Fly Fishing with Poppers

By Jim Misiura

Probably the most fun you can have with a fly rod is casting poppers to feisty smallmouth bass and bluegill, and there is no better way to learn the great sport of fly fishing. Fortunately for us, we have the Susquehanna River, along with many ponds and lakes at our disposal. The wide open expanse of the river gives the beginner fly fisherman plenty of room to learn to cast. Both smallmouth bass and bluegill are very forgiving when it comes to sloppy casting, eagerly awaiting an opportunity to feed on anything floating on the surface.

Poppers are fun, because they are generally large and easy to see.

Plop, Plop, Plop…Splash!

When I fish poppers on moving water, I like to make my casts slightly upstream, letting the lines belly with the current. Make a few pops, then the current takes out the slack, and pop it again until the fly is facing directly down from you. I usually look for areas that will hold smallmouth, large boulders where the fish can comfortably hold while waiting for the next meal to come to them.  Areas where there are weed beds with at least six inches of water over top are good for fish looking for emerging insects like dragon and damselflies. In this situation I’ll use a smaller profile popper that is more likely to represent a large dragonfly or adult damselfly. Slowly twitching the fly will make it appear injured. The Gartside Gurgler is a perfect candidate for such a job. With its long slim Bucktail for its tail and wide foam body it nicely mimics this food source.

Shoreline drop offs or bridge abutments are a favorite spot, giving fish the security of deeper water while waiting for the hopper or frog to stray too far.  When fishing this situation I like to keep a straight line from rod to popper, no slack. Using a two hand retrieve with the rod under my arm, when a fish strikes, I’ll continue to pull to set the hook until I feel the weight of the fish. Only then will I lift the rod tip.  Keeping a straight line, rod tip low, two handed retrieve keeps you in contact with the fly at all times.  I use the same retrieve when fishing underwater patterns as well.

Let’s take a look at how to tie a popper. I like to start with a hook that has a small shank while still having a wide gap for hook setting. The Octopus or Splitshot/ Dropshot hooks are my perfect candidate. A size 1 hook has a shank of around ¾” and the hook gap is around the same, making it just right for smallmouth and big bluegills. I generally use a foam head with rubber legs and eyes on it. The tail can be as simple as a couple saddle hackle or deer or squirrel tail.  I like to tie with a variety of styles. Let take a look at tying one of my favorites.

1)  Start with a foam cylinder of about ½” diameter. Slice the front at a 45* angle.

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2)  Take first a large needle or your bodkin and make a hole about 3/16’” from the bottom. The hole should go all the way through. Now take an awl or larger needle and follow the first hole until just the tip is exposed. Do this from back to front. I use the awl because it is tapered, and when we place it on the hook it will fit over the eye easier.

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3)  Now we can start with the tail. Next select four hackles, placing two on each side of the hook shank. Use the natural bend of the feather to splay them to the outside. Tie in 3 strands of Krystalflash to each side of tail.

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4)  Tie in 2 yellow hackle and wrap in completely.

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5)  Now coat the shank including the tied in tail with cement (Super Glue), and quickly place foam head over the shank. Be sure to line up the head, you only have a few seconds.

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6)  Cut bottom of foam straight across removing approximately ¼”

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7)  Using a red permanent marker color the front.  Eyes can be made with a permanent marker. You can also place markings on the body with your marker.