Ernie Martin holding two topwater bass caught on Lake Seminole.

Ernie Martin holding two topwater bass caught on Lake Seminole.

Know your target to pick the best bait


Hook & Trigger

In May and early June, fishing can be very exciting if you enjoy topwater action. When the topwater bite heats up, my excitement level has been compared to that of a child’s first visit to see Santa Claus. We parents know that there is a good amount of apprehension due to the emotional reaction of the child. Let me explain. 

When a fish of any size or species takes a topwater bait, my reaction to the strike will either end with my removing the hook from the fish’s mouth or with me dodging the lure as it rockets back toward me with no fish in tow. Often my emotional reaction during a topwater strike has left me in a tearful state. That is why I will spend some ink time in this issue on the proper technique of topwater hook set.

Know your bait!

First, know your topwater bait! There is an arsenal of topwater baits on the market. You can catch any species of fish that feeds on floating forage. Popping bugs for panfish, soft plastics that imitate fleeing baitfish for striper, hollow-body frogs slipping through a lily pad field for large-mouth bass and a shrimp hopping out of the water to miss the mouth of a hungry redfish. 

Each topwater bait can have an array of hooks or may have just one single hook. The species of fish you’re pursuing will be a factor in the hook(s) size and configuration. The type of hook is basically set to match the species and type of water surface structure. Fishing water that is open and clear of surface structure will allow for treble hooks. When fishing structure such as aquatic vegetation, an enclosed single hook will be required. The size of the fish’s mouth will play a factor in hook style and the gauge of steel used in hook production.

Without a doubt, the topwater bite is the most heart-pounding, exhilarating, most intense moment when the surface comes alive around your lure. Even the most seasoned anglers will have an instant increase in blood pressure during a vicious strike. Seeing the strike is an awesome experience, however, catching that fish can lead to an all-out temper tantrum when an angler can’t connect with the hungry fish.

Plan of attack

The hook set on a topwater strike can be very frustrating. I have witnessed seasoned anglers dodging their topwater bait as it rockets toward their body after a missed hook set. What I have determined is that there is not a single given technique for setting the hook on a topwater bite. There are however a couple of suggestions that I will offer.

First, know your desired species. I know for a fact that large mouth bass eat a topwater bait in several different styles. Sip, slurp and smash are the three most prevalent attacks that I have watched a bass perform over my career. From soft and subtle, aka the sip; to just swim by and grab it, the slurp; to a vicious water splashing attack are all part of a bass’s method of operation. The best way to figure them out is time on the water.

Second, practicing a slight pause after the fish strikes your lure is another technique. Allow the fish to grab the lure and make a turn so that your hook set is not pulling the lure away from their mouth but rather a perpendicular hook set. Having said that, it is the hardest thing to do if you are easily excited. Remember your lure and the hook type to assist in the proper and patient hook set.

Let me give you two examples of different topwater baits and how I set the hook. The first lure of choice is the old walking bait with two treble hooks. When I see the strike, I will pause and set the hook in a sideways and downward sweeping motion at half throttle. Remember you have six points on those hooks so don’t over set them. 

The next lure is the hollow body floating frog with one hook. When I’m using this lure there is a ton of surface structure. Lily pads, timber, grass and docks just to name a few. I will watch the lure descend from the surface and then I will try to rip that fish out of the structure. Yes, it’s jaw-jacking time with this bait!

As a side note, the frog lure works best if it’s directly tied to your favorite braided line. I’ll use fluorocarbon line for my walking bait.

So, there you have it: my guide to heart palpitations and exercise in either triumph or disappointment. Practice your patience and know your quarry. 

Until next time, God bless and great fishing.