The dog days of August and early September may not seem like an ideal time to go smallmouth bass fishing on the Buffalo National River; however, these typically hot, languid summer weeks can offer the river’s best topwater action of the entire year!
It was during the heat of late summer 30 years ago when I first began topwater fishing for river smallmouths. I was wade fishing using a chrome/black back Heddon Tiny Torpedo that I had unofficially “borrowed” from my mother’s tackle box. Never before in my life had I caught that many bass in a single day on a topwater lure. I was definitely “hooked,” so to speak.
The When and Where
So, let’s dive right in, starting with when and where to hunt the elusive smallmouth bass on the Buffalo National River.
WHEN: The best times for topwater smallmouth fishing are daybreak to late morning and mid afternoon to late evening. During the noon hours the topwater bite usually slows down. This is due in large part to the high sun angle of mid-day. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. If the sky is cloudy, the topwater bite could go on all day. Also, if the water is stained or muddy, the bite could be an all-day affair.
WHERE: Unlike bouncing a lure along the bottom up or down stream, topwater angling is all about precision target casting. You are focusing on a particular target such as a boulder, sunken tree or a logjam. Be sure to cast the lure past the target so that during the retrieve you are working the lure directly over or around the target. This looks more natural to the fish. Another productive target is the “breakline” between the main current and an eddy.
So, now that you know the “when and where”, let’s talk about the best topwater lures for summertime bronzebacks on the Buffalo.
Chuggers and Poppers
Chuggers and poppers are topwater lures with concave or “dishmouth” faces. These lures have been catching bass since the early 1940’s. The dish-mouth face pushes water when the bait is retrieved, creating a “glurp” or “popping” sound. Most models have two treble hooks. The rear hooks are usually dressed with a feather or silicon hula skirt which gives the lure a realistic looking tail.
Like most topwater baits, chuggers and poppers are “pinpoint” cast lures. They’re intended for fishing precise targets such as boulders, logs and openings in weedbeds. The best way to fish these baits is to let the lure sit motionless for a few seconds after hit hits the water. Then, pull the lure toward you a few inches by using the rod and then let it sit still while you reel up the slack line. The strike will usually occur while the lure is resting motionless on the surface. The most popular of these baits include the Rebel Pop-R, Heddon Lucky 13, Storm Chug Bug and the Rapala Skitter Pop. The best colors are bait fish colors such as silver, chartreuse and pearlescent. However, bullfrog and bass colors are also very good choices.
Spinning Rod 6’-7’ (Fast/Medium Action)
8-lb test line
Prop baits are floating lures which have rotating blades (propellers) on at least one end, sometimes on both ends. Like most topwater lures they have two or three treble hooks depending upon the length of the bait. When retrieved they make a bubbling sound similar to a buzzbait. However, unlike a buzzbait, they remain floating on the surface when the retrieve is paused. Prop baits can be fished with a “stop and go” retrieve similar to a popper. Or, they can be worked using a slow, steady retrieve similar to a buzzbait. The leaders in this lure category include the Heddon Tiny Torpedo, Cotton Cordell Crazy Shad and the Smithwick Devil’s Horse. Once again, baitfish colors are the best choices. In recent years, a new prop bait has made a huge splash in the topwater world: the River2Sea Whopper Plopper. Unlike all of the other prop baits, Whopper Ploppers do not have an actual propeller on the end. Instead, the prop is a hard plastic fin shaped tail which rotates as the lure is retrieved. The rotating tail looks like a real tail fin when the lure is motionless.
Spinning Rod 6’-7’ (Fast/Medium Action)
8-lb test line
Stick baits are hard plastic “cigar” shaped topwater lures with two to three treble hooks. Most have hollow bodies with internal weights (tiny ball bearings or bb’s) in them to create noise when retrieved. This feature also allows the head of the lure to point upward while the bait is floating. If the head rides higher in the water than the tail, the side-to-side movement known as “walking the dog” is more easily achieved. During the retrieve, these baits don’t move water like other topwater lures, such as poppers and prop baits. Instead, they glide from side-to-side to attract bass into striking. The retrieval technique known as “walking the dog” is achieved by slowly reeling the bait in while rapidly twitching or snapping the rod tip up and down vertically. This type of retrieve does take a little practice to get the method down but is easily achieved. By far the most popular stickbait is the original one that got the whole bass fishing world “dog walking” in the first place—the Heddon Zara Spook. Other popular choices are the Heddon Spit-N-Image Shad, Strike King KVD Sexy Shad and the Yo- Zuri Walking Dog. As usual, baitfish colors are typically the best.
Spinning Rod (Fast/Medium Action)
8-lb test line
Buzzbaits have been around since the mid 1970’s and are still a top producer for big bass. They are essentially a modified spinnerbait, including wire frame and silicon skirt. The wing shaped blade creates lift when the buzzbait is retrieved causing the lure to run or “buzz” along the surface while making a bubbling or purring sound. A slow, steady retrieve is very important for this lure. Also of great importance is beginning the retrieve as soon as the lure hits the water’s surface and not letting it sink. The reason is that buzzbaits are “reaction” lures. That means you want the bass to “react” and strike immediately without having time to get a good look at the bait. Buzzbaits are more productive in low light conditions. However, they are also effective under cloudy skies or in shaded pools anytime of day. They are excellent for coaxing bass out logjams or from under sunken trees. My favorite buzzbait brand is War Eagle. Strike King and Booyah are also excellent brand choices. Since buzzbaits are reaction lures, colors aren’t as important as the presentation itself. However, I prefer ¼ oz buzzbaits in baitfish colors such as white, chartreuse and silver.
Casting Rod 6’-7’ (Fast/Medium Action)
10-lb to 15-lb test line
Bass Popper Fly
Bass popper flies are the fly fishing world’s equivalent of the previously mentioned chuggers and poppers. A popper is a fly that floats on the surface. It consists of a small head made of foam or plastic or cork. The head also has the same concave or dish shaped mouth as chuggers and poppers. Behind the popping head is the hook and a tail tied with marabou (turkey down) feathers. Sometimes rabbit hair or bucktail hair from a deer. This fly tying technique gives the lure the profile of a baitfish, insect, or small frog when on the surface. When stripped across the water’s surface, the fly popper’s dish mouth creates a distinct “bloop” or popping sound and also creates a bubble trail which attracts predator fish. Once a bass sees the poppers profile from below along with the “bloop” and bubbles, the deal is usually sealed for the bass. One the most popular bass poppers right now is the Boogle Bug Popper. The Boogle Bug is a favorite of fly anglers pursuing smallmouth bass on the Buffalo National River. Umpqua Todd’s Wiggle Minnow and Bett’s Bass Bug Popper are other favorites. Baitfish colors such as white, chartreuse and pearlescent are best. Charteuse with black highlights is another good color combo.
5 Weight Fly Rod
Floating WF (weight forward) 5 Weight Fly Line
3X (6 ft ) Tapered Leader and 1X-3X Tippet
Dress for Success
As mentioned earlier, summer is here and with it comes the heat. So, with that said, be sure to wear lightweight, breathable clothing in colors which reflect sunlight. If you’re going to be fishing in the Ponca or Jasper area the river will more than likely be too low this time of year for a canoe or kayak. Which means you will more than likely be wade fishing. I always wade fish in swim trunks or lightweight shorts. Doing so allows me to easily get in the river and cool off when I get too hot. Be sure to pack plenty of drinking water and maybe some sports drinks to stay hydrated, especially if you plan on staying out for an extended period of time. Heat exhaustion can come on suddenly before even you realize what is happening to you. So this is another good reason to be ready to get in the river. I also recommend taking along some sunscreen and insect repellant.
I hope you can get out and enjoy some of the most exciting smallmouth bass fishing of the entire year. Remember to hydrate, stay cool and, as always, be safe and good luck smallmouth fishing!
Ready for summer fishing on the Buffalo National River, but need lures? The BOC store in Ponca is stocked with several varieties of the topwater lures written about in this blog post.
About the Author: Tony Harlan, also known as “Mr. ExStream,” grew up fishing the streams, rivers and lakes of northwest Arkansas, southwest Missouri and southeast Oklahoma. When he’s not holding a fishing rod in his hand, in the summer you’ll oftentimes find him snorkeling at a local swimming hole near Ponca, hand-feeding worms to the perch and bass who live there. Tony has been with Buffalo Outdoor Center for 10 years and can be found be found many places, including behind the front desk, serving as crew chief for our shuttle crew during canoe season or managing our RV park!