Fishing the Surface Zone

A guide had turned up at the lodge with a group of clients on their way home after a week in Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario. Always on the lookout for useful information, Luke and I asked how the fishing had been. He told us that they had had a cracking session on the smallmouth one afternoon when they happened on an unseasonal mayfly hatch. A couple of clients had fly rods with them and were doing well; but the guide had gotten the rest of the blokes to chuck big Zara Spooks and the bass had put on a real show.

Later in the day I said to Luke that it was interesting that the guys throwing flies were only as successful as those using the Spooks; as I thought that ‘matching the hatch’ would have paid off in that circumstance. Luke’s response was a bit of an ‘Aha!’ moment for me:

“The mayflies got the fish looking up…”

The Lure of the Surface

Anyone that has experienced surface fishing knows how addictive it is. You’re always on the lookout for that next hit. The only thing is that sometimes you’ve got to throw a few more casts between them. This can be daunting until you gain enough confidence in your technique and understanding of fish behaviour so as to persevere.

So how do you pick the conditions for a surface lure? Breaking everything down to its simplest, you’re left with one rule: fish surface when the fish are looking up. This sounds straightforward, but don’t get too narrow minded in your thinking. It’s time to broaden your perspective on what constitutes surface fishing.

Think Outside the Film

Consider this: a lot of the activity we notice telling us that fish will feed on the surface isn’t actually on the surface. Swirls, boils, jumping baitfish and crustaceans; all these signs tell us there is something going on in the uppermost zone of the water column. Even the responses we get to lures fished at different depths can tell us about how the fish are behaving.

I’d like to consider ‘surface fishing’ as fishing a lure within the top foot or so of the water column. I think of this as the surface zone. There is a lot of versatility in lure choice and retrieval method in this zone. Half of the time you can see the lure. Most of the time you see the strike. What is really important, though, is that most fish very likely consider this area to be the surface hunting zone. This starts to make sense if you think that most species spend much of their lives at depths greater than this taking advantage of available camouflage, shelter and protection. Venturing so close to the top is a necessity of life, but few species lounge about up there. They are there for a reason.

Yellowbelly on spinnerbait
A spinnerbait is not a surface lure – but fished in the surface zone where the activity was, the take was still pretty spectacular

What Makes a Fish Look Up?

Put far too simply, there are a few factors that are likely to make a fish hunt in the upper water column. In my opinion these are available light; water clarity; terrestrial prey; and aquatic prey. All of these factors are linked and I’ll try to explain how things tie in together.

Available Light

Low light periods are usually good times to fish the surface. It’s a tale of the chicken and the egg as to whether predators feel less wary in these conditions, are responding to the apparent increase in prey activity, or making use of camouflage; but either way, dawn, dusk and night time are most surface fishers mainstay.

In freshwater environments, early morning and late afternoon provides many shady places where predators can lurk undetected. In hot climates like Australia; these periods also coincide with increased terrestrial activity. Bugs and other invertebrates move about. They also slow down a bit and become a little clumsy in the cooler temperatures. Amphibians get active, as well as reptiles and small mammals. Depending on their size, these are all potential tucker for Aussie bass, Murray cod and trout.

Bass on surface
After dark Aussie bass cruise out into the open in search of a feed. You don’t see the strike, but you definitely hear (and feel) it!

In saltwater, these periods see similar increased activity of marine prey species. Prawns, shrimp and baitfish make use of decreased visibility to move about, while their predators utilise the same to hunt them.

When it’s really dark, an efficient way for sight hunting predators to find a feed is to stay low in the water column and spot food by its silhouette cast against the sky. Some ambush predators like bass, cod and mangrove jack take full advantage of these conditions by actively moving about in open water to locate prey.

Water Clarity

It goes without saying that clear water allows predators to spot a surface presentation from a distance and home in. Clear water days can therefore be great for saltwater speedsters like trevallies, mackerel and kings. Many freshwater hunters adapted to utilise shallow water environments (like Aussie bass or pike in the northern hemisphere) have amazing eyesight and we’ve watched them react to surface activity from long distances in record time.

What I find interesting about the effect of water clarity on surface feeding is when things aren’t clear. I’ve recently been spending time chasing yellowbelly and cod in western NSW; and I’m starting to devise a theory on the ‘strange’ behaviour of the yellowbelly. By far and away most strikes from these fish are coming from surface and subsurface presentations. Even midway down in the water column. But nothing is happening down deep amongst the snags.

From the couple of fish that we’ve kept; and from a few regurgitated stomach contents in landing nets; it’s easy to see that these fish are feeding heavily on freshwater shrimp. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that knows about the species feeding habits. Until you relate it to the clarity of the water.

The river is fairly mucky right now. Other folk I’ve spoken to on the water say that they are doing OK on smelly cheese baits doused in WD40. So I think that down deep the fish are using smell and taste to locate food.

Shrimp, which I doubt smell of much while alive and intact, are the same colour as the water. Right now, light penetration is low because of the water turbidity. So I reckon that shrimp are easier to spot when they are within a foot or two of the surface. Hey presto – fish are looking up.

Yellowbelly on buzzbait
Surface and subsurface offerings work to great effect when fish are feeding in the surface zone – even if you wouldn’t immediately consider the technique to match the species

Terrestrial Prey

Depending on the species you are targeting, there is likely some sort of terrestrial creature that it will eat; so to put it simply, fish when the fish are biting. For freshwater species a lot of this is going to be targeted towards insects; warmer months and during the low light periods of day are where the action is going to be.

As a first approach I’d recommend using a lure that represents what the fish are eating; but don’t be too put off if you can’t match it exactly. I catch most of my bass with a little walk-the-dog fish pattern even though the bass are feeding on cicadas. Dick and I had one session when bass were literally stuffing their mouths full with Christmas beetles, but soft plastic shads worked just under the surface were doing the trick for us.

I had some fantastic action chasing largemouth bass during the height of last (Canadian) summer. They were nailing spooks where I could fish them, but in the weedy country where they were hunting frogs I couldn’t fish like that. Instead I rigged up a big green soft plastic jerk shad on a weightless hook and worked it subsurface with its nose popping out every now and again. That was fun.

Don’t be afraid to go big with your lures – fish with big mouths are pretty capable and even those without will have a fair go. I think the key here is that things on the surface are usually in distress so smaller fish reckon they can take it on. That being said; if you notice the fish feeding on prey smaller than the ‘usual’ presentations and you think going small will give you an edge, then that’s the way to go.

Largemouth in weeds

Aquatic Prey

As I was taking about in the Water Clarity section, consider how predators are going to find their prey. If it’s easiest for them to hunt high in the water column then surface fishing should pay off. For open water species you can also think about the three dimensional world they live in. The only place that predators can corner prey in these environments is the surface of the water itself – so keep an eye out for the signs! Surface commotion and feeding birds are dead giveaways to a potentially epic surface session.

Trevally on surface
First light and a bit of baitfish activity on the surface provided a great opportunity for surface fishing, and I was rewarded within minutes

As with everything, season plays a big role in food availability. Warmer months are when crustaceans are moving about most and a few species will chase freshwater shrimp and saltwater shrimp and prawns on or near the surface. If you see them skipping away from your lure during retrieves it’s a good sign that the surface zone has available prey.

Waiting for the Take

There is no doubt that surface fishing is one of the most adrenaline pumping approaches to our sport that there is. Once you’ve experienced a big fish hitting something on the top you really can’t go back.

Lures that stay on top to be smashed amidst gaping jaws, showering water droplets and resounding boofs, slaps and pops will always hold my heart when I start thinking of this form of fishing, but I think it’s always important to read the signs and use some informed guesswork when it comes to fishing the surface zone. Even if the fish aren’t strictly going off on the surface proper; if they are active in the zone, fish high and you’ll find ‘em looking up.



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