August 22, 2020
It's all about the way you build 'em
Heart-stopping topwater strikes don't have to be followed by casting fatigue or an aching elbow or wrist. Fly casting, if your mechanics are poor, can cause physical pain. Throw a big ol' popper into the mix and it can get worse. But that is avoidable—all it takes is some adjustments in both the construction of a popper and in the way you cast it.
If you are a tyer, the key to making poppers that cast well is to build in bulk without too much weight. For most inshore saltwater or bass fly fishing, the head of the fly does not have to be large. In fact, the “bugs” I cast for snook, seatrout and bass have heads no longer than one inch, and a “face” diameter of perhaps a half-inch. Affixed to a 2X wide-gap hook, a popper of these dimensions makes plenty of commotion when fished with quick, assertive strips. I prefer lightweight closed-cell foam for the head (Rainy's Premium Flies is a good source for pre-shaped foam heads).
Make it Plane
A long, stiff tail will make even a less-than-aerodynamic popper track (plane) well in the air during the cast. It supports the head better than a short tail made of supple material such as marabou, soft saddle hackles or supple synthetic winging material.
As a bonus, bucktail does not foul the hook of a popper so readily. Nothing is better than stiff, “crinkly” bucktail. You can create a popper as long as 5 inches overall with it, lending size and bulk to the bug without too much weight. And the bucktail sheds water quickly in the air with only one backcast. For best results, tie in a tuft of bucktail about as thick as a No. 2 pencil (clipped end) and approximately three times the length of the head. A popper with a 1-inch long head and 3-inch tail is plenty big enough for just about any fish, including big jacks, snook, big spotted seatrout, and even cobia and dolphin offshore.
To keep the weight down, don't load up the tail with too much synthetic flash or “rubber hackle,” like you see on many commercial bass bugs. Also consider leaving off the glass or solid plastic dome eyes that many saltwater streamers call for. Eyes are not as crucial on a popping bug as on a streamer that is fished under the surface.
The popular Gurgler (originally the Gartside Gurgler) is perhaps the “top flyer” in my opinion. It is constructed with closed-cell foam strips, cut to size for both length and width. For bigger “saltwater” versions, tyers are now gluing two strips together (back to back) for added thickness. The turned-up lip is propped up with tying thread and can be further stiffened with head cement or light application of epoxy. My favorite for salt water use is dressed with stiff bucktail, a bit of flash, and can be tied up to 6 inches long.
Open Up Your Loop
Forget about trying to cast loops that fit through a keyhole. Even the most streamlined popper normally causes a bit more drag in the air than a like-sized streamer. You can open your loop by simply breaking your wrist a bit more than usual as you stop the rodtip on the cast. You will find that casting a popper downwind is the way to go. In this case, you will find that the wider loop will actually “catch” more wind and that results in maximum distance.
If you're casting into little shoreline nooks and crannies, and more so, under overhanging mangroves or other branches, you might have to tighten your loop somewhat. But in open areas, like a grassflat, you can just let ‘er fly and cover more water. Into a headwind, you will need to use the double-haul to increase line speed to turn over the popper.
Leaders and Lines
Because poppers typically outweigh streamers, you'll cast them better if tied to a stout bite tippet. An aggressively chugged popper so attracts a fish's attention that “leader shyness” goes out the window. So consider stepping up on the pound-test of the bite tippet. For instance, tie to 20-pound rather than 10-pound for fish without rough jaws or teeth, such as seatrout and bass.
For the sake of leader turnover, shorten your leader a bit, too. A 6- or 7-footer will turn over a popper much better than a 9- or 10-footer. Lastly, try a floating line that has an aggressive taper. These are labeled as saltwater taper and sometimes bassbug taper. Basically, the head weight is concentrated in a 30-foot front section rather than the front 35 or 40 feet of the fly line. This specialty taper line also normally has a shorter front taper (the thinner extreme end of the line). It is actually there for delicate presentations, and is not needed for popper chugging. You might even cut the thin front section away if you care to dedicate the fly line to popper and big-fly casting. FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine September 2016