Photo courtesy of Zell Rowland
By Brent Frazee
When spring arrives, Zell Rowland knows topwater lures can be a great way to catch shallow bass.
Bass fishermen call it “the calm before the storm.”
One minute, a topwater lure is the only thing breaking the mirror-like surface, sending ripples across the water in a cove.
The next minute, all heck breaks loose. A bass hones in on the surface activity and attacks with a vengeance, sending water flying everywhere as it feels the sting of the hooks and leaps out of the water.
Welcome to Zell Rowland’s world.
More than anyone on the pro bass circuit, Rowland is known for his prowess with topwater lures. Others can throw a jig and pig, crankbait or jerkbait, but Rowland wants to see his prey strike.
“Catching a big bass on a topwater lure is the ultimate for me,” say Rowland, 61, who has fished the pro ranks since he was 13.
“It’s so visual. You don’t have to imagine how that bass reacts to your lure. You can watch it.”
For Rowland, who lives in Montgomery, Texas, it’s always been that way. He remembers when he was a youngster and would tag along with his father and grandfather.
They would use a plastic worm and catch bass, but Rowland knew that wasn’t for him. “To me, that was boring,” he said.
So Rowland started perfecting the art of working a topwater lure. And that brought him far in life.
He fished his first BASS professional tournament at age 13 – the youngest fisherman to ever compete on the big stage.
Many years later, he is known as “the king of topwater fishing.” It’s a label he wears proudly.
Whenever the water is warm enough, he is casting a topwater lure in hopes of getting a violent strike.
“When the water temperature is below 58 degrees, I hardly ever throw a topwater,” says Rowland, who spent most of his career on the Bassmaster circuit, but now competes on the FLW Tour circuit.
“But once the bass get into that pre-spawn stage, I’m throwing it, and I’ll go the entire summer with one tied on.”
To understand just how long Rowland has been using topwater lures, he got his start with some of bass fishing’s legendary baits – Devil’s Horses, Lucky 13s, and Jitterbugs.
Today, he’s known for his use of the Rebel Pop-R, a cupped lure that “bloops” when it is retrieved, giving off the sound of a struggling shad. Rowland discovered the Rebel lure at a young age, and did his best to keep it a secret.
He won thousands of dollars off the Pop-R, perfecting where and how to use it. Rebel eventually took the Pop-R off the market because of lagging sales. But when Rowland won the BASS Super Invitational in 1986, the secret was out and Rebel brought the lure back.
Since then, Rowland has experimented with coming up with designs that made a Pop-R-type bait even better. The Booyah Zell Rowland Prank Cranking Popper doubles as a popper and a shallow-running crankbait and has proven to be enormously effective, Rowland says.
“When I miss a fish on that bait, I’ll throw it right back in there, let it sit for a few seconds, then pull it under, and almost every time that bass will come back and hit it.”
This is the time of year when those topwater lures are most effective. Rowland uses topwater from pre-spawn all the way through post-spawn.
He starts by looking for staging areas where a chunk-rock bank funnels into a gravel spawning bank. He lets the water temperature determine the speed of his retrieve.
Once the water temperature climbs to the upper 60s, he looks for hard-to-reach areas along spawning banks. The water behind docks, blocked by cables, is one of his favorite places to cast.
“The bass spawn in areas where there’s very little disturbance,” Rowland says. “Docks give them a protected area where there’s great cover, shade and plenty of food.”
“Few fishermen will try to cast behind the cables because it’s too hard to reach. I’ve caught a lot of bass there and under the walkways to the docks.”
That’s why Lake of the Ozarks is one of his favorite places to catch fish on topwater lures. There are plenty of docks to work.
Even after the spawn, when the water temperature climbs, Rowland often stays shallow, casting to objects such as stumps, rocks or laydowns.
“Some fishermen think all the bass move out to 20 feet of water when it gets hot,” he says. “That’s not true. I think a certain amount of bass stay shallow and those are the ones I am trying to catch.”