Topwater Surface Plugs for Redfish

Throw a surface plug for super redfish strikes.

By Chris Christian

Some anglers are surprised when a redfish hits a topwater lure intended for trout, but I’m not one of them. In fact, my experience has been that reds will eagerly assault a surface bait under the right conditions, and they are normally the larger fish. Not to say that I discovered this.

“Smaller reds seldom mess with a topwater bait,” says veteran St. Augustine guide and tournament angler, Larry Miniard. “When you catch one it’s almost always a solid fish, and that’s one reason why tournament anglers use surface baits a lot. Another reason is that you can cover a lot of water quickly with a surface bait. Surface baits help you zero in on quality reds.”

When is a surface bait the best choice? It depends on conditions, and experienced anglers have learned to recognize them.

In the Mood for Topwaters

Water temperature plays a role in when redfish will enthusiastically assault surface baits, but not as big a role as some might assume. As long as the water temperature is over 70 degrees, reds strike topwater baits. Tide isn’t really a factor. Reds will take topwater plugs on rising water, falling water and even slack water. Of course, if your favorite redfish hole or flat delivers best on a rising tide, by all means break out the topwaters at that time. The depth of the water also isn’t critical, because you can certainly fish a topwater plug in anything from inches to 10 feet or so. What can be critical is the way you work a plug in a particular depth. Many anglers feel that you can’t just blast away with a loud chugging plug where reds are scraping their bellies with their backs out—they are likely a bit spooky there. Conversely, you might need to make maximum noise to attract a redfish hugging bottom or swimming mid-column in water 3 to 10 feet.

What’s on the Menu?

The big key to topwater success is what forage factors have geared the fish to look to the surface for food. Anytime you have a lot of baitfish in the area, especially mullet, and the water is warm, topwater plugs become an excellent choice. Like any predator, reds are wired to focus on the most abundant food source available at the moment. They can eat a lot of different items. But when schools of baitfish arrive they will zero in on those, and their eyes will be turned toward the surface. Topwaters are a very viable option under these conditions. If you happen to see reds striking baitfish on the surface, they then become the perfect choice.

Terrain Determines Plug Choice

Just which topwater lures will be most effective depend largely on the terrain the reds inhabit at the moment. The plugs that work well in open water may not be the best bet when reds are in the weeds. Reds are notorious for following the rising tide into the extreme shallows, and often into newly flooded vegetation. Where I fish in Northeast Florida that’s usually Spartina grass. In other areas it might be “mop” grass, milfoil, eelgrass or any other rooted plant. And, they don’t need a lot of water to be happy. If there is a foot of water, they’re comfortable.

That’s not the best terrain to be tossing a topwater plug festooned with trebles, but there are weedless, surface-bait options available. Soft-plastic jerkbaits are popular among some anglers. When rigged weedless with a 4/0 or 5/0 offset or extra-wide-gap hook, they are as weedless as a lure can be, and with proper rod manipulation they can dance on the surface. Reds will eat them, but a number of anglers are discovering that the same metal-bladed surface buzzbait favored by largemouth bass anglers is a more effective choice.

Buzzbaits need to be moved at a fairly rapid pace to keep the lure on top and the blade gurgling. That doesn’t give a red a lot of time to zero in on it, but in shallow water they don’t need much time.

Reds will roam, root or chase baitfish. But, they are also a superb ambush feeder. They will often take a position and just wait for food to come to them. That’s common behavior along the edge of an oyster bar, or cuts through it where food is being funneled, or along a mangrove edge, or anywhere else they can sit, wait and strike suddenly.

They do that a lot in the extreme shallows. I have seen reds just lie on the bottom in pockets in grass, or on a dark patch of grass on a flat, with their eyes looking up. That makes them suckers for a buzzbait and although the bait is moving quickly, if you’re in two feet of water then the red isn’t more than 18 inches from the bait when it zips over its head. That’s one tail thrust and an impulse strike! Since the buzzbait covers a lot of water fast, anglers have a good chance of running it over a red. The best are those with relatively small blades, a hook extending well behind the blade, and incorporating a trailer hook. The trailer hook helps short-strikers hook up and it is not just a plus—it’s a MUST! My favorite redfish buzzbait is the 1⁄4-ounce Hildebrandt HeadBanger (which comes with a trailer hook) but there are others that work well if you add a trailer hook. Fast-moving buzzbaits are deadly in shallow water because red and lure are in close proximity when they meet.

Tie on a Floater

As good as buzzbaits are, when reds are encountered in deeper water choose a slower bait that gives the red more time to locate it and zero in on. Floating lures are the best choice, and reds will enthusiastically assault floating hard plugs. But, their enthusiasm frequently exceeds their “skill level.” It’s not uncommon for a red to boil on some baits a half-dozen times before finding the hooks. There’s a simple reason for that.

“Redfish are physically challenged when it comes to striking an object on the surface,” notes Miniard. “They have an underslung mouth, and when they strike at a surface object their nose leads by several inches. This creates a surge of water that can actually push the object away from the fish. It’s not uncommon to see a school of reds hammering mullet on the surface, but when you catch some out of that group the majority of them will have empty stomachs. They have to work longer and harder than other fish for a surface meal.”

Tying on the right topwater plug, however, can make that red’s job a lot easier. “Reds will hit walking baits, chuggers, poppers, stick baits or prop lures,” Miniard continues. “Which will be most effective depends on how aggressive the reds are at the moment. If your plug sits high in the water with the head and tail on the surface, reds have a tougher time getting a hold of the hooks. Plugs that rest so that the tail and rear hooks are below the surface film are best. Just that slight angle will greatly increase your hookups.” And that applies to other fish, too.

Size and Color

Given the design of a red’s mouth, 3-inch plugs are easier to corral than larger lures. Most experts favor baits in this size range if surface conditions are relatively calm. In choppy water a larger, noisier lure is sometimes required to catch the red’s attention, but hookup percentages can suffer.

An exact color pattern is not a critical factor; a red looking up at the surface is seeing little more than a silhouette and the commotion created by the bait. Lots of baitfish in relatively clear water call for you to try a lighter-colored mullet pattern. In darker water, a dark bait, or a bright chartreuse model may be more visible and produce a better silhouette. SWA

Topwater Reinforcements Required!

Big reds are brutal on plug hardware. Many plugs have light-wire hooks and copper split rings that don’t hold up to a red’s tough mouth and thuggish attitude.

Savvy anglers routinely check the hardware on any plug, and if it’s not of industrial-strength caliber, they are quick to replace them. That’s not difficult. Any tackle emporium of even minimal quality will offer bulk replacement hooks and split rings. Choose sturdy, stainless steel split rings in a size as close as possible to the original rings on the lure. If your plug has a split ring on the line-tie eye, replace that as well.

There are a number of hook styles and makes on the market. The ones I favor are the stainless steel Mustad 2X and 4X strong trebles in sizes No. 6, 4 and 2. Replacing the original light-wire hooks with the 2X models, in the same size as the originals, does not alter the action of the bait. Moving up in hook size can, and sometimes, that’s a plus. Heavier hooks (4X) can sit the bait lower in the water, which can result in more hookups. Or, moving from a No. 4 hook to a No. 2 hook on the tail will drop the tail lower in the water without altering the action of the bait significantly. This will definitely improve your hookup ratio.

Regardless of the options you choose, don’t count on the factory hardware doing the job for very long. When you start tossing topwaters for reds, reinforcements are required.