By: Shaye Baker
The term topwater can refer to a wide variety of baits, everything from baits you reel like buzzbaits and Whopper Ploppers to soft plastic topwaters like toads. Then you’ve got hollow body baits like frogs and prop baits you twitch. But a vast number of topwaters outside of this handful of bait types falls into one of two other main categories— walking topwaters and popping topwaters.
For decades, these have arguably been considered the two “main” styles of topwaters. Again, there are dozens of baits that don’t land in either category. But for the beginner angler all the way to the most advanced, walking and popping baits take up a good bit of the tackle box. So today, we’re going to talk about some of the key differences between the two styles and when and where you’re better off using one or the other.
Popping Style Topwater Baits
Popping styles topwaters, or poppers, have one main thing in common— an open mouth on the front end of the bait that pushes water as the bait is fished along. This mouth makes a pop or chug sound as the angler twitches their rod tip which in turn creates the illusion that there’s some sort of small animal struggling along the surface. Most commonly used to target fish relating to bream or bluegill, bass could also mistake a popper for a shad, frog or any number of small prey species.
A popper was one of the first baits I ever threw in pursuit of a bass. Great for ponds and bigger fisheries alike, a popper is a simple bait for a beginner to tie on and enjoy fishing with. It’s interactive, since you can watch it work on the surface as you twitch your rod tip. And since it’s a topwater, it’s only a matter of time before an erupting bass explodes on the bait and creates one of the most exhilarating sensations an angler can ever experience.
An average size popper comes in at around 3 inches, with some finesse poppers smaller than that, while pencil poppers may be 8- inches long or even longer. Where traditional poppers are used primarily to imitate bream and bluegill, the finesse poppers are typically used to imitate shad and the larger pencil poppers work well when fishing around blue back herring.
Walking Style Topwater Baits
“Walking” refers to the action of this style of bait, as it is meant to be twitched in a cadence to create a side to side gliding action. I’d venture to say 90% of all anglers who have fished for bass any reasonable length of time will have thrown a walking style topwater at some point. While those numbers may seem high locally if you live up north where the topwater fishing season is pretty short, in the south and across much of the country, a walking style topwater spends at least half the year on the deck of most anglers’ boats.
Baits like the Zara Spook transcend time, and brand names it seems, with many anglers referring to all walking style topwaters as a Spook. But many variations of this style bait have come along over the years to add to this genre. There are some larger, niche walking style topwaters like the 8-inch Lunker Punker, but I really like the smaller, finessier walking baits like the MONSTERBASS Patriot 3.0.
All these baits work well. If you’re a trophy hunter, go with the oversized bait. But for most of us, you’ll want to spend your time with a mid-range to smaller walking style bait. Try to match the size and color of your lure to the bait the bass are feeding on, using the smaller walking baits when bass are relating more to threadfin shad and the longer ones when bass are relating to longer forage like herring.
When To Throw
Anytime you’re fishing around an insect hatch, a popping style bait is hard to beat. The popping action along the surface does a great job of imitating the bream and bluegill feeding on the insects. I’ll rarely throw a walking style topwater around a mayfly hatch for instance. A popper is simply way more effective in that situation.
Poppers are also a little better in the hot summer months in general, and especially finesse poppers up shallow. The heat can make bass a little hesitant to eat a large meal. Though the random big one can still be caught on a larger walking style bait around isolated cover or around blue back herring, poppers typically get more bites in the summer. The same can be said for fishing around a bunch of shad in the fall. Poppers typically do better then as well.
Though in the spring as the fish first start to entertain the idea of eating a topwater, a mid-size walking style bait is often best. There’s something about the slow, methodical walking action of a larger bait that is particularly appealing to bass as they move onto and off of the bed.
There’s no perfect science though to distinguish when and where to throw each, so it’s a good idea to keep both a popping style and walking style topwater on deck as long as the water temps are above 70 degrees. Applying these guidelines and doing your own testing of the waters will help you hone in on exactly when and where you should throw each of these baits on the water you frequent most. Either way, keeping one of these baits in hand ensures there will be some really exciting fish catches in your future.