Inside the Outdoors: Surface strike thrill is hard to top

Fishermen whose first priority is catching fish know they have to adapt their strategies and techniques to locate and then tempt the fish they’re after. If that means getting their terminal tackle down to the bottom, or near to it, that’s what they’ll do. If fish are suspending somewhere between the bottom and the surface, the tackle and presentation—such as long line trolling with diving plugs—is what they’ll do.

But there’s no denying that some anglers have definite preferences for the way they pursue and catch fish. A case in point is the largemouth bass fisherman who finds nothing more exciting than retrieving a Scum Frog or other lure on the surface and having a good fish hammer it in an explosive, water-spraying strike. If the angle is right and the strike is anywhere near the boat, the bass’s “bucket mouth”—to use an outdoor media cliché—might even be seen engulfing the lure.

Why this is such an exciting way to catch fish might be explained by the senses of sight and sound that accompany a strike at the surface, adding to the feel of the strike that’s telegraphed through the arching rod and taught line. The surface strike best conveys the predatory attack, far more evident than the ambush of a perch or a bluegill that happens a dozen feet below the surface.

If a generalization can be made, largemouth bass are more likely to be surface hunting during periods of low light, the hours adjacent to dawn and dusk. Not just hunting at the surface, but in waters more likely to be adjacent to shoreline and shallows, where aquatic life is more active than in the hours of broad daylight. Baitfish, frogs, aquatic insects, smaller gamefish, baby ducklings, anything that would fit in those jaws is fair game; jaws that—when opened wide—seem nearly the same diameter as the largemouth bass’s body.

To an angler like me, whose first tackle was a three-section cane pole rigged with a fixed-length black dacron line and no reel—a setup that functioned more like a derrick than a modern rod—the largemouth bass was the dream fish. While I bobber-watched and caught bluegills and the occasional crappie, I aspired to bigger and better things; bass things.

I aspired to a real push-button spin-cast reel to mount on an honest-to-goodness fiberglass rod. The fishing tackle aisle of a hardware store near home nourished that dream. Neat rows of lure boxes with clear plastic lids revealed lures painted to resemble frogs, perch and the red-and-white pattern that was a standard, but resembled nothing in nature. Those top-water lures like the Jitterbug, Hula Popper and Bass-O-Reno have mostly passed into history, but can still be found in the compartments of tackle boxes belonging to a generation of senior anglers.

Another set of anglers that appreciates catching fish at the surface is trout fishermen. More specifically fly fishermen, who catch brown, brook and rainbow trout with lures made of fur and feathers, tinsel and wire. Never mind that trout do 90% of their feeding under the surface, and take maybe 10% of their food at the surface of a river or lake. It’s an adrenaline rush to watch a nearly weightless lure float lazily down the current, and as it passes a half-submerged rock, or the tip of a log, disappear with a swirl and a sucking sound, as a good trout mistakes it for a real mayfly or a grasshopper.

But trout fishermen have a more complicated relationship with floating lures and catching fish at the surface of the waters they fish. Down through a long and rich literary history of fly fishing for trout, the “dry fly fisherman” has been elevated and celebrated as the most pure, the most sporting. In truth, it’s the angler who can analyze different situations and catch fish under a variety of conditions and with different techniques, who is the better angler. But sometimes what should seem obvious isn’t seen so clearly.

Not surprising, the idea that there was just one sporting way to catch trout began in England, where ritual and tradition are near the top of the list of virtues. It’s not far short of the truth to say that some anglers almost came to blows when a nonconformist broke with tradition and fished his flies beneath the surface of the country’s famous rivers. Certainly there were insults and accusations. That narrow-mindedness is no longer taken seriously, except among a very small minority of snooty, holier-than-thou trout anglers.

Tradition is not the best reason for a bass angler, a trout fisherman, a musky addict or anyone else to fish in a certain way. Excitement and emotional payoff are the best reasons. And when conditions are right, a lot of anglers will tell you it’s hard to top catching their favorite fish “on top.”