Never Too Early For Topwater Bass

Bass love to eat on top... almost as much as anglers like to fish topwater baits.

Shaye Baker | March 27, 2023

Is it ever too early for topwater? Maybe… but never underestimate a bass’s desire to smash something on the surface. GON learned that years ago during an Eliminator Series tournament event in late January on Lake Lanier with water temps in the low 50s when a competitor rolled a big largemouth at daylight on a buzzbait!

Spring snuck up on us a little early this year. We were all excited to see unseasonably warm weather in the latter part of February and into early March. And then, as is often the case here in the Southeast, we retreated right back into the abyss of winter for a few weeks.

But those first few warm days no doubt had us all reaching for or at least eyeing our topwater boxes. Those in the southern parts of Georgia had the great fortune of seeing bass flock to the shallows on Seminole and Eufaula, with a few spawners hitting the beds even a little farther north. This made the bass susceptible to all sorts of tactics, even those on top.

The early stages of the topwater bite are spreading all over the Southeast now. But with buzzbaits, toads, hollow-body frogs, poppers, prop baits, walking baits, Whopper Ploppers and more to choose from, how do you decide where to throw what topwater first?

Well, that’s what we’re hoping to break down a bit in this article.

Early Season Topwater Fishing

For staters, let’s look at the conditions necessary for a bass to feed on top. These parameters are surprisingly not as confining as one might think, and they aren’t even necessarily dependent on a specific water temperature like some patterns are. For instance, we know bass start to get into their prespawn patterns and feed a little more when the water temps hit 52 degrees. And the spawn really starts to take place around 60 degrees. But a bass may very well eat a topwater in temps colder than these, and be hesitant to do so in 80-degree water in the summer, depending on other conditions.

I’ve actually personally caught bass on a topwater on West Point with water temps as cold as 49  degrees. Now this does not mean that I recommend trying a topwater every time you go fishing in the winter. But given the right set of circumstances, bass will feed on top even in the winter and early spring.

There are two situations that lead to the best results with a topwater super early in the season, and they’re not dependent on one another. But when these two collide, they definitely give you the best chance of success. One is a warming trend. If the weather has stabilized, meaning there are sunny skies and water temps are on the rise, bass can be caught on top even in water in the lower 50s. But say the water temp is in the lower 60s and a front pushes through dropping the water into the upper 50s. Even though the water is warmer in this situation, the bass are less likely to eat a topwater.

When fish are super shallow, they’re also more likely to eat a bait on top. Though many bass move offshore in the winter and summer, there are still some resident fish shallow year-round. These fish that are in less than a foot or two of water will eat a topwater even in super cold conditions. That’s especially true when these shallow fish are also subjected to a warming trend.

The rising temps make the cold-blooded bass more aggressive. And if a bass is in 18 inches of water and willing to eat a spinnerbait, it makes perfect sense that the same fish would be willing to swim a few more inches up into warmer water to eat a buzzbait. And some bass just want to eat on top!

Topwater Baits To Throw First

A buzzbait is one of the best topwater baits to throw early in the season. It can be reeled slowly but still covers a lot of water. And buzzbaits are fairly weedless, so they can be fished around lots of cover. And they generate a good bit of constant commotion, making them effective and easy to track down in clear, stained and muddy water.

The best conditions for a buzzbait bite in the late winter and early spring are a combination of what we already talked about. If you have fish that are shallow and the area is experiencing a warming trend, the water temps will slowly climb and the bass will become more active and willing to eat a topwater.

One of the keys to getting bit this way is making sure you’re able to fish whatever buzzbait you select slowly. You can achieve this by selecting a light buzzbait in the 1/4-oz. range, by selecting a buzzbait with a bigger blade, or by pairing your buzzbait with a wide or buoyant soft plastic trailer that will help the bait stay on the surface and thus slow it down.

Topwater Down South

Prop baits like the Devil’s Horse are also very effective early in the spring. These baits work especially well down in southern Georgia and on into Florida, where they can be used to annoy spawners that are sitting on beds near cover. They work well in stained water where you can’t see bass that might be on the bed. Twitched slowly over the top of areas where spawners are believed to be, prop baits drive bass mad and often draw a strike. They also draw strikes from prespawn bass cruising the shallows, and they also get blasted by postspawn males guarding beds and females ready to eat.

Reeling toads and single swimbaits along the surface are other great ways to generate a bite on top from a late winter to early spring bass in the southern parts of the state where vegetation is prevalent. These baits allow you to cover lots of water to catch the prespawn fish that are nosing around looking for a place to spawn, plus the bass that are actually spawning and those first few fish that are coming off the bed.

On lakes like Seminole and Sinclair where there’s vegetation and grass, a hollow-body frog is a productive topwater option.

Hollow-body frogs work well early in the season, too. But you’ll want to steer away from the more aggressive popping frogs and instead opt for the pointy-nosed walking frogs. These baits are a little more finesse and can be walked along without a lot of commotion. The same applies to walking-style topwaters versus hard-chugging poppers.

The early topwater bite is often a little more subtle, with slow gurgling buzzbaits being about as aggressive as you’ll want to go. For this reason, a Whopper Plopper or similar aggressive style topwater is something you’ll want to hold off on until later in the year as spring fades into summer.

Topwater Fishing Farther North

When you start moving out of south Georgia and up into the state, you’ll want to shift to those walking-style topwaters. These baits work better around the more rocky terrain and clearer-water reservoirs. Wakebaits are a better segue into the topwater season when targeting spotted bass and largemouth on these fisheries where there’s far less vegetation.

Wakebaits are popular for a very good reason—they catch big bass! Pictured is a Jenko Wake N’ Bait. They are fished just under the surface to create a wake.

Wakebaits crawled down shallow, rocky shorelines and walking-style topwaters like a Zara Spook fished methodically over deeper water can generate some of the most explosive topwater strikes of the entire year. And then there will be some days the bass will come up and just suck these baits under, seeming much smaller on the initial strike than they actually are.

Buzzbaits still make for great topwaters on these highland reservoirs where there’s less vegetation. The key though is often looking for a little stained water to throw your buzzbait. Though the water is generally pretty clear throughout the majority of these fisheries, there are creeks, pockets and flats where you can find water that’s a little more stained and even muddy at times. You’ll also often find stumps, laydowns, docks and shallow brush in these areas. This is the perfect situation to insert a buzzbait into the mix.

Topwater baits with a tail spinner, like this Yo-Zuri 3DR Series Prop or old standards like a Bang-O-Lure or Devil’s Horse, are very effective at aggravating bass to hit during all stages of the spawn.

Spring Sets In

As bass go full swing into the spawn, get ready for the topwater bite to bust wide open. Topwaters are great baits to use when bass are in the immediate prespawn and postspawn phases because the bass are shallow and typically hungry—or they are at least defensive. Even when the bass are physically on the beds, they’ll still often roll on topwater baits and reveal themselves. This makes a topwater a great search bait when the bass are actively spawning.

And there are a few things that happen when the bass start to come off the beds which set up perfectly for topwater fishing. For starters, the females are hungry and looking for a substantial meal. You can target these fish by taking a topwater and fishing it around the areas where these big bass are trying to recuperate and hunt: docks, shallow brush, grass patches and so on.

Simultaneously the male bass are guarding fry, which means they are staying close to the newly hatched schools of baby bass to protect them from predators like bluegill, crappie and other bass, including the females. Taking a topwater and throwing it into this scenario is a great way to get a reaction strike out of these fry guarders.

And lastly, there are baitfish spawns. As the bass spawn winds down, the shad, herring and eventually bluegill all work through their spawning processes. These spawns send bass into feeding frenzies, the likes of which we see no other time of the year. Topwaters are perfect imitators for all of these.

During the shad spawn, look to smaller poppers, buzzbaits and frogs to get the job done. When targeting fish around blueback herring spawns, larger walking-style topwaters and pencil poppers match the hatch best. And then you can finally take a Whopper Plopper and cover water later in the spring and into the early summer in search of spawning bluegill along the shoreline.

A pencil-popper style topwater like this Yo-Zuri 3DR Series that ‘walk the dog’ are deadly on bass that are chasing and feeding on blueback herring at lakes like Clarks Hill, Hartwell and Lanier.

It’s easy to miss some of the best topwater fishing of the season if you let the calendar dictate when you start picking one up. Look for fish shallow and keep a keen eye on the weather to identify warming trends. If the water starts to tick up even a degree or two across multiple days, take the topwater out and give a fling or two. Worst case, you’re a little early to the party. Best case, you get the party started.

Tailor your bait selection to the cover you’re fishing around and the type of bait you’re trying to imitate. Wakebaits, buzzbaits and more subtle walking baits are some of the easiest to get bit on first, with the twitch-style prop baits and finesse poppers thrown into the mix. Then you can get more aggressive later in the spring. It’s time to draw a big one up to the surface.

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