Topwater tactics for catching trout

In fast running water, cast a stickbait upstream and simply wind up the slack line as the lure floats down with the water. Impart an occasional twitch to the lure to give it the walk-the-dog action as it floats downstream.

by Daniel Turner

I’ve always loved surface fishing. It started with summer redfin on poppers and eventually progressed to chasing Murray cod on the biggest surface lures I could get my hands on.

Watching a fish rise up and attack your lure is an adrenalin rush like no other. It’s highly addictive and so much fun that I would happily swap the opportunity to land multiple fish sub-surface for just one fish caught on top of the water.

If the large variety of surface lures that are now available in tackle stores are anything to go by, it seems plenty of people agree with me. There’s a suitable size, design and lure action for almost every species of fish around Australia. However, it recently occurred to me that there’s one species that the surface fishing trend hasn’t caught onto – trout.

I was stumped. It’s hardly a new phenomenon to target trout feeding on the surface. After all, fly anglers successfully fish the surface with dry flies. So why then has the surface fishing obsession not gained mainstream popularity amongst lure anglers?

Looking for answers

I scoured the internet for an answer, and I quickly became worried that I was wasting my time because I couldn’t find a single manufacturer marketing their surface lures to trout anglers.

Finally, I stumbled across Douglas Poulton, a lure maker in Tasmania who hand-makes wooden surface lures specifically for trout. As it turns out, surface lures have been used to target trout since the 1970s, especially in Tasmania where the ‘fishcake’ style of lure rose to prominence. Doug has been catching trout and Atlantic salmon in Lake McKenzie, Arthurs Lake, Lake Peddler and the Great Lakes for over 50 years, and he was kind enough to share some of his wisdom with me.

Doug told me a great story of how he was taught to use fishcakes by the ‘older generation.’ He was told to cast the fishcake out and leave it sitting there while you roll and then smoke a cigarette. Then resume by slowly and gently winding the lure across the surface and start again. It was a lesson in slowly retrieving the lure, giving plenty of time for any nearby fish to take interest.

Doug had a few theories of what he thought the lure represented in a trout’s diet, but over time he has settled on insects, lizards, frogs, rodents and anything else that might fall into the water from nearby trees or long grass.

Between these great fishing yarns, Doug also made a few important points. Firstly, the best time to use fishcake lures is in windy conditions when the water surface becomes sloppy. Cast repeatedly close to the shoreline edges or look for any structure or trees where the fish could be waiting for an opportunistic meal. Doug said he has caught fish on fishcakes all year round and at any time of day, and night time was often the most productive.

Doug gave me one final piece of inspiration. He told me that over time you will probably forget catching fish on bait or while trolling lures, but you’ll never forget the fish that you land on the surface. He said the heart-racing thrill of surface strike leaves a long-lasting impression and makes this form of fishing that little bit more special.

Thanks to Doug I was reassured that surface fishing for trout is a productive technique for trout and one of Tassie’s best-kept secrets! It was now time for me to start my surface fishing journey. I purchased some poppers and stickbaits, the majority of which were designed for bass, bream and whiting, and I ordered some of Dougie’s Fishcakes.

In shallow river conditions, surface lures become more of a necessity than a choice. Minnow, winged or spooned lures would be a nightmare to use and a costly exercise, as plenty of lures would be lost to a rock or submerged timber.
A beautiful stream location that would be worth a fish.
Watching wild brumbies can be great while you wait for your lure to be smashed. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t catch a fish straight away. Once you break the surface hoodoo, you’ll keep coming back for more.
The author quickly realised that the rippled water surface caused by the blustery conditions was impairing the intended action of the lure on the surface.
If you’re fishing from a boat, you can also target wind and foam lanes that will collect any insects that are drifting on the surface.
The author’s first goal was to find a muddy shoreline with a yabby population, which doesn’t take long when the banks are exposed with holes and shells are scattered around.
The author with a cracker brown trout caught on a surface lure.

The plan – sticking to my strengths

Lake Eucumbene was the destination for my surface lure mission. Just over an hour from my house in Canberra, I regularly fish the lake and I decided that I wasn’t going to change my usual plan of attack when I’m fishing with soft plastics, winged lures and hardbodies.

The bottom of Lake Eucumbene is mostly mud, clay and sand – perfect for yabby populations. The water level of Lake Eucumbene was 38%, which forced the yabbies to relocate from their burrows. This provides an easy meal for trout cruising around the edges. The first thing I wanted to do was find a muddy shoreline with a yabby population, which doesn’t take long when the banks are exposed with holes and shells scattered around.

I knew that night would give me the best chance of landing a fish, and I also wanted to test the lures in the middle of the day. Lake Eucumbene is notorious for its gusty winds, which isn’t always pleasant for anglers, but most importantly it can really get the trout into a feeding mood. During windy conditions, waves continually crash into the shoreline, stirring up the muddy banks and causing the water to dirty around the edges.

The muddy water provides protection for the trout as they hunt along the edges for any insects or terrestrials that have accumulated from the waves. Muddy water provides a rare opportunity to land multiple fish smack bang in the middle of the day – something usually reserved for dawn, dusk and the evening.

The location I settled on provided the best of both worlds – vast mud banks with remnants of yabbies and, most importantly, I was fishing into the wind. This meant that the concentration of food was being blown in the direction of the wind and the waves were crashing directly in front of me.

If you’re fishing from a boat, you can also target wind and foam lanes that will collect any insects drifting on the surface.

Learning on the run

I started by using poppers and stickbaits, however I quickly realised that the rippled water surface caused by the blustery conditions was impairing the intended action of the lure on the surface. The waves were pushing and bouncing the lures around, and thus they were unable to produce a constant action on the surface. Even the larger 75mm models that I tried weren’t heavy enough to stay on the water’s surface.

Fortunately, I had a few of the Dougie’s Handmade Fishcakes to try and I remembered that Doug advised that some chop on the water can actually help with the action of the lure. The propeller on the front of the lure spins during retrieval, and a combination of some extra weight and a wider profile meant that the lure was in constant contact with the surface of the water.

I was casting the lure parallel to the surface no more than 5m from the shoreline, where the trout would be feeding. It took some time to get used to the action of the propeller. I found that positioning your rod tip in line with the horizon was more effective than the usual retrieval angle down towards your feet. This allows the lure to sit slightly higher in the water, ensuring that the propeller spins at all times.

I was impressed by the lure’s action on the surface, and was feeling confident that the vibrations and trail of bubbles on the surface would get the attention of any nearby fish.

Night time

At times, we all question our sanity when fishing – and this was one of those times. It was freezing cold and the wind was relentless. However, I knew that night time would be my best shot at landing a fish, because the usually cautious and wily trout feel safe from aerial predators and venture into the shallow margins for a feed.

Earlier in the day I had prospected the area I was fishing, so I knew that I didn’t have to worry about any snags. However, the reoccurring problem that I faced was not knowing if the action of the lure was correct. Earlier in the day, I could watch the lure and retrieve it at a speed that allowed me to maintain a constant lure action.

When you’re casting extra-large Murray cod surface lures, you can feel the lure’s action during the retrieval as the bib darts from side to side. However, these smaller lures don’t give you the same feeling and for much of the night I had that unsettling feeling that the lure wasn’t swimming correctly. While my head torch would have helped me see the action of the lure, I left it turned off to avoid spooking any nearby fish.

A full moon on a clear night would make a world of difference, and calmer, glassier conditions would also allow for a better feel of the lure’s action on the surface. I cast and cast into blustering wind until my hands turned blue and my back ached. With no sign of any fish, I decided to pull the pin.

Time of Year

The available food sources at Lake Eucumbene are always changing due to the different seasons, temperature and water levels. As a general rule, 80% of the year trout will feed predominantly below the surface. The remaining 20% represents the warmest period of the year when surface activity from insects and terrestrials reaches its peak. I was fishing in late September, so from the very outset I knew my timing was off.

I’m looking forward to trying again in summer when the two common scenarios that trigger surface feeding occur – hatches and falls. During insect hatches, hundreds of nymphs, midges, caddis, mayflies and other insects represent an easy meal on the surface. Hatches occur all year round, but are most prominent in the warmer months.

In summer beetles, ants, jassids, grasshoppers, crickets, and cicadas are prevalent. Water surrounded by overhanging trees or long grass is an ideal location for falls, which occur when a strong offshore breeze pushes the terrestrials into the water, where they become stranded.

Terrestrials make up a substantial portion of a trout’s diet in summer and it goes without saying that surface lures are most effective when trout are feeding on the surface. The vibrations emitted by terrestrials when they kick and struggle on the surface attracts trout from metres away, and that is exactly what your surface lure is trying to emulate.

Fish On!

After a doughnut day fishing the lake, we decided to give the river a try. The river had settled after the winter flow with lots of shallow, steady water; these are typical conditions for the river after it reopens to fishing over the October long weekend. My fishing partner was an inexperienced angler, so in fairness to our wager over who would land the most fish for the day, I elected to wear high visibility clothing – a cardinal sin amongst trout anglers!

Due to the shallow river conditions, the surface lures become more of a necessity than a choice. Minnow, winged or spooned lures would have been a nightmare to use and a costly exercise, as plenty of lures would have been lost to a rock or submerged timber.

Our hopes were high after sighting a few small rainbows spawning in pairs. We left them to do their thing and went in search of some deeper pools to target.

After experimenting with the various lures during the previous day, we decided to use small poppers, mainly because we knew that they would make less of a splash when casted. We modified the traditional retrieval method, consisting of a sharp jerking of the rod tip to create the disturbance on the surface and the blooping sound, to a more slow and steady retrieve.

This prevented spooking the trout with an overly aggressive retrieve, while still allowing the lure to disturb the surface and emit vibrations. We also adopted a common surface fishing technique for natives – an occasional extended pause during the retrieve.

The countless casts that I had made over the two days had drained my sense of anticipation. I was in a state of trance, relaxed and enjoying my surroundings in the high country, so what happened next caught me completely off guard and sent my heart racing.

I was pinpointing my casts tight against the opposite bank simulating a ‘fall’ whereby a terrestrial drops into the water from an overhanging tree. Suddenly I saw a bow wave approach my lure and my rod buckled over with the weight of the fish.

The fish had my reel screaming as it took off downstream, and it was determined to free itself against any structure that it could find. Every time it came within netting distance, it would find another burst of energy and distance itself.

After one hell of a fight, I had myself a solid brown trout in the net! It was a nice surprise, as generally during the spring and summer months the river predominantly contains rainbows.

Finally, I had cracked the surface fishing hoodoo and I was hooked! Dougie was right when he said surface-caught trout are even more memorable – I certainly won’t forget this fish and I’m already planning the next trip to Eucumbene!

Poppers and Stickbaits

While there are plenty of poppers and stickbaits on the market, none are specifically designed to target trout. The surface lures that are marketed for bass, whiting and bream are generally the ideal size and weight. Poppers and stickbaits up to 75mm in size are ideal for shallow water streams and rivers where the trout are easily spooked. Their lightweight design will make minimal splash when cast.

In fast running water, cast a stickbait upstream and simply wind up the slack line as the lure floats down with the water. Impart an occasional twitch to the lure to give it the walk-the-dog action as it floats downstream. In still water or deeper, slower runs that sit alongside the rapids, poppers are preferred.

Terrestrial Imitations and Fishcakes

In lakes and dams, you need to draw fish from a further distance, so surface lures with an in-built action such as a bib or propeller are ideal. In-built actions have a larger and noisier presence in the water, and are also heavier, which will help increase your casting distance.

There are plenty of lures on the market that imitate terrestrial insects such as beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, and cicadas. Small mammal or rodent surface lures are also very popular.

The action and size of the lure is more important than colour choice, but if you are fishing at night time, a black lure will produce a strong silhouette and contrast, which will be easier for a fish to see from beneath the surface.

Fishcake lures are the only surface lure on the market designed specifically for trout. Fishcakes have a propeller on the front of the lure that rotates when retrieved, creating a gurgle sound and a trail of bubbles on the water.

In-built actions do most of the work for you. Simply adjust your retrieval speed until you find the sweet spot for that particular lure.

When using fishcakes, elevate your rod tip so that the lure sits higher in the water. This will ensure that the propeller spins freely.

Some lures to try
Morry Kneebone stickbait (colour 12 is my personal favourite)
Storm Hopper Popper
Arashi Cover Pop
Morry Kneebone Small Mammal
Arbogast Jitterbug
River2Sea Cicada Pop
Dougie’s Handmade Wooden Lures Medium Fishcake