Stickbaits, poppers and offshore topwater lures come in a huge array of shapes, sizes, buoyancies and weights. Picking the right lure for the task can be one challenge, then learning how to work the lure correctly to get the most out of it is another. In this article I will focus on helping you pick the right lure for the job and how to work it when bluewater casting for pelagic fish. Bluewater casting is by far one of the most rewarding and exciting ways to catch many offshore species from tuna to GTs.
Let’s start with stickbaits as this is by far the largest category with a massive range of lures and retrieves. Stickbaits are bibless minnow/fish profile lures that rely on their body shape and weight to create action as they are pulled through the water. This may be a tight side-to-side wobble on a sinking stickbait or a large wide S-shaped swim pattern on a floating stickbait. Every lure is different and will require a slightly different retrieve but the general traits and retrieves for each lure are as follows.
Floating stickbaits are great for fish that love to break the surface as they feed. The splash and sound from a floating stickbait will draw predators up from the depths as it replicates a panicking baitfish under attack. Floating stickbaits are designed to sit with their head out of the water at rest, with the body and tail sitting below the surface. As you sweep and work the lure the head is pulled under the water and brings with it a great bubble trail of air. The lure will also swing from side-to-side, creating action and in many cases a large S-shaped swimming action.
This action leaves a trail of ‘smoke’ in the water as the bubbles and air from the head of the lure are washed down the lure and into the water. Floating stickbaits are an extremely good lure for casting at spooky or pressured fish, on flat weather days. A disadvantage of floating stickbaits is that they can be hard to work in rough conditions and may tangle easily. Ideally you want to sweep floating stickbaits at a medium pace before winding up the slack line and sweeping again. This will let the lure swim for a couple metres before popping back up head-first, grabbing air again and ‘resetting’ ready for the next sweep. Most fish also love this pause and bite as the lure sits still between sweeps so be ready. Try not to blow the lure out of the water completely with over-vigorous sweeps, as this will cause the lure to skip along the surface and possibly tangle. In windy and rough conditions floating stickbaits are best left in the tackle box but on calmer days with smart fish they come into their own.
Floating stickbaits are ideal for high-speed pelagics such mackerel, GTs and tuna. An important tip when casting floating stickbaits is to let all your line lie on the water’s surface before you start sweeping. If you start sweeping your lure as soon as you cast, your line will often still be in the air from the cast. This will pull the stickbait from the water and may cause it to flip and tangle right at the start of your cast. Some of the cheaper plastic production floating stickbaits can be relatively easy to work, while some of the more expensive Japanese wooden models can take some time to master, to achieve the perfect action.
Sinking stickbaits also come in a massive range of shapes and sizes. Most sinking stickbaits have an attractive wobble as they sink in the water and a side-to-side action as they are pulled through the water. This side-to-side action is strongest in deep-bodied and flat-sided sinking stickbaits. Longer, thinner round-sided sinking stickbaits have a less intense side-to-side action and a more S-shaped action underwater. Sinking stickbaits are great in rough and windy conditions as you can cast them a mile and they rarely blow out of the water and tangle. They are also very easy to work and can be retrieved in a variety of ways. Sweeps and stops are still my favourite way to work sinking stickbaits, but they can also be worked via a constant or erratic medium-paced wind of the reel. This makes them a great beginner’s lure. The disadvantage of sinking stickbaits is that they make very little surface noise so don’t seem to attract fish from larger distances like floating models. The best targets for sinking stickbaits are pelagic fish feeding subsurface, or slower pelagic fish such as cobia and predatory bottom fish such as coral trout and red bass.
Pencils and Skipping Plugs
Pencil and skipping plug stickbaits are made to represent fleeing garfish or piper. These are generally floating lures with a long skinny profile. The most common way to work these lures is to have your rod tip up high with a constant retrieve to get the lure dancing or skipping along the surface like a bait fish being chased. The other great way to use pencils or plugs is to twitch them along the surface like a garfish skipping side to side as it swims. Pencils are more a specialised casting lure for me and only used on the odd occasion when pelagics are keyed into feeding on long skinny bait fish. They work best on fast pelagic fish such as queenfish, kingfish and mahi mahi.
Now, moving on from stickbaits, we have the most famous topwater lure – the popper. Poppers are a favourite bluewater topwater lure for many and produce some of the most amazing bites. Poppers are floating cup-faced lures that are designed to be ripped through the water, creating a large blooping or popping sound. This sound replicates that of a big pelagic fish scoffing down prey. They are also relatively easy to work in terms of technique, though it can be tiring to constantly work a big popper as they create so much resistance. The most effective technique I have found for working poppers is to give the lure a big sweep or stab then wind up the slack line and wait for the popper to reset. After a big pop the popper will often take a second or two to resurface and stick its head and cup face out above the water again. If you sweep or pop the popper before it has reset and floated back up it may not drag air down with it and create the popping sound. If you leave the popper to sit still for too long the fish may lose interest. Generally, one or two seconds between pops is perfect and the fish will hit the lure as it sits there. Another way to work your popper is to constantly wind it at a fast pace to create a vapour trail similar to that of a trolled skirt. While I rarely use this technique with poppers for fish such as GTs and mackerel, it can be a good option if the fish keep missing your popper as you bloop it. It can also be a great retrieve for certain fish such as sailfish. The disadvantages of poppers is that on calm sunny days they can have too much action and sound and turn some fish away. They can also be hard to work in very rough conditions and become tiring to use for the angler. Hands down poppers are best suited to large angry pelagics such as GTs but will also catch a massive range of pelagic fish on the right day.
Diving poppers are a cross between a floating stickbait and a popper. They often have the shape of a stickbait but a small cup face on the front of the lure that creates a small pop and bubble trail. This cup face also acts like a bib, pulling the lure under the surface of the water and causing it to wobble from side to side. Diving poppers are different as you can change the action of the lure dramatically via retrieves. A short, sharp hard sweep of a diving popper will often have it working as a popper with a bloop and a big bubble trail. While a slower, longer sweep will make it splash and wobble similar to that of a floating stickbait. Finally, a medium paced constant wind of diving popper will have it diving just below the surface, swinging side to side similar to a sinking stickbait. All in all, the diving popper is an extremely versatile lure that can be used in a range of ways for a range of species. The disadvantage of the diving popper is that although it can do it all, it doesn’t do anything perfectly as some of the more specialised lures do. They also do not perform the best in rough seas.
So, there you have it: the most common forms of topwater lures and how to use them. Yes, there are a few more types and styles of topwater lures we don’t have space to talk about here, but these are the most common ones you will come across. It pays to have a selection of these lures in your topwater arsenal when heading out – that way you will have a great variety of fishing scenarios and species covered. If one particular style of lure isn’t working on the day, mix it up! Keep changing until you find a lure and retrieve that will get you into the action. There isn’t a bluewater pelagic you can’t catch with these lures!