The cooling afternoon breeze had failed to materialize, making it hot, muggy and buggy. The water was equally still, and flat enough to spot a single finning bunker at 100 yards—yet there was no life in sight. Despite what seemed like an unlikely scenario to encounter a big striper, I had the perfect weapons for calling up large fish in these exact conditions: topwater walkers, a.k.a “walk-the-dog” lures. Also referred to as stickbaits, pups and spooks—this family of topwater lures goes by several names, but the most common is adapted from the famous Zara Spook.
I began pumping the rod, first with a slow cadence, then speeding it up to create a frantic zigzagging action. When I slowed it down again, I saw a boil behind the plug. I’d gotten the attention of a striper—now I just needed to close the sale. I sped up the retrieve again and stopped it cold. A depth charge exploded under the lure and the rod doubled over. I silently gave thanks to James Heddon as the big bass sounded and my drag started to sing.
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What Are Topwater Walkers?
These lures were born from the end of a broom handle that James Heddon lopped off and attached hooks to in the early 1900s. The lure had a side-to-side action on the surface that became known as “walking the dog.” He called the lure the Zaragossa. Years later, when Heddon Lure Company began manufacturing lures out of plastic, they used “spook” to denote their plastic lures because of the ghost-like translucence of the material. The plastic Zaragossa was called the Zara Spook, the name that would become synonymous with this style of lure.
Today, “spooks” are made by several manufacturers in sizes suitable for everything from panfish to big bluefin tuna. They are especially effective on striped bass.
How to Fish with Spooks
To get the signature walk-the-dog action out of these topwaters, use sharp snaps of the rod tip. Vary the time between pumps of the rod to change the plug’s action. Working it fast will create a tight zig-zagging action, while waiting a second between pumps of the rod will allow the lure to make a wider side-to-side glide.
This action is best achieved with a fast-action rod held down to the side or straight up. However, if you start with a high rod angle, lower the rod as the lure gets closer to your position; otherwise, the lure will jump out of the water.
Both surfcasters and boat fishermen have great success with spooks, but when long casts are needed, pencil poppers, and bottleneck poppers will cover a much greater distance.
Spooks work in all conditions when fish are active enough to feed on the surface, and they have a knack for calling up stripers on flat-calm days with no visible signs of baitfish—like that sweltering June afternoon.
At the tip of the jetty, I lobbed the 9-inch wooden spook into the calm surf.
Popular Walk-The-Dog Plugs for Stripers
4½ inches, ½ ounce
No light-tackle plug bag is complete without a bone-colored Rebel Jumpin’ Minnow. The tight zigzag of this plug coupled with the clacking lead rattle inside is irresistible to stripers. Use it in calm backwaters and coves, and be sure to work some pauses into your retrieve.
5 inches, 1 ounce
This adaptation of the original Zara Spook features beefed-up tackle meant to hold up to stripers and bluefish. The Heddon Saltwater Super Spook has a little more weight than the Jumpin’ Minnow and will work better in choppy water. It can be cast and worked on light surfcasting rods or medium-heavy boat rods.
Tip: Remove the middle and rear sets of treble hooks, and replace the tail treble with a single inline hook. It does less damage to the bass, and fewer hooks lowers the risk of personal injury.
9 inches, 3 1/4 ounces
When stripers are feeding on adult bunker, it takes a big topwater, like the Drifter Tackle Doc, to get their attention. This supersized plastic spook creates quite a commotion, just like a big, wounded baitfish begging to be eaten.
4 3/8 inches, 5/8 ounce
For light-tackle backwater fishing, Rapala’s Saltwater Skitter Walk is up there with the Jumpin’ Minnow when it comes to must-have lures. The Skitter Walk comes in a wide array of effective colors, and it features a fish-attracting rattle that helps stripers home in on the lure in low-light conditions.
4½ inches, 3/4-ounce
Built to excel in back bays and estuaries, the through-wired Crossover Stalker is an equally useful weapon in calm surf. Its weight distribution system allows it to cast long distances and maintain balance in heavy chop, while interior rattle chambers and reversed gill impressions emit vibrations to call in curious stripers from a distance.
4 3/4 inches, 5/7 ounce
The J-Walker features a sleek tail-weighted design to provide long casting distances along with its easy-to-start surface action. Able to be worked at a variety of speeds, these surface baits will dart side-to-side with every twitch of the rod tip for a walk-the-dog action that’s famous for getting stripers to the surface.
7 1/4 inches, 3 3/8 ounces
The Splash Walk features a side-to-side darting action that’s easy to produce with twitches of the rod tip. This fleeing baitfish action coupled with its low-pitch internal knocker is the perfect combination of visual and audible stimulation to drive stripers nuts. A heavily weighted tail section allows the lure to sit vertically in the water on the pause to increase hookup ratios and lessens the chance of a large fish missing the bait and knocking the plug out of the water during aggressive strikes.
8 inches, 3 ounces; 6.5 inches, 1.7 ounces
A super-sized walk the dog styled lure, the Madd Mantis Plank Topwater is easy to work, as it sits naturally horizontal on the surface, while an under-nose line tie allows it to glide with the most subtle rod movements.
4½ inches, 1 ounce / 6 inches, 2 ounce
Game On’s X-Walk made waves in the striped bass community with it’s crossover spook/popper appeal. The through-wired plug features loud interior rattles, and a cupped face with a downward-facing line tie designed to maintain the walk-the-dog action while throwing water to generate a commotion in turbulent surf.
6 1/2 inches, 2 ounces
The Mully is a wooden walk-the-dog plug that casts well and still dances easily with flicks of the rod tip.