Like any lure that anglers throw, topwater plugs are designed to get the attention of predators. But unlike other lures, topwaters operate in that unique interface where the two worlds of air and water meet. A good topwater plug, worked properly, always gives the impression of vulnerability, of prey either moving erratically as if wounded or rushing frantically to escape being eaten.
Most surface plugs - like all of those listed here - fall into one of four general categories: popper/chugger, walker/splasher, swimmer/waker and stickbait. It's worth noting that in recent years, as the method's popularity has increased, "popping" has become something of a generic term, really meaning throwing any large topwater lure with big spinning tackle for big fish.
In brief, a concave (cupped) face characterizes poppers, which are designed for a jerk-and-pause retrieve. At each jerk, they'll throw water with a loud chug or "bloop" sound. In short, few other lures so effectively scream "Look at me!" as poppers, especially the bigger ones. And that's why they shine in situations such as over Australian bommies (submerged coral heads/pocket reefs) or along Panama's headlands and nearshore rocky reefs. Here, generally the loudest and most ostentatious offerings call up the biggest predators. At times, and particularly for some species, a more subdued retrieve works well, with long pauses between pops.
A topwater best characterized as a walker/splasher will be considerably longer and narrower than a popper, usually wider and heavier at the base than at the top, which may or may not have a cupped or semi-concave front. The heavier base sits lower in the water, so the front half tends to poke out from the surface; when retrieved, these "walk" on the water, splashing and making a fuss (though causing less commotion than poppers make). Anyone who's seen ballyhoo or needlefish skip over the surface knows what real walkers look like. Depending on situation and species targeted, anglers usually work these lures either with a straight-on fast-crank retrieve or a slower retrieve with more rod action, pausing to make the lure walk in a back-and-forth motion.
I've put swimmers/wakers into a third category. Generally, these very buoyant topwaters are more streamlined and designed to swim enticingly right at the surface; in fact, in calm water they can be worked to leave a visible wake - just as small pelagic prey fish (particularly if wounded) may do.
Finally, although listed separately, stickbaits could be considered walkers. Stickbaits have gained wide popularity in recent years, particularly among European and Australasian enthusiasts. They are just that - buoyant sticks, lacking much action intrinsically, but in the hands of skilled anglers, turn into enticing weapons.
I've listed here not only length, but weight. That's a characteristic worth considering, particularly if you're likely to be in situations where for various reasons you'll want to make very long throws. (Shape can also affect "throwability," but weight is foremost.)
1. A-SALT POPPER
MANUFACTURER: Bomber Saltwater Grade (www.bombersaltwatergrade.com)
LENGTH: 7 inches (2 ounces)
BODY MATERIAL: Hard plastic (ABS)
NUMBER OF COLORS: 8
CONSTRUCTION: Body constructed with extra-heavy side walls and internal structural ribs; wire forms are anchored in the body; 4/0 treble hooks
SPECIAL FEATURES: Sampo swivel embedded in the belly to eliminate twist on forward hook during fight; outstanding value.
PRO TIPS: Tie with a loop knot. Hard twitching with rod tip down creates a "fleeing, chugging" effect; pause-twitch with rod tip up makes A-Salt "resemble a wounded baitfish doing the Bohemian death dance," says pro-staffer Capt. Chris O'Neill, Englewood, Florida.