They say that nothing in fishing takes the place of on-the-water experience… unless, of course, you can be on the water with an acknowledged angling expert and fishing legend!
And so it was when I met with Zell Rowland on Sugarloaf Lake near Fort Smith, Arkansas.
To many followers of the pro game, Zell Rowland is to topwater fishing what Babe Ruth is to home runs – pioneer, legend, and almost patron saint! Put him on the dais – in this case, the front deck of his bass boat – and you want to soak up every syllable his Texas drawl delivers.
Zell’s lessons ranged from lure selection to distinguishing “spitting” baits from chuggers, with stops along the way to discuss the various topwater lures and topwater categories.
And we took time to discuss a very funda-mental question at the heart of topwater angling decisions: “When’s the best time to fish topwater lures?”
“The best time to use a topwater lure is when you’re not!” he says with that familiar sparkle in his eye.
Spittin’ vs. Chuggin’
For years, Zell dazzled the pro ranks with his modified chugging baits – many of which were modifications of the landmark lure, the Rebel Pop R!
In one iteration, Zell modified the face of the bait to deliver a different sound and action – a kind of sputtering, spitting action that often delivered fast and exciting topwater results – and won him a ton of money in the process.
Zell yielded to the inevitable pressure to reveal his secret. Today, his spitter is manifest in the popular XCalibur Zell Pop lure.
But if you’re expecting Zell to tell you that his namesake lure is the last word in chuggin’ baits, think again.
“There’s not a fisherman in the world who can tell you they bite a Pop-R on Monday and a Heddon Chugger on Tuesday,” he said. “That’s why I’ve got’em all.”
And he uses them, too!
Poll the ranks of bass anglers or anglers anywhere and you will likely find a huge majority proclaiming topwater fishing as their favorite.
Then why don’t they fish topwater lures more?
Certainly topwater fishing can be a boom or bust proposition. But habit and convention may factor into the limited use of topwater lures more than anything else. Most anglers simply do not have confidence in their topwater baits except in those classic calm, lowlight or early/late in the day periods when the waters seem to scream for surface commotion!
“That’s good for me,” says Zell, who has been known to surprise bass and competitor alike with a topwater trophy at mid-day.
Zell fishes topwaters in all four seasons, too, though he tends to begin with water temps in the upper 40s. And he really gets serious when the water temperature hits 56 degrees!
Zell excels because he carries a complete arsenal of topwater baits that fit different conditions and display different water displacement, sounds, and actions.
Walking baits, chuggers, frogs, buzzbaits, buzz frogs, even a host of lures that long ago disappeared from the marketplace…all have cherished places in his tackle box not just for the sake of collector’s nostalgia but because they each have their place in different angling scenarios and because, you know, fish will be fish!
Expertise comes with developing the knowledge and instinct necessary to make good choices and outstanding bait presentations.
Some of Zell’s favorite baits include:
Chugger/Spitters: Rebel Pop R, Super Pop R, Pop R P70; Heddon Lucky 13; XCalibur Zell Pop…more
Walking Baits: Zara Spook and the entire Spook family; Heddon Spit’n Image; Rebel Frog R (new); Rebel Jumpin’ Minnow
Frogs: Booyah Pad Crasher; Rebel Frog R (really a walking bait)
Buzzing lures: Booyah buzzbait family