As the Super Spook skipped and dodged left-right-left-right across the surface of the mountain reservoir, a lake trout blew up on the plug, missing it so completely that it’s broad tail rolled high in the air. Not missing a beat, Denver-area Guide Nathan Zelinsky kept the plug dancing steadily toward his position on shore. The laker was immediately back on the hunt, slashing at the plug four more times, until, finally, it connected, snapping Zelinsky’s rod tip down—and the battle was on, the fish pulling long and hard, in typical lake trout fashion.
Zelinsky has been catching lake trout on topwaters on four different high-country Colorado lakes for two years. Lakers on these waters often explode on shallow-running rainbow trout, so he and several friends thought, well, why not? The approach isn’t just good, but seemingly the best possible way to trigger these fish. It drives them crazy when more standard stuff doesn’t get a look.
I fished with Zelinsky to shoot this phenomenon for TV this past May. This fishing often shines right after ice out when lake trout roam shallow. Rainbows are shallow then, too, although they tend to stay shallower most of the season, in part to stay away from the lake trout. When the lakers feed they often push rainbows against shore or up against the surface. Some of these reservoirs are closed to motorized boat traffic until later in May, so we fished from shore, catching fish along steep rocky banks as well as over gradual sweeping sand and gravel flats.
Look for this TV segment playing right now on Sportsman Channel. Exciting stuff, for sure. But is it timely in August? The topwater bite may be best early, but Zelinsky says it’s an option in those high-country lakes (the lake we fished is at 9,300 feet) all season long. During summer he’s had lakers rise from 40 feet deep to bust a topwater rattling across the surface. I don’t know if similar patterns unfold on other lake trout waters, including waters on the Canadian Shield. But I suspect so.
At certain points in their lives, many of the fish we target make contact with the surface of the water and apparently quickly learn how different conditions are above water. Surely there’s an instinctive component at work, but there’s associative learning involved, too. Feeding on top apparently is so strikingly memorable as to be forever part of their lives.
The role of the surface plays forth in various ways. A smallmouth or largemouth gets a spiny preyfish stuck in their craw. It’s much easier to shake it loose above the water than below. It’s the same for pike and muskies. Indeed, pike don’t jump that much, but whenever they take a lure deeply, they’re usually coming up to try to shake it loose. So it’s no surprise that fish that get stung by a hook often immediately head up and out to get rid of the thing. I’ve seen smallmouth bass hooked in 40 feet of water immediately shoot to the surface to jump. They’re not supposed to be able to do that, but they do.
Some top water connections are just strange. Take the phenomenon of muskies sticking their head out of the water apparently to see what’s happening up above. I don’t know what curious set of circumstances might unfold for a fish to learn to do this, but I’ve seen it twice (and multiple times by both fish) and I’ve heard similar stories from at least a few other muskie anglers from across North America.
My first instance was many years ago, fishing a popular spot called Blondy’s with Doug Johnson on the Northwest Angle portion of Lake of the Woods. The spot is a saddle area between islands with a flat and a weedbed on one side. As we pulled into the area, before we could get a cast in, the fish surfaced 40 feet from the boat, its head out just beyond its gill covers. It proceeded to swim in a semi-circle for about 20 feet, it’s jaws clacking together several times as it went, before slipping back below the surface. Johnson looked at me and said something like: “I won’t mention this to anyone if you don’t.” The fish did that several more times during that trip. The only seemingly “logical” explanation is that the fish had somehow learned to associate the noise of an incoming boat with the need to verify that it was indeed an incoming boat.
Other topwater connections are just remarkable. In a feat rivaling an antiballistic missile doing its job, a small largemouth bass timed perfectly a dragonfly moving swiftly and erratically about a foot above the surface, catching it in mid air. Amazingly, the same thing was happening all around the shallow bay that morning—small bass jumping in an attempt to take dragonflies out of the air, this after a big hatch of the insects.
Consider what a bass has to do to have a chance at catching a speeding, knuckle-balling insect. It has to be at the right depth to see the approaching target. Then to get enough speed to clear the water with enough height to make the catch, the bass surely has to have a running start of a certain distance at just the right depth to then turn upwards at just the right time to gain enough speed to break through and clear the surface by at least a foot, all the while timing everything perfectly in order to have a chance at connecting. I only saw that one bass actually connect in a half hour of observation. Were they mostly just having a good time? A bass equivalent of a Saturday morning of skeet shooting?
As I’ve noted, though, most topwater connections are a matter of fish making learned associative links to getting food. Longtime In-Fisherman writer Ralph Manns has a home on a small Texas lake where he can watch his “pet” bass every day. He says it’s common for some of the fish to learn to push minnows right up onto shore, where the bass beach themselves to get their prey, realizing they can then flip and flop their way back into deeper water.
Largemouth bass (smallmouths and other fish, too) learn to eat frogs, the topic of Senior Editor Steve Quinn’s article in this issue. Again, there’s something particularly memorable about feeding on top. A fish that’s learned to eat frogs can probably be tempted with a topwater even though it hasn’t seen a frog in years.
Most importantly, at times, tempting fish on top is the best possible way to trick them. Topwater tactics drive them crazy when nothing else can.