Fly fishing for bass is addictive no matter how you slice it, but on topwater? Ohhh yeahhh....now we're talking!
Throwing topwater bass flies is not only a surefire way to quicken the pulse, but it can also sometimes be the best way to catch bass. It's really eye-opening how you can throw a subsurface streamer down a likely stretch and come up with zilch, only to go back through with a popper or diver and get hookups. You'd think a fly swimming down at the bass' level would always be the easiest and most-attractive meal, but it's not always enough to trigger a strike. Sometimes bass just want that ruckus a topwater fly offers.
Topwater fishing is well-known to be best early and late in the day when the sun is low in the sky, but you shouldn't always ignore it throughout the day, either. It can be highly-productive when it's raining or there's a solid overcast overhead. Ditto if you see signs of fish or bait breaking or dimpling the surface or even just milling around the shallows. I've even done well under bright sunny mid-afternoon skies when the wind is blowing along very shallow banks, especially around weeds or over the tops of shallow weed beds. Isolated shade pockets are another favorite. Really though, if the fish are active enough, topwater stands a chance of getting bit anytime.
Most topwater flies will obviously be thrown by folks up in the shallows, but they can also be highly effective in deeper water, too. When bass are suspended in the water column and harassing baitfish, a loud topwater can be effective at calling those fish up to the top. I've even heard stories of conventional bass anglers catching bass on topwater that came up from 20 and even 30+ feet below the surface to strike in extremely clear water!
Here are 2 key attributes of topwater flies that I feel can sometimes give them an edge over more subtle subsurface streamers:
Surface Disturbance- Streamers that sink can often be easily inspected and scrutinized since they dart, swim, or crawl under the water with minimal disturbance. On the flip side, since a topwater fly pops, dives, wiggles, or even walks on the surface, it's up there causing all kinds of ripples, wakes, and other disturbances. Not only are these disturbances highly-attractive to bass, but I believe they also help break up the visibility of the fly a bit, especially if the fish is not directly under the fly.
I think this is a big reason why a very naturally-colored topwater can be so effective in very clear water where a subsurface fly may get shied away from more often. The fly looks like food of some sort, but since the bass may not be able to see it perfectly due to how the fly sits and the disturbance it's causing, fish strike out of anger or curiosity.
Sound- Topwater flies can be quite loud, especially larger hard-bodied poppers that are capable of popping and spitting water aggressively on a sharper retrieve. There are also much quieter flies such as deer-hair divers that may just kind of lightly "bloop" below the surface film each time the line is tugged. Regardless of fly style, most topwaters are capable of giving off some level of sound that can draw fish in. The louder/larger the fly, the bigger the sound/disturbance it makes which means the further away a fish can detect its presence.
Because of this, noisy topwater flies are a great way to cover water quickly as casts can be spread apart further since these flies do a better job of "calling" fish in from a greater distance. The added noise also makes topwaters effective at drawing fish out of hiding places like submerged weed beds where a subsurface streamer might be harder or more time-consuming to cover water with.
Keep an open mind regarding topwater flies and don't get locked into thinking they'll ONLY work very early and very late in the day. As long as the water isn't too cold, you can bet I'll have at least a few surface flies on me—it's a pretty crappy feeling opening up your fly box to tie something on and not see it there. Even if I never use topwater on a particular trip, being prepared is far better than being unprepared!
Here's another one of our past topwater bass articles: Fly Fishing for Bass: Popper or Diver?
Need a few topwater flies? Try here