and shape from a conventional popper. They are kind-of tear-drop shaped with a relatively fat behind, tapering into a small, cupped head. Although the outline and action are different, pencils also create a commotion on the water and annoy stripers into biting.  

But these striper topwater lures are worked in a faster, walk-the-dog fashion. Though they will draw reaction strikes, pencils also mimic the listless back-and-forth motion of a wounded baitfish. The profile and action of pencil poppers tends to work better when fish are being finicky and bait is a bit more spread out. The more noise a plug can create the better, so I typically choose pencils equipped with rattles. 

Pencils are worked a little differently than their cousins. Just begin a slow retrieve, while twitching the rod tip. You want the head of the pencil popper to move back and forth, making small splashes. A noisy, wounded bait moving back and forth? It’s usually too much for stripers to resist.  

Sliders 

Sliders are cigar-shaped plugs that are also worked across the water’s surface. But instead of making a ruckus, they simply glide across the water in a side-to-side manner. While they are not likely to create as much commotion as a popper or pencil popper, they do account for an awful lot of large stripers. I think the subdued action more closely imitates the struggle a wounded baitfish makes than loud pops and big splashes.

I’ve found that sliders tend to produce bigger stripers than poppers do. I believe, and this is speculation of course, that larger, older and presumably wiser stripers are more likely to go for the restrained action of a slider than their younger, more aggressive brethren. Whatever the reason, big sliders like the Doc account for more outsized topwater stripers than anything in my box!

Fishing sliders is a pretty straightforward endeavor. Just cast them to a likely spot, and snap your rod tip to impart action. Watch the slider jimmy form side to side, then reel up the slack and repeat. It usually doesn’t take too long before it gets hammered.

Floating Jerk Baits

This category could include a variety of lures, such as stick baits. But I’m talking about floating soft plastics like the Slug-Go. Now there are dozens of versions of this floating soft plastic on the market, made by a variety of makers. They all work, but Slug-Go was the original, and still is arguably the best. They run anywhere from 3 to 12 inches, but the 9-inch floating soft plastic jerk bait may be the best striper lure ever. 

I’ve been using these subtle topwater lures for 30 years, and can say they’re worth their weight in gold. This is especially true when stripers are being particular and won’t hit any sort of noisy topwater lure. Slug-Gos are extraordinarily useful fishing in skinny water for what are usually very finicky fish, and really comes into their own when stripers are on sand eels or other smallish bait that’s hard to imitate. But because they don’t push a lot of water, they don’t seem to attract terribly aggressive fish. Use noisier options when the stripers are acting rowdy.

After your cast, twitch twice with the rod tip and pause, allowing the bait to sink a few inches under the water. Take a turn on the reel and twitch again, and it will come back to the surface and dart out of the water. The Slug-Go will twitch and swim across the surface like a dazed baitfish, suddenly regaining consciousness it in an attempt to escape the predator chasing it. Just note that they can be tough to cast, as they don’t have a lot of weight. You can always add a jig head or a weighted swim hook, but you just can’t get that same provocative swim with weight.

Best Topwater Striper Lure Overall: Musky Mania Saltwater Doc

Musky Mania Doc
Salt Water Sportsman

Why It’s in My Tackle Box

Simply put, the Saltwater Doc catches more large stripers than any striped bass topwater lure out thereIt can cast a mile, and be worked effectively by even novice anglers. 

Key Features 

  • Style: Slider/walk-the-dog-style topwater lure
  • Size: 7 to 9 inches
  • Weight: 2.7 ounces (7-inch version), 3.5 ounces (9-inch version)
  • Material: Plastic
  • Noise: Internal rattle

Pros

  • Attracts exceptionally large stripers while weeding out small fish
  • This noisy topwater lure pushes plenty of water and casts a mile thanks to its large size
  • Even inexperienced anglers can work it 

Cons

  • The large size discourages smaller fish, so you won’t catch much if only the little guys are around
  • Creates so much commotion when it lands that it can spook fish in skinny water
  • You need relatively heavy gear to cast it  

Maybe 20 years ago, Captain Craig Cantelmo of Van Staal Reels told me about a mystical 9-inch plug intended to target muskellunge. Three, 30-pound-class striped bass fought over the lure on the first cast I took with it and I was a believer. I was sworn to secrecy because widespread use of the plug would surely “decimate the striped bass fishery.” 

That wood plug was known as “The Homewrecker,” and it what the Doc is modeled after. The Doc ditches wood for plastic, but the big fish catching ability remains the same. Without a doubt, the large, cigar-shaped topwater lure have accounted for more 20-plus pound fish for myself or clients than anything else in the box. Why it works so well is hard to say, but it is surprisingly effective—especially if you’re targeting trophy-sized stripers.     

Now there are many imitations, but the size, weight, balance and buoyancy of the Doc is unique, and more-or-less perfect for most applications. It can cast a mile, and be worked effectively by even novice anglers. With a simple, timely twitch, this big topwater lure glides back and forth like a listless/injured baitfish, pushing a wave that draws attention. A short pause between twitches often generates monster surface strikes.  

While this saltwater topwater lure is not really specific to any set of conditions, but generally the calmer the water the better. Still, the large profile is likely to get noticed even in windy or choppy conditions. The Doc comes in several colors, but “bone” seems to work best. I replace the back hook with a stainless, inline 7/0 J-hook. It swims better, and you don’t have to deal with unhooking two trebles—from the fish, or your hands.  

Best All-Around Topwater Striper Lure: Lunker City Slug-Go

Lunker City Slug-Go
Salt Water Sportsman

Why It’s in My Tackle Box

They simply work when nothing else will. The tantalizing side-to-side action is too much for fish to ignore. When stripers turn finicky, turn to the Slug-Go. And the strikes on these things? Savage!

Key Features 

  • Style: Floating jerk bait
  • Size: 9 inch
  • Weight: 1.4 ounce
  • Material: Soft plastic
  • Noise: No rattle, but pushes some water when worked correctly

Pros

  • Provocative darting action that stripers often find irresistible 
  • Works well during most conditions, but particularly on finicky fish
  • Won’t spook fish on the flats or in the shallows
  • Can be fished on exceptionally light tackle 

Cons

  • The light weight makes casting difficult
  • Fish often miss this lure because the hook is in the front and the point isn’t exposed  
  • Difficult to fish in rough conditions because the slim profile doesn’t push much water
  • The soft plastic construction tears easily  

The Slug-Go was originally developed for largemouth bass, but it quickly became known in most parts as a tried-and-true striped bass topwater lure. Its long, slender profile and erratic darting action was revolutionary when it hit the saltwater scene and the random movement proved to be too much for even picky stripers to ignore. Simply put, the Slug-Go generates strikes when other topwater lures won’t.

Sizes range from 3 to 12 inches, but I use the 9-inch version almost exclusively. I rig them on a weedless plastic-worm style hook, with the hook point hidden in the body. I never add any weight, as that can take away from the erratic action that drives stripers wild. Plus, the weight will make it sink, and you do not want that if you’re trying to get in on a topwater bite.

Though the lack of weight can make it tough to cast, it allows for delicate presentations in the skinniest conditions. I use it mostly in the mud and sand flats where fish are easily spooked and notoriously finicky. Because it’s light, it doesn’t spook everything in the vicinity when it lands. When stripers are on sand eels and don’t seem to want anything, they will usually eat a Slug-Go. And, it can be can be fished on exceptionally light tackle, which is always fun. 

There are several different colors to choose from, but I tend to use either alewife (gray over silver) or Arkansas shiner (olive over bone). Both of these colors do a good job of “matching the hatch,” mimicking both the action and coloring of a large sand eel. That said, the bubble gum (pink) version is a well-known producer of big stripers, simply because it gets noticed. It does particularly well in regions where squid is present.  

Best Noisy Topwater Lure: Nomad Tackle Design Chug Norris

Nomad Chug Norris
Salt Water Sportsman

Why It’s in My Tackle Box

The Chug Norris rises to the top of the popper pile for a few reasons: it doesn’t tumble when cast; the unique shape keeps it glued to the water’s surface when retrieved, and it produces a loud, booming pop that gets it done.

Key Features 

  • Style: Popper
  • Size: 3.75 and 4.75 inches
  • Weight: 3/4 ounce (3.75-inch version), 1.5 ounces (4.75-inch version)
  • Material: Plastic
  • Noise:  Aggressively cupped head and internal rattle

Pros

  • Loud, booming pops get noticed by everything in the area
  • Unique shape sticks to the water, and won’t skip over the surface
  • Casts like bullet without tumbling
  • Outfitted with single hooks instead of trebles

Cons

  • The loud noise it produces can spook finicky fish  
  • It’s clunky, and doesn’t really work well in the skinny stuff  

There are literally dozens of popper brands and styles, and frankly, they all work. But, the deep, aggressive cup on the Chug Norrisface makes loud, booming pops that seemingly call fish in from all around. Even with a subtle twitch of the rod tip, you can expect a ton of noise from this one. It has proved to be a great topwater lure that consistently draws strikes from stripers both big and small.

Part of the secret lies in the shape of face, which is round at the bottom and square at the top. The other part of the equation is the heavier rear end, which allows that part to sink. So, when you pull it the head digs down and the butt comes vertical. This helps it grab the water’s surface and push it back out at the top, producing a thunderous pop when it’s worked, even with minimal effort. 

Because of this unique design, the Chug Norris somehow sticks to the water in a way conventional poppers simply can’t, avoiding the dreaded cartwheel action that plagues many topwater striper lures. Even in rough conditions, it stays glued to the surface. And thanks to the hydrodynamic shape, even the small ones seem to cast a mile.  

It comes in lots of cool colors, but frankly I don’t think it matters much. But if I had to make a recommendation though, I would go with “White Glow.” I like it, and so do the stripers.

Best Big Topwater Lure: Guides Secret Poppa Pencil

Guides Secret Poppa Pencil
Salt Water Sportsman

Why It’s in My Tackle Box

The Guide’s Secret Poppa Pencil has accounted for numerous 40 and even 50 pounders for myself and clients. The large profile and side-to-side action is absolutely deadly on big stripers.

Key Features 

  • Style: Pencil popper
  • Size: 8.5 inches
  • Weight: 3 ounces
  • Material: Plastic
  • Noise: Internal rattle

Pros

  • Large profile moves a lot of water
  • Walk-the-dog action does a fantastic job of imitating a wounded menhaden
  • Casts a mile!

Cons

  • Too big and heavy for back-bay use
  • Likely to scare away anything in the vicinity if used in shallow water
  • Requires fairly heavy gear to cast and work correctly  

Even with a football field-sized school of menhaden (aka bunker) to choose from, the biggest and fattest stripers will seek out an easy meal in the form of a slow, wounded baitfish. If your lure resembles that easy meal, it’s more than likely that it will get smashed.

The Guide’s Secret Poppa Pencil looks and acts exactly like a dazed or wounded bunker. The side-to-side action and giant profile of this striper topwater lure is a dead ringer for dying menhaden, and is too much for even the laziest cow to ignore. When you throw it near a pod of bunker with stripers underneath it, there’s a pretty good chance one or more bass is going to come up from the depths and blow up on it.  

Like most pencil poppers it’s pear-dropped shaped with a fat tail end tapering up to a skinny cupped head. What makes it unique, though, is its size. It is big…like really big. The Guide’s Secret Poppa Pencil is arguably the largest pencil popper on the market. And yes, there are other companies that make large pencils. But they are all generally made out of wood and sink on the pause. The plastic construction of the Poppa Pencil floats even when still, adding to the enticing action.

The Poppa Pencil is built to impart that irresistible slashing/popping back and forth action, even in less than perfect conditions. Work it slowly with frequent pauses and hang on. As is the case with most topwater striper lures, strikes often occur on the pause. 

Best New Topwater Striper Lure: Joebaggs Skipper

Joebaggs Skipper
Salt Water Sportsman

Why It’s in My Tackle Box

The Joebaggs Skipper is the first “new” thing I’ve tried in a decade that actually works like the manufacturer says it does. It fills a critical spot in my tackle box between the Doc and the Spook, working well in both open water and the back bay.

Key Features

  • Style: Slider/walk-the-dog style topwater lure
  • Size: 8 inches
  • Weight: 2.75 ounces
  • Material: Plastic
  • Noise: Unique internal rattle produces a low-frequency sound that echoes in the water  

Pros

  • Big, but not too big to use in the back bays
  • Side-to-side walk-the-dog action that can also be fished aggressively like a pencil popper
  • Balanced to cast far and sit in the water perfectly

Cons

  • While it can be fished in open water and the back bay it doesn’t really do either as well as topwater lures specific to those two types of fishing
  • A little bit too heavy for super light gear  

The Joebaggs Skipper fills in a critical spot in my tackle box between the Doc and the Spook. It’s not as big and aggressive as the Doc, but not as small and un-intrusive as the Spook. At 8 inches, its arguably the perfect size for use both as an open water and backwater slider. So, you can use it in both open water and the shallow back bay.

At almost 3 ounces it seems like it would be a little heavy for the back, but it doesn’t really act like it. Where some sliders are too rear- or nose-heavy, it tends to sit just right in the water. And, it only pushes as much water as you want it to. When worked slowly, it slides a solid 3 feet to one side and then 3 feet to the other. That gives you 6 feet of fishable radius, which is significantly more than most sliders and allows to cover ground quickly.

Plus, while it quite clearly does the slider thing well, you can also work it more aggressively. Other sliders are, more-or-less, one trick ponies, but you can give the Skipper the slashing/popping action of a pencil popper if you lean into it hard enough. And when stripers are being really aggressive, you can burn it across the water and it bounces and pokes at the water like a baitfish getting chased. The throaty rattle adds another dimension, which the manufacturer claims creates an echo in the water.  

This lure is so new I haven’t had more than a year to test it, but so far, I’ve been really impressed. Plus, it’s through-wired with 4/0 VMC trebles, which is unusual for striper topwater lures.That makes it tuna ready if you chose to use it that way, and unlikely to fail with any linesider.   

Best Value Topwater Lure: Cotton Cordell Pencil Popper

Cotton Cordell pencil popper
Salt Water Sportsman

Why It’s in My Tackle Box

At around $8.50, the Cotton Cordell maybe the cheapest, most effective pencil popper out there. I’ve been using them since the early 90s, and they work as well today as they did back then.

Key Features

  • Style: Pencil popper
  • Size: 4.5 to 7 inches
  • Weight: 3/4 to 2 ounces 
  • Material: Plastic
  • Noise: Loud rattle

Pros

  • Affordable favorite with decades of proven effectiveness
  • Can be fished both in the back and open water
  • Swims like a traditional pencil popper
  • Makes plenty of noise

Cons

  • Split rings and hooks could potentially fail on a big, hard-fighting stripers
  • Doesn’t imitate large bait like menhaden or herring well
  • Finish degrades and chips easily 

The Cotton Cordell Pencil Popper has been effective on stripers for literally decades, first appearing in the isles of big box stores and tackle shops in the late 80s. This topwater lure’s history as a top striper producer has been proven with its ability to stay on the shelves for so long. 

I’ve personally been using these topwater striper lures since the early 90s. They worked well back then, and they work well now. To this day, they occupy a space in my tackle bag. You likely won’t catch 50-pounders on these, but for they’ve accounted for plenty of fish in the 20- and even 30-pound class for me.  

This is the traditional floating plastic pencil popper, a design that has accounted for countless stripers. They are not heavy, can be worked on light tackle, and can definitely be worked in both skinny back bay applications as well as open water. A super loud rattle makes plenty of noise for added attraction. Work this one so it produces a quick side to side action, with plenty of pauses. It will probably get smashed on the stops.

While they might not be of the highest quality, owing to the lower price point, they do indeed catch plenty of stripers. But you might want to swap out the split rings and hooks if you’re chasing trophy fish. And note that the finish chips and degrades fairly easily, though sometimes those beat-up plugs produce even better.

Conclusion

Indeed, the strikes generated by striped bass topwater lures are awesome. The lures I’ve detailed here I can personally attest to getting bit under a wide variety of conditions. But keep in mind these aren’t the only choices, just a jumping off point. It takes time on the water and plenty of empirical field research to understand what works best in your neck of the woods. 

So, get out there and give it a go! And try to keep it together when a big striper blows up on your topwater lure. I still have a hard time with that part!

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