Horny Toad tribulations abound

Dave Mull photoBullfrog, Junebug and Green Pumpking/Pearl Horny Toads rigged to avoid weeds and catch bass. Many anglers believe this lure mimics a baitfish skittering across the surface.

Few things make the our anglers’ heart pound like a bass slurping down a lure reeled in across the water’s surface.

Here’s a tale of learning how to fish a particular type of surface lure that many bass aficionados consider to be especially good for catching bass when they’re up shallow feeding on bluegills around spawning beds.

We’re talking about a soft plastic frog rigged weedless on an extra-wide-gap hook.

My fishing buddy Jeff Wenzel turned me on to the bait style two Fridays ago at the Grand River. We were there to practice fish for a 100-angler Michigan Kayak Trail bass tournament scheduled to take place yesterday. It was such a nice, sunny and warm morning that I parked my truck and kayak trailer under an oak tree in the lane boaters use to get their boats ready to launch and installed a Humminbird sonar/GPS unit on my kayak while Jeff went fishing. After reading that last sentence I look like a real ramp hog, but the Odawa/Battle Boat Launch was not busy, and if I’d tried to install that electronic marvel at home where we live in the midst of a wet blueberry marsh, mosquitoes would have eaten me alive.

“My best five would have been 75 inches,” Jeff said when he returned after about six hours on the water. “And I lost at least eight others that hit the Horny Toad.”

Yes, that’s the name of the soft plastic from Zoom Lures. Available in 42 colors ranging from plain white to Merthiolate with Banana Seed and Bullfrog in between, it gained its first foothold among bass anglers at Florida’s famed Lake Okeechobee, according to the Zoom website. Its fame spread quickly. I’d never held one to see it up close until Jeff handed me the Watermelon-Pearl-colored one he’d used.

“A friend who fishes a lot of bass tournaments told me about these and I ran out to the Grand Rapids Cabela’s last night and bought a pack,” he said. “Not cheap – they cost $4.50 for the five-pack. My friend said Junebug was his favorite color, but Cabela’s didn’t have any.”

That night at home I got online and logged into my account at landbigfish.com, where Horny Toads happened to be on sale for $2.99 a pack. The online store had Junebug (which is purple with green glitter) in stock along with Green-Pumpkin-Pearl. Since a Youtube video about surface frogs (several companies make them) recommended chartreuse, I also was interested in the Bullfrog pattern with its chartreuse belly.

This particular website has a little trick to get anglers to spend more and I always fall for it: Free shipping with orders of $50 or more. So I ended up with 10 packs of Horny Toads and six packs of hooks of various sizes. Jeff had been using a standard hook and said the nose of the soft plastic bait ripped easily, so I got the kinds of hooks that screw in the nose of the lure. Of course I will share this plethora of Horny Toads and hooks with Jeff. Maybe.

And then, since I was planning to go back to the Grand before my order would arrive, I drove over to D&R Sports in Kalamazoo and bought a pack of Sungill color Horny Toads ($4.50) and a pack of three Owner screw-in hooks ($5.50 — Owner hooks are expensive).

Back on the river Tuesday I was flinging my Sungill-colored Horny Toad on an 8-foot cudgel of a rod, with a reel spooled with 50-pound braided line. This heavyweight setup was necessary, because I’d be hooking giant bass in thick vegetation. Casting this light lure on such heavy tackle was not easy, and backlashes abounded. But I did catch a 12-inch bass, which in terms of money spent, cost about five dollars per inch. It was the only hit I had, but it was certainly exciting.

The lure comes over the top and through weeds like a champ, its little hooked feet making a sputtering pitter-patter of a wake that bass apparently find attractive. I read a story about these frog baits in the current issue of Bassmaster Magazine, and the pros quoted said they thought the lure looked more like a bluegill than a frog skittering across the surface, which makes sense. Real live frogs certainly don’t swim that way.

When I retrieved it, the lure frequently flipped on its back, the hook bend above the water’s surface. Advice in the Bassmaster story said to rig the lure so its belly curved, which would keep the hook point on top, away from the weeds and where it’s most likely to hook a bass in its upper lip. This was much easier said than done, and I’m still trying to figure out just how professional bass fishermen pull this off.

As I write this, I have one more practice foray planned for the Grand River and am well-armed with Horny Toads. I’m going to try a different rod and one of the keel-weighted hooks I recently acquired in hopes the toad will run like it’s supposed to. I just hope Jeff doesn’t catch a bunch of fish on a different lure. My budget for fishing gear is shot because of his success with the Horny Toad.

Outdoors columnist Dave Mull lives in Paw Paw. Write to him at dave.sportfish.mull@gmail.com.