Saturday, June 28, 2014


A thick carpet of mottled green moss and algae seals the surface of the water at the back of the creek. The 30-yard-wide area sports a max depth of four feet, but the deepest spots were hidden beneath the blanket of vegetation. Further upstream, natural springs pump cool water into the creek, which, when intermixed with the warmer lake water, presumably boosts the growth of the green barrier which floats in front of me. I get a quick whiff of the musky, mildewy odor of the moss before it moves along with a very slight breeze from the west. Amidst the muck, turtles poke up their heads, painted in bright reds and yellows and randomly speckled with neon-green polka dots. Massive-sounding bullfrogs croak loudly from dark, hidden places within the tall, overhanging grass at the water’s edge. Birds call from the canopy above and two blue-jays screech harsh alarm cries to their feathered friends as my kayak slowly slides into the scene. 

Topwater. Whether it be a popper chugging across the surface of a cobalt blue ocean or a hopper plopping down at the edge of a grass-adorned undercut bank, topwater fishing has tremendous allure to us fishermen. It’s visual, which is most of the fun, but it also carries with it a horror-movie set of emotions, as each cast is accompanied by the anxiety that the offering could get clobbered at any moment. A grasshopper pattern drifting along a fishy-looking seam can elicit the same feeling as watching the clueless coed walk down into the dark basement by herself to check out the noise she heard. You are prepared for something to happen, but when the violence occurs, it’s almost never when expected. Just as the masked guy with the ax is not in the closet, but standing right behind her, the brown trout doesn't strike when the hopper drifts over the root tangle, but it clobbers the hopper in the innocuous, fishless-looking seam. 

Fell for da Hopper.
Regardless of age, experience or personality, all fisherman giggle and grin when their topwater fly or lure is crushed from below. It may elicit a whoop or two, most often from a co-angler, but it’s pure adrenaline and easily the best cure for whatever ails ya. You’ll forget how seasick, how hungover or how aggrieved of allergies you are when your scum frog disappears instantly in a swirl of black water and lily pads. 

The best topwater strike I ever experienced was while fishing with guide-buddy David Perry of Southeastern Fly one morning on a local tailrace. It was one of those perfect situations in which a month full of constant generation from the big dam attracted an endless supply of skipjack and shad, and following closely behind, hungry striper. Rain drizzled from the windless gray skies and a sheen of mist lay over the river. An array of fly-rods rested in rod holders inside the gunnels of the boat, but a heavy casting rod armed with a seven-inch redfin slept beside the rowing bench. 

As we drifted down from the put-in spot, I pounded the banks with an articulated streamer, hoping for a big brown trout or maybe an even bigger striper. No luck. But, as David backstroked the drifter through some very fishy-looking water, I put down the long-stick and picked up the casting rod. With my thumb lightly resting above the spool, I heaved the giant hunk of plastic at the banks and slowly brought the Redfin back to the drift boat, leaving behind it a steady “v-shaped” wake. A fish boiled behind the lure a time or two, but no strikes for the first few hundred yards of the drift. We then came upon a small creek which dumps into the main river. I’d fished this spot so many times before, but almost always at low water. I knew the creek mouth abruptly met the main river channel, and when it did, the depth of the water went from a few inches to several feet. I figured striper would likely congregate here, so I called my shot and plopped the Redfin down about 30 feet up the creek. After letting the ripples clear, I slowly cranked the bait toward the river channel, maintaining a steady but methodical pace as the lure drunkenly wobbled in the surface film. As soon as it cleared the creek mouth and hovered over deeper water, it happened. 

I remember the sound the most. Deep, resonant, violent. An immense explosion, instantly followed by the slap-swoosh! of the fish’s tail as it swirled and inhaled the hunk of plastic. It was as if a Volkswagen dropped from the skies and crashed down in front of us. Mouths agape in shocked smiles, David and I watched my line go tight, and I instinctively reared back and set the hooks into a river monster. 

Sadly, the fish story ends there. After a few minutes of tug o’ war, I lost the big striper. The Redfin came back to me with my only tangible takeaway from the experience: a large scale skewered on the point of one of the trebles. But, I’ll never forget the epic topwater take.

It’s now mid-summer, and on the trout streams, it’s terrestrial time. Fishing hopper patterns on breezy days is a favorite pastime, and while the strikes are no where near as visceral as a striper taking a Redfin, they are just as exciting and, to a certain extent, more unexpected. Most appreciated, however, is the fact that more often than not, the trout zoning in on the rubber-legged grasshopper imitation is a pretty good-sized fish. Big brown trout, in particular, will abandon cautiousness and strike in the middle of a sunny day if a protein-rich meal like a juicy grasshopper presents itself in just the right way. 

Rock bass (left) and cicada fly (right)
The same pretty much goes in warm water. In the local lakes and rivers, a simple popper pattern will get strikes all day long. While I love to hunt for big fish, pounding banks with a six-weight fly-rod armed with a rubber-legged popper and a bream killer dropper is one of my favorite summertime activities. It’s easy fishing that typically attracts all kinds of sunfish. But, the approach is also prone to the occasional surprise, as a bass inevitably shows up and clobbers the popper, and a catfish or carp may gobble the bream killer. 

Big ol' goldfish caught on a topwater terrestrial.

My Dad recently tied some bass poppers for me. Like all of his flies, they’re expertly tied and they catch fish. On this particular pattern, he added an epoxy-coated spoon, then, hand-painted the entire concoction. The result is a jewelry-like presentation that almost looks too good to cast. We used them a couple of weeks ago while fishing a private pond in west Tennessee. The pond is loaded with largemouth bass, and they were as big of fans of the poppers as we were.  

A largemouth bass on one of my hand-tied poppers.

There’s no good way to exit a kayak. Tipping or falling out is, of course, less than graceful, but it’s actually a close cousin to flopping out purposefully. On this unbearably hot June afternoon, my feet feel like they’re melting into the polyetheylene, so I paddle to a shallow, rocky area, and slide my right leg off the starboard side and my left leg to port, and attempt to stand up in the semi-cool water. This maneuver morphs into a full squat, which ordinarily wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but after sitting in a yak for two hours, the connection between brain synapses and leg muscles is, well … estranged. 

The boat violently tips side-to-side, my paddle flips and smacks into the water, the half-full Gatorade bottle falls over and spills, and a fly box careens into the murky wash nearby. With a frantic two-arm wave, my body abandons the squat and I collapse back into my kayak seat, soaking my rear end in Cool Blue sports drink. 

Scummy, yummy water. 
Despite my unathleticism and the tsunami caused by the wobbling kayak, the moss-covered pocket of backwater remains undisturbed. The turtles, who had ducked their heads at the sound of the ruckus, begin to pop up again through the muck. The bluejay flew away, but it’s abrasive call is replaced by the pleasant tones of an unseen cardinal. I wait until everything settles, regain my balance and successfully slide off one side of the yak, my feet landing in the warmer-than-expected, knee-deep water. I carefully creep into position, armed with a spinning rod tipped with a plastic scum-frog. I flip the bail, load the rod and catapult the frog deep into the pocket, where it lands with a “splat!” and perches atop the pea-green moss at the water’s edge. I begin a random retrieve, shaking my rod tip and slowly reeling, causing the frog to slide-skip-and-pause across the surface. The bait slips into a one-foot wide open area of water — a pothole, of sorts, among the vegetation. Two twitches later, the frog disappears in a savage swirl, as if it had been flushed down a giant drain. I wait for an interminable two-count, allowing the bass to position the frog in its giant mouth, and then I rear back in my best B.A.S.S. hook set, causing the rod to double over with the weight of a big largemouth and a pound or two of moss. The fight is short, but spirited. The bass cannot jump due to the ceiling of vegetation, but it bulldogs its way to-and-fro until I’m able to convince it to join me in open water, where I bring the fish to hand and grab its bottom lip through its cloak of olive-colored moss and algae. 

There's nothing wrong with streamers, crank baits, spinnerbaits and even live presentations ... but man, in my eyes, topwater is the most fun way to fish. 

Backwater bass.