Pop, pop, smash!
My yellow popper vanished in a bathtub- sized wake and my rod bowed instantly to the east as a 30-pound striped bass decided it wanted no part of the single hook stuck in the corner of its mouth. As the trophy linesider powered off in the general direction of Spain, there was a moment or two when I wasn’t quite sure if I would be able to stop it from tearing through the heavy rip. Fortunately, my hook held, the drag took its toll and I managed to gain the upper hand. Several minutes later I released the beast, took a deep breath and watched it swim away. Just three cast later I was into another bruiser.
When bass, blues, snook, reds or even tuna blitz on the surface, there is no way more challenging or fun to tempt them than casting surface poppers. Quite simply, the sight of huge fish busting on top can send shivers down your spine, make your hands shake as you prepare to cast, and cause you to forget such simple tasks as flipping open your bail before casting. Big fish crashing the surface make your heart pump faster, your brow sweat and mind race. In short, they make you feel like a kid again; full of excitement, amazement and anticipation. If you happen to actually be a kid, so much the better!
How do you use a popper? Essentially, you cast out into the middle of some surface breaking mayhem and bring the lure back to the boat using repeated short jerks of the rod while continuing to reel. The idea is to get the lure’s face to kick up a splash while the tail end wiggles and waggles like a frantic baitfish trying to escape. It sounds more complicated than it actually is, and once they’ve actually seen it done and given it a couple of tries, most anglers quickly get the hang of things.
Still, there’s no denying that having a few tricks up your sleeve can lead to greater success, especially during the fall run when predator species tend to blitz vulnerable baitfish schools being dragged by the current through rips, inlets, passes and stretches of rough surf. With that thought in mind, here are several tips for more hook-up when tossing these big, splashy fish magnets:
● Provoke Reaction Strikes: Vary the retrieve in clear water so predators can’t get a good look at your lure. Add direction changes to each retrieve or “walk the dog” for added chaos by bouncing the rod-tip from side-to-side with each crank of the handle.
● Repeat the Sequence: Predatory fish often miss on initial strikes in rough or discolored water. Repeating the popping sequence helps them to zero in on the target. Rather than randomly or chaotically popping the lure across the surface as described above, use a straight retrieve with a cadence that is easy to anticipate: pop, pop, pop, for example, or pop, pause, pop, pause and repeat.
● Work your lure quickly for speedy predators with hydrodynamic bodies like bluefish. Fish slower for fish with larger, more rounded bodies like stripers, redfish and snook.
● Wait for it! Don’t be quick setting the hook when fish explode on poppers. Delay your strike a split-second so your quarry can fully engulf the lure and turn away. That will position the hooks to dig in deep and help keep your prize from becoming unbuttoned. A quick count of two or three after seeing the strike is all that’s needed to significantly increase your hook-up rate.
● Keep in mind that topwater blitzes are most likely to occur around daybreak and dusk, although they can repeat over and over again at predictable tidal stages in select locations. Keep a log of each blitz and you may be able to find reliable action. The first two hours of an ebbing tide at the mouth of an inlet, for example, is a classic blitz scenario.
● Diving birds are a tell-tale sign of surface-feeding predators. Watch for clouds of terns, gulls and pelicans in a panic. If the fish are feeding on the surface, those birds will be diving with abandon. Keeping a pair of binoculars on board to scan the horizon can be a really big help.
● Lastly – and most importantly – don’t gun your engine to race to the fish. Although these surface eruptions may make predatory species appear as though they have thrown all caution to the wind, the sound of a vessel roaring up alongside the school can quickly put them down. When you see surface activity – or even diving birds – ease over at just above idle, cut the engine, then use the current and wind to drift into casting range.