Pop Goes the Rattler

This new line of surface lures takes fish where no other popper could.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Noisy surface lures have been around for over a century, so what makes today's topwater plugs so special? They gurgle, slurp, pop, and wiggle enticingly on the surface, just like topwater lures of years past. But the key to their effectiveness is their rattle, and it's not just the noise, but also how it is made.

Almost every species of saltwater game fish finds these lures irresistible. Just a few days before I wrote this, New York angler Don Kaye was fishing with me in South Florida when a 130-plus-pound tarpon explosively sucked in one of these new topwater plugs and proceeded to tear up acres of shallow water before I could finally release it for him an hour later. Don hasn't been the same since!

Snook and striped bass rarely pass them up. Redfish, not typically surface feeders, will often go out of their way to attack them. Trout rocket upward through many feet of water and crash these lures with gusto. Ditto every member of the tuna tribe, as well as dolphin and the mackerels.

A Cripple's Click
The earliest topwater plugs attracted fish solely by movement in the water's surface film and the noise generated by this motion. Observant anglers quickly learned that an erratic, splashy retrieve got more strikes than just sliding the plug across the surface. Someone next added a cupped or notched "mouth" to the front of the plug, increasing erratic movement and amplifying attractive noises. Some modifications included adding a propeller to one or both ends.

But the topwater plug really came into its own when lure makers stopped fashioning them out of wood and started building them with extremely tough, hollow plastic bodies. The new design allowed lure makers to insert several small steel shot into the cavity, creating even more noise. But not all species responded to these "refinements" in the same manner; the resulting chatter of multiple-shot castanets actually repelled some fish.

Then came a compromise: a single, big steel ball, loosely housed in a chamber in the tail of the plug. This design causes the lure to make a single, distinct, loud click each time it is pulled forward. This noise, it turns out, is virtually identical to that made by many crippled baitfish. Add to this a body shape conducive to "walking the dog,"-when the lure is slowly wiggled across the surface-and you've got a plug that few fish can resist.

Minnows, Dogs, Spooks, and Bugs
One of the first topwater plugs to use this design was the Rebel Jumpin' Minnow, introduced almost a decade ago. Still popular today, this lure is deadly on striped bass, snook, redfish, and many other species. More recent lures, like the Mirrolure Top Dog and the Excalibur Super Spook, are rapidly gaining a big following. The success of these lures has prompted their manufacturers to introduce smaller versions as well, such as the Mirrolure Top Dog Jr. Another new favorite is the Button Eye Minnow by Cotee, winner of a 1998 Field & Stream Best of the Best award (see the December 1998 issue).

Other variations on the clickety-clack theme include the Rattlin' Chug Bug series (available in three sizes) by Storm, which combines a single large ball and several small shot inside the lure with a cupped face on the front end. The resulting combination of pops and rattles is effective on snook, redfish, and especially sea trout. The Adjust-A-Floater, by DOA, is a soft-plastic mullet look-alike which has adjustable side fins, floats on the surface with the tip of its tail out just like the real thing, and swims convincingly when moved. I've had big tarpon jump on it without hesitation.

Topwater plugs come in many different colors, but at this point I'm not convinced color affects their performance. Since fish strike from below the surface, they see the lures only in silhouette. But how you work these lures is crucial to their success. To sum up the retrieve in a word: slow. The slower the better. Of course fish will sometimes strike them when moved rapidly across the surface, but you are more likely to miss fish with a fast retrieve. I've had a lot of big fish take completely motionless plugs. I work the big rattlers, like the Super Spook and Top Dog, with a slow, deliberate series of small sweeps of the rod tip so that the plug swims from side to side, making a very distinct click with each turn. A steady rhythm produces the most fish.

Cupped lures, like the Chug Bugs, may be popped loudly or just gurgled. Loud popping noises quickly get the attention of redfish, stripers, and sea trout, but sometimes for snook, tarpon, and others, a soft gurgle gets better results. It pays to experiment.

Who Makes Them

real thing, and swims convincingly when moved. I've had big tarpon jump on it without hesitation.

Topwater plugs come in many different colors, but at this point I'm not convinced color affects their performance. Since fish strike from below the surface, they see the lures only in silhouette. But how you work these lures is crucial to their success. To sum up the retrieve in a word: slow. The slower the better. Of course fish will sometimes strike them when moved rapidly across the surface, but you are more likely to miss fish with a fast retrieve. I've had a lot of big fish take completely motionless plugs. I work the big rattlers, like the Super Spook and Top Dog, with a slow, deliberate series of small sweeps of the rod tip so that the plug swims from side to side, making a very distinct click with each turn. A steady rhythm produces the most fish.

Cupped lures, like the Chug Bugs, may be popped loudly or just gurgled. Loud popping noises quickly get the attention of redfish, stripers, and sea trout, but sometimes for snook, tarpon, and others, a soft gurgle gets better results. It pays to experiment.

Who Makes Them