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Zell Rowland’s Top Water Tutorial

Why would a guy spend two hours with a sanding a Rebel Pop-R lure, painting and hand tying chicken feathers? Top water specialist Team Skeeter/Yamaha pro Zell Rowland works the bait until water testing produces a bait that will sit tail down and spit. He also checks to see that the bait doesn’t roll from one side to another. This process entails shaving the sides of the bait to make it slimmer and to sharpen the edges of the cupped face. Rowland claims the baits skitter more like a shad. He then paints the bait with an airbrush.

“About 20 years ago, I wanted to know what made the Pop-R work…so I cut one open and tried to make them lighter to make the action change. I made the bait thinner causing it to move from side to side and shaved the lip to reduce pop and increase spit.”

A chicken feather on #6 trebles takes him a minute to hand-tie and gives the bait a subtle action when sitting still or when barely moved. “When you pull the bait forward, the feathers close quickly and then slowly return to their original shape when you stop, giving an action even when the bait is nearly stopped. If a bass blows up on a Pop-R, and misses, nine times out often I can catch him because the feathers make him come back.”

“In nature, you see fish with 3 colors, red gills, a dark back and a light belly. I try to match other subtle colors to baitfish. The feathers become part of the belly of the bait…usually white feathers. I will put red, blue or yellow on top, white on bottom…adding chartreuse when the water is muddy.”

Rowland says hooksets are key as well and that too many fishermen overreact to blow ups and pull the bait away from the fish. Instead when a fish misses, he either stops the bait right where the bass struck, or he continues the action trying to make the fish think its prey is trying to get away. Sometimes he stops the bait, knowing exactly where the fish is.

“The fish is underneath trying to make up its mind whether to attack. “ Rowland turns the reel to move the bait about one-half inch. This small movement gets the feathers moving, closing very fast. Then while the bait is sitting, the feathers slowly open and that’s when the strike occurs.
Rowland also uses 10-pound Silver Thread in clear water. ”Every angler ought to realize that no matter what bait you are throwing, lighter line will give more action. Any thing above 10-14 pound test depletes the action of the bait. If you are working the bait faster, line doesn’t matter as much.” Light line sinks fast, so he holds his rod high at the beginning of the retrieve, then progressively lowers it as he works the bait back to the boat. This keeps the line above the water and prevents the bait from diving.

“Most topwaters will pop, spit, and walk. Try a variety of presentations until the fish tell you what the want. Pay close attention to the what you were doing on the initial strike to develop a pattern. Note where the fish came from. Was it a stump, grass clump, edge or other cover. Look for targets just like it.”

After Rowland ties a palomar knot directly to the bait, not to a split ring, he works it immediately. Once out of the strike zone, he reels in and makes another cast.

His All Star TWS (Top water special) 6’6”rod is designed to throw slack to the bait. According to Rowland, “The only action a topwater bait has is what you give it.” The first 6 inches is extremely light action, then 8-10 inches light getting heavier until you get to the last 12 inches above the butt which is heavy. This rod action allows the fish to pull the bait before you take it away. “You don’t want to feel the bite, you want the rod to load up before you sweepset the hook.”

Rowland uses topwaters in just about every tournament to catch and to locate fish, but he notes. “It is tough to win a big tournament on top because of the camera boats and the spectators. This makes the fish reluctant to come to the top to eat. Even at Santee where I won the BASS Tour Event in March 03, I knew that I had to move away from my topwaters to win on a spinnerbait. “

Zell Rowland recently won the BASSMASTERS Tour event on Santee Cooper. He has 3 other 1st place B.A.S.S. finishes and has fished 11 BASSMASTERS Classics including a 4th place finish. He has won nearly $800,000 as a pro.


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