Capt. Gary Dubiel is a master at catching fish on light tackle and artificial lures. A professional guide based in Oriental, North Carolina (specfever.com), he excels at everything from sea trout to the trophy drum that enter Pamlico Sound each fall. One of his favorite tactics is catching fish on topwater plugs, and he has a wealth of knowledge in that arena.
Just this past November, I fished with Gary in the Neuse and Trent rivers right out of New Bern, North Carolina. Our goal was to catch river-run striped bass on topwater plugs. Normally, given the amount of stripers in this system, that is an easy feat. On this trip, we found a lot of fish, but they were finicky; it was obvious we weren’t going to set the world on fire without digging deep into the bag of topwater tricks we’d both acquired over the years.
Gary and I hit on a number of combinations that fooled the fish, and we went on to enjoy some fast light-tackle fishing. Most anglers understand the basics of choosing and fishing topwater plugs, like matching the size and color of a lure to that of the local forage, mimicking the action of the local baitfish (whether they’re being ambushed or simply milling near the surface) and tweaking retrieves until the right one is found. But beyond these basics, the following “deeper” techniques can tip the odds in your favor when fish are reluctant to take part in the topwater game. Keep these in mind the next time you need a play called in from the sidelines.
1. Can You Hear Me Knocking?
Some topwater plugs have internal rattles, which telegraph noise and vibration farther than plugs without sound chambers. Rattles are excellent for enticing fish up from the deep or in from the distance. The resulting clacking/clicking vibrations replicate the sounds a frantic injured baitfish makes as it kicks its way across the surface. Sometimes that noise is exactly what pushes a game fish to strike. On our North Carolina outing, Dubiel and I used Rapala Skitter Walk topwater plugs with rattles.
Conversely, I have experienced times when the rattle plugs have actually kept fish at bay. When fish are leery and seem more sensitive to noise, a topwater plug without a rattle could prove the way to go; sometimes it takes a softer, quieter, more subtle retrieve to get strikes. Keep both versions handy, and give them equal soak time to find out which one the fish prefer.
2. Leader Out
Another effective yet often overlooked trick – particularly in clear water – is keeping your leader out of the water. Again, when fish are off their feed, going with a smaller diameter, lighter leader is a basic adaptation. However, it’s even more effective if most of that leader rides out of the water.
In the Neuse and Trent rivers, we were getting quite a few followers and last-second turn-aways. Granted, the water there is far from clear, but these followers had plenty of time to investigate our lures. And, initially, something was keeping them from striking.
I began making long casts and holding my rod tip high over my head while imparting short twitches to create a tight walk-the-dog action. By holding the rod high, I kept most of that 25-pound-test leader out of the water. The strikes started coming, and I believe my tactic had a lot to do with it.
3. Hit the Throttles
When fish are reluctant to strike, try teasing the followers by increasing retrieval speed as soon as you see them behind the lure. When fish are striking with abandon, keep to your original retrieve; it is when strikes are slow in coming that this trick shines.
Think about it. If you were a fish that had just charged up behind a lure, and that lure just kept twitching along with no appreciable difference in action, wouldn’t you think something was amiss? In nature, that fleeing baitfish should sense a predator fish coming at it, and the realization that it is just seconds from doom should prompt it to panic. The ensuing change in speed and distress vibrations are what often prompts a game fish into striking, triggering its natural instincts to prey on this weak link – hungry or not.
On several occasions, we sped up our lures when fish appeared behind them to create the illusion of their trying to outrun the fish. Between that tease and keeping most of the leader out of the water, several followers were converted into releases.
4. Do the Locomotion
A radical modification, which was not put into play during my trip with Dubiel, is creating the illusion of a pair or more of baitfish scurrying away from feeding fish. The simplest way to do this is to tie a topwater plug about 3 feet behind a popping cork. Cast the rig and then retrieve it by popping the cork and occasionally letting the rig rest for a couple of seconds. This creates the illusion of a smaller baitfish bird-dogging a larger injured bait. Most of the strikes should come on the smaller rear plug.
Another setup is to use the same style, size and color of plugs. To be sporting, and so it poses less risk of injury to angler and fish, remove the hooks on the lead lure. Tie the leader to the lure’s eye. Then tie a 2- or 3-foot leader to the rear eye of the plug, and that leader to the lead eye of the rear plug. You can add a third plug by removing its hooks and adding it to the lineup.
With both two and three lures, this rig can be worked in a number of ways, ranging from twitching and pausing under a slow retrieve to a slightly quicker, more radical retrieve with aggressive side-to-side action. While the lead plugs might draw strikes some of the time, it is usually the last plug in line that catches fish.
5. Hit the Brakes
One of Dubiel’s favorite tricks is to pause his topwater plug. There are occasions, especially during feeding blitzes, when fish refuse to strike a rapidly moving plug. Perhaps the fish become programmed to consume the injured ones that can’t swim off? Fish that aren’t especially aggressive sometimes want an easier target, like a severely injured bait that is barely kicking.
I watched Dubiel convert many a fish by occasionally pausing his lure for a few seconds before picking up the retrieve and pausing the lure again for a few more seconds. This tactic worked well when he pitched a lure right into the blitz, where you would think any quickly fleeing lure would draw strikes.
6. Color Me Gone
As mentioned earlier, matching the hatch in terms of size and coloration is generally a smart move. Yet as much as I subscribe to this theory and stick to my guns, like I did in New Bern, North Carolina, sometimes it takes some experimentation to get the bites. I fished mainly a silver with black-back plug, to imitate finger mullet, and occasionally a menhaden-hued plug, since peanut bunker were also amassing. However, Dubiel selects colors that offer the most visibility in those tannin-stained waters. He favors chartreuse plugs or those with highlights of chartreuse – a color I’ve yet to see in any natural baitfish – which he claims permeates these waters farther than other colors and makes the plugs more visible to fish. I can’t argue with him since he scores on them.
When the natural-hued plugs aren’t cutting it, pick a radical color, such as pure white, chartreuse, orange or even black, and give it a try. Perhaps you’ll find one that is indeed more visible to fish. It might not appear natural colorwise, but the silhouette it presents might just be strong enough to stand out to a fish. Add in a little action, and the rest, as they say, might be history – for the fish, that is!
Fishing topwater plugs is an art. Sometimes the bite is on, and all that’s necessary is to pitch out the lure. Yet tough times dictate some thinking, and that’s when a lot of anglers give up on topwaters. For me, watching a fish explode on a topwater plug is one of the neatest sights in fishing, and I’m sure somewhere down deep in my psyche that’s the reason I’m usually the last to retire the lure.