Best Topwater Tuna Lures

 

tuna on popper

Capt. John McMurray has made a career out of catching tuna on poppers. Capt. John McMurray

There is nothing, and I mean nothing, quite as exciting as watching a giant ball of pure muscle destroy a topwater lure.

“It’s insane” says Capt. Cory Crochetiere, one of the best guys in the topwater tuna business. “Like someone dropped mom’s old grand piano from a helicopter.”

It’s one thing to catch a bluefin or yellowfin on top while they are blitzing. But getting one to eat a topwater lure blind casting may just be the most awesome thing in fishing, period.

“It’s like magic,” says Cory. “Dead water and boredom to 100 percent adrenalin dump in a millisecond.”

And then comes the chaos. The Captain screams, “Set the hook! Clear the lines! Get the hell out of the way!” and maybe a few colorful expletives. If it’s a good one, 100-yards of braid will disappear from the spool before you can say “holy expletive!,” no matter how tight the drag is.

Once you get that fish under control, the real fun begins. Almost all of them dog down directly under the boat. Then, you’re looking at a half to two solid hours of back-tweaking tug-o’war.

“For the first 30-minutes you’re terrified you’re going to lose it,” says Cory. “For the next, you’re terrified you won’t.”

Catching tuna on topwater plugs is beyond fun. I should know; I have focused on targeting tuna with topwaters and spinning gear for two decades as a charter Captain. Below, I’ll go over how to select topwater tuna lures, how to rig them, and how to work them so they get bit. I’ll also list the topwater tuna lures that have held up and worked well for me over time.

What Makes a Great Topwater Tuna Lure?

You can’t just go into your local tackle shop and pull down any saltwater topwater lure and think it’s actually going to catch tuna, much less keep one buttoned. You need the real deal. You need topwater lures specifically built to catch the attention of a roaming pelagic predator—and withstand savage strikes and freight-train, drag-smoking runs.

Topwater plugs specific to tuna fishing are a relatively new thing. Popping rods that had the ability to fire big plugs long distances, while also having enough backbone and lifting power to pull up a crazy-strong fish from the deep weren’t developed until recently. And while there might have been a few spinning reels that claimed to have drag settings up to 40 pounds, they wouldn’t hold up when you put that kind of braking power on a real fish—I know this from experience.

But technology has come a long way. And as a result, there are some darn good topwater tuna lures on the market. I should also note that some of the best topwater tuna lures are branded as giant trevally, or GT, plugs. This makes sense as that species is very similar to tuna in what draws strikes, how they fight and how big they get.

What You Need to Know about Topwater Tuna Baits

There are basically two types of tuna topwater lures: poppers and stick-baits. Poppers for tuna should make a lot of noise, with a solid side-to-side action that throws and pushes a lot of water. The more that thing splashes and spits, the more it’s going to attract the attention of a wide roaming pelagic fish. Stick-baits should dive and swim, then pop back up. Whether you go with a tuna stick-bait or tuna-popper, make sure it floats. Nine times out of 10, tuna hit on the pause. And if that bait is sinking, that isn’t going to happen.

With either type of plug, you want some size and weight. Topwater tuna lures should weigh at least 3 ounces. You’ll need that sort of heft to make the long casts necessary to hook up with pelagic speedsters on the heavy-duty spin gear needed to bring them to the boat.

Rigging

Often, you only get one shot at tuna all day, so it really sucks to lose a fish to a failure in hardware. So, topwater tuna baits have to be extra strong and durable. You will not land a tuna, even a small one, unless the plug is through-wired. Hooks will pull right out of that plug on the first 40-mph run. Most serious tuna topwater lures don’t actually come with split-rings and hooks. I prefer that, because I know no one is skimping on that stuff if I’m installing it myself.

When outfitting my tuna topwaters, I use at least 200-pound-test stainless split-rings and 5X hooks. While I used trebles for years, I almost exclusively use tuna-grade inline J-hooks now. With bluefin tuna regulations the way they are, you’re likely going to be releasing some fish. And though you can keep three yellowfin per person, do you really need 500 to 800 pounds of fish that doesn’t freeze well?

It’s much easier to perform a successful release with J-hooks. And with the way tuna hit these things, you really don’t need trebles—there’s rarely any boils, misses or hesitation. They just smash these things, and it’s not often they miss the hooks. And trying to subdue a 200-pound fish is much simpler without all those hook points flying around.

How to Fish Them

You need your topwater tuna lure to have the right action. I learned long ago that working a topwater lure for yellowfin or bluefin is quite a bit different than a one meant for stripers, bluefish, or any other inshore fish. And if you’re used to fishing for false albacore or bonito, you’re probably used to ripping your lure through the water really fast. But with tuna, you want to work it almost counterintuitively slower.

When working a popper for tuna, you want to give it a long drag, making it dig and grab the water and spit and splash it out. Reel up the slack and then give it another long, deliberate drag. It’s the couple of seconds of pause that occurs when reeling that’s critical—that’s where the hits will usually come.

Cast a tuna stick-bait as far out as humanly possible, wait a couple of seconds for it to settle, then take a long sweep—it will dive down and swim. At the end of the sweep, simply pick up the slack. As you are reeling, the stick bait will float back up and bob on the surface, head up, vertically. Ninety percent of the strikes will come as it sits there and bobs.

Best Overall: Madd Mantis Frostbite Cherry Popper

Madd Mantis Frostbite Cherry Popper

Madd Mantis

Why It’s on My Boat

I’ve caught more tuna on this single plug than anything else, including jigs and soft plastics. The Cherry is the most recent iteration of a time-tested Madd Mantis popper that revolutionized the topwater game well over a decade ago.

Key Features

  • Style: Popper
  • Size: 6.5 inches
  • Weight: 3.25 ounces
  • Material: Plastic
  • Noise: Internal rattle and large cupped head

Pros

  • Durable design stands up to abuse
  • Pushes a ton of water
  • Won’t tumble in rough seas

Cons

  • It costs a pretty penny

The Madd Mantis Frostbite Cherry Popper is super durable. A lot of these tuna-topwater lures lose their structural integrity after getting banged against the hull (which happens quite a bit when the bail inadvertently flips closed mid-cast, or the angler simply forgets to open it) causing the plug to take on water and sink. That just doesn’t happen with this plug. You can knock the crap out of it and it maintains its finish and water-tight integrity.

More importantly though, its large, cupped face pushes a ton of water. And, that oversized head and tapered body prevents the plug from tumbling when worked in less than perfect conditions. Combined with the built-in rattle, it’s one of the noisiest poppers out there.

But it’s the “frostbite” color that seems to be its most distinguishing characteristic. For some reason, this color draws strikes when nothing else will. Perhaps that’s because it glows, although that wouldn’t make much sense in the daylight. Or maybe it’s the reflective scales. It’s hard to say because the fish don’t answer when you ask them. One thing I am sure of—it works!

And lastly, while it’s not exactly cheap (what is these days?) it’s definitely not expensive, especially when put up against some of the other well-known brands.

Best All-Around Topwater Tuna Lure: Daiwa Dorado Slider

Daiwa Dorado Slider

Daiwa

Why It’s on My Boat

The Daiwa Dorado Slider is one of the OG tuna stick-baits—I’ve been using it for a good 20 years. To put it simply, it works, and it works well.

Key Features

  • Style: Stick-bait
  • Size: 7 inches
  • Weight: 2.6 ounces
  • Material: Plastic
  • Noise: Internal rattle

Pros

  • Swims really well
  • Reflective surface attracts distant tuna
  • Integrated design won’t come apart

Cons

  • Not heavy enough for long distance casts

I’m not sure when the Daiwa Dorado Slider came out, but I’ve been using it for 20 years. In that period, I don’t think they’ve changed the design at all. And that’s because it doesn’t need to be. It just gets the job done, year after year.

The Dorado Slider swims really well. It seems to easily draw strikes in blitz situations, but where it really shines is casting to life (dolphins, whales, etc.). Fish come up from the depths and smash it. Hang on, because it’s liable to get smashed without warning.

It has a hard-scale reflective surface that refracts light in a way that seems to draw fish from afar. And it’s tough as nails. It doesn’t chip, because there’s no paint, epoxy, or any sort of surface coating that could come off. Everything seems to be integrated in the body. I’ve caught on pretty much all of them, but we seem to draw the most strikes on “Splash Tubiuo” (black and silver).

The only complaint I might have about this plug is it isn’t terribly heavy, so it’s not the best tuna topwater lure for distance.

Best Noisy Topwater Tuna Lure: Nomad Tackle Chug Norris

Nomad Designs Chug Norris

Nomad Designs

Why It’s on My Boat

The Chug Norris makes noise—lots of noise. It casts like a dream, stays stuck to water’s surface, and draws strikes in wide variety of conditions. What’s not to like?

Key Features

  • Style: Popper
  • Size: 7 inches
  • Weight: 5 ounces
  • Material: Plastic
  • Noise: Internal rattle

Pros

  • Makes enough noise to call in even distant tuna
  • Unique shape stays glued to the water even when worked aggressively
  • Top-of-the-line hardware
  • Casts a nautical mile

Cons

  • Can be a bit clunky

The Nomad Tackle Chug Norris has an extraordinarily deep cupped head that is round at the bottom and square at the top. The unique design scoops up water and jettisons it out the top creating an almost audible thump when worked right. And it produces this much sound even when worked slowly. It’s so loud that it’s not unusual for anglers to mistake the commotion this popper makes for an actual strike. I’ll admit, I’ve made that mistake more than once.

The other thing about this design is it seems to stick to the water in not so great conditions, producing tuna-enticing pops even on choppy days. It also avoids tumbling out of the water, even if you’re working it too fast. And the bubble trail it leaves is something else. This thing can catch, even on days you probably shouldn’t have left the barn.

Plus, it’s got real weight to it, so getting it out there is not a problem. And thanks to the hydrodynamic shape, even the small sizes seem to cast a mile. You’ll be able to reach even distant schools with ease.

Lastly, the Chug Norris actually comes with some really good hardware. I love that they don’t use treble hooks, but instead use top of the line BKK inline J-hooks that are more-or-less impossible to straighten out. They stand up to tough battles with big fish.

Best Big Topwater Tuna Lure: Amegari Dzanga 230 50 Cup

Amegari Dzanga 230 50 Cup

Amegari

Why It’s on My Boat

This isn’t the right tool for every situation, but when you need bait with a big profile that moves a ton of water to get the job done, I call on the Amegari Dzanga 230 50 Cup.

Key Features

  • Style: Popper
  • Size: 9 inches
  • Weight: 5.5 ounces
  • Material: Wood
  • Noise: N/A

Pros

  • Giant size offers a big target
  • Pushes plenty of water
  • Unbelievable finishes

Cons

  • Extremely expensive
  • Difficult to cast

The Amegari Dzanga 230 50 Cup is freak’n huge. I’m not just talking about the length, but the girth too. This outsized tuna popper has accounted for more than a few giants for me. This includes one very memorable Goliath off of New Jersey, which came very close to breaking an IGFA record.

To say the Dzanga 230 50Cup pushes a lot of water is probably an understatement. There is nothing subtle about this topwater tuna lure. The sole intent of the plug’s design is to generate liquid chaos. Long sweeps create massive turbulence and a large bubble trail.

Every one of these tuna poppers are hand-shaped and painted. And they are simply beautiful to look at. Each one is a work of art. Art that happens to catch giant tuna.

There are some serious drawbacks here though. The first one is price. Expect to pay almost $200 for this thing. And it is not very fun to cast, because like I said, it’s gigantic. Also, because it’s wood and not plastic it doesn’t float very well.

Best New Topwater Lure: Nomad Tackle “Halo Ghost” Riptide

Nomad Tackle Riptide

Nomad Tackle

Why It’s on My Boat

The translucent design and slender profile of Nomad Tackle’s “Halo Ghost” Riptide gets the job done when tuna are chasing sand eels and other slim baits.

Key Features

  • Style: Stick-bait
  • Size: 8 inches
  • Weight: 3.5 ounces
  • Material: Plastic
  • Noise: Rattle

Pros

  • Effectively imitates the most prolific tuna forage species
  • Bobbing and diving action seals the deal
  • Rigged with 9/0 BKK Diablo 5X Inline J-hooks

Cons

  • Most effective when tuna are on slender-profile baits

Nomad Tackle’s “Halo Ghost” Riptide may be familiar down under, but it is relatively new here in the States. Nomad is an Australian company and this tuna topwater lure is very popular there. And for good reason—it catches! I’ve caught some of my biggest tuna on this particular topwater lure. And I believe that’s due its resemblance of a sand eel.

Sand eels are the most prolific forage species on the tuna grounds in the Mid-Atlantic and New England. During most years, sand eels drive the tuna bite. Find the sand eels and the tuna won’t be far behind. Just make sure you have a popper that mimics them at the ready.

The Halo Ghost version of the Riptide is unique because it’s actually translucent, with a silver head and one silver stripe going down the side. So while the plug itself isn’t slender, it gives the illusion of a slim bait, such as a sand eel, in the water. And when this plug gets worked in a sweep, pause, repeat fashion it bobs and dives just like a wounded sand eel.

I should also mention it comes with 9/0 BKK Diablo 5X Inline J-hooks. These will certainly hold up to even the biggest tuna.

Best Value Topwater Lure: RWA Custom Tackle Diablo Popper

RWA Custom Tackle Diablo Popper

RWA Custom Tackle

Why It’s on My Boat

This popper is cheap, but not because it doesn’t catch. The RWA Custom Tackle Diablo Popper fools, fights, and lands tuna without costing a mint.

Key Features

  • Style: Popper
  • Size: 8 inches
  • Weight: 4.8 ounces
  • Material: Plastic
  • Noise: Rattle

Pros

  • Inexpensive popper that effectively lures tuna
  • Traditional popper action
  • Red and white pattern works in a variety of lighting conditions

Cons

  • Not very durable
  • Some find it to be difficult to cast

The RWA Custom Tackle Diablo is, more-or-less, a replica of the original Madd Mantis 8-inch Atasi Popper. Unfortunately, the Atasi was discontinued because some folks found it hard to cast because of its size and weight. That’s too bad, because I caught a lot of fish, some quite large, on the OG Atasi.

Fortunately, the RWA Custom Tackle Diablo Popper functions almost as well as the original—without breaking the bank. This is about as cheap as you can find a through-wired plug that can stand up to tuna. And for a couple bucks more, you can get it outfitted with BKK hooks from the factory. Though that takes away some from the bargain nature.

The Diablo Popper manages to push an extraordinary amount of water, and has an exceptionally large profile. It draws ferocious strikes, though maybe not as many as the original. Still, you can count on this to take reliably take tuna just about anywhere you target them.

But, there are some drawbacks to this bargain tuna topwater. It isn’t very resilient. Bang it against the hull once or twice and it cracks and takes on water. And, it comes with substandard hooks and split rings if you don’t pay for the upgraded hardware.

In Conclusion

Catching tuna on topwater lures is the pinnacle of saltwater fishing. I would even go so far as to say it’s one of the most awesome things an angler can experience in their lifetime. And, unquestionably, these tuna topwater lures have worked, and worked well for me over the years. In fact, they have out-performed everything else for me. Load your box with these before you hit the tuna grounds.

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