Hot Lips and Gilmore
- By: Chico Fernandez
THERE IS NO MORE EXCITING moment in fly-fishing than a big, loud surface strike. In clear water, you see the fish coming from a few feet away, finally rise, open its mouth and take the fly with a big splash. In murky water, you don’t often see the approach; you just strip and track the fly in brown water; then, all of a sudden, you may see a big flash and the edges of a mouth appear as the fish takes the fly. Surprise!
Yes, I love to fish surface flies in the salt. And my fly boxes hold plenty of popper- and slider-type flies, ready to be used whenever the conditions are right. I still use poppers and sliders mostly made of balsa wood, but of late I’ve favored the soft-body counterparts and I’m having great results with them. So meet my two new favorites: Hot Lips and her friend, Gilmore. These are a couple of great saltwater flies, first tied by Captain Steve Huff, who got the idea and inspiration from Jack Gartside’s famous Gurgler, an excellent fly in its own right.
The reason Huff started to play with foam-head flies was to create a light surface fly that made less noise than a balsa popper, but still made a “soft pop” that may be more representative of bait or shrimp activity on the surface. In the last two years I’ve taken lots of snook, tarpon, seatrout, mangrove snappers and many other species on these flies. Friends have also taken dolphin, bonito, false albacore and big tarpon.
There are many reasons why you should try these flies—not just because they attract fish when retrieved on the surface; just as important, they are easy to fish. Here are some notes on how to fish these surface flies.
Handling Hot Lips
As you start to false-cast, getting more and more line in the air, you notice that even though the fly may be a large size 1/0 or 2/0, it’s still light and easy to cast. And the slim body design and small lips let it fly easily; it seldom spins during casting. So your accuracy and distance are improved. And you are not dead tired at the end of a full day of casting the flies.
Far from the sharp and loud splash of a heavily made popper, a Hot Lips lands with a soft, natural, enticing splat, which more often than not is just the right amount of noise to attract fish. I’ve seen snook come out from under a large mangrove root to take one. On the flats, the soft foam’s magic splat, far from spooking a fish, often calls them in from a few feet away. That plop seems to be just enough to attract, but not enough to spook. It’s a good balance between too much and too little—just right.
On a normal strip retrieve, a Hot Lips makes a little soft pop, enough that the little splash from the lips is often visible to the angler. It is definitively not as loud as any hard-body popper, but it’s much louder than any hard-body slider. Lets just say, assertive, but not aggressive. How’s that?
There are times when you may want more pop. You can double the amount of sound and splash by speeding your strip and working the rod tip at the same time. This is a good technique, but it is still not as loud as a hard-body, hollow-face popper. If you need real loud noise to attract a school of big jacks in deep water, then a large balsa popper is your fly.
When a fish strikes, an angler fishing a hard-body popper often needs to be more alert to his or her timing of the hook set, because a fish, feeling a hard and foreign object in its mouth, quickly spits it out. But the chewable soft foam must feel more real in a fish’s mouth, because there is no doubt that, like a big Muddler-head fly, a fish will keep the fly much longer in its mouth, producing a larger percentage of hookups. Timing is definitely more forgiving with soft-bodied flies.
You can also get tight to shoreline obstacles with a Hot Lips. Fishing against a shoreline means frequent casts as close to shore vegetation as possible—often under overhanging branches, deep into tight sloughs or against mangrove roots. Let’s face it, if you do this long enough, you are going to land in the trees several times a day.
Fortunately, Hot Lips has a built-in weedguard—those lips. When you land in the trees, don’t panic and pull hard and fast, as some do, or you’ll set the hook in and as the fly starts to tighten against a branch the lips often cause the fly to summersault over the branch. Amazing. I’ve seen expert fly fisher Sandy Moret, owner of Fly Keys Outfitters fly shop in Islamorada, land a Hot Lips deep in the mangroves and then slowly dance the fly, limb-to-limb, until it lands inches from the shoreline. Then he retrieves the fly as if nothing had happened. I get a kick out of that.
The Slippery Gilmore
Recently, while fishing a large Gilmore against a mangrove shoreline, I got one of the neatest strikes I’ve received from a snook. The fish came directly from under Gilmore and skyrocketed on it with a big crash. Startled, by the time I struck him he was well out of the water and still rising, with Gilmore deep inside his mouth. He weighed about four pounds.
Hot Lips is a loudmouth compared to her friend, the more quiet and slippery Gilmore. He is actually a type of foam-head slider that makes a little more noise than a regular hard-body slider, probably because of the two gills that protrude off each side the fly. Like Hot Lips, Gilmore has the advantages of being light weight, soft on the landing and produces a natural feel in a fish’s mouth. Just don’t expect Gilmore, when you make a bad cast, to hop limb-to-limb and out of the mangroves—he lacks fat lips, you see. But you can install a weedguard on Gilmore. And I probably will on my next batch.
Also, because the body is so slim and aerodynamic, I can easily fish a large fly for big snook and have no problem casting it all day with an 8-weight. So, if you want to fish a topwater fly in clear, shallow water while trying not to spook fish, it’s Gilmore all the way.
Once you land that nice fish, just like you would with hard poppers and sliders, don’t try to dislodge the hook by grabbing the foam body. Instead, use a pair of pliers or forceps to unbutton the fish. Take firm hold of the bend of the hook (if you can reach it) and remove the hook. It helps a lot if you use hooks with very small barbs; or, in the case of hooks with large barbs, just flatten the barb or file it way down.
You can use a variety of foam thicknesses for these two flies, and I’ve seen tiers use 3mm foam, or foam in the 1⁄8- and 1⁄16-inch range, but this all depends on how big a fly you are tying. So just use enough foam to get good flotation. A bigger fly with a 3/0 hook is obviously going to need more foam to float it and move it right on the surface. Steve Huff will tell you that it’s best to have a firm, closed-cell foam for good flotation, and for the lips on Hot Lips to be stiff enough to pop properly.
By way of hooks, an old-fashioned Mustad 34007 works very well on both designs. But, given a choice, Huff, who must have seen thousands of fish taken with his fly over the years, prefers the larger gap that a stinger-type hook offers, like the Gamakatsu B10S. This hook is particularly good for big-mouthed fish like snook. Using a conventional hook in size 5/0 or larger to get the preferred gap size will not work because it also gives you a very heavy iron, which will not float high on the water or have lively action. And I must admit that, especially on snook, big seatrout, black bass and the like, the light stinger design has proven deadly.
Casting all day with a fairly large fly (although a light one for its size) tied to at least a 40-pound test bite tippet, and often throwing to a distance of 65 feet or more, with accuracy, can take its toll on a caster. So I find that an 8-weight rod or even a 9-weight is good for this kind of fishing. Some of my friends, like Flip Pallot, still fish it with a 7-weight, but he’s a pretty good caster, you know?
When fishing against shorelines, in strong winds or off-color water, my leader length is between 9 and 10 feet. When fishing the same flies on the flats, and especially if it’s calm, my leader length may go to 10 or 12 feet
I don’t recommend the use of fluorocarbon on leaders or bite tippets. Fluorocarbon is very dense and often sinks a fly, which can be an advantage when using many underwater streamers and crab flies, but it’s a disadvantage when fishing a surface fly. It will influence the delicate action of the Hot Lips and Gilmore, and often even dunk the fly. So it’s mono for surface action.
There is a price to pay for fishing the surface and getting to see those spectacular strikes. Often anglers see fewer strikes and deal with a few more misses when fishing surface flies. But so what? For me, the strike alone is worth it. Always.
Chico Fernandez is one of fly-fishing’s leading teachers. He lives in Miami.