What is Surface Fishing?

Last Updated on September 26, 2023

Fishing has always held an undeniable allure, drawing enthusiasts from all walks of life. It’s a pursuit that transcends mere recreation, touching upon the very essence of our connection with nature. And within the realm of angling, there’s a subculture that has been making quite the splash – both literally and figuratively – in recent years. Welcome to the captivating world of surface fishing.

So, dear reader, fasten your fishing vest and tighten those lines, for we’re about to embark on a journey that promises not only bountiful catches but also a profound connection with the aquatic world. Get ready to cast your line, witness the dance of water and lure, and experience the adrenaline rush of surface fishing like never before.

The Basics of Surface Fishing

Surface fishing is not just a method; it’s a captivating art form that allows anglers to witness the thrilling spectacle of fish breaking the water’s surface to take their bait or lure. It’s a technique deeply rooted in the simple yet exhilarating idea of fishing at or very close to the water’s top layer.

Differences from Other Techniques: Surface fishing stands apart from traditional bottom or deep-water fishing in several ways.

While traditional methods often require sinking bait or lures to where the fish dwell, surface fishing targets those species that prefer the upper layers of the water. It’s all about making your lure dance enticingly on the water’s skin, tempting fish to strike from below.

Surface Fishing Techniques

Surface fishing offers a diverse range of techniques, each with its own set of skills and equipment. Here, we’ll delve into some of the most popular surface fishing techniques that anglers rely on for exciting catches.

1. Topwater Lures:

  • Technique: Topwater lures are designed to mimic insects, frogs, or wounded baitfish that swim on the water’s surface. Anglers impart action to the lure by jerking or popping it.
  • Gear and Tackle: You’ll want a medium to medium-heavy spinning or casting rod, monofilament or braided line, and a selection of topwater lures in various sizes and colors.
  • Best Scenarios: Topwater lures are highly effective in calm or slightly choppy waters, particularly during low light conditions like dawn and dusk. They excel at enticing fish like bass, pike, and muskellunge which are known for explosive surface strikes.

2. Fly Fishing:

  • Technique: Fly fishing on the surface involves casting lightweight artificial flies to mimic insects or other small prey. The goal is to make the fly land gently on the water’s surface.
  • Gear and Tackle: You’ll need a specialized fly rod and reel, a variety of fly lines, leaders, and a selection of flies that match the local insect hatches.
  • Best Scenarios: Fly fishing works exceptionally well in freshwater streams, rivers, and ponds. It’s renowned for targeting species like trout, salmon, and bass. Timing your fly selection to match insect hatches is crucial for success.

3. Poppers:

  • Technique: Poppers are lures designed with a concave face that creates splashes and noise when retrieved. This action imitates prey struggling on the surface.
  • Gear and Tackle: A light to medium spinning or casting rod is suitable, along with a monofilament or braided line. Carry a selection of poppers in different sizes and colors.
  • Best Scenarios: Poppers are ideal for enticing aggressive fish like bass, panfish, and even saltwater species like redfish and snook. They work well in calm to moderately choppy waters.

4. Walk-the-Dog:

  • Technique: This involves using lures with a side-to-side, zigzag action when retrieved. The angler imparts this action by gently twitching the rod tip.
  • Gear and Tackle: A medium to medium-heavy spinning or casting rod with monofilament or braided line is appropriate. Lures designed for the “walk-the-dog” action are a must.
  • Best Scenarios: This technique is perfect for enticing species like striped bass, muskellunge, and pike. It’s most effective in relatively calm waters where the lure’s action is clearly visible.
Target Species in Surface Fishing

Target Species in Surface Fishing

Here’s a list of some common target species in surface fishing, along with insights into their habits:

1. Bass (Largemouth and Smallmouth):

  • Behavior: Bass are notorious surface predators known for explosive strikes on topwater lures. They often lurk near cover, such as lily pads or submerged structures, waiting to ambush prey.
  • Best Surface Techniques: Topwater lures like frogs, poppers, and walk-the-dog lures are highly effective for bass. Focus on early morning and late evening when they’re most active near the surface.

2. Pike and Muskie:

  • Behavior: These apex predators are highly aggressive and known for their powerful surface strikes. They often patrol the shallows, particularly in cooler water temperatures.
  • Best Surface Techniques: Large topwater lures like muskie-sized poppers and prop baits are favored for pike and muskie. Fish around weed beds, points, and rocky shorelines.

3. Panfish (Bluegill, Crappie):

  • Behavior: Panfish often congregate near the surface, especially in warmer months. They’re opportunistic feeders, making them susceptible to surface presentations.
  • Best Surface Techniques: Small poppers, bugs, or foam spiders work well for panfish. Fish in the shallows near vegetation or submerged structures.

4. Trout (Rainbow, Brown, Brook):

  • Behavior: Trout are known for their sensitivity to insect hatches. They often rise to the surface to feed on aquatic insects, making fly fishing a popular choice.
  • Best Surface Techniques: Dry flies, emergers, and small terrestrial patterns are effective for trout. Study local insect hatches and choose flies that match.

5. Saltwater Species (Redfish, Snook, Tarpon):

  • Behavior: Many saltwater species, especially inshore and nearshore, are surface feeders. They often target baitfish and shrimp on the water’s surface.
  • Best Surface Techniques: Topwater plugs and poppers are go-to lures for saltwater species. Fish around flats, mangroves, and estuaries, paying attention to tidal movements.

6. Salmon:

  • Behavior: Salmon exhibit surface-feeding behavior, especially when chasing schools of baitfish near the surface. This behavior can be more pronounced during spawning runs.
  • Best Surface Techniques: Trolling with surface lures or casting and retrieving spoons or plugs can be effective for salmon. Timing is crucial, as their behavior can change with water temperature and light conditions.

7. Carp:

  • Behavior: Carp are often found near the surface, particularly in shallow waters, when they’re actively feeding. They’re known to disturb the water’s surface as they feed on aquatic vegetation.
  • Best Surface Techniques: Carp can be targeted with dough baits, bread, or even flies on the surface. Look for them in shallow, weedy areas.
Choosing the Right Gear for Surface Fishing

Choosing the Right Gear for Surface Fishing

Selecting the right gear for surface fishing is crucial to maximize your chances of success and the enjoyment of your angling experience:

1. Fishing Rod:

  • Length: Opt for a rod length that complements your chosen surface fishing technique. Shorter rods, typically 6 to 7 feet, are excellent for precise casting with lures like poppers and topwater plugs. Longer rods, around 7 to 9 feet, are ideal for techniques like fly fishing or when casting longer distances.
  • Action: The rod’s action (fast, medium, slow) should match the type of lures or baits you plan to use. Fast-action rods provide quick hook sets and work well with lures that require a swift, sharp motion. Medium to slow-action rods are suitable for softer presentations, such as soft plastics or flies.
  • Power: Consider the power of the rod, often classified as light, medium, or heavy. Light to medium-power rods are great for panfish and trout, while heavier rods are needed for larger species like bass, pike, or saltwater gamefish.

2. Fishing Reel:

  • Reel Type: Select a reel that corresponds with your chosen technique. Spinning reels are versatile and work well for most surface fishing scenarios. Baitcasting reels are preferred by many anglers for their casting accuracy and control.
  • Gear Ratio: The gear ratio determines how quickly the line is retrieved. Higher gear ratios (7:1 and above) are suitable for techniques like topwater fishing, where you need to quickly retrieve lures. Lower gear ratios (5:1 to 6:1) are better for techniques that require a slower and more controlled retrieve.

3. Fishing Line:

  • Line Type: Monofilament, fluorocarbon, and braided lines each have their advantages. Monofilament offers buoyancy, making it great for topwater lures. Fluorocarbon is virtually invisible underwater, ideal for situations where fish are skittish. Braided lines provide excellent strength and sensitivity.
  • Line Strength: Choose a line strength (pound test) that matches your target species. Lighter lines work well for panfish and trout, while heavier lines are necessary for larger fish like bass or pike.

What is the best time of day to surface fish?

First light and last light are two of the best times of day to catch fish on the top. This is fantastic if you only have a few hours before or after work to go fishing, as an hour before or after work is frequently more than enough time to get a bite or two.


Now, it’s your turn to cast out into the world of surface fishing. Venture to your favorite fishing spot or explore new waters, armed with the knowledge and skills you’ve gained from this guide. The thrill of seeing a fish strike on the surface is an experience like no other, and it’s waiting for you.

Together, we can continue to explore and celebrate the joys of surface fishing, creating lasting memories and reeling in some impressive catches along the way. So, grab your gear, head out to the water, and let the adventure begin!

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