Top Water Fishin’ With Zell Roland

With any fishing technique, from fishing a topwater bait on down to throwing a crankbait or worm, it’s always hard to gain an edge and stay ahead of the other guys. Through the years, I’ve fished against some tough competition–guys like Denny Brauer, Guido Hibdon and Kevin VanDam–so I’m always looking to gain an edge. Focusing on topwater and trying for bigger bites is one way I try to separate myself from the crowd.
I’ll turn to topwater again and again during tournaments, even when the fishing gets tough. Why? Because it works, and it works during more times, and more times of the year, than you’d think.
My primary philosophy for topwater fishing is, no matter the time of year, there will always be some shallow fish. If a fish has access to cover, and that cover provides a hiding spot and access to the shad or baitfish or bluegills that swim by, it won’t leave. It will always stay shallow.


Sure, I know that in the cold, for example, a topwater may not be the “perfect” bait, but if 80 percent of the anglers are out there fishing 15 to 25 feet of water, I’m only competing against the 20 percent who are fishing shallow. Same thing during other times of the year.
In reality, there are only five styles of topwater hardbaits in existence: buzzbaits, jerkbaits, propbaits, chuggers and walking stickbaits. I’ll cover each in-depth, and relate to you as best I can the strategies I’ve developed over my many years of topwater fishing.
Buzzer Breakdown
There are times when you really need to slow down a presentation. When it comes to buzzbaits, it can be difficult, because you need to maintain a speed that keeps the buzzbait on plane. To slow a buzzbait down, I bend the blades. The blades are already bent, and I just bend them a little more, closing the angle. The more you close it, the slower it fishes.
When it comes to choosing a buzzbait, it must have a very good hook, but an equally important factor is head design. My advice is to make sure you get a buzzbait with a flat head, so when you make a cast and start your retrieve, the bait planes more quickly. If you use a round head, the bait takes longer to reach the surface, and you won’t be fishing as efficiently.
Some anglers prefer buzzbaits with clackers. Yet, I’m not ready to abandon my favorite buzzbaits for a clacker-style, so I take a regular Colorado blade off a spinnerbait and put it on the buzzbait shaft. Simply open up the wire above the buzzbait blade, slide on the Colorado blade, then close it back up. When retrieved, the Colorado Blade hits the buzzbait blade and clacks louder than any clacker-style buzzbait on the market. At the same time, I maintain the confidence of fishing my preferred buzzbait.
Another way to improve your buzzbait success is to paint your blades. My rule of thumb anytime I fish a topwater bait is: the muddier the water, the brighter the color of my bait. To prepare for those days when fish want either darker or lighter blades, I paint some of my buzzbait blades chartreuse, black or white. I’ve even been experimenting with tri-color blades on Rippler buzzbaits, and I’ve found that in clearer water, the fish sometimes strike these better than the standard chrome or gold blades.
Jazzy Jerkbaits
In seminars, I always tell anglers to keep their color selection to a very minimum. Really, there are a million colors out there. I’m a professional angler, so I have every color under the moon, but that’s because I fish from Texas to Canada to the East Coast and West Coast. But for most anglers who fish a few bodies of water, or one specific region, my advice is to keep color selection down to a very minimum. Instead, expand your selection of sizes and styles, which is much more important. A good base of colors would include some shad colors (gray, silver, black, blue, white pearl) and some bluegill (purple, blue, green).
Size is important because, let’s say you and I go fishing tomorrow on Toledo Bend. We already know, before we go, that the lake has a lot of fish in the 3-pound to 10-pound range. That’s a lot of big fish. If we decide to target 10-pounders, we wouldn’t want to throw a 3-inch bait. We’d throw the larger size. Sure, the minute we go to the big bait, maybe 8 1/2 inches long, we know we won’t get 50 bites. We might get only seven or eight bites a day, but when we get one, the fish usually has eyes six inches apart. You’re effectively taking the smaller fish out of the game. So favoring styles and sizes, over colors, will give you many more options for fishing.
Variety doesn’t end with size and color. Let’s take the Smithwick Rogue as an example. I fish a kind of Rogue that I’d say 99.9 percent of anglers throw away. When the bill on your jerkbait snaps off, don’t throw it away! Quite often, I’ll fish a Rogue with no bill–it really has a wild action, like a real wounded baitfish trying to get away. If you want to take the bill off yourself, it’s best to take a small pair of pliers and just wiggle the bill back and forth until it breaks free.
Other times, I fish a Rogue with a prop. Using just a small propane torch, which you can buy any hardware store, it’s very easy to add a prop to almost any bait. I take a small piece of wire, and hook it into the eyelet in back of the bait, then heat the wire. When I heat this wire, it transfers the heat to the eyelet and loosens the glue. Now, with pliers, I can very easily pull the eyelet out of the back of the bait, add a prop, and screw it back in. Do this, and you’ll have a bait almost nobody else has got, and I catch thousands of fish on it.
I add props to a large variety of baits. I do it with Zara Spooks, Excalibur Spit’n Images and so on. When you can add a prop to baits like these, you can start fishing them more effectively during different times of the year. You can slow the baits down and keep them around cover longer.
Props On Top
I like to say that propbaits are very “tolerant” baits, because there are lots of things I can do with them that I can’t do with other baits. For example, when fish are spawning and they’re tucked up in a bush, or next to another piece of cover, the longer you can keep the bait around that bush, the better your odds of getting the fish to bite. That’s just common sense. You can’t do this with a chugger or popper-style bait. Out of all the baits in my box–out of the five styles of topwater hardbaits I fish–I can keep a propbait around that cover the longest.
But the baits need to be adjusted to conditions. To keep the bait around the bush longer, for example, I bend the prop, or props, toward the front of the bait. The more I bend them toward the front, the less distance the bait moves when I snap my rod tip. If I bend them all the way toward the front, I bet I can jerk that bait 15 times and not have it move more than a foot and half.
So now my bait is around that piece of structure where I know a fish is sitting, and my odds are much better that I can get it to strike. On the other hand, if I’m fishing in the dead of summer and want to move my bait extremely fast, I take the blades and bend them toward the back of the bait.
Sometimes, propbaits are difficult to cast. But I seldom let the weather, or wind, keep me from fishing a certain bait I want to fish. Whenever possible, I’ll have one style of bait that I can fish when the wind’s not blowing, and a different style of the same bait for fishing on windy days.
The Devil’s Horse, for example, is absolutely one of the toughest baits to throw on a windy day because the head of the bait is much fatter than the rear. Therefore, when you cast it, you’re usually throwing the lightest end of the bait into the wind.
What I do is, unscrew the rear eye of the bait, unscrew the front, then reverse them. I actually put the line tie in the rear, and take the rear hook and put it in the front. So now when I’m working the bait, I’m working it backward. But when I cast the bait, the heaviest end of the bait goes into the wind first, and it will cast forever. Plus, even in wind, it allows for extremely accurate casts.
Chug, Chug, Chug
A chugger-style bait is very different from a propbait, and I tend to use them more after the spawn. Everybody in the world knows my favorite chugger bait is a Rebel Pop-R, especially when fishing clear or semi-clear water. In stained or dirty water, I start moving toward baits like a Heddon Chugger or an old Lucky 13. These have a tendency to dive more forward, down into the water.
As much as I love the Pop-R, I don’t believe it’s built exactly right, so I customize each one before it ever touches the water. One thing I do is sand the entire bait to remove some of the bulk and give it a narrower body. After the bait’s sanded, I then sand the lip so it’s more concave.
There are things I can do with this customized bait that would otherwise be impossible. Most important, when I’m working it, I can make it walk like a Spook. Remember, this is a bait that’s as small as 1 1/2 inches, so that’s pretty remarkable.
Also, I always make sure I use a feathered hook on all my Pop-Rs. Feathers are the only thing you can put in water that exhibits action even when you move the bait only 1/16 of an inch. I call it blink-of-the-eye action, because when you pull the bait forward, the feathers close extremely fast. When the bait comes to rest, the feathers reform back to their original position. In other words, the bait is reacting even while sitting still.
If a fish blows up on my Pop-R but misses, nine times out of 10 I can catch him, and that’s because of the feathers on the back of the bait. It’s also because of my hooksetting technique. Let me explain. As soon as a big bass blows up on a bait, too many anglers jerk the rod instantly. But if the fish doesn’t have the bait in its mouth, the bait leaves the water and travels back toward the boat at about 60 mph. Compounding the mistake, anglers then reel in all the slack and throw right back to where the hit occurred.
That fish didn’t grow to 6 or 7 pounds because it was a dummy. When the fish had tried to get that “shad,” the shad jumped about 65 yards in the air. And never in its lifetime has that fish seen a shad jump that far. Plus, when the angler recasts, here’s that shad right back where he was a minute ago! Using this method, rarely will you get that bass to strike again.
Instead, when a fish blows up on a bait, I don’t jerk. If it misses, I continue the action of the bait, and then do one of two things. I either stop the bait in the water right where the fish just struck, or I continue my retrieve, allowing the fish to think the food item’s trying to get away.
If I stop the bait, I know exactly where that fish is at. He’s sitting underneath it, looking straight up at it, trying to make up his mind whether he wants to get it again. I just slightly turn the reel handle not even one quarter of a turn, which allows the bait to move about 1/2 inch. When the bait moves that 1/2 inch, the feathers look like lightning hitting the ground–they close extremely fast.
The fish eases up a little closer to look, and as he’s looking, the feathers re-open very slowly. Nine times out of 10, the fish cannot stand that. He has to try to get it. And that’s the reason for the feathers on the back of the bait.
I put feathers on every topwater bait I’ve got, from a jerkbait to a Pop-R, and it’s amazing how many times a fish will have just the rear treble hook in its mouth. I tie my own feathered hooks by starting with an Excalibur hook, then tying on hackle feathers, which you can get from any fly fishing store or catalog.
I always use white for a base color, because I believe there are three colors a fish sees all the time–dark, light and red. There is not a fish that swims that doesn’t have a light-colored belly, a dark-colored back and red gills. So I always use a base color of white feathers, then sometimes tie on red or dark colors.
Dog Walkin’
Of all the topwater baits, walking stickbaits, like the Zara Spook, are the toughest to fish. You have to snap the rod, and reel the reel, at the same time, which means you must have very good hand-eye coordination. Plus, when you jerk a walking bait, it turns at about a 45- to 50-degree angle and heads right for your line. The quicker you can snatch it back, the more you can avoid fouling the hooks in the line.
A critical consideration with walking baits is line weight. With 10-pound line, that bait may turn almost 90 degrees in the water. With 25-pound, it might turn about 30 degrees. Of course, cover often dictates what weight line you can use, but getting comfortable with your mechanics often means understanding the role that line plays in how a bait walks.
Lastly, and perhaps most important, is to add an additional treble hook to your walking baits. You will not miss half the fish that bite your baits if you put that third hook on. I don’t have a Zara Spook in my box that doesn’t have three hooks on it. I even add a third hook to the smaller Spook Jr. It’s real easy to add a hook. Just get a screw eyelet and screw it into the bottom of the bait, apply 5-minute epoxy, and it’s there. You will be amazed at how many fish will have that middle hook stuck in their mouths.
Rods Matter
When anglers look for a topwater rod, they need to be very picky. The rod I use is an All-Star TWS, which stands for Topwater Special. I designed this particular rod, and it’s markedly different than any other rod I’ve seen on the market.
An excellent topwater rod, in my opinion, is one with an extremely light-action tip. As you progress further down the rod blank, it should go from extremely light, to light, to medium-light, to medium, to heavy. By the time you get to the heavy end, you’re almost to the butt of the rod, or the reel seat, and this style of construction loads extremely well. The lighter action of the rod gives the fish another crucial second to pull the bait underneath the surface and get it in its mouth. As that happens, the rod loads up like a bow. As long as you’re using extremely sharp hooks, you don’t need to set the hook. Just start reeling and the fish will hook itself.
Reels are important too, and I use two types: a high-speed reel for fishing after the spawn and during the summer, and a low-speed reel for fishing the late fall, winter and early spring. This way, it’s harder to fish a bait too fast.
I prefer monofilament for all my topwater fishing. As I mentioned, line size is important because the lighter the line you use, the more action you can give your baits and the more strikes you will get. However, it’s also true that the lighter your line, the harder it becomes to work the bait. It’s not that often that I meet an angler who fishes a Zara Spook on 10-pound line. Most throw it on 14- to 17-pound line–some even throw it on 20 or 30–but I will fish it on 10-pound line when conditions dictate.
Time Investment
Improving your topwater fishing means examining all of its aspects. You need to focus on bait style, the speed you fish the baits, the extras you add like feathered trailers and props, as well as the equipment you use.
Just as important, you need to realize that bass, especially big bass, are opportunistic feeders, and they will hit topwaters under almost any condition, provided you make the correct presentation. It takes practice, and the willingness to fish hard, but believe me, the results are worth it. When it comes down to it, topwater fishing is the most exciting way to catch bass, and your heart will never grow tired of seeing big bass splash and bust on your finely tuned topwater bait.
Reproduced with the expressed consent of Bass West Magazine

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