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Understanding Lures: Surface Action

LAST issue we covered a group of lures called bibbed minnows. This month we delve into another broad range of lures called “surface lures”. Often referred to in the US as “top water” lures, both names suggest that they are intended to be used on top of the water as opposed to under it.

The reasons for using surface lures over other presentations are quite varied but most anglers will use them when they can, because a strike on the surface is very exciting. It’s not always about the fish you catch either, as in many cases you might not even feel the fish swiping at your conventional lure. When you can actually see an interested fish but it’s not yet prepared to strike, you can often influence or manipulate that fish’s behaviour and turn curiosity or caution into a strike. How you actually do that will depend largely on the environment you’re fishing and the species of fish you’re targeting. For example, if you are using hi-speed surface lures for pelagics like queenfish, tuna or trevally, the rampaging combination of the speed of the lure and the speed of the fish (often competing with other fish for your lure) can lead to multiple missed strikes. 

The point here is that you need a high-speed retrieve to get the fish interested in the first place. The trick to hooking up is to introduce a well-timed stop into your retrieve. Just when you see a fish on the verge of grabbing your lure, stop your retrieve and often the fish will engulf the lure. In a more placid and low tempo environment, like bream fishing with surface lures, the wily bream will often investigate your lure by sitting right under it but not actually striking at it. In these cases, stopping everything and letting the lure just sit there is a very effective method of enticing a strike (that may not come for several seconds). It can be high tension fishing. When fishing with sub-surface lures these missed opportunities may go completely unnoticed.

So there are a couple of examples where surface lures can be an advantage. This sort of fishing would be virtually impossible without being able to see your lure and also the fish chasing it. Other advantages of surface lures include being able to use them in places when the  use of sub-surface lures is impossible. For example, over heavy weed beds, snags or even oyster leases any lure other than a surface one is likely to get fouled up or snagged.

While the principles of all surface lures are similar, they are certainly not all the same. The ones described in this column are the main types. We’ll also cover how they work and what they are good for. 


These represent the bulk of the surface lure range. They are basically a floating body with a face that is angled back. This face usually is concave to varying degrees. The angle of the face, combined with the buoyant body, keeps the lure on the surface. The cup face creates the “pop”, but only when retrieved a certain way. These lures can be retrieved at a steady pace where they leave behind a trail of bubbles but they are really effective when used with a stop start or pulsing retrieve. The idea is to bring the lure forward a short distance but at a relatively high speed. This rapid acceleration causes the cup face to fill with water until the pressure is too much and the water then “explodes” out in front of the lure creating a popping noise. In turn, this creates a highly visible and audible commotion on the surface, which can be irresistible to predatory fish. These come in tiny sizes for bream and whiting up to big ones for large pelagic predators like kingfish, trevally or queenfish. Bloopers are a form of popper but the face is square rather than angled and the cup is quite deep. When retrieved using a short, sharp jerk of the rod it creates a huge “bloop”. These are a popular choice of lure for tropical popper fanatics.


Fizzers have a floating, very streamlined body shape that has virtually no built-in action. However, they do have one or more propeller blades on either the front, back or both ends of the lure that spin as the lure moves along the water surface. Because the lure floats, the blades are only partially submerged. Therefore when they spin they “chop” the water, creating a lot of visible and audible commotion. They can be used as a steady retrieve or series of start and stop rips. While these lures do require movement to get their desired “fizzing” action, pausing for an interested fish can still entice a strike. Fizzers come in a range of sizes from 50mm long for bream and bass to massive 250mm versions used for the highly exotic and predatory peacock bass of the Amazon.   


An interesting form of surface lure is the paddler. These lures have a floating body with a pair of cupped “wings” out either side of the front. When retrieved across the surface they have a wide, side-to-side waddling action. This is caused by the wings alternately filling with water and popping out above the surface to release it. These lures are generally used at a constant, fairly slow speeds and are great for Murray cod, bass, saratoga and barra. The downside is the wings on these lures can be prone to damage when big fish like barra or cod smash them. 


Walkers also take in a fairly broad range of lures including stickbaits and spooks. They are basically a long, floating bibbed minnow without the bib. The other forms of surface lures are all pretty easy to use but getting the most out of walkers might take a bit of practice. After you cast, hold the rod low and directly in line with your lure. Then make a short, sharp downwards jerk of the rod tip to pull all the slack out of the belly and a couple of extra centimetres of taut line. Then slightly raise the rod to create some slack. The jerking of the rod causes the walker to lurch forward and the slack line and the lure design allows it dart out to one side. The next jerk darts it out the other direction effectively “zig zagging” the lure across the surface. You can retrieve your walker with a regular “jerk, slack” motion or with a series of pauses.

Lots of other lures can also be used on the surface. Any floating lure allowed to sit can induce a surface strike. Many kinds of soft plastics when used with a light jig head and retrieved at a constant speed and with a high, vertical rod angle will stay on the surface. Similarly, metal lures retrieved at very high speeds will skip across the surface rather than underneath.

Practice some of these retrieves and be sure to take your heart medication!

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