Smallmouth bass are like coiled springs ready to bounce into the air almost anytime water temperature is above 50 degrees, and there’s no finer sight than a jumping bronzeback against the elegant colors of autumn in the North. It’s even more beautiful if that bass nearly stopped your heart with a shocking topwater strike.

Smallies are feeding heavily in the fall as they pack on the weight needed to sustain them throughout the toughest winter months. They want substantial meals that are easy to catch, and the water’s surface creates a fantastic edge or trap that makes food easier to acquire.

Smallmouth bass will hit mice, frogs, large insects and a variety of critters struggling on the surface, but they really go for a struggling minnow twitching on top. Chances are good the minnow was recently wounded or stunned in an all-out raid on a school of its colleagues. As such, surface explosions in smallmouth water typically reveal spots where a group of bass have “cornered” a school of baitfish against that barrier between worlds we call surface film.

  That’s why the most-effective topwater lures for smallies imitate baitfish. They may have the coloration of a frog or mouse, but the common denominator is a baitfish profile. And no matter which style of topwater you choose, often the most important factor is an effective retrieve and action. Despite the massive proliferation of lures designed to mimic a struggling minnow, many designs fall short. The answer to true effectiveness lies somewhere among four simple rules:

Rule 1: Find the cadence. First thing in the morning, determine whether constant, aggressive motion or a subtle twitching action with long pauses will be the trigger for the day. With rare exceptions, smallmouth respond best to one tactic or the other for an hour or longer -- often for the entire day.

At one end of the action spectrum are the “walking” style topwaters like the Heddon Zara Spook. Like all lures of its type, the Spook is “walked” across the surface with constant, rhythmic, downward snaps of the rod tip while slowly reeling. A rare pause can be used to great effect. Some days, smallmouth refuse to charge through the surface film until they see constant surface disturbance -- the kind a Spook is designed to create.

At the other end of the spectrum is no action at all. The best tool is a small, subtle, popping-lure like the Rebel Pop-R. While designed to be slowly worked with long pauses, a popper/chugger can be walked, too, if tied on with a loop knot to free it up for better side-to-side action. When quickly walked the Pop-R doubles down on noise and bubbles while creating a constant surface disturbance. At the subtle end of the action spectrum, however, the popper shines because it can trigger fish while just sitting there. Give it one quick snap to create a loud pop, let it rest until the rings die away, then make it twitch slightly with a small flick of the rod tip. Sometimes a motionless popper provides the best trigger possible.

Rule # 2: Try every style. Sometimes that trigger is hard to find, so keep switching topwaters and cadence until you find the style and action that trips an explosion. We’ve already discussed two of the major food groups (walkers and poppers), but two others that come into play are propeller baits, like the Heddon Magnum Torpedo, and floating minnowbaits, like the Rebel Minnow. Almost every day of the open-water season, one of the major “food groups” will elicit surface explosions from smallmouth.

Smallmouth bass are notoriously finicky in fall and often show a decided preference for one kind of surface disturbance one day and a different the next. Propeller baits are designed to rip up the surface and leave a trail of bubbles. Retrieves can vary from that subtle popper-style action -- one good snap followed by a long pause and a slight twitch -- to a steady medium-speed retrieve. The Torpedo features a single propeller on the back and provides more versatility than one with propellers fore and aft, like the Cotton Cordell Boy Howdy. This type is designed to be retrieved in an aggressive manner to create maximum surface disturbance.

Minnowbaits are the jokers in the topwater deck. Most people don’t think of them as surface baits, but they all work on top. Extremely buoyant units like the Cotton Cordell Red Fin have a big advantage -- you can retrieve them faster before the diving lip engages and takes the lure under, leaving a bigger wake on the surface. But when “resting” on top in waves, minnowbaits can trigger heart-stopping strikes without being retrieved at all.

Rule #3: Use all four gears. Every topwater bait has four gears: Fast, moderate, slow, and resting. Sometimes smallmouth want every gear engaged on every retrieve, but most of the time, one specific retrieve outperforms the rest. Don’t give up on any surface lure until you’ve tried all four gears, then combine them, then switch bait styles and start all over again.

Rule #4: There are no other rules. Northern anglers have a lot of rules about taking smallies on top in the fall. Some say the surface has to be calm before topwaters produce. Some say smallmouth only hit topwater in low-light periods at the beginning or end of the day. Others believe brownies have to be in shallow water before they will respond to a lure resting on top.

The potential for these “rules” to be correct is equal to the potential for them to be wrong. Surface bites lasting for days or weeks that only occur in the early morning are common enough, but it’s equally true that smallmouth sometimes react to topwaters all day long.

Smallmouth can blow up in rough seas -- with 2-foot waves or better -- though it generally involves a loud, constantly-worked bait like a big Rebel Pop-R or a loud walker like the Heddon Rattlin’ or One-Knocker Spook. Hot topwater bites can occur over depths of up to 80 feet when smallmouth suspend under rafts of pelagic baitfish like smelt, ciscoes, and alewives. So don’t get hung up on rules.

Northern anglers should not eliminate topwater lures from their tackle boxes when the calendar changes to October; try working a popper in slow motion along any cover, or walking a Spook quick across the riffles of a smallie stream. There’s something beautiful in that topwater as it distorts the colorful reflection of the changing leaves on the water’s surface. Add a jumping smallmouth to the picture and you’ve got a memory for a lifetime.