- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2002


How could I ever forget it? A 1950s-style Hula Popper surface lure sailed across a tiny backwater cove of Florida's Lake Tohopekaliga and landed next to a little stump that poked from the water, rippling the water ever so gently. A second later, an honest-to-goodness alligator tore into the lure and took off with it, shaking its head violently like an African crocodile that had just nabbed a wildebeest on the banks of the Zambezi River. Thankfully, my line snapped and the gator most likely rubbed the little popper from its jaw minutes later.
OK, so my alligator was a little fellow, but he certainly proved that anglers of every stripe are missing a boatload of fun and excitement if they don't do the topwater thing surface fishing, as it's also called.
Surface lures, artificial fish catchers that are meant to slide, spray, gurgle, pop, hiss and sputter across the water doing all kinds of crazy things that will titillate the feeding instincts of predator fish, never cease to amaze me.
Only a few days ago, my neighbor Andy and I fished for bass using blunt-nosed 3-inch-long poppers in a narrow tidal creek near the Potomac River in Charles County. The first fish that slapped the dickens out of the little lure was a juvenile white perch. Just what that little perch was going to do with a lure nearly as big as it was is anybody's guess.
Andy latched onto a yellow perch next, while I couldn't keep the white variety from the hooks. Mind you, none of these species is known for being a surface feeder.
Yes, the largemouth bass who don't care where they must swim to snatch away a morsel eventually came along, and we were delighted with the wonderful fishing action. The trick, by the way, was to cast the popper toward a marsh shore and let it sit for a minute or so without moving it. When we finally jerked on the line, the lure loudly splashing and gurgling, bang! the bass would strike.
But besides the bass, talk to topwater lure fans and soon you'll hear stories that concern everything but the fish.
It begins with every saltwater caster who's hooked seagulls when schools of bluefish were in a feeding frenzy and the birds partook of bits and pieces of baitfish that were torn apart by the toothsome blues. When a gull dives down onto a popping lure, it's not a pleasant experience for the poor bird or beak-wary humans.
And what about my friend Bob Rice, who says, "I've had a number of unexpected happenings associated with a variety of creatures foraging off the surface of the water?
"Many years ago, a friend and I used to fish ponds seeking trophy bass for hours on end during moonless nights with dark-colored surface chuggers and poppers. Our tactics were to generally position ourselves low under the 'shade' [a relative term] of an overhead tree and cast on angles to points near other shores and slowly but actively work them back toward us. On occasion, a big bass would trail the lure with nary a ripple only to strike suddenly in a frightful explosion of sound and spray in the last few inches of water directly at our feet.
"However, you should have seen some of our heavy stringers laden with delectable, large bullfrogs that we would take home instead. The larger variety would attack our lures as savagely as any largemouth. In addition, I would often lose hard-fought battles, and sometime a favorite lure, to large owls that would suddenly swoop down and attack my lure.
"Also, many years ago when my son was very young, we made a number of trips to North Carolina to fish for bass in the far backwaters of the Albemarle Sound for the purpose of introducing him to topwater plug fishing among the flooded stands of cypress trees. Our method was to try to pitch surface plugs and chuggers under the low hanging bows, having them tap the tree bark before dropping to the water to lie motionless for half a minute before imparting any action to the lure and its retrieve. On one such occasion, as soon as the lure tapped the tree and hit the water, a thick-bodied cottonmouth snake dropped to the water from an overhanging bow.
"There exists an old adage which states that even a poisonous snake cannot strike while in the water. But this snake immediately set out in pursuit of my Oreno lure, and no matter what evasive maneuver I took it made every effort to pursue it. I barely managed to get the surface plug back into the boat. On some occasions when the wind and waves got up, it would blow the boat up under the bows of the trees and bang the aluminum hull loudly against a cypress. Every kind of snake good and bad would immediately drop into the water around and sometimes into the boat."
Of all the surface lure catches that should never happen, ask local fishing guide Dale Knupp to tell you about the croaker he caught in less than four feet of water yet. Croakers are bottom feeders, not topwater lure snatchers. And in my own experience there was an unintended hookup with the back of a beaver. It happened in the Rappahannock River around the Rapidan junction some summers ago, but the beaver didn't grab the lure. It was my poor aim that snagged the animal. I actually pulled the hooked beaver toward shore no small chore in itself and the placid beaver eventually let me remove the lure with a pair of needlenose pliers. Oh, it hissed and fussed and tried to scratch me with its feet, but I never felt threatened.
So much for beavers being dangerous. But don't try that same maneuver on an otter or raccoon. There'll be a heavy price to pay if you do.
Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report every Friday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]

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