One of the most exciting ways to fish for bass is to use lures that draw strikes on the surface or in the top foot or two of the water column. That is where the fish often can be seen before they strike.
The lures used in this pursuit are called top-water baits for obvious reasons. They are used to search the top levels of the water column.
A couple of weeks ago, Randy Romig of Spring City, Pa., was in town at Bass Expo '92 and spoke about the pluses and pitfalls of fishing some of these kinds of lures.
Romig is a professional bass fisherman who finished second by three ounces in the BASS Masters Classic here last summer.
Top-water lures can be used at any time of the year, but Romig said the best times are in the spring during the pre-spawning period once water temperatures warm to 55 degrees or more, early morning, evening or at night once the water temperature reaches 80 degrees or more, and in the fall after the temperature drops back to below 70 degrees.
In virtually all cases, top-water lures should be fished when the water is clear -- three feet minimum visibility -- and calm.
Generally what the fish want from a top-water lure is an accurate imitation of a crippled or distressed baitfish, and that presentation should be as slow as possible in most cases.
"It is important with any top-water bait to vary your retrieve and try different things to let the fish tell you what they want," Romig said.
A good presentation will result in fish at least taking a pass at the bait and because you are working a thin area of water, passes should be visible.
"If you see a fish making a pass and not taking the bait," Romig said, "try one of two things: Slow the retrieve down a little or put more quivering action in the bait and the fish will take it."
It is important, Romig said, to have patience when fishing top-water lures.
"Too often, when a fish boils up to take the lure, a hook set too quickly just pulls the bait away from the fish," he said. "The key to hooking and landing a fish on a top-water bait is to ensure the fish has taken the bait and begun to swim away with it.
"Wait until you feel the weight of the fish on the line before you set the hook."
There are many types of top-water lures and a lot omanufacturers as well. Romig's views of a few kinds:
* Minnow imitations without noise makers such as propellers, spinners, vibrating blades and so on. These should be cast where fish might be expected and allowed to settle. By moving the rod tip slightly, twitch the bait without changing its location. The next step is to make the bait dive and rise in the same small area by horizontally jigging the rod tip.
An exception is in the early spring, when fish are scattered and moving into flats where there is emerging vegetation. Then a good tactic is to cast and retrieve slowly to cover a lot of ground.
Another exception is when the fish have moved onto the spawning beds, when a rapid retrieve likely will draw a reflex strike.
* Small minnow imitations with noise makers such as small fore or aft propellers.
The best time of the year to fish these baits is when the fish are on the spawning beds and guarding the nests, or in the fall when fish are schooling.
The best way to fish these baits over the beds is to cast to a bass that can be seen guarding a nest and let the bait settle until the surface of the water is clear and calm again. If there is the least amount of current or wind, the bait will move slightly, the prop will turn and the resultant flash will trigger a strike.
If that doesn't work, quiver the bait with the rod tip, which will produce a little more flash and vibration and perhaps a strike. The next step is to twitch the bait so that its nose dives enough to make a small splash and trigger a strike.
On longer baits with larger propellers, a straight, medium retrieve often will be enough to draw the fish up out of the grass and induce a strike.
"But keep in mind that the bass you are fishing for around here probably has seen a hundred or more top-water baits in its life," Romig said, "so try to give it a little something different from time to time. It may be something that seems absolutely foolish, but it just might work."
* Poppers that imitate shad leaving or re-entering the water, with a popping or gurgling sound.
Traditionally, poppers have been fished by casting them to cover or over submerged vegetation, letting them settle and using the rod tip to jerk them slightly and produce a gurgling pop, which often attracts fish.
When fishing in an area where bass are actively feeding on shad, poppers may be fished at a faster rhythm, a cadence that will produce a little less sound but more frantic activity, as a bTC panicked shad might.
Rod action should be continual and the face of the popper should produce a small spray of water with each twitch of the rod tip.
* Buzzbaits, which use a spinning blade that sort of walks the bait across the top of the water and attracts by noise, flash and large silhouette.
These are especially good for fishing heavy cover such as grass or submerged trees or brushpiles and for night fishing.
A common mistake with these baits is that they are fished too fast, Romig said. "If your retrieve is at a rate that is throwing off a spray of water and you can hear the blade real well, 90 percent of the time you are fishing it too fast."
Bigger and more fish can be caught with a slower retrieve. "Where you can just hear the blade going, plop, plop, plop, Romig said, "fish it just as slow as you can and keep it on the surface."
In-line buzzbaits are best for emergent vegetation such as lily pads or matted grasses, although the retrieve should be somewhat faster.
* Slug-Go type baits, soft forms that imitate baitfish through silhouette and movement.
These baits are especially good in the pre-spawn period, but will catch bass virtually any time of the year because of their versatility. Again, water in which a fish has at least three feet of visibility is best.
"These things have such an erratic movement that you never know what they are going to do," said Romig, who prefers to fish these style of baits about a foot under the surface. "One time it will dive deeper, the next time you twitch it will come up and jump out of the water."
But it is this erratic behavior, Romig said, that really sets off the bass.
"Some days you will have to let it sink three or four feet and then work it back real slow," he said. "But it will catch fish all year long, especially on waters like the Potomac."
One of the keys to using these types of baits is to pick a large enough hook. For a six-inch bait of this type, Romig prefers a 5/0 hook, with the barb 1/8 inch, or less, from the surface of the lure. The bait should be rigged perfectly straight.
When setting the hook with a Slug-Go style bait, give the fish time enough to get the monster in its mouth and then steadily sweep the rod back to the side rather than powering up vertically. This will allow the hook to begin to sink into the fish's jaw before the front of the bait begins to bump back out of the fish's mouth.