I was first introduced to poppers by Joe Brooks in Fly Fishing, a book he wrote back in the late '50s. I recall carrying this book with me through college and into the Army, and I still find myself reading it today. The stories are told so vividly that I almost feel I was there when Brooks, Curt Gowdy and Bebe Anchorena fished Argentina back in the day.
In the book, Brooks testifies to his using poppers for many species, such as small and largemouth bass, mangrove snappers, bluefish and record-sized stripers. As a kid I dreamt of the surface action that he wrote about and after so many years have turned into a top-water fanatic myself. Just as some trout anglers are passionate and stubborn about their dry flies, a saltwater fly fisherman can become obsessed with a top-water approach once his presentation is rewarded with a positive result.
Since then I have taken numerous fish on poppers (or what I sometimes refer to as "surface disturbance" flies) and now use them almost exclusively. Tide-runner weakfish, stripers of all sizes, jumbo bluefish, jacks, barracuda, tarpon, snook, sailfish, roosterfish and the like all respond aggressively to an attractive top-water presentation. So much so that poppers have become my favorite imitation - the strike so intoxicating that I almost always try poppers before attempting anything else.
With a subsurface fly you must place the offering in front of the intended quarry. With a popper, however, you can call the fish; a proper retrieve will make them respond to a sound and come from a distance to check out the commotion. The popper should actually talk to the predator, with a sound resembling that of a baitfish on the surface. A good retrieve will attract the attention of any nearby aggressor, interesting him enough that it triggers an attack. And that's what a strike on top water is - an attack. The crazed fish explodes through the surface with reckless abandon, leaving a hole in the water. To anyone who has never experienced real top-water action, I can only say that in my opinion, nothing in the fishing world can compare, no matter the quarry.
It has been my experience that the majority of fly fishermen rarely use poppers. In most cases, the reasons are twofold:
1) The Intimidation Factor. Many fly fishermen don't enjoy the thrill of fishing poppers because they believe the fly is too difficult to throw. Fly fishing the salt seems difficult enough with the ever-present wind, so to many the added complication of using a bulky fly appears more like masochism than fly fishing.
In reality, however, if you can double haul efficiently and throw a Deceiver, you can throw a popper. You must simply slow down your casting stroke and refine your timing. The more you try to overpower the bug with your casting arm, the more you actually work against yourself - leading to overcasting, frustration and a generally inefficient cast. Refine your haul, focus on your timing and slow down your cast, and you will find that a popper is not the problem it seemed to be at first glance.
Choosing a line specifically designed to throw a popper will also make your life easier. I prefer a freshwater bass bug type and a sturdy 9-foot tapered leader for everyday top-water casting. With the proper rod action, this balanced outfit will load easily, respond quickly and be a pleasure to cast despite the so-called bulkiness of the fly.
2) Confidence. A second reason poppers often remain in the fly box instead of at the end of the leader is that many anglers don't rate this fly as a true fish-catcher. Trust me - poppers work, period! The key is to experiment with the cast and retrieve so that you become comfortable with the presentation as a whole.
Commit to using poppers often enough to learn about the nuances relative to fishing this fly and you will be rewarded many times over. Granted, they are not useful in all situations, but when conditions are right they are an excellent choice.
When to Use 'Em
With most discussions regarding flies and fishing methods centering on subsurface imitations, the popper is generally left as a specialty fly to be used only on those occasions when the fish are on the surface. Certainly, Deceivers and Clousers perform wonderfully and catch most of the fish, but I submit that poppers are far more fun and often produce very well even in situations when you wouldn't normally consider using one.
Poppers can be fished along the edges in the quiet summer backwater the same way you might fish a lake for largemouth bass, or in shallow water during the spring when the stripers are schooling over subsurface drop-offs and not showing themselves. You can also fish poppers over a reef for roving bluefish, jacks or barracuda, in the surf, by the mangroves or even in the middle of the ocean for sailfish. Even in very shallow water, poppers can be an excellent everyday choice, despite the belief that the noise will spook fish. Virtually any application can prove productive for the popper fisherman.
There are times, though, when poppers should not be used. For example, stick with subsurface streamers when fishing for stripers in the early spring while the water temperature is still cold. Until the water heats up, most top-water presentations will go completely untouched.
Ironically, another instance when poppers might not work well is when fish are crashing bait on the surface. While poppers can often produce in this frenzy, at times they may not work at all if the disturbance created by the popper blends in with the natural disturbance of the breaking fish. Despite the activity on top, your offering may go untouched.
Pick a Popper
In terms of a specific style of popper, I prefer the conventional cup-faced head built on a long-shank, round-gap, chemically sharpened hook. When building the larger models, I opt for a bucktail-and-mylar combination. For the smaller versions, I prefer a splayed hackle tail. To bridge the space between the head and tail, tie in a palmered hackle collar.
The size of the popper should generally coincide with the size of the baitfish available. However, many times when the waters we are fishing are filled with forage no more that 2 inches long, we have consistently experienced success on a 5-inch fly. It's not always clear whether the popper should represent the bait itself or a small predator feeding on the forage. Often fish will respond solely as a result of their competitive nature, instantly reacting to a sound that they associate with food, so I frequently experiment with size.
Color can make a difference. I always carry red-and-white, chartreuse-and-white, yellow, white, orange and black, most with mylar accents. Although most agree that light colors go with bright days and dark colors with dark days, solid black will often produce in bright sunlight if it is presented properly.
Once you've chosen a style, size and color, attach the popper to the shock tippet with a looped connection for improved popping action and you're in business.
Once you've made the cast, extend both your rod and retrieve hands outward together as if you're reaching out to touch the fly. Take out all of the slack from your line and simultaneously strip with your left hand and pull the rod in your right hand straight back, firmly and definitely, making the popper come to life with minimal effort. This kind of retrieve will allow you to vary the amount of pop more easily than a conventional strip. It also allows you to create a substantial disturbance, if you wish, while eliminating most of the line slap.
Different fish require somewhat different retrieves in order to trigger a strike. For example, large bluefish can be very frustrating when fished with a popper. They require flash and an erratic retrieve to consistently produce results. Northern weakfish or gray trout of monstrous proportions will sometimes devastate a mylar-tipped popper when it's retrieved in a steady and rhythmic manner. Stripers, on the other hand, respond to varying retrieves depending on the circumstance. Sometimes a consistent pop, pop, pop turns the trick; at other times you almost can't bring the thing back slowly enough.
For most fish, the initial pop should be relatively large and loud. We are, after all, trying to attract attention. The fish we're after are predators and although they will spook to an unnatural sound, we want the popper to create a noise that the fish will associate with food. One sound they won't associate with food is a bad pickup with lots of line slap. You can achieve a quiet pickup with little surface disturbance by raising the rod and lifting the line slowly off the surface, beginning your haul only when you reach the 11 o'clock position.
After you've perfected your popping retrieve and smoothed out your pickup, you'll be ready for a fish. The mistake most anglers who are new to poppers make is to try to set the hook too violently - pulling the hook away from the fish. With a surface hit, the fish most often blasts the fly and then turns back to the deep. As long as you are holding the line tightly, the fish almost always hooks itself. However, that surprise attack often leads to the knee-jerk reaction of lifting the rod. The flexibility of the rod blank combined with that lifting motion absorbs most of the hook-setting stroke, resulting in a poor hookup. Always keep the rod pointed at the fly during the retrieve and well into the strike. When you're certain the fish has the fly and you feel him stretching the line, then give a controlled pull with your line hand while keeping direct contact with the fish. Only lift the rod after you're confident the fish is hooked.
The techniques of fishing poppers are not complicated, and easily become secondary to the simple thrill the method brings. With just a little experimentation and practice, you too will soon experience the unexpected explosion and heart-pounding reaction that words cannot adequately describe.
So as I end this thought and close my eyes, I find myself mentally drifting on a quiet estuarine piece of water. There is a slight outgoing tide with the salt meadows beginning to flush. The only sign of fish is the occasional spearing that randomly dots the smooth, unbroken surface. I'm there, poised on the bow surveying the situation, ready to carefully break that surface, fly rod at the ready. My fly of choice: As always, a popper!