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Flyfishing in Saltwaters: July/August 2002

SURFACE POPPERS

Why they work and how to use them

By Capt. John McMurray

 

It was one of those mornings….  There was zero wind and the fog was so thick you couldn’t see 40-feet in front of you.  We putted along at idle as David stood on the bow ready to scream at the top of his lungs if he saw an obstruction.  Quick glances at the GPS, and then the compass told me I was going in the right direction, but we should have been there by now.  “Are you sure this is safe?” David yelled to me, half-joking, but half-serious.  “Quit being such a wimp,” I yelled back, but I was starting to doubt weather it was safe as small droplets of rain began to patter my slicker.   Wooow, wooow, wooow David shouted, as marsh grass appeared like a ghost 40-feet off the bow.  I turned the wheel hard right, cut the engine, and said, “We’re here,” pretending I knew that the marsh flat was at exactly this spot.  David looked at me questioningly, and then moved to the rod holder, quickly unstrapping his 7-weight.  “What fly should I use?” he asked, almost quivering in anticipation.  “Take a look in the water dummy,” I said as he turned and looked down.  For the past week, there had been thousands and thousands of tiny grass shrimp in these marsh flats, and the early spring stripers had been slurping them up like trout during a mayfly hatch.  There was a lot of bait around, but the fishing had been tough.  In fact, there was too much bait around, and it sure wasn’t easy to get these fish to take a look at your offering.  Nevertheless, we’d had some success.  “So,” David said, “I guess you mean use a grass shrimp imitation.”  “Yea????” I said mockingly, breaking David’s chops a bit.  We quietly cruised alongside the marsh line with the electric trolling motors as David rummaged through his fly box, pulling out a one-inch grass shrimp imitation and tying it on.  Swirls began to form off the bow as startled fish darted off into deeper water.  The fog had begun to burn off, and farther up I could make out some bigger swirls and a few birds.  “David, we’ve got some pretty serious stuff going on up there,” I said, but he was already focused, and on the bow, fly in hand.  As we crept up on the school, fins began porpoiseing all around us as stripers fed leisurely on thousands of tiny shrimp.  For 20-minutes we casted at every swirl and boil we saw.  “What the H” David said after another unsuccessful cast.  “Just a lot of bait in the water I guess,” was my response.  “Keep at it. Eventually you’ll get that fly in front of a fish.”  David said, “No way man, give me one of those poppers.” “Okay, but you’re just going to scare them with this thing.” I said.  I handed him a 3-inch yellow popping bug, and awaited my chance to say, “I told you so.”  We’d had a lot of success with this pattern when the mullet and peanut bunker were around, but I seriously doubted it would do much good here.  David sent a 60-foot cast out just behind a swirl.  One strip and a serious boil appeared.  Another provoked a large tail to send the popper airborne.  “Holy !@#$!” I yelled, almost uncontrollably.  David continued to strip, and in an extraordinary display aggressive behavior, two big stripers swiped at the popper almost simultaneously.  Milliseconds later the bug disappeared in a hole.  David pulled hard, and let a out a “whoop.”  The bass tore off into deeper territory as flyline whistled through the water in an effort to keep up.  “I told you that popper would work,” I said to David as we both began to laugh.  David’s reel made that wonderful noise, and for a minute I wondered if there was anything so satisfying.  Ten-minutes later I lipped an extraordinarily beautiful 15-pound healthy spring bass.  Silver and purple radiated from the fish in the water as I turned it on its side admiringly.  Out came the hook and fish swam away vigorously.  “Cool!!!” I said to David as we both hi-fived.  We caught fish on poppers that day for two hours straight.

 

Poppers are great!  There’s nothing quite like seeing a big fish slap a popper around on the surface before ultimately sucking it down.  It’s pretty intense! But why the H do they hit these big noisy things, especially when they look nothing like the bait of the day?  Interested clients have asked me this question many times.  I have a few theories, and while fishing is an inexact science, they seem to at least make a little bit of sense. 

 

We all know that poppers are noisy.  I gage the quality of a popper by how much noise it makes.  If you tie a popper that gurgles a little bit, it certainly isn’t going to catch as many fish as one that spits and splashes.  The same applies for plugs.  There are certain times, when a slider or a zara spook will entice weary fish, but for the most part, the more commotion the better.  So, getting the fish’s attention, without fail, is something these poppers are good at.  But… do fish look at these things as an injured fish and an easy meal?  I would definitely think so in some cases.  But, what if these fish are keyed in on small bait like grass shrimp, small crabs, or even cinderworms?  (I’ve done quite well with black poppers during cinderworm hatches.)  It seems to me that these fish would be completely uninterested in a popper when there are so many little critters around.  Also, for the life of me, I can’t get fish to take medium to large deceiver patterns during a grass shrimp, small crab or cinderwom hatch.  But again, they’ll go nuts on that popper.  Why!?! 

 

I believe it has a lot to do with aggression and pure instinct.  When you pull a popper over that mud flat, it gets the fish’s attention for sure.  In other words, it annoys the predator.  The aggression comes next.  In some cases, the fish doesn’t hit the popper because he wants to eat it, he hits it because he’s pissed.  It’s a natural, predatorial response.  You pull that popper in the fish’s vicinity, he almost has to smack it.  He can’t resist!  In some instances, I think it’s also a territorial response.  This loud, obnoxious animal is cruising over the bass’s territory while it’s feeding.  It has to be punished, and taught a lesson.  I say this because, especially when there’s a significant grass shrimp, or small crab hatch, a fish will slap that popper with its tail 3-times to every one time it will go after it with it’s mouth.  In fact, I had a day out in East Hampton last year, where I must have had a dozen rises and slaps on a popper, and hooked nothing.  Very frustrating, but I’m convinced that those fish weren’t trying to eat that popper, but punish it for being there. You can almost compare this behavior with that of a migrating salmon in a river.  They’re certainly not feeding, but they’ll hit a fly if you annoy them enough with it.

 

Of course, there are times of the year, and certain types of bait, that poppers do a very good job of imitating.  When these baits are around, it’s much easier to hook fish on the first shot with a popper.  But, when the small bait is around you have to be patient, avoid trying to set the hook every time you see a boil, and wait for the popper to completely disappear before driving it home.  Often times, this can require a lot of willpower, and you really have to avoid that aggressive instinct of you own to set the hook every time you see a fish come up on your popper. 

 

If you incorporate this aggression theory in your presentation, you’ll find that by just thinking this way, you’ll increase your success rate.  I call it the annoyance factor.  When instructing clients on how to properly work a popper, I’ll tell them that the more annoying that popper becomes, the more of a chance they’ll have of something striking it.  In other words, make that popper push as much water, and make as much noise as possible. That means stripping hard and fast, pausing for a few seconds, and repeating.  When I say strip hard, I mean fully extend your elbow as quickly as you can.  You should be able to hear that “pop!” and you should be able to see that quick splash of water shooting from the popper’s mouth.  Creating some serious noise and moving a lot of water should be your objective.  The pause gives the interested bass or bluefish a chance to come from afar and see what all this noise is about, and also, if the fish are keyed in on bait like peanut bunker or mullet, it looks like an injured fish, regaining and then loosing its consciousness.  Many times that popper will get spanked during the pause, and sometimes you’ll just see it disappear.  If you’re fishing a plug, a light action rod is entirely necessary. The whipping of the tip of the rod really makes that popper noisy and effective. 

 

I love that surface strike so much I’ll always give poppers a try, however, I’ve found that there are a few specific conditions where poppers seem to be particularly effective.  The first is early in the morning, right when the sun is beginning to show itself.  Just about everywhere, but in the Northeast specifically, that hour when sun creeps over the horizon is an incredible window of opportunity for any type of angling.  It only follows to reason that this is when poppers work best.  This window also seems to be the time in which most surface activity occurs.  Low wind conditions are also a good time to fish a popper, for the sole reason that the popper is more visible and more audible.  Last and probably, the most obvious factor is when there is surface activity.  Anytime you see the slightest indication of a disturbance, toss a popper near it and odds are, whatever is making the disturbance is going to nail it.  Birds and breaking fish are a no-brainer.

 

Again, making noise is very important.  I’ve found that soft-body foam, cone shaped poppers work best.  Big, “boilermaker” style poppers create a lot of commotion in the water.  “Banger” type poppers work great also.  For castability, noise, durability and overall success, I prefer to use cone shaped, soft body foam, boilermaker poppers.  I use EdgeWater Boilermaker Component #2/0 small bodies on a 4/0 long shank hook.  I use the1/0 bodies with 2/0 long shank hooks for flies I plan on tossing with the 7 or 8-weight.  Of course some retail fly shops carry these flies pre-tied, but they’re not so easy to find.  In addition, if you tie your own, you can tweak them to get just the kind of action you desire.  Also, poppers are probably the easiest, least time consuming fly to create, not to mention it’s just downright fun to have a fish hit one of your own personal creations.

 

The retail versions are usually tied with about one and a half inches of bucktail and a dash of crystal flash.  I prefer to use three to four stands of neck hackle, cut to a length of about two-inches.  Feathers seem to create more action in the fly, especially if you splay them when you secure them to the hook.  If you look at them in the water they actually undulate when striped. 

 

Tying them is downright easy.  In fact it’s so simple I can explain it in a few sentences:  First, push the soft body popper (head first) over the hook to open the hole.  Pull the popper head back out, and then push it in tail first.  Pull it half way out after that.  Secure a pinch of flash (I like to use flashabou) onto the bottom half of a size-4/0, long shank, stainless steel hook.  Then tie two feathers on each side, splaying them outward.  Secure everything with a touch of head cement, and push the popper back over before it dries, allowing for the thread portion to be covered by the tail end of the popper, and the eye of the hook to protrude just at the mouth opening of the popper.  Secure prism eyes to each side of the popper head with zap-a-gap or equivalent. 

 

As far as colors go, black works well at night, but nothing can beat yellow during low light hours.  For many years surfcasters in Montauk, NY have used yellow darters at night.  I have applied their knowledge to saltwater flyfishing with much success.  During the day, I’ll use either white or chartreuse.      

 

Poppers are great, but they can really be a pain to cast, especially when it’s a little windy out. For this reason I’d highly recommend using at least a 9-weight.  It’s also not a bad idea to load your reel with one, or even two weights above what the rod is rated for.  This can really add some distance to your cast, as the heavier line loads the rod better and pushes that big popper through the wind.  I’ll always keep a 7-weight rigged also, in case we get a windless day.  I’ll have to use smaller poppers, and you certainly won’t get as much distance, but it can be worth it. 

 

Nothing gets the heart pounding and the adrenalin going like a voracious fish boiling, slapping and engulfing a surface popper.  It’s the embodiment of the predator / prey relationship unfolding right before your eyes.  No matter what species I’m targeting, poppers are my first choice when the action is on top.  They should be yours also.  Follow the few simple rules in this article and your quest for great action will be successful.