GT caught on floating stick bait

Topwater Fishing: Why stick baits work and how we should use them

Are you struggling with your stick bait game? This topwater fishing technique is a must-have. Let’s take a look at how and why stick baits work.

What Sets Stick Baits Apart?

The primary difference between stick baits and other lures is that they don’t have any built-in action. Most lures have blades, skirts, bibs, etc. to help create a swimming action while being retrieved.

Fishing with stick baits requires the angler to impart action into the lure. Once you learn to balance the bait in the water then you will become more inspired by the potential it brings. Stick baits are one of the most effective lures out there.

A “wounded baitfish” swimming action is the common goal of stick bait makers and users alike. A seductive side to side action for some, diving, and rolling for others, each lure style has its unique swimming characteristics.

The novice will want to know all the mechanics and techniques available but cannot perform one technique well. The experienced angler utilizes a smaller amount of techniques and methods which he or she can work with grace, skill, and expertise needed to achieve the desired fish catching effect.

Stick Bait Design

Lure designers and makers spend a lot of time on shaping the lure and getting them to swim how they want it to. Handmade or factory produced, the body shape and material balancing can make or break the result.

Another important aspect that designers spend so much time on is hook balancing. Finding the right set of hooks for the lure is important to get the best swimming action.

Hooks of different weights and sizes and manufacturers go through rigid tryouts. The set that allows the lure to swim right gets their details stamped on the packaging for anglers’ perusal.

Now we know how intricate and complicated the process of designing and manufacturing stick baits are, let’s proceed to another important aspect that we anglers have to consider when selecting a stick bait.

Sink Rates and their application

In general, there are 3 types of sink rates to select from.

  • Floating – lure is very buoyant and stays on top of the water when static. It floats back up to the surface after imparting the desired action. These lures are perfect for calm seas, with little to no surface chop.

Using these in shallow fishing spots with visible structure below the surface is ideal to prevent snagging up.

  • Slow Sinking – As the description itself implies, it sinks slowly. These are best to use during choppy conditions. The reason being too much surface turbulence from the weather voids the visual and tactile attraction the lures are meant to present to our targeted fish.

Having your lure under all that turbulence allows it to imitate a dazed and confused baitfish, waiting to be eaten.

  • Fast Sinking – Another self-explanatory description, fast sinking stick baits are also best used when the weather is on the choppy side, but also when you are marking bait well below the surface.

Windows of opportunity like these are short and having a fast sinking lure get to the center of action quickly is paramount to your fishing success, thus the need to be fast sinking.

It is important to remember that your sinking lures are prone to snagging. Having good quality polarized sunglasses can help you visualize where your lures may snag on, allowing you to estimate how deep you can allow your lure to sink to. Experience and local knowledge of your local waters help a ton when choosing which lure to use at what location.

Types of stick baits

There are plenty of stick bait designs out there but we’ll just focus on the 3 most popular designs that are a must-have in your tackle bag when heading out for a topwater fishing session.

We will also share some tips on how to impart action on each of them to achieve the most desirable effect.

1. Surface Dancers

Orion Flapper 130

These are the plugs that imitate flying fish or fleeing baitfish on the surface. These guys are slim and slender in design, weighted, and sink fast to achieve accurate long-distance casts, so be careful when fishing in the shallows.

It is a highly efficient search lure as you will be able to cast and retrieve double the amount compared to the standard poppers and stick baits that need rod maneuvering to work.

How to use: Cast as far out as you can, preferably over bait schools or surface feeding fish. Place your rod butt in your gimbal or under your arm and retrieve it as fast as possible to allow the plug to skip and skitter on the surface of the water. Adding a few rod tip twitches now and then can change up the action and can be deadly at times.

Some of the most popular surface dancers are the GT Ice Cream and Orion Flapper.

2. Sub-surface Slashers

Strategic Angler Naia

These guys will provide you with an aggressive side to side/zigzag swimming action, imitating feeling baitfish under the surface of the water.

They are also the more versatile type of stick bait, as different rod manipulation techniques allow different swim actions. We’ll break down the most popular techniques below.

How to use:

Surface skipping – when the bait is balled up on the surface, looking threatened and finicky, a fast and aggressive surface skipping plug pulled across the surface can trigger the feeding frenzy. Cast along the sides of the bait ball and retrieve fast to get the plug skipping on the surface similar to the surface dancer plugs. Prepare yourself for fast and furious reaction strikes.

Walk the dog – one of the world’s most famous topwater lure techniques. This hypnotizing zigzag swimming action can be achieved by keeping your rod tip low, and making fast and firm twitches with the rod tip. Once you see the lure’s head swing in one direction, take a short pause and twitch again to pull the head in the opposite direction. Rinse and repeat until boat-side then cast again.

Top tip for figuring out how much to twitch your rod tip – when you maneuver your rod for a twitch, remember to only twitch as much as your rod’s butt end swings the total length of your lure.

Dive and swim – Tuck your rod’s butt under your arm, retrieve slack, then sweep your rod downwards and sideways. Pause then repeat. For floaters, it is important to wait for the head to pop up from under the surface of the water before sweeping again. The pause is when most strikes occur, so it pays to keep your head in the game at all times.

Shimano Ocea Pencils, Shimano Head Dips, Yambal GT Harriers, and FCL CSP’s are great starting lures.

3. Dive and roll

Coral trout caught on Carpenter Gamma

Mostly made out of hand-carved timber, these lures are at the pricier end of the spectrum. They swim so seductively that we get hypnotized just by watching our lures swim.

These bad boys are a bit harder to swim at first but are a must to learn how. Each sweep causes them to dive, roll and shimmy. It’s the lazy roll that gets the fish every time.

How to use: After bombing out a long cast, retrieve the slack and sweep downwards and sideways. The longer the sweep the deeper the lure dives and the more body rolls you impart. Allow the lure’s head to pop up from under the surface, then sweep again.

Repeat until you get a hit!

The best examples would be Carpenter Gammas and Bluefish, Amegari Kaxu, and Hots Keiko.

Honorable Mention

The bastard spawn of a popper and a stick bait, hybrid diving poppers have garnered great popularity for its amazing subsurface action. It has a cupped face that is angled upward, causing it to dive when pulled, but also trapping and releasing air and bubbles while swimming in a zigzag motion. Such a lethal combination that might attract anglers more than fish.

How to use: Pull and sweep sideward and downward. Pull, sweep, and pause. This will cause the popper to trap air, dive, and cause a zig-zag bubble trail. Cast, pull, sweep, and pause. Repeat until you get a hit.

Best examples are the Native Works Napalm and Amegari Urpekari.

Key things to remember:

  • These lures are designed to swim a particular way, with specific hooks. Always look at the packaging your lure comes in carefully, to find out what hooks match your lure. Not on the packaging? Check out their website instead.
  • The techniques above are the most common ways to work a stick bait but shouldn’t be treated as the only and right ways to do them. Trial and error along with experience from hours and hours of fishing are the best ways to learn.
  • More expensive doesn’t necessarily mean more effective. You may have the best lure money can buy, but if you can’t work it properly, you won’t get the desired effect. On the other end, an experienced topwater angler can use any stick bait and make it swim attractively. Practice makes perfect.

There are so many topwater lures and techniques out there, enough to fill up a book. You can own every stick bait out there and learn how to use them all.

Final Word

It requires no more practice to work a lure correctly than to work it badly. Experienced anglers shine when he or she has gone through the hard yards figuring out the best method that works for them.

The novice will want to know all the mechanics and techniques available but cannot perform one technique well. The experienced angler utilizes a smaller amount of techniques and methods which he or she can work with grace, skill, and expertise needed to achieve the desired fish catching effect.

To make things extra clear, find your favorite technique and style, practice and perfect it until you know you can do it anytime even without thinking about it, and the fish will soon follow.

If you are keen to learn more about topwater fishing, especially popping, check out our Topwater Fishing Popper Primer.

If you are looking for a true sport fishing company that offers you more than just a Vanuatu fishing adventure, look no further than Ocean Blue Fishing.

Call us now at (AU) 1300 564 616 or at (INTL) +61 436 020322 or you may also contact us through our website at

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Topwater Fishing: Why stick baits work and how we should use them

John is originally from the Philippines. John has extensive guiding experience throughout Asia and...Learn more

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