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July 6, 2022

By Rory K. Aikens

If you want some exciting action, try fishing topwater lures on Western reservoirs when predatory schools of black or striped bass are chasing large schools of shad.

Good topwater action can start in the heat of summer and last through late fall. A phenomenon many reservoirs in the West experience is the build up of a summer thermocline (a warm layer of water sitting atop a cooler layer of water), resulting in higher oxygen levels near the lake's surface.

Those higher oxygen levels attract small organisms called plankton. Plankton attract schools of threadfin shad. Schools of shad attract marauding schools of bass. It's a food-chain relationship, sometimes with anglers at the top.

But be prepared: this action can sometimes be best during the heat of the day when temperatures are soaring into the triple digits and you can sizzle a fish on the top of your outboard motor cowling.

Bass Feeding Frenzies

Quite often shad and bass are busting the surface during a feeding frenzy. Bass and shad boils are sporadic at times. Sometimes they make the lake surface look like whitewater rapids. More importantly, the boils occur over deep water at times in the main body of a lake. Other times, the boils are in the backs of coves. Typically, you will find boils off major points, reefs and islands. It's good to carry binoculars to spot the boils, or the fish-eating birds that feed on them.

The Key Is Mimicking Wounded Shad

The key is having lures that mimic wounded or injured shad, and there are a host of topwater lures that do. In clear water lakes such as Lake Pleasant near Phoenix or Lake Havasu on the Colorado River, one of the more successful lures is the Heddon's clear Zara Puppy, or its larger sibling, the Zara Spook. You read right clear. A clear popper, such as Rico (color is called Clear Ice) is also good to have in the arsenal.

The sun makes these clear lures work well. Watch a threadfin shad skittering across the surface while being chased by bass. The sunlight will glint and sparkle off its body and tail at times. The sunlight through the clear lure mimics this effect sometimes with phenomenal success.

These lures are worked in a back-and-forth motion called walking the dog, which can drive bass bonkers. The back-and-forth action is mimicking a wounded shad on the surface.


Sometimes a stop-and-go type of action will work best. Other times, a walk-the-dog race across the water triggers the strikes. Other times, an exaggerated walk-the-dog action is necessary. I've even cast out and let the lure sit for a count of four or five before working it. If the bass aren't biting right away, get creative.

Sit and watch bass chasing shad so you can see what wounded shad look like on or near the lake's surface. That is what you are trying to imitate.

Always keep in mind that bass are predators looking for an easy meal. Anything wounded or dying can get them excited. The vibrations from a wounded shad or lure can travel long distances underwater. For many bass, that is the dinner gong.

Bass Can Play Volleyball With The Lure

Then there are times when the bass will play volleyball with your lure. First one bass will hit, knocking the lure three and four feet into the air, then when the lure hits the water, yet another fish will hit it. That can happen repeatedly. They are trying to stun their prey. You can laugh so much it's hard to set the hook when you finally get one to actually bite the lure.

While seeing the bass hit the lure can be an advantage in many ways, it also can be a disadvantage. Those accustomed to setting a hook while bottom fishing a Carolina or Texas-rigged worm will often see the bass hit a surface lure and then set the hook too early, pulling the lure right out of the fish's mouth.

If you just can't cure yourself of that habit, try closing your eyes while you work the topwater lure and set the hook when you feel a strong tug, just like when bottom fishing. Catch a few fish that way, and you should have the feel for this new technique.

Originally published May 18, 2020. 

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