Get Up Early for Topwater Bite

Captain Mark Phelps of Shore Thang Charters

On July 5, I took a day off from my inshore guiding business to take my dad out for a morning of topwater fishing. We hoped to take advantage of a quiet morning, with everyone sleeping in after partying on the Fourth of July.

We put the boat in at 5:30 a.m. and headed to an inlet, where the incoming tide was bringing in the ocean's cool, clean water.

I used the trolling motor to move us toward a current rip off an inlet point and soon saw a fish boil on the surface. After a quick cast and two twitches of a topwater plug, we got our first trout of the morning. Over the next hour and a half, we caught numerous trout and ladyfish on topwater?— just one example of what can happen if you set the alarm clock early in the summer.

This time of year, when the Lowcountry is hot and humid, the old saying “the early bird gets the worm” holds very true. Though you can catch fish all day long in cooler, cloudier conditions, such days are few and far between. And though it's also possible to catch fish as the sun is going down, summer evenings often bring stiff sea breezes along with high heat and humidity.

In my opinion, the best way to experience great topwater action in the summer is to just get up early.

Many anglers may think an “early” start means putting in around 8 or 9 a.m. But many days, the topwater bite is well over by then. To truly catch the best topwater bite, you need to put the boat in while it is still dark and get to your fishing destination as soon as you can safely navigate there. This way, you are in your spot and ready to fish at first light.

Working hard- or soft-plastic baits or flies at the surface works so well at first light because hungry fish look up toward the water's surface and see a dark bait shadow silhouetted by the dawn sky. The size and shape of that shadow are more important in simulating bait than the actual color.

With the right topwater lures, early-rising anglers can catch not only seatrout and redfish, but also ladyfish, bluefish, Spanish mackerel and even larger species such as jack crevalle, sharks and cobia.

Tools of the topwater trade

Hard-plastic, topwater plugs break down into categories based on how they're worked through the water: mainly popping, twitching and “walk-the-dog” types. Depending on the day, one type may work better than another. My favorite is the “walk-the-dog” type.

I seem to get more hits and hook-ups with smaller versions of all types of plugs, though larger lures will often entice larger fish. Some of my favorite smaller plugs include Rapala's Skitter Walk No. 8, Heddon's Super Spook Jr., MirrOlure's Top Dog Jr., and MirrOlure's

MirrOdine Suspending Twitch bait. The larger baits I like include Rapala's Skitter Walk No. 10 and 13, Heddon's Super Spook, Bomber's Walkie Talkie, and MirrOlure's Top Dog.

Another factor to consider when picking out plugs is whether a lure has a rattle built inside and whether that rattle's pitch is high or low. You should experiment with both kinds to see which will attract more fish in different conditions.

Soft-plastic baits are another good topwater option. In this category, my favorites are the D.O.A. jerk baits. I prefer the larger 5.5-inch baits because you can cast them a long way and they provide nice action in the water. I like rigging them with 5/0 D.O.A. long-neck hooks with no weight. You can also add a D.O.A. chug head/hot head to the bait to create more disturbance in the water.

Before using a new plug, take some pliers and mash down the barb on all hooks, especially if they're treble hooks. This will be helpful for two reasons. First, you are being conservation-minded and making it easier to get the hooks out of fish. Second, it makes the hooks easier to remove from an angler if he happens to get hooked.

One other safety measure would be to purchase some plug wraps, which cover the plugs when they're attached to rods stored in a rod holder. This will help prevent anglers getting hooked while moving around the boat.

The right rod and reel

There are a few things to consider when choosing a rod and reel for topwater fishing. I use 8- to 15-pound-class rods with Shimano Symmetry 2500 reels, spooled with 10-pound test braid. The 2500 reel series is small and light, allowing for less fatigue when casting repeatedly. Braided line is a plus because it has no stretch, making it easier to achieve good lure action and increasing your chances of setting the hook.

This combination also works very well because the medium/heavy rod action helps control the movement of the bait during retrieval?— I think lighter rods make this more difficult.

If you're fishing for jack crevalle, sharks, cobia or other large species, you should use a 10- to 20-pound-class rod with 20-pound braided line on a 4000 series or larger reel.

When and where

The most important thing everyone probably wants to know is where and how to catch fish on topwater. This is the never-ending question and the answer is always changing. The real truth is that it doesn't take a secret spot to catch fish on topwater.

You must first decide what type of fish you want to catch and simply go to an area where you know that type of fish hangs out. If you want to catch Spanish mackerel, bluefish or even a jack, you should look in the harbor or off the beach for areas with bait, busting fish or current rips. If you want seatrout, go to your favorite trout spot for that particular morning's tide. If you want to catch a redfish on topwater, you need to head to a mud flat near low tide or the flooded grass flats near high tide.

Then, depending on your mood, pick out one of your favorite topwater lures and just start covering ground. The most important thing is to have confidence in the lure you are throwing and keep reminding yourself that fish are in the area. Just cast and retrieve every few feet along the bank so you can cover a large area of water.

This does not mean you just throw a bait out and wait for something to come along. You will be actively fishing — making a lot of casts, possibly hundreds of casts, and experimenting with different retrieves. One day, the fish might like it fast and splashy. The next day, they'll respond to a very slow, twitch-and-wait method.

Remember that not every fish that sees the bait will hit it immediately — they might need to see the plug several times before exploding on it.

One final and very important piece of advice: Do not pull the lure away from the fish when it strikes. Fish often miss topwater lures and might strike two or three times before actually getting hooked.

Continue working the lure until you actually feel the fish pulling back.

… Having said this, I bet most novice topwater anglers will jerk the plug completely out of the water the first time they get a strike. It happens to all of us at some point. That's just part of the true excitement of topwater fishing?— intently watching and working a plug, then seeing the water erupt in a huge boil as a nice fish crashes the lure.

If that doesn't get you excited, you should probably sleep in and come out around noon to soak some baits with everyone else!