FORGOTTEN SURFACE BAIT
By John Dettloff © 1996
In this day of noisy topwaters, the subtle action of Topper-style baits could be the ticket to Musky success but few fishermen use them. The term 'Topper" can be considered a generic, more contemporary name used to refer to any one of a family of torpedo-shaped artificial surface Musky lures which began to be manufactured shortly after the turn of the century. Although they've endured more than 90 years of subtle body shape changes, numerous name changes, and an incomprehensible number of savage Musky strikes, these Toppers, for all their celebrated successes, have grown to become largely ignored Musky surface baits.
Whether it be the old timer's secret, the Heddon 300; the classic perennial favorite, the Surf-Oreno; the six-gang-hooked killer lure of the 1950s, the Bonnet; the tried and true Cisco Kid Topper; or the one of a kind LeLure Topper these dual-propped Musky treats have always been hard for old essox to resist. Producing a quiet, but most alluring, churning commotion and pushing a nice easy wake, these kinds of artificial surface lures have long been recognized as highly effective Musky plugs.
So why have Toppers lost favor in the eyes of many topwater Musky hunters? Could the Muskies have gotten their fill of these lures? I hardly think so. In fact, I believe that Toppers are now the most underestimated Musky surface lures and, because they are now used so infrequently, to this generation of Muskies the Topper is actually a "new" lure and one which the Muskies are likely to crave all the more.
As I've said before, while I don't consider a Musky to be a creature capable of logic, primordial instinct may make Mr. Musky a bit more leery of the commonly-cast lures. So it can't hurt to throw something these fellows haven't seen before. And, in this day and age, Toppers are one such lure type.
So what could have accounted for such a marked decline in the use of Toppers during recent years? How could such a proven killer grow to become so neglected? Being a first hand witness, as well as unwitting contributor, to this phenomenon, the answers to these questions are clear.
With Topper-type lures, Pflueger Globes, and Mud Puppies being three of the more popularly used Musky surface lures up until World War II, from 1940 through the mid '50s a revolutionary new surface lure type (the Heddon Crazy Crawler and LeBoeuf Creeper) was discovered to be equally as productive. But with Crazy Crawlers and Creepers being discontinued and becoming difficult to acquire after this period, and with Mud Puppies developing more of a "cult" following, Toppers and Globes emerged as two of the more dominant Musky surface lures until about 1980. Even though the reissue of the LeBoeuf Creeper around 1971 brought back a lure which was quickly discovered to rival the effectiveness of Toppers and Globes, there still seemed to be enough room for three dominant Musky surface lures in the marketplace, allowing Toppers to retain their standing as a "bread & butter" surface lure.
But it was the coincidental introduction, during the early 1980s, of three exceptionally successful Musky surface lures that truly brought an abrupt end to the Topper's dominance in the topwater arena. It wasn't that Toppers lost their allure; rather, the instant successes of these new lures (the Hawg Wobbler, Tally Wacker and Creepin' Hawg) made everyone forget about Toppers.
Once people went back to their favorite Toppers, something seemed different. In comparison to these new, incredibly noisy wobbling, whacking and creeping lures, Toppers just didn't seem to do anything any more. Their more subtle churning sound which never seemed to have any trouble enticing Muskies before, all of a sudden seemed to be too quiet and many people lost confidence in some of their finest Toppers. Believing that a surface lure had to sound like a garbage can coming through the water in order to be worthwhile, this perception was only strengthened whenever a Musky would explode on one of these new noisier lures.
Freely admitting that I had also fallen into this trap of losing confidence in my sneaky Toppers, I couldn't help but feel I was missing out by not throwing these killers. Dusting off some of my favorite Surf-Orenos and LeLure Toppers and getting them back into the water was all it took to make me realize that these killers haven't lost their luster. A 25-pounder followed my frog-colored Surf-Oreno one of the first times I cast the bait, and I caught a 25-pounder that grabbed an orange Topper before it even hit the water!
Although they've been upstaged by today's wide variety of noise makers, there still is a place for Toppers. A slight to moderate ripple on the water seems to be an ideal wave action in which to use them. A slow and virtualy steady retrieve resembling the speed at which a mouse or small animal swims is about right. I like to add an occasional wrist-action twitch to give the lure just a hint of struggle.
Such a twitch or speed up creates a little spit on the water that often triggers a strike, though just the steady churning of the propellers alone seems to spark Muskies' interest. The quieter sounds of a Topper may not seem to be very enticing, but from an underwater perspective the Topper is mildly surprising.
Upon entering the Musky's domain for the first time with my diving mask. my first observation of their world was that it was one of sound, especially in dark water flowages where visibility is so poor. Because sound travels so well under water, even mild sounds are amplified to be quite audible and Toppers can be heard from farther off than you would think. Actually, the spinning of a Topper's propellers sounds similar to that of a bucktail blade whirling around its shaft.
One experience while casting an Orange Le Lure Topper stands out. It was September 22 some years ago, a very cold and nasty morning. Had it been much colder the day's rain would have turned into snow. When the party that I was scheduled to guide that day canceled because of the weather, I cautioned them that the turbulent weather of this first day of a cold front could spark some big fish to move. They opted for the warmth of their cottage.
After deciding to go fishing anyway and bundling myself up, it wasn't long before my hands were so numb I could hardly turn the crank on my reel. At the very beginning of a cast toward some shoreline reeds, I noticed a big wall of water push up behind my Topper. The wake settled but then reappeared and the excitement quickly made me forget the cold.
Continuing to slowly work my Topper, I thought the Musky had lost interest when the big wake disappeared for a second time. Suddenly, the Musky proved that he was still there by quietly snatching my Topper from the surface. Following for 15 or 20 yards before it finally hit, this Musky just couldn't seem to be able to ignore the Topper.
While I have had exceptional action with noisier surface baits, when I want to offer the Muskies something different, something more understated and less gaudy, I'll go to my Toppers. It always pays to not get too hung up on one specific lure type. Use your favorites, but keep trying different lure types as well.
THE HEDOON 300
Advertised as early as 1904 and primarily designed for the taking of large bass, Heddon's No. 300 Surface Minnow was discovered to be a hot lure for Muskies. Probably the first artificial surface minnow to become well known as a Musky bait, this lure can be considered the first Topper.
Heddon's recognition that the primary demand for their 300 was coming from the Musky fishing community is demonstrated by the name change of the 300 to Musky Minnow in 1925 and 1926 and Musky Surf from 1927 through 1929. During the early and mid 1930s the 300 was replaced by a larger, beefier version, the No. 350 Musky Surface, but Heddon brought back the 300 from 1937 through 1941. This time the lure was called the No. 300 Musky "Surfusser" and was advertised that it was heavily built with a line-tie wire running through to the rear hook. The lure could be purchased with six treble hooks on special order.
This last stage, six-treble hook version of the 300, also known to some as the "Bonnel", became a regional favorite in the waters of northwestern Wisconsin. When the lure was discontinued in 1942, Musky fishermen were crushed. Bruce Tasker, a legendary Chippewa Flowage guide,
Remembers fishing Callahan Lake near Hayward back in the 1940s with his friend, John Zeug. They observed Muskies hitting their Surf-Orenos from the top and never getting hooked. They wished the lure had side hooks like the old Bonnels.
Bruce passed this idea to Birdell Peterson, an Eau Claire, Wisconsin, sporting goods manager, who designed a suitable duplicate, Peterson contracted two production runs of 6000 Bon-nets.
Introduced in 1951, the Bon-net became an instant success largely due to the promotional efforts of two Wisconsin Musky men (Patty Aaron and Bruce Tasker). Enhancing the Bon-net's popularity by both using and distributing them to others in the field, the two men were staunch believers in this new lure. With Aaron crediting the Bon-net for over 200 of his Musky catches, and Tasker's phenomenal big fish success with Bon-nets, it's easy to understand their fondness for this lure.
On July 22, 1951, thanks to the able assistance of his friend Frenchy LaMay, Tasker caught his biggest Musky, a 33-pounder, on a perch Bon-net on the east end of Cranberry Bar on the Chippewa Flowage.
The biggest Musky Bruce ever saw during more than 60 years of Musky fishing was hooked on a Bon-net on August 29, 1952. He was fishing with John Kondrasuk and John Zeug. "Kondrasuk, who was using a brand new frog Bon-net that I had just given him that night, had this godawful fish hit about 40 feet from the boat, right up on top of the bar, in less than three feet of water," Tasker recalls. "After John got a good hook set into him, it seemed as if the fish would never stop churning the water as sand, mud and weeds kept coming up to the surface. The fish literally took us across the bar and headed toward deeper water. He was on the surface often and each time we saw him he looked bigger! In disbelief, Zeug said, There's the bait in his mouth right there and (pointing six feet over) here's the tail!"
"Finally, we got almost to the edge of the bar and the Musky hooked the lure onto a stump tearing two gang hooks right off the bait and straightening out the rest. For a while John played the stump, thinking it was the fish. But we soon realized the fish was gone.
That same year, on July 11th, Bruce and Nell Zeug were fishing together on Cranberry Bar when they noticed Rocky Carl and Russ Claggett (the former owners of Herman's Landing) fishing nearby. Never forgetting what happened next, Bruce reminisced, "Rocky had this big one on and said: That's one of those big hogs! Getting the Musky up to the boat on two different occasions, they shot at and missed the fish both times each time spooking the fish away. A third shot finally hit the mark and, in the process of gaffing and lifting the fish into the boat, Russ snagged the six-hooked Bon-net into the crotch of his trousers with this still quivering 35-pound Musky hooked onto the lure!
"So Rocky's got this big fish by the gill covers, I'm hitting the fish over the head with a club, and Russ is frantically cutting the crotch out of his pants. Russ said, 'If that fish would have moved just an inch, I'd be singing soprano.
It was probably by the late 1950s that the supply of Bon-nets ran out and another hot Musky bait was on its way to becoming only a memory. Several Bon-net style lures which came out
during the years since (the Bon-net in the mid 1960s, the Bristol Bait in the mid '70s, and a reissued version called the Bon-net around 1990) never were able to capture the Musky angler's fancy like the original.
SOUTH BEND'S SURF-ORENO
Another of the earliest Toppers was South Bend's Surf-Oreno. This lure was available from 1916 to around 1964, with the exception of a few years during the mid 1950s. Made of red cedar, Surf-Orenos were originally recommended for black bass. But like the Heddon 300, it didn't take long for Musky hunters to discover it.
To satisfy Musky fishermen, South Bend made numerous design changes in the Surf-Oreno because many Muskies were reported to have ripped both the line tie and rear hook screw eyes out of the lure. After making the lure a bit fatter and strengthening it (first, by reinforcing the screw eyes with nose and tail brace mounts during the late 1920s and by solid-shafting the lure in 1930), the Surf-Oreno evolved into the perfect Musky surface bait.
With the propellers of the Surf-Oreno creating a ticking sound that seemed to drive the Muskies wild, this lure quickly became a favorite. Strange things can happen during years spent in pursuit of muskellunge. After more than a half century on the water, like Chippewa Flowage guide Ray Blank, you're bound to have seen it all. Highly regarded in Musky fishing circles, Blank recalls a peculiar experience he had with a Surf-Oreno during the mid 1950s:
"It was during one of the first hot spells in mid June, at around 11 o'clock in the morning when we were working the south end of Pete's Bar. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the water was like glass. After making a 35 or 40-yard cast with a Surf-Oreno, the bait no sooner hit the water when this Musky came up about 10 feet from the boat and bit down on my monofilament line.
"After hollering to my partner, 'Look at that big Musky my line is in his mouth!,' I then said, 'I'm just gonna keep crankin' and, if that fish is still where he is when the lure comes in, I'll set the hooks.' Amazingly, that Musky just kept lying on the surface with its mouth closed and it didn't move a fin.
"I could feel my line going through his mouth as I was crankin' and when my Surf-Oreno got within three feet of the fish, I couldn't stand it any longer. I jerked from that distance, got a hook in the fish's cheek and, with the Musky thrashing around, it got some more hooks in its mouth and we ended up boating it. It was 28 pounds."
When asked why he thought the Musky grabbed his line like that, Ray quickly replied, "Well, it probably just got done eating a big meal and it wanted to get its teeth cleaned."
THE CISCO KID TOPPER
By the early 1970s, a Musky fisherman could consider himself lucky to find any Surf-Orenos remaining on the dusty shelves of the more obscure bait-shops. By that time, another lure - the Cisco Kid Topper - had well established itself. Available by the early 1950s, the Cisco Kid Topper was basically a plastic version of the Surf-Oreno. Cisco Kid Toppers made a remarkably audible ticking or chattering sound, especially the older models which had brass bushings next to the props.
An unforgettable big fish experience that occurred in 1979 on the Chippewa Flowage will undoubtedly remain ingrained in the minds of Bob Brekke, guide Tim Korf, and the 12-year-old boy who instigated the event. Upon hearing their young fishing companion exclaim, "Wow! Look at that!," both Brekke's and Korf's eyes became transfixed on the object of the boy's attention. As a huge wake was causing his Cisco Kid Topper to nose down the crest of the wave, the boy couldn't help but set and pull the lure away.
After the wave went down, the fish turned and surfaced right next to the boat exposing its entire length to the trio for a full two seconds. It then sank out of sight and vanished. Sincerely believing the monster to be close to 70 inches long, the two very experienced Musky men were convinced this was a world's record fish!
Two weeks later, in the same area, Brekke had a big fish explode on his black Cisco Kid Topper and, being so keyed up, he ended up slipping in the boat and hurting himself during the fight. He did get the fish but it was only 32 1/2 pounds, half the size of the behemoth that he was seeking! This fish was no tall tale for, during that period of time, many fishermen (myself included) dealt with what was most likely the same unusually large Musky. The exact location of the fish seems to escape me at this time!
By the 1990s, the Cisco Kid Topper had become increasing difficult to acquire but it has since been reintroduced by Suick Manufacturing. Bauer's TooTon, HiFin's Top Prop, and LeLure's Topper are a few Toppers which are currently available.
THE LELURE TOPPER
This lure has a rather illustrious and durable past. The lure's creator, Frenchy LaMay, hand-whittled his first Topper type lure back in the late 1940s. Trying for a big fish that he had noticed Louie Spray fishing for on Wisconsin's Callahan Lake, Frenchy got more than he bargained for when the big fish hit. Not being able to move the fish, Frenchy discovered what he was up against when the fish exposed its huge head and threw the lure. How big? VERY BIG!!
By the late 1960s, Frenchy was creating lures of exceptional quality and strength and his Toppers (as well as his other lures) became highly regarded.
Building a revered reputation during the 1970s and early '80s, in 1983, Frenchy began selling small numbers of his LeLure Toppers to fishermen. By 1995, Frenchy and others formed the LeLure Tackle Co. and they now offer the LeLure Topper as a production model.
This lure's prototypes have long proven themselves as deadly Musky producers. Back on July 20, 1973, Frenchy landed two 20-pound plus Muskies in consecutive casts on one of his homemade black Toppers. Two weeks later, he caught a near-40-pound, 53 inch Musky on one of his orange Toppers. This episode prompted several of Frenchy's friends to order orange Toppers.
In 1980, Frenchy gave me an orange Topper and I excitedly ran down to the dock to see how it worked. A Musky struck the bait on its second cast! A harbinger of things to come, this lure ended up being one of the single most productive lures I've ever had.
So why aren't more Muskies being caught on Toppers these days? Well, it's pretty difficult to get the Muskies to jump into your tackle box to find one. (Then again, I do know a story about a Musky that jumped into a tackle box. I'll save that for another time, though.) The point is, don't overlook the highly effective Topper.