The visual aspect of fishing will always get an angler’s heart racing. Having a fish smash your surface offering is an exhilarating experience that will often leave you trembling at the knees and wishing you had worn your brown jocks. And if you think surface lures are great, wait till you try a surface fly. You are connected directly to the fish because you are holding the line, which allows you to feel every part of the strike.
There are a lot of surface flies on the market and they can be made from a variety of materials – deer hair, antelope hair, foam and various synthetics. You can shape your own heads or can buy them pre-shaped. I prefer the latter due to time restraints and find that the purchased product is as good, if not better, than anything that I could do myself.
Several brands and shapes are available in foam pre-formed popper heads; Tiewell, Todds and Wapsi are three that spring to mind. While the tying instructions below relate to a particular popper head, the basic principles apply no matter what shape of head you are using. Some heads have cup faces to produce plenty of blooping noise while others have flat faces, which allow the fly to be worked a little quicker.
When using foam heads, like in this pattern, it is important to remember that they can’t be painted with anything other than water-based paints. Chemical-based products will often make them melt. You can dress up the popper head as much as you like, however I usually just stick to painting the outside of the head a dark colour, which allows it to silhouette well. The face of the popper is usually left white to enable it to be seen more easily in dull light conditions. For saltwater poppers I find that plain white works well.
There are many ways to fish the variety of surface poppers, Dahlbergs and bugs on the market. The Proper-Popper has several retrieves that make it productive on a variety of species including trevally, queenfish, tuna, mackerel, tailor, barramundi, Murray cod, saratoga and a host of others.
The first step for any successful retrieve is to cast the popper out. It sounds simple and it is, however, using the correct fly line will definitely make the task a lot easier. Bass-bug tapered fly lines have shorter, more compact heads which make the task of delivering bulky, wind-resistant flies a lot easier.
Many of these specialist lines are not cheap but there is one mid-priced line (about $70) on the market that works well. Scientific Anglers’ Headstart line was designed for beginner casters with a short compact head to allow less line to be worked out the tip of the fly rod before there was sufficient grain weight to suitably load the rod. The taper is very similar to a bass-bug taper and will also do a good job at delivering this type of fly.
Once the fly has landed, it is sometimes beneficial to allow it to sit for a while, especially if you are fishing calm water, as species such as Murray cod and saratoga are conditioned to pouncing upon any prey that falls into the water. A variety of popping or blooping actions with varied pauses between can be used, depending on the targeted species. Many pelagic fish will require continuous, short bloops with almost no pause between, while species such as barra and cod often respond best to an individual bloop with a few seconds of pause as the surface disturbance subsides.
Another retrieve, which is mainly used in calm water, is to just shuffle the fly across the surface. This retrieve, called a figure-of-eight, is the same as that used to work nymphs for trout and sees the popper slowly moving across the surface and leaving a small trail of disturbance.
The tail that you put on your popper can vary greatly, depending on which combination of materials you use. The hackle kicker-tail used in this pattern looks like legs, which are kicking the fly along. The almost amphibious-looking silhouette from below is great for barra, cod and saratoga. Other tail options include marabou, soft hackle and various combinations of tinsels and flash materials. A few strands of glow in the dark material are great when using the fly in low light conditions.
Step 1. Most pre-formed heads come complete with matching hooks. These should have a kink in the shank to prevent the hook spinning inside the head when a fish hits. Firstly, measure how much of the hook shank will be covered by the popper head and attach the thread with a jam knot or similar at the point corresponding to the back of the popper head. Wind the thread forward in close wraps to cover the majority of the hook shank between this point and the eye of the hook. Wind the thread back again to the starting point.
Step 2. Attach a few strands of Krystal Flash at this point. About 5cm long should do it. Get two grizzly neck hackles or other stiffer hackle and attach at this point so that the hackle curves outwards like a leg (see top view in picture 3). Do light wraps with the thread at first and then gradually make them tighter to fasten the hackle in place.
Step 3. Repeat this process on the other side, so that you now have two kicker-style legs that are even in length and curvature.
Step 4. Put the popper head onto the hook to check for length and adjust materials if necessary. Mix some two-part, 5-minute epoxy and spread over the thread. The thread bedding we laid down helps the epoxy grip to the hook shank. Check everything is straight and leave in the vice for a few minutes until dry.
Step 5. You can finish off the fly by adding a self-adhesive eye if you wish. Put a bit of head cement on the tie-in point for the hackle legs and the Krystal flash. For saltwater use I generally leave the popper head white but you can still dress up the fly with waterproof markers if you like. If you want to paint the entire popper head, it is best to do it before the fly is assembled, although it can still be done just before you put on the eye. Your Proper-Popper is now ready for action.
Hook - 2/0 (as supplied with popper head)
Head - Todds Saltwater Popper
Tail - Grizzly neck hackle (natural)
Flash - Pearl Crystal Flash
Epoxy - Devcon 5 minute
Eye – Self-adhesive 5mm silver
Finish - Tiewell HeadsetReads: 282