North Fork Outdoors: Nothing quite like thrill of a surface strike

Whenever we fish Long Island beaches in the fall and look at anglers fishing the suds, we always see one or more individuals slinging surface lures. In most cases, especially when there’s no “blitz” of diving birds and splashing bait, these folks would be better served casting tipped bucktails or tins. Yet they persist. Why?  The answers lie in the fascination they find in the “pop, pop, pop” of a classic surface bait and the thrill that comes from a dramatic surface strike. There’s nothing quite like the adrenalin rush one gets when any fish grabs a topwater bait. Period!

Of course, not all surface lures are created alike. Poppers and so-called “stick baits” (or “pencil poppers” as they are sometimes called) take a lot more skill than the others to use. Sometimes we need a steady drumbeat of action with only the shortest of pauses between twitches or whips of the rod tip. Other times we let the lure rest quietly for long intervals between “pops.”

In extreme cases such as freshwater use for largemouth and smallmouth bass when surfaces are glass calm, anglers enjoy success by waiting patiently for ripples to fade from one pop before initiating another. Here you had best not be in any hurry because each cast can take an inordinate amount of time — two or three minutes or more. Not only are poppers effective when used this way, the same retrieve with long pauses also works nicely for surface swimmers. In kettlehole ponds of Long Island, we have caught a lot of largemouths on swimmers retrieved painfully slowly when fall water temperatures drop into the low 40s and sluggish bass need a long time to swim up to the lures.

We’re also partial to splashers with metal arms or tails, lures which are generally retrieved steadily with just the right speed to activate a “plop, plop” sound along with a V-shaped wake. It’s strange that such lures aren’t as popular with the saltwater crowd as they were generations ago. The Heddon company, when it was out in Michigan, made a giant “flap-tail” lure with a spoon on a swivel that was widely used by post-World War II surfcasters, and it accounted for some of the largest East Coast stripers taken at that time, including, I think, a 60-plus pounder from the Cape. Flap-tail versions are still being produced for folks who fish the largest northern pike and muskellunge, and those of us who fish these critters during summer months would never be caught without one in the “go-to” slot in our tackle chests.

Are “darters” or, as they are called in freshwater fishing, “jerk baits,” surface lures? A sharp pull with the rod tip makes these things dive a few feet under the surface of the water before they are allowed to rise to the surface again. Whether strikes come at the bottom or the top of the rod-pull, they are some of the most vicious you ever experience. Rather than sauntering up to “slurp” a popper off the top, a predator seems to grab a darter at the end of a fast rush, perhaps afraid of seeing its prey escape.

One of the perplexing things about the use of surface lures is missing strikes. Often this occurs when an angler anticipates the strike and “sets up” before the fish has grasped the bait and clamped down. It takes more than a split-second for 30 to 50 inches of fish to turn and get the firm grip you want to “set the hook,” so the experts tell you to just keep on retrieving the way you were (never mind the splash!) and wait to feel the weight of the bass or blue or salmon or muskellunge on the rod before striking. Easy to say, but so hard to do!

Ironically, this is why steadily retrieved splashers have always been our top choice for night fishing in freshwater. Because you hear the splash without seeing it first, it’s the pull of the fish on the line following the take that triggers the strike, as it should.

When hooked on top, a lot of fish that aren’t usually thought of as “jumpers” go airborne. What fun, as long as you remember to bow to the “out of water” fish to avoid pulling out the hooks! We’ve not seen stripers do this, but we’ve had plenty of bluefish come out of the water, plus the occasional northern pike and chain pickerel. Of course, in fresh water the bass, the muskellunge, the Atlantic salmon and the rainbow trout are the most reliable jumpers of all, and nothing rivals a Florida Keys tarpon or a big water billfish for pyrotechnics. The most dramatic topwater strike we’ve experienced came from a false albacore that exploded under a strip bait, trolled at about seven knots. It looked like someone threw a depth charge behind the boat!

Topwater action is great sport!