20 Essential Topwater Fishing Lures
Our fishing editor selects his all-time favorite surface baits
I know I’m not alone when I say that if there’s even a remote chance that I can get a fish to eat on the surface, I’m going to try. Topwater smashes just stick with you longer than even the best subsurface blows. Sure, sometimes a quest for a surface eat results in watching a popper or buzzbait go untouched for hours. But then there are those days when you’re treated to hours of smacks, smashes, and sips that make it all worth it. There are a lot of good surface lures out here, but, whether you’re looking to get into the topwater game or simply to upgrade your arsenal, here are the 20 that I never leave home without.
There are hundreds of freshwater poppers on the market, many of which catch loads of fish. But if you ask me, they’re all essentially takes on Rebel’s Pop-R. The lure has been around for decades, and for good reason: I can’t count the number of times this classic has called largemouths and smallies to the surface for me when nothing else would. In fact, all of the biggest bass that I’ve popped have fallen to the Pop-R. For whatever reason, the lure’s extra-deep mouth cupping and signature white tail dressing just drives bass nuts. Chug it hard, and it throws a mess of spray. Go light, and its delicate bloops produce eats in the clearest water, on the brightest days.
Heddon Chug’n Spook
If you’ve never thrown a Chug’n Spook, I wouldn’t be shocked. It’s not nearly as popular as the traditional Spook. But the chugging version clearly has the upper hand in when targeting certain fish. Freshwater and back-bay striped bass, for one, connect a lot more often with the Chug’n Spook than with the regular Spook, I’ve noticed, which they tend to knock instead of eat. The Chug’n Spook also lets you be a bit sloppy with your retrieve; if you break walking cadence, the cupped mouth will still throw water and keep a follower interested.
River2Sea Whopper Plopper
Compared to other lures on this list, the Whopper Plopper is a relative newcomer, but it’s become a fast favorite in the largemouth, muskie, and pike worlds. The rotating foot of this behemoth bait churns tons of water during steady retrieves, provoking smash after smash. I had a lot of fun watching peacock bass run this sucker down during an Amazon River visit.
Rapala Skitter Pop
The Skitter Pop has always been a favorite of mine when targeting smallmouths in fast-moving water, thanks to its balsa wood body and a shallow-cupped mouth. Because the lure doesn’t dig in as deeply as other poppers, you can work it fast while maintaining a steady spit. Not only that, the wood body is extra buoyant—a big plus in heavy current, since the lure won’t get pulled under while chugging across the flow.
Heddon Tiny Torpedo
Don’t get me wrong, Torpedoes of all sizes are killer. But the Tiny Torpedo has become a staple in my box. When I’m fishing soft, clear summer water for bass, this bait’s subtle zip and bubble trail can be downright magic for bringing up wary lunkers. If a finesse presentation doesn’t seem to be scoring, just reel the lure steadily and hang on. My one suggestion: Add a tiny barrel swivel to the line-tie eye before use, since Torpedoes have a bad habit of twisting up line.
Booyah Poppin’ Pad Crasher
Traditional hollow-body frogs with a V-shaped head no doubt elicit some serious strikes. But I’m convinced that hollow-bodies with popping heads draw far more. Hear me out: You’re chugging a frog through the thick stuff, and then pause when the bait reaches a hole. With a regular frog, a slight twitch will make it move, but a popping head will make it move and spit, which equals more noise and more action. While I always have traditional frogs handy, the Poppin’ Pad Crasher often gets sent out first when I’m staring down a field of largemouth lilies, or a hunk of dead wood where a snakehead might live.
No matter which brand of pencil popper you buy, they’ll all behave the same and draw some insanely vicious surface strikes from big predators, including striped bass, bluefish, and bull redfish. The wide weighted rear section makes it so that you can bomb these lures a country mile, which is why they’re particularly popular with surfcasters. After the launch, grab the rod just above the grip and wave that stick forward and backward rhythmically as you crank. The narrow head of the lure will lunge forward and slap the surface between whips of the rod, churning up a commotion that no wave-cruising fish can resist.
Few sounds in topwater fishing are sweeter than that of a classic Jitterbug waddling across the surface, gurgling away. I enjoy fishing with them most in the dead of night, when I can’t see the lure. On a quiet, muggy summer evening, nothing gets me juiced up like the gulp and slosh that rings out when a Jitterbug’s bubbling cadence suddenly stops. I’ve been known to float my local rivers at night with nothing but Jitterbugs along for the ride, because if I can’t get fish to come up and halt that gurgle, then they’re not coming up at all. As for color, I’m throwing black day and night.
The brand of buzzbait you choose is your call; I don’t believe one is much fishier than any other. What I do believe, however, is that it’s hard to top a buzzbait in drawing heavy-duty reaction strikes out of big bass or pike. Though you can finesse a popper or Spook, your only real option with a buzzbait is to keep it moving. Fish don’t have much time to think about eating it—it’s either getting passed on or getting trashed. Though these lures shine in still water, don’t be afraid to use them in creeks and rivers, too. One of my favorite things to do is wade a long stretch of smallie stream, tossing a buzzbait ahead of me and ripping it over the smallest holes and depressions. If there’s a bronzeback home, you’ll know it fast.
Storm Rattlin’ Chug Bug
Though the Chug Bug has been around for a long time, I’ve never met an angler who’s said it’s his or her go-to popper. It seems to have taken a backseat to a lot of other poppers on the market, but it has never gone away, and that’s by no accident. The Chug Bug, with its slender design and loud rattles, can crush fish from the ocean to the farm pond. And, sure, it’s not usually the first popper that I tie on, but when I find myself in stained water—particularly in shallow streams and rivers—it’s always my first pick. This slim lure lands gently and doesn’t spook many fish, and its rattles and high-pitched tone are perfect for calling bass out of the murk.
Arbogast Hula Popper
Your dad threw this lure; your grandpa threw this lure; and, in all likelihood, your great granddad did, too. The Hula Popper is ancient, sure, but when summer bass are sipping dragonflies or other bugs off the surface, the smallest model in black is my ace in the hole. The flat, rubber tail strands give the Hula a real “buggy” look. And it has a relatively shallow mouth, which means you can work it gently without throwing tons of water. When bass are sipping insects, this is key, since they’ll often avoid a loud chugger. Give the Hula Popper a twitch, let the legs flutter on the surface, give it a few seconds on the pause, and then stand by for the smack.
Matzuo Nano Popper
This little popper might measure a mere 2 inches, but it packs a wallop. And if you’re thinking it’s my panfish frontrunner, think again; I’ve duped smallies up to 4 pounds on this mini chugger, and pickerel to nearly 2 feet. It’s an absolute killer in small streams and ponds where the baitfish aren’t big. Likewise, when tiny shad fry are thick in my local rivers, the Nano is the perfect match. I would recommend swapping out the stock trebles for a pair one size larger. Doing this won’t affect the buoyancy or action, and it’ll help stop big fish from throwing the tiny factory hooks.
Different variations of this metal-lipped swimmer abound, some made by large operations like Gibbs Lures, and others hand-turned by small-batch plug builders across the Northeast. Regardless of which swimmer ends up on your line, the slow rolling action of its metal-lip creates a V-wake across the surface that calls in monster stripers like a dinner bell. All you have to do is fire one of these lures out past the waves or off the tip of a jetty, keep the rod tip high, and reel slowly. A properly built swimmer will do the rest, wagging from side to side as the tail whips and dances.
Stanley Jigs Ribbit Frog
I got turned on to this soft-plastic last summer, by a fellow snakehead junky in Florida. Matched with one of Stanley’s DoubleTake Hooks, this lure out-fished my hollow-body frog by a mile. Not only did it draw more snake bites, but it also kept more fish solidly glued all the way to the net. Fish don’t have a lot of time to decide whether to eat a Ribbit rolling through the pads, which made for harder strikes and deeper eats than those I was getting on my hollow-body frog. I saw the light, and never hit a snakey spot without these baits. Of course, I’ve whacked some very nice incidental largemouths on them, too, while looking for those nasty invasives.
Tactical Anglers Crossover Popper
The Crossover has been on shop shelves for only a few years, but it’s already solidified its place in my saltwater tackle bag. The main reason: While it’s fairly small compared with other saltwater poppers, it’s built tank-tough, with strong hooks and through wiring. The Crossover has become my go-to for open-ocean striped bass, and it’s the first popper that I tie should busting tuna show up within casting range. I’ve already bested bluefins up to 30 pounds and mahi-mahi up to 20 pounds on this bait, and if it’ll handle a fish with their speed and muscle, it’ll handle anything. It also casts like a bullet, making it perfect for getting in front of fast-moving fish.
This old-school hollow-body frog weighs next to nothing, which, to be frank, makes it cast like crap. But so long as you’re not sending this bait to pads a mile away, it’s a hard frog to beat. Its lightness and buoyancy help it glide across the soupiest of slop without getting covered in snot or salad. And if that’s where the local pond hawg lives, you’ve got him. The Scum Frog’s body rubber is thin compared with that of modern frogs, but that’s a benefit. When a bass clamps down, the Scum Frog compresses fast, allowing those hooks to dig in quick when you cross his eyes.
I had never tied on a RipRoller until I visited the Amazon River for peacock bass, in 2015. Modeled after the original Woodchopper, made by Luhr Jensen, the RipRoller is designed to take serious punishment. And after countless smacks from heavy peacocks, this prop bait proved its worth. I took a few home from the jungle and have since used them to draw up stripers, pike, mahi-mahi, and more. Fair warning: zipping these bulky baits across the surface will give your shoulders a workout, but the epic explosions are worth the soreness.
Heddon Super Spook
You can’t compile a list of must-have topwaters without including the Super Spook. From snook to stripers, smallies to muskies, there’s hardly a fish on the planet that won’t take a shot at a Spook walking seductively across a glassy surface. They work best in early mornings and evenings, when it’s dead quiet and all you hear is that click, click, boom! The larger Super Spook is pictured here, but consider this a nod to Spooks of all sizes, including the Spook Jr., which wreaks havoc on bass and stream trout like nobody’s business. While nailing the cadence of a Spook walk can take practice, getting it right is what separates the men from the boys in the topwater world.
Zoom Super Fluke
I know what you’re thinking: This isn’t a topwater. It’s certainly true that the Super Fluke plays very well subsurface, but you might be surprised to learn that it was originally designed for the surface. If you need a subtle, noise-free presentation, this is a killer choice. Rigged weightless on a wide-gap hook, you can delicately walk a Fluke through heavy cover or over the top of fish holding very shallow making a loud splash on touchdown. Since a Fluke makes very little commotion, it often mimics a natural baitfish better than, say, a popper, since a real baitfish escaping the danger zone will avoid drawing attention to itself.
Stillwater is a relatively small lure company based in Pennsylvania, but you’d have a hard time finding and East Coast striper boy like me who doesn’t have a few Smack-Its in his tackle bag, or who hasn’t at least heard of them. These poppers are my absolute favorite for targeting back-bay stripers along sod banks. The reason: They’re super loud and will call tucked-up bay fish in from a distance. That extra amped-up pop is also a huge plus in roiling surf, since it rings out above the chop and slosh of the waves better than similar-style topwaters. By day, give me a white Smack-It; after dark give me all black.
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