Tactics and strategies for surface fishing in the coastal shallows.
- By: Chico Fernandez
I remember casting a yellow popper against a small mangrove island in the middle of a flat; the heavily overgrown mangrove branches reached several feet over the water. On the first pop, a baby tarpon crashed the popper and before I could set the hook he was in the air with a high jump. Then another jump, and then another. He made a backward summersault and landed over one of the highest mangrove branches and came crashing down through several other branches until finally hitting the water. The tarpon managed to dislodge the hook and leave the popper fastened to the lowest branch. It took me a few minutes to reach over the thick branches to rescue my popper, and I could still hear my fishing pal laughing as he leaned on the pushpole. The leader, all scratched up, had to be replaced. And you know what? I remember that little tarpon more than many others I've landed.
A popper floats mostly on top of the water as it is retrieved-while at rest, its back is getting a sun tan-so any predator is going to expose part of its body as he attempts to take it. And in doing so, he will also show his style.
A big shark will often lift his upper jaw out of the water and crash down on the popper. A snook will make one of the loudest "smacks" you've ever heard. A tarpon will often roll as he slurps the popper from the surface, showing lots of his silver side-and the bigger he is, the slower the whole "silver roll" will be. A big seatrout will hit the popper several times, before he just opens that big yellow mouth and inhales it. A big jack will often rush it with the blunt of his forehead pushing a wake and"well, you get the picture.
The lure of using a popper on the saltwater flats? It's having your cake and eating it too. You have all the excitement of sight-casting and seeing fish come to the fly, but then he has to come out of the water to inhale it, often making for a spectacular hit. I don't want it any better!
Anatomy of a Popper
A popper is nothing more than a very simply tied streamer with a head made out of a material that will float, such as hollow plastic, cork, balsa wood and the like. Plastic has always been too heavy for my taste, so all of my poppers today are either cork or balsa wood. (With cork grade getting worse every year, I tend to prefer balsa wood.)
The front of the popper is either flat or concave, so that when retrieved it will make a pop-gurgle that can often attract fish from quite a distance Read More »and entice them to show themselves while striking. And since sound travels much faster in water than in air, a popper can be quite a dinner bell to a predator.
Selecting wings for a popper, Chris Dean, a great saltwater fly tier from Florida, generally prefers bucktail, partly for it's durability, but mostly for the added buoyancy. However, if the style of popper you are using needs short wings, stiffer neck hackles are a good choice. (The long, soft saddles that breathe so well on streamers will often wrap on the hook of a popper as it's cast-not a good thing.) If you need short wings for a small popper or a pencil popper, then a little bit of marabou will add plenty of action on the tail end. Keep in mind that artificial materials have the most durability and add a bit of translucency.
The hook's ring eye can come out of the center of the popper body, or on the bottom of the popper. I feel it's generally easier to cast a popper with the hook eye is in the center of the fly. These poppers fly straighter and pick up off the water easier. So I prefer this style when I'm making continuous, long casts.
A popper with a ring eye on the bottom will pop loud with little effort and tend to leave a larger gap on the hook, which could help hookups. Still, a bottom-placed ring eye will often cause the popper to come off the water spinning, making it harder to pick up for a back cast. But generally, if well made, both designs should work for you.
We also have to consider the length of the hook shank on a popper. A long shank will expose a much bigger hook gap, for better hookups, but it will add weight, and weight is the enemy of a popper. If too heavy, a popper is hard to cast, and sits on the water too low to perform-it won't pop too well and will act dead on the water. But a popper floating high and light will be lively when retrieved.
Color is not so important. Because a popper is seen by the fish from below, with the sky as a background, it is mostly seen as a silhouette against the sky. If I'm fishing during low-light hours, black makes for the best silhouette. Also, white with a red head, or yellow with a red head, have always produced fish for me-but the fact that I have great confidence in those colors probably helps a lot!
On the saltwater flats, you'll want to use a popper a size or two smaller than you would for the same-size fish in deeper water. For example, when fishing for snook or big seatrout, which have large mouths, a three-inch popper on a size 1 to 1/0 hook is a good range. And a big barracuda, or a good-size shark, even to a 100-pounds-plus, will eat a four- or five-inch popper in sizes 2/0 to 4/0.
The smaller-mouthed redfish will prefer a smaller popper, say around two inches long or less. An angler I know, David Olson, who has fly-fished for redfish for many years in mid-Florida, always prefers a small popper on a size 4 hook. I agree. However, fishing the big redfish in Louisiana, the snook-size popper mentioned above would be a much better choice.
Where, When, How
Fishing a flat for, say, reds, snook or baby tarpon, select a depth that is deep enough for the fish to rise to the popper but not too deep that the fish will not be hunting the surface. Depending on visibility, between a foot and 30 inches may be a good range; I'm sticking my neck out on this one, but it's a guideline.
Also, if the snook, and particularly the usually-bottom-feeding redfish, are traveling deep, right against the bottom, and therefore hunting on the bottom, it's hard to attract them to the surface. (Go to a weighted streamer, such as a Crystal Shrimp or a Clouser Deep Minnow.)
While on the flats, you should work any deeper depressions such as pot holes, and any structure, such as rocks and tree stumps, by approaching them quietly and covering the area with several long cast. Easy; take your time. Too often I've seen an angler make only one cast to these areas and decide it did not have any fish, only to spook a big snook or seatrout when the skiff passes by.
Deep shorelines, mangroves or grass are also excellent areas in which to blind cast a popper. As you come to the end of the flat, the edge that drops to the channel is a great place for a popper-particularly if it's a low outgoing tide. Work a few feet into the deep water while the skiff remains on the flats.
On shallow flats, make a gentle pop as you move the popper a few inches; a second later, do the same. Generally, it's a slow retrieve. If the water is a little deeper or muddier, I will probably pop it louder, and wait longer for a fish to find it, before I pop and retrieve again.
If the water is a bit too shallow, or it's flat calm and you are afraid of spooking the fish by making too much noise, then try just "dragging" the popper. This often works for me. Although, in this extreme situation, I prefer a slider, but that's a subject for another column.
Fishing pot holes or structure, work the popper slow and keep it in the sweet spot as long as you can. Remember that few saltwater fish will venture too far from the area in which they are holding. Good popping.
Chico On Tackle for Shallow Poppers
You can cast the smaller redfish poppers on a 7- or an 8-weight outfit; bigger snook poppers, with which you'll need a heavy tippet, require an 8-weight rod; and for larger barracuda and shark poppers, a 9- or 10-weight is needed, partly because the popper is heavier and more wind resistant, but also because of the extra weight of the wire bite tippet you'll need.
Leaders: Nine or 10 feet is fine. Only on flat-calm days, with small poppers for reds and some snook, will you need a 12-footer. And for better action, with or without a mono bite tippet, I would use a loop on the popper. It will move livelier. While I like using fluorocarbon, I don't use it on poppers because its heavier density tends to push the poppers down-and particularly so when you're using a heavy bight tippet. I use monofiliment instead.
Never attempt to remove a popper from a fish's mouth by using the body of the popper for leverage. If you do, you will break the head/body off the hook shank. Use a pair of pliers or, my preference, a good-size pair of fly-fishing forceps.
Chico Fernandez is one of the nation's best-known saltwater fly fishermen. He is the author of Fly Fishing for Bonefish; order the book at the Bookshelf section on this site.