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Fishing was so much simpler back in the day. There weren’t nearly as many lure choices, and you didn’t need the right rod and reel combo to fish the latest and greatest baits. Does that mean anglers in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s were less skilled? Hell no. Furthermore, some of the lures developed 80 years ago still catch more fish today than the hottest bait released last season. This is especially true in the late summer when bass get lazy, look to the surface often, and opportunistically feed on more terrestrial critters.
These three classic lures are staples in my tackle box for smallmouth and largemouth bass in August and September. They may not be winning the Bass Master Classics anymore, but they’re still in production for a reason.
There are some really gimmicky topwater lures on the market these days. Take, for example, the Pokemon lure, which has gurgled its way into the hearts of YouTubers looking for a video schtick, as well as Comic Con attendees that gobble up all things Pikachu. There was also the Chautauqua Chipmunk, a giant lure designed for the muskie hunter that wanted to mimic some furry, warm-blooded forage. Just because baits like this have a cool/trendy factor going for them, they get a lot of attention on social media even if they’re not in a fish’s mouth. The funny part is they’re both derivatives of the classic Jitterbug, which is anything but trendy.
Legendary lure designer Fred Arbogast unveiled the Jitterbug in 1938, and for decades it was hailed as one of the most productive topwaters ever made. It’s still one of the most productive, but it’s also fallen out of popular favor, overshadowed by many new-school offerings. This unique bait waddles across the surface, ramping up sound with a strong gurgle, and creating a bubble trail bass can follow to the target.
By August, aquatic vegetation like hydrilla and lily pads are at their thickest. Frogs hatched earlier in the summer have grown enough to boost local amphibian populations and activity. Likewise, by late summer, higher water temperatures make fish lazier, and therefore more apt to opportunistically grab a toad or mouse than chase baitfish schools all over the lake or river. In the right location and circumstances, a Jitterbug is practically irresistible.
A shortcoming of this lure is that it’s not weedless, so you can’t toss one right into the pads. But in areas with submerged vegetation, or with plenty of open lanes in the lilies, a Jitterbug is lethal. The classic frog pattern is a ringer by day, but in black this lure shines during low light and after sunset. Whether you’re casting from a lake house dock or night floating a river, largemouths and smallmouths often feed more heavily when the temperature dips a few degrees at night, and the sound of a Jitterbug won’t go unnoticed.
2) Hula Popper
Similar to the Jitterbug, Fred Arbogast’s Hula Popper is probably not the first topwater the modern bass angler will select. And like the love loss for the Jitterbug, this is a mistake. What the Hula Popper does better than many poppers is mimic a bug—another staple forage for late-summer bass.
Throughout much of the country, dragonflies are buzzing around lakes and rivers by August. Beetles are falling into the drink, and unfortunate cicadas are splashing down. Smallmouths and largemouth don’t overlook this influx of insects—and I’m talking about big bass, not just the little guys. I’ve seen 5-pound smallies leap clear out of the water trying to snatch a dragonfly on the wing, and I’ve seen craters form on pond surfaces when a heavy bass vacuums a damsel fly. Although the Hula Popper’s body might look more like a frog, its tail is pure bug.
The Hula Popper hit shelves in 1941, and what made it unique was its thick rubber skirt. At the time, rubber skirting was novel, and Arbogast made his wide, flat, and very supple. These same skirts are used on Hula Poppers today, and they arguably “breathe” better in the water than modern rubber skirts. What that means is you don’t have to do much—one or two slight pops is plenty, then just let the lure sit. That juicy skirt will wave, wag, and gently wiggle, creating the illusion of a big summer bug struggling at the surface. All Hula colors produce, but black is a must-have this time of year.
3) Johnson Silver Minnow Spoon
The Silver Minnow has been around for decades, but you won’t find them in freshwater tackle boxes the way you did 30 or 40 years ago. Conversely, you’d have a hard time finding a skinny-water Gulf angler that doesn’t have one on hand. This simple spoon solidified its reputation as killer for redfish the grass long ago, but the same attributes that make it perform in the marsh make it shine at the pond or lake.
The Silver Minnow is weedless, and you can bend its weed guard to adjust how it aligns with the hook point. In more open areas, you can expose more of the point; in heavy vegetation, tilt the guard up to block more debris. This makes it perfect for working through pads and hydrilla where summer bass hole up.
A straight retrieve gets the Silver Minnow wiggling enticingly, but it also has a slow, lazy wobble on the fall. This is a plus for lazy bass that aren’t out hunting, but will snap up a shiner, shad, or bluegill that wanders into the pads. Try simply flipping the spoon into openings in the pads or weed mats and watch for your line to tick on the drop. Cover as much area as you can, because it’s often a matter of getting the spoon right in a fish’s face to draw a reaction strike. Silver Minnows also pair well with pork rinds or curly tail grubs, allowing you to ramp up the flutter or alter the color profile. I like a chartreuse or rusty orange trailer in ponds where there are plenty of frogs and crayfish, and white on my local rivers where chubs and shad are more prevalent.