Topwater Time

Jackpot pikeIt is always said that topwater lure fishing is the most exciting way to catch pike. You know the sort of stuff I mean. Huge bow waves following your lures along the surface until the pike grabs the bait and goes airborne as soon as it feels the hooks. Or maybe one of those sudden explosive takes where the fish smashes the lure without any warning and almost rips the rod out of your hands! Yeah, it can be exciting stuff. It certainly gets your heart pounding at times, but it can be mighty frustrating too.

There are few things that I am willing to guarantee in pike fishing, and this is one of them - when you start using surface lures on a regular basis you will get a lot of wild strikes, and you will lose, or at least fail to connect with, a lot of pike! There have been times when I have been raising  fish after fish on topwaters, often when they wouldn't look at any other presentation, but failing miserably to land any. Even after trying every trick in the book to make sure a pike will actually take a lure well enough to get hooked. Why this should be I do not know. It almost seems like the pike are not actually interested in eating the lures, but are playing with them like a cat with a mouse.

One thing is for sure, surface baits can annoy pike into striking to a much greater degree than other lure types. There is something about the commotion that many of these lures create that triggers some sort of response in pike. I know that all waters are different, and that pike behave differently from place to place. However, in my experience it is rare to see pike taking prey off the top. During the spring and summer I see loads of small waterfowl skittering over the surface of the waters I pike fish, and have yet to see one disappear in the middle of a big swirl. Same goes for water voles. Neither can I recall ever having seen a pike rocket skywards like the proverbial Polaris missile, except when going for a topwater lure. I know some of you reading this will have witnessed the kind of incidents that I have just described. But my point is this: pike attack surface lures far more frequently than they do surface swimming prey.

As I am convinced that it is some sort of annoyance factor that sets off the pike's trigger when surface fishing I don't think that there is much to be gained from trying to ascribe any imitative qualities to your surface lures. That is to say you should be using topwaters to alert pike to their presence. There are times when a subtle approach is called for; don't get me wrong, but trying to make your lure look like a water rat or duckling is likely to be a waste of time.

Once the water warms up with the first long warm days, usually in May, it is time to give the surface baits a go in earnest. Rising water temperatures and spawned out pike still hanging around the shallows, perhaps picking off spawning prey fish, combine to give some excellent opportunities for topwater action. One of the most productive times I have had with topwaters came when Martin McDerby and I stumbled on just such a concentration of pike on a seventy acre reservoir. We had entered a long spell of warm and sunny weather just after the pike had spawned and they were packed in a large shallow bay into which the wind was blowing. These conditions held for about a fortnight, and I think we found the fish just a little too late to get the best out of the situation.

Surface actionThere were obviously bream in the shallow weedy bay, much of it less than three feet deep and wadeable. So we initially started out in thigh waders punching Top Doctors and Jackpots into the wind. At first the pike were being caught close in, actually in the mares tails that were just starting to break surface, where the bream were also active. This was great stuff, and although the pike were not large, the biggest going about eight pounds or so, it was good fun to have them chase a lure in and grab it under your rod end. Many times we had fish take and run back between us and the bank. As anyone who has hooked pike in shallow water will tell you they have only two options, to move away from you or take to the air. Aquabatics were the order of the day!

At the outset these pike were pretty easy, but after a couple of sessions, and all we were doing was a few hours of an evening, they moved out a ways. It was then essential to get the lures out from the weed edge. So chest waders were called for. Fishing stickbaits when stood waist deep in water is not too easy, but by working the rod tip to one side makes it feasible. Now we could reach the pike in the slightly deeper water. I remember standing there with the wind blasting into the bay, water lapping at the top of my waders and pike launching themselves at my lop Doctors. Great stuff! At least handling pike when wading is easy and they never need to leave the water. Keep your pliers or Hookout to hand, even on a lanyard so they don't go the way of one pair of braid blades I dropped!

What was apparent during this brief period, and what has become obvious on other waters, is that pike soon wise up to surface lures, stickbaits in particular. It only took about four sessions before I had to resort to using subsurface lures to elicit a response from the pike. Shortly after that they moved out and dispersed around the reservoir.

Wading for pikeWhile we were enjoying this sport it didn't seem to make any difference what colour of lure we threw, so long as it had a good 'walking' action. Black, yellow or orange, it didn't seem to matter despite clear water and bright sunshine. This is something that I think holds for surface lures in most cases (although I am sure to be proved wrong at some point) - so use lures that you can see easily. It was also obvious that the rippled surface, at times quite choppy out on the main body of the water, didn't put the pike off. Surface lures are frequently associated with flat calm conditions, but here and elsewhere I have found a bit of a blow to be advantageous. Just make sure that you kick up a lot of fuss with your baits. Slow crawlers and subtle presentations are not recommended. Your topwaters must make more noise than the waves in order to be noticed.

Again, most people might not associate bright sunshine with surface activity, but it can get pike going at times. At the other end of the scale I have had good results at both dawn and dusk. Here too lure colour is relatively unimportant so I have started painting some of by topwaters black on the belly, and fluorescent yellow or orange on the back. This gives them a crisp underside silhouette for the pike, and a hi-vis top for me to follow their progress. Now, while I like a big noisy stickbait for working quickly over the wave tops, I will slow it right down in low light levels. Sometimes leaving quite lengthy pauses between taps with the rod. Keep it quiet too, merely rippling the cairn surface rather than making the lure splash loudly. Even though the lure might be working in a subtle way, the takes can be far from subtle.

Nowhere to go but up!Pike take surface baits in many ways. They will actually hit them like rockets and head skywards with the lure in their jaws. At other times they will roll on them hardly breaking the surface. However the lure is hit you should not strike or nine times out of ten you will pull the lure out of the pike's mouth. It takes some doing, but wait until you feel the weight of the pike before leaning into it to set those hooks. I know it is easier said than done. I still get it wrong from time to time!

Given low light levels, maybe even complete darkness, I tend to pick Out a crawler rather than a stickbait. My preference is for the Hawg Wobbler which, once tuned by bending the lip up or down, can be worked dead slow and creates quite a commotion. Not only does the big Colorado lip push a lot of water, but the joint of the lure can also be heard clicking as it waddles along. The slower you can fish this lure the more likely you will be to connect with takes. This applies to all surface baits as pike are not blessed with very good guidance systems. Pike will strike behind topwaters three or four times during a retrieve. If a fish misses in this way, slow the lure down and you might make contact if it is still interested.

The Hawg Wobbler and other crawler type lures are easy to fish because they do all the work. All you have to do is cast them out and wind them in. Make sure that your hooks are super sharp and hang on! Stickbaits, on the other hand, need working. Once you have got the knack of the short taps required to kick the bait off '-40 one side and then the other, you can start to break up the retrieve and trigger more strikes. A steady rhythmical retrieve, even a super fast one, will raise plenty of pike. I have found that pike that chase a speedy surface lure and turn away or miss it rarely take a second look. The reverse being the case with a slow retrieve, and an erratic retrieve is best of all being the one most likely to trigger a positive strike. It is always worth pausing a lure, and this applies just as much to surface baits as it does other lure types. Giving it a violent rip as you restart the retrieve can pay off too.

There are other surface lures around but these two are the most consistent producers in my experience. They can also be used in other ways to provide the kind of action that chuggers and poppers produce. There are not many good sized chuggers on the market. A shame because I like them for drawing strikes from pike that are lying up in weed, streamer weed for example. If you can't find a decent chugger try using the Hawg Wobbler, or even a floating Burt or a big, buoyant minnowbait.

Chuck your chosen chugger into a gap in the weed lying on the surface, let it rest, then rip it with a sharp snap of the wrist. The lure will bloop and gurgle making a hell of a racket and throwing up bubbles and spray. Sometimes it will get nailed big time too! If not, let it sit again and, repeat the procedure. Two or three chugs are enough as takes usually come straight away. Overdoing things can have a negative result. Leave the spot and try it again later.

I have got little to say about tailspinning surface lures, propbaits and buzzers. They are useful for searching water as they can be fished quickly. I know others catch on these lures, but all I get are off-target strikes or fish that turn away at the last minute. Spinning type baits can be fished stop-start style, a bit like ripping a popper,to kick up a lot of commotion in fitful bursts. This can be more successful, although I prefer to use a chugger to fish like this. However, I have not written these lures off and during the summer usually carry an Awaker around just in case! Once you gain confidence in using surface lures they will soon become the first lure you throw during the hot lazy days of summer.

(This article first appeared in Pike and Predators)