"How to use highly effective poppers for a growing list of saltwater game fish"
The floating log, encrusted with white barnacles, was easy to spat n a cobalt sea. As we drew loser, masses of small fish flashed silvery reflections as they competed for space under the protective shelter. Oceanic triggerfish, juvenile amberjack and tiny sardines comprised most of the opportunistic residents. “Man, does this look fishy,” was all that fishing partner Ramon Gonzalez Revilla could say as we cast surface poppers from our bow and stern positions on the 28-foot Albemarle . We didn’t have to mention that such floating banquets attract pelagic predators such as yellowfin tuna, sailfish, marlin, wahoo, dorado and more.
As our lures splashed along on the surface a big dorado charged from the depths and slammed my offering, doing cartwheels in the process. Revilla, who cast close to the log, got the whole school of triggerfish to follow his lure before a small amberjack outraced them for the popper. As I fought my stubborn dorado, Revilla shook off the tiny one-pound amber and made a good cast near my fish to attract any followers. Soon, three dorado were competing for his popper as a big blunt-headed male finally nailed it near boatside. The commotion got the predators on edge. We spotted yellowfin tuna down deep as well as a slow-cruising wahoo. The dorado were stacking up as well, “Oho... quince... veinte . . . mucho dorado!” exclaimed Captain Eduardo “Lab” Bernal as he kept a tab on free-swimming dorado now over twenty and growing. By keeping one hooked fish in the water while releasing a tired one we were able to sustain the action without resorting to chunking bits of skipjack we had on board. Dorado have a habit of following hooked brethren so it’s a good technique to keep one on the line until your partner hooks up again.
After releasing nine dorado from 25 to 40 pounds we were interrupted by a bizarre occurrence. Within seconds a half-acre of sea surface erupted in pools of white foam. Blue water turned to red. Dorado fled the area. We were startled as a mass of large pargo lisa (mullet snapper) went on a furious feeding binge from seemingly out of nowhere. Small fish leaped airborne attempting to escape while others took fleeting shelter under our boat only to be pinned against the hull by marauding snappers. Bernal was quick to explain it all as he pointed to the color sonar. The log and all of its forage had just drifted from deep water over an oceanic pinnacle reaching within 138 feet of the surface. The hungry bottom-dwelling pargo seized the opportunity for an easy meal and rose to the surface en masse. The pargo disappeared in unison when the log drifted too far from the comfort of their rock bottom habitat.
As the afternoon progressed we caught more dorado, yellowfin tuna and wahoo on poppers cast around floating logs and after trolling stops. Revilla, a newcomer to the popping style, was enthusiastic. “‘What a thrill it is to see these fish chase your lure on the surface. I’ve been missing out on a lot of fun!” was his response. Anglers everywhere are adding surface poppers to their list of tactics for the same reason. It’s fun and challenging as well. Although this fishing episode took place in Panama aboard the Coiba Explorer a premier venue for popping, productive habitat can be found worldwide in temperate and tropical waters including Baja.
THE PELAGIC FAMILY
As in fly-fishing, popping has evolved from freshwater streams, lakes, and inshore saltwater habitats to the final arena — the open sea. Webster’s defines PELAGIC as “living or occurring in the open sea or oceans.” Countless species inhabit the world’s seas yet sport fisheries target a relative handful based upon factors such as fighting characteristics, size, eating quality, appearance and proclivity to take artificial lures.
Strictly speaking, the term “open sea” can be applied to a variety of habitats as well, although we tend to think in terms of deep, blue water perhaps using the standard 100-fathom line as a convenient demarkation point. The problem is that many pelagic species, such as black marlin and sailfish, are frequently found in green, nearshore waters, making geographic boundaries somewhat irrelevant. The fact that islands and reefs containing sedentary species are also found in open, offshore waters complicates matters.
Let’s just say that game fish that are usually associated with oceanic surface habitat are good candidates for some, incredible popping action, with varying. degrees of difficulty depending on the species. Billfish, tuna, dorado, wahoo, rainbow runner and skipjack are popular pelagic targets from Baja to Central America . Roosterfish, cubera (dog) snapper, pargo lisa, bigeye, bluefin and giant trevally amberjack, jack crevalle, tarpon, snook, needlefish, yellowtail, bonito and barracuda are good popping species but are usually classified as coastal inhabitants even though they may appear in deep water as well.
A variety of techniques and tackle can be effective with pelagics. Obviously, “blind casting” on the open sea would be fruitless compared to working visible habitat such as a reef point, found nearshore. Trolling is a standard method to find fish offshore as well as checking out signs such as kelp paddies, bird activity; logs and other debris, current lines, temperature breaks, bait schools and man-made attractors such as commercial shark buoys common in lower Baja. Once fish are found it is important to apply techniques that work the best according to the species.
SAILFISH — A supreme challenge for popping, sailfish are best dealt with using the teasing techniques developed for fly fishing. Trolling hookless artificial lures or natural bait, sails can be teased to an aggressive level before pulling the teaser and casting a popper with the boat slipped into neutral.
The problem is that even hungry sails have a difficult time eating small, buoyant poppers because they are easily floated out of position by head-shaking wakes, much like a party-goer bobbing for apples. Larger, denser poppers such as the Mr. PILI and Braids Pop Dancer can improve your hookup ratio. It also helps to travel to areas that have an abundance of sailfish because you’ll need many opportunities during a fishing day to be successful. If the numbers are down I usually put away the popping gear and rely on more standard trolling techniques for a hookup.
MARLIN, BROADBILL AND SPEARFISH — Although I’ve heard of some striped marlin hooked on poppers, there is no documentation on popper-caught billfish other than sailfish. This is a wide-open challenge for innovative anglers. Except for broadbill swordfish, the same teasing techniques used for sailfish should be effective with marlin and short-bill spearfish. Broadbill pose an extremely unlikely candidate since they are usually lethargic on the surface and have an unpredictable temperament. The larger size of black, blue, striped marlin and broadbill also makes the use of conventional popping tackle problematic.
TUNA — Most species of tuna feed near the sea surface at times. This means they can be enticed into hitting a popper. Yellowfin tuna readily take poppers without provocation. Other tuna, such as albacore, bluefin and bigeye, usually need to be chummed or chunked to a surface frenzy to be most effective. Casting poppers immediately after a troll hookup is a good method as well. Poppers in the three-to five-inch size are suitable for most tuna. Large tuna over 100 pounds like to chase big food and seven- to nine-inch poppers can be very effective.
DORADO — A favorite pelagic species with many anglers, dorado or dolphin have a penchant for poppers. Their speed, energy, jumping ability, electric colors and fine eating quality excite anglers throughout the world’s warm seas. Dorado are also unpredictable. They may attack just about anything that swims or refuse any offering. Chunking bits of oily fish such as skipjack can usually get a bite going. Keep a hooked dorado in the water because this tends to excite the school into taking poppers or other artificials. Dorado like to hang around offshore flotsam and structures. Kelp paddies, sargasso weed and anchored shark floats are good places to check out. Scattering live chum near these areas will usually reveal the presence of dorado very quickly as they charge the bait on the surface.
WAHOO — Although a speed burner, wahoo can be taken by retrieving a popper at a relatively slow pace compared to typical trolling speeds. The action and color of the popper seems to be very important. Red, black, orange, dark blue and patches of silver are good in any combination with a popper head that pushes water well and creates a good shower. A short wire leader can be used due to the wahoo’s teeth, especially with smaller poppers that may be totally engulfed. Longer poppers stand a better chance in avoiding a cutoff when using mono or similar material because the wahoo jaws may not be able to reach the leader. Wahoo like offshore ridges and seamounts and on calm days can be spotted slowly cruising with their stubby dorsal fin slicing a vee-wake on the slick surface. Wahoo are most susceptible to a popper presentation right after a troll hookup in a school.
RAINBOW RUNNER~ SKIPJACK~ AND OTHERS — Colorful rainbow runners have a habit of nearly swallowing poppers whole and fighting with violent headshakes that will rattle your rod. They are found in warm water over banks or near oceanic islands. Skipjack, kawakawa, dogtooth tuna, narrowbarred mackerel (king mackerel), great barracuda and many other game fish found worldwide provide great sport with poppers.
The class of lures called poppers or chuggers share some common traits. They are relatively lightweight, have concave fronts to varying degrees and are designed to swim or skip on the surface. Some are narrow in profile while others have wider bodies. Popular brands include the PILI (Pacific Island Lure Innovations), which was first produced in a backyard garage in Hawaii and has since gone into fall production. Owner Mark Santiago now has the PILI and several design offshoots distributed in California , Australia , Japan and other locales. Yo-Zuri, Gibbs Pencil Popper, Cotton Cordell, RFK, R & W, Heddon, Lee Sisson, Bagley, Braid, Mako and Williamson all produce surface poppers. Most can be fished right out of the box but make sure you select through-wired lures with heavy gauge hooks to withstand tough saltwater game fish. These lures are intended to imitate an injured or escaping baitfish struggling on the surface which can be appealing to a wide variety of species throughout temperate and tropical seas. Cool or coldwater species tend to be more reluctant to chase poppers on the surface.
TECHNIQUE AND BALANCED TACKLE
Good poppers are noisy. The concave or “cupped” heads trap both air and water on the retrieve and when whipped forward produce an audible “pop” or at least a “gurgle” sound. Since sound is a big attractant for many game fish, I prefer to make long casts unless aiming for nearby breaking fish or structure. A long cast improves your results because it provides time for the fish, which may be a good distance away, to hear the pop, react and have a chance of taking the lure before you pull it out of the water.
Unlike subsurface lures that depend on visibility requiring a close pass-by, these surface poppers can draw game fish from a much greater distance. Don’t try to buy time by slowing down the lure, because this will reduce its effectiveness. Quickly make another cast if you get a short strike near the boat or shoreline. The rod should be held near vertical on the retrieve and gradually lowered as the lure is worked back to the angler. This adjustment will keep the lure from skipping out of the water. By holding the rod steady and smoothly cranking the reel the lures will swim. Twitching the rod lightly or jerking quickly will create the gurgle and pop actions. A good basic technique is to swim the lure three or four feet and then pop it. The pops should be violent enough to throw a shower of spray.
Pelagic species such as sailfish and wahoo tend to prefer a faster swim and less popping than more sedentary nearshore species. Sea conditions also influence the angler. Calm, fiat seas permit a wide variety of presentations, while a stiff surface chop can be worked with a simple, straight retrieve. Cranking the lure through the cresting chop is usually enough to work the lure properly. Extreme breaking seas may render the surface plug less effective since the lure has to compete against the agitated surface for the fish’s attention.
One thing to remember during windy conditions, is to maneuver the boat upwind of the target so longer casts can be made downwind. Light surface poppers are typically difficult to cast upwind. When targeting bigger pelagics such as sailfish and yellowfin tuna, select poppers that weigh at least l ounces because the larger rod and reel combinations necessary to do battle will not cast ultra-light lures very well.
Tackle designed for 20 to 40-pound line is a good choice for most situations. There is an ongoing revolution in light tackle levelwind reels with manufacturers now producing larger sizes, better gearing and tougher, smoother drag systems.
The levelwind feature is important since these plugs are more efficiently and comfortably worked with one hand cupping the reel seat and side plate of the reel while turning the handle with the other hand. The rod needs to be pumped on the retrieve, which requires a firm grip with all fingers for balance. Guiding line on the reel manually, without a levelwind bar destroys the balance, distracts the angler’s attention from the lure, and increases the chances of creating loose line wraps on the spool. The shortcomings of non-level- wind reels are magnified when the number of casts increases. It isn’t unusual to make 200 casts or more in a day’s fishing. Any tackle that reduces fatigue will increase efficiency and enjoyment of the technique.
Matching rods indude seven to nine-foot graphite or composite heavy-duty plugging sticks that feature a quick taper and fairly stiff action that helps in casting these plugs and improves fish-fighting ability All these lures need to be whipped to varying degrees with the rod on the retrieve, and adequate stiffness is necessary for this maneuver. A “soft” parabolic rod will require a larger arc motion to work the plug since its easy-bending movement cushions the line and lure. Ideally, the rod shouldn’t have to be pumped more than 18 inches, measured at the rod tip, under most circumstances.
For lures lighter than 3A-ounce, a spinning outfit becomes more practical for casting. Suitable spinning reels include models made by a number of manufacturers that hold up to 250 yards of 15-pound mono. Similar stiff-action spinning rods are paired with these reels when chasing the middleweight pelagics.
RIGGING REVOLUTION WITH SUPERLINES
Using relatively small reels in deep water with big fish around means you better be prepared to get spooled occasionally. Fortunately, the advent of super braids has given anglers another tool to use to our advantage on blue water. The best feature is the line strength to diameter ratio. Anglers can add tremendous strength and line capacity with their current tackle by spooling with a super braid.
Rigging with a superline is also different that mono. Use enough mono, about 10 yards, on the reel spool for backing and then tie to the superbraid for spooling. Mono provides a better non-skid grip on the spool since super-lines don’t stretch. Pack the line on with moderate resistance because it can cut into itself and bind up if left too loose when a big fish takes heavy drag. I use a copolymer P-Line or Seaguar fluorocarbon leader from 60 to 100 pounds depending on fish targeted. Fluorocarbon is especially abrasive-resistant and is excellent when going up against the rough jaws of a sailfish, for example.
Some anglers use a mono top shot of 50 yards or more to add cushion to the line system.
I prefer to use only a four to six- foot leader and rely on “bowing” to an active or jumping fish or backing off on the drag pressure at critical times to provide a cushion. All connections are tied with the “Tony Pena Spectra Knot” (similar to a Roddy Hays knot), which is a low profile, 100-percent knot that can be cast through levelwind openings and rod guides. A Uniknot-to- Uniknot splice is also recommended.
Most reel and superline manufacturers suggest that anglers set drags at normal settings even when using stronger lines. I appreciate the advice but I routinely power-up with drag settings of at least 30 percent of the weakest line component, which means 15 pounds of drag with 50-pound line. This added pressure has great advantages when working coral reef or rugged shorelines because it gives better stopping power and reduces cutoffs. Pelagic, blue water game fish usually don’t have structures to cut you off on so lighter drags can be used to some extent. Too light a drag can get an angler spooled so it’s important to know the capability of your reel to handle an effective pressure setting.
Superbraids have no “memory” and are extremely limp, making them easy to cast. Their thin diameter helps reduce wind resistance, which improves distance. The lack of stretch is great for working poppers because the lures will respond instantly to minimal rod movement. Superbraids are hard to cut with standard nail clippers. Sharp scissors or metal bladed Fiskars found in stationary or general merchandise stores work well. One note of caution: Superbraids are so thin and strong that they can easily cut bare skin. Never wrap it around your bare hands or fingers under pressure. If you have to pull line to check your drag use gloves, loop it to a scale or grab only the leader portion.
With recent improvements in tackle, line and the selection of poppers to choose from, anglers can be more successful in deep water pelagic sportfishing than ever before.
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The Roving Angler