In the world of inshore sportfishing nothing exceeds the thrill of seeing a roosterfish track down and slam a surface popper. Even veteran anglers who’ve caught many roosters, known as Pez Gallo or Papagayo in Spanish, with traditional live bait methods remark about what they’ve been missing after enticing one on a popper. The reasons for this growing popularity with the popper-style of fishing are very simple. First of all, there is extra gratification for the angler in catching a roosterfish this way because it’s a direct match-up between fish and angler. There is something special about getting such a notoriously hard-to-catch gamefish as the roosterfish to take a piece of plastic being worked solely by the angler. It’s a very personal and hands-on experience. Additionally, its a very visual experience which will turn-on even the most jaded angler. The lures themselves are always visible which is a novelty by itself. They present an attractive display by mimicking a natural prey species in distress or fleeing quickly in survival mode depending on how you manipulate the retrieve. Surface lures also mean surface strikes. Watching a rooster come up behind a lure you’re reeling in is pure excitement. If you’re lucky it will even leap repeatedly like a marlin when hooked which is a display not often seen when using live bait or deep-running lures. Fighting a roosterfish after the thrill of the hookup is almost anti-climactic.
THE POPPING PROCESS 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 PILI (Pacific Island Lure Innovations) which was first produced in a backyard garage in Hawaii and has since gone into full production. Klassen Klassic Poppper, Braid Pop Dancer, Yo-Zuri, Gibbs Pencil Popper, Cotton Cordell, RFK, R & W, Heddon, Lee Sisson, Bagley, 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 gamefish. These lures are intended to imitate an injured or escaping baitfish struggling on the surface which can be appealing to a roosterfish.
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 seems to help attract roosterfish. I prefer to make long casts unless aiming for nearby breaking fish or structure. Long casts improve 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 roosters 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.
Roosterfish tend to prefer a faster swim and less popping than more sedentary nearshore species such as pargo. Sea conditions also influence the angler. Calm, flat 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 roosterfish select poppers that weigh at least 1 ½ ounces because the larger rod and reel combinations necessary to do battle will not cast ultra-light lures very well. The only modifications I make to some lures is to replace the standard treble hooks with single Siwash-style hooks. Some hooks are attached with split rings so it’s a good idea to purchase split ring pliers to facilitate removal. Use open-eye hooks in the 5/0 to 7/0 sizes and crimp them direct to the lure rings. Pack a selection of nail polish colors to customize lures if a “hot” color is found to work best.
Tackle designed for 20- to 40-pound line is a good choice for most situations. There is an ongoing revolution in light tackle level wind reels with manufacturers now producing larger sizes, better gearing and tougher, smoother drag systems.
The level wind 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 level-wind bar destroys the balance, distracts the anglers 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 include 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 ¾-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 roosters. Large spinning rigs are favored when surf fishing since they are more capable of delivering relatively light lures a good distance beyond the breaking waves and into a prevailing seabreeze. Jeff Klassen, a charter skipper and guide at Los Cabos, has been successful targeting roosterfish from the beach with his custom poppers and using spinning tackle.
The advent of super braids has given anglers another tool to use to our advantage. The best feature is the line strength to diameter ratio. A 20-pound Power Pro Spectra® line, for example, has the approximate diameter of six-pound monofilament. A 50-pound section is about the size of 12-pound mono and 100-pound is comparable to 20-pound mono. Anglers can add tremendous strength and line capacity with your current tackle by spooling with a super braid. I put 500 yards of 35- and 50-pound Power Pro ® on my Shimano 400 and 700 reels, respectively, which give me better casting distance, fewer backlashes and more power to control a big fish in tough environments.
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 superlines 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 roosterfish if the popper is taken deeply. 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 4- to 6- 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 Peña Spectra Knot” which is a low profile, 100-percent knot that can be cast through level-wind openings and rod guides. A Uniknot-to-Uniknot splice is also effective.
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.
ROOSTERFISH TRICKS AND TALES In some places, like Coiba Island, Panama, anglers score well on trophy-sized roosterfish simply by blind casting among the rocky and sandy shorelines. These roosterfish are cruising in search of a meal and must compete with aggressive cubera snapper (pargo), bluefin trevally, jack crevalle and other species. It’s “first come- first served” and the roosters will seize the opportunity to grab a surface popper in such a habitat. In other areas, blind casting may produce a sore arm before it produces a rooster because of fewer numbers of fish or their reluctance to take a surface lure. It’s a good standard practice to troll live bait for roosterfish while keeping popping tackle rigged and ready to go. Roosters can be located and then teased with live bait, or rigged dead bait as a second choice, while the angler casts a popper to the excited fish. Crews that are experienced in teasing sailfish for fly fishermen can use much of the same technique when teasing roosterfish.
Opportunistic anglers can take advantage of rare feeding frenzies by getting on the spot fast and casting poppers into the melee before the roosters disappear. Finding bait concentrations in roosterfish habitat is worth hanging around because roosters can show quickly. My first popper-caught rooster in July of 1988 was taken close to the beach at the Las Arenas Lighthouse by staying near dense schools of sardinas and ballyhoo (California halfbeak) until the roosters arrived to feed. There was total mayhem as bait busted the surface, frigate birds and pelicans dove close to our heads as the lures and bait from several pangas flew in chaotic directions. My brand-new pink PILI popper landed in about two-feet of water where a rooster had cornered some bait and as I popped it once it was slammed hard. That 22-pound roosterfish jump-started my popping craze. It was also the first rooster that made spirited jumps undoubtedly encouraged by the lightweight irritant dangling from its jaw.
Roosterfish can jump. I’ve had many roosters clear the water with a popper but not like the one I hooked near a rock shelf protruding into the surfline between Cabo Matapalo and Punta Salsipuedes, Costa Rica, on May 18, 1989. As huge swells exploded on the vertical ledge, I made a long cast to the base of the wall and the PILI was quickly engulfed. A huge rooster in the 70- pound class shot up like a missile, almost beaching itself on top of the ledge about ten-feet up. This fish made one magnificent leap after another. My fishing partner Joel De Necochea even kept a loud count of the incredibly high, graceful jumps as if performed in slow motion until it reached a total of nine before throwing the lure.
In Panama, a tropical country rich in roosterfish, I’ve had more quality popping action than anyplace. It is unusual to encounter small fish here. The roosters, especially at Coiba Island, average 30 to 50 pounds and they strike poppers with a vengeance. Due to having a plethora of reliable roosterfish hangouts, anglers can cast a few poppers in transit to and from the billfish grounds and still have a good chance of being successful. On January 2, 1997, Linda Niles released a 500- pound black marlin, a 250- pound yellowfin tuna and several sailfish on the Hannibal Bank offshore of Coiba. On the way back to the Coiba Explorer mothership anchorage, we stopped at Punta Adelarda to pop a big rock near the point. On her first cast a big fish boiled on the popper and for nearly an hour the unseen fish weaved through boiler rocks and reefs before reaching open water more than one-half mile from the hook-up spot. It’s a good thing roosters don’t dive into rocks like a pargo will. As the sun was setting the silver-sided roosterfish came within view. Exhausted by the light tackle battle, the 50- pound class rooster was carefully released to a round of applause capping an eventful day.
WHERE AND WHEN TO GO Panama (all year) Coiba Island Region: Contact Coiba Explorer II (800) 733-4742; Ladronnes Island Region: Contact Las Olas Resort (800) 346-1329; Tuna Coast: Contact Cass Tours (800) 593-6510; Herndon Charters e-mail: email@example.com Rio Negro Sport Fishing Lodge (305) 294-0603 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Piñas Bay: Contact Tropic Star Lodge (800) 682-3424 Costa Rica (all year) Gulf of Papagayo: Contact Rod and Reel Adventures (800) 356-6982; Adventure Sportfishing (800) 356-2533 Guatemala (all year) Ixtapa Region: Contact Artmarina (305) 663-3553 Puerto San Jose Region: Contact Omega/Raddison (800) 638-7405 Mexico Baja Sur (May to August): Contact Las Arenas Resort (888) 644-7376; Cass Tours (800) 593-6510; Klassen Sportfishing (360) 402-3474 or http://jeffklassenfishing.com; Rod and Reel Adventures (800) 356-6982; Lynn Rose Tours (800) 525-9527; Roldan’s Tailhunter (877) 825-8802; Anglers Center (949) 496-0960 or (800) 521-2281 Mainland Mazatlan (June to November): Contact Marina El Cid (800) 525-1925 Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo (all year): Contact Ixtapa Sportfishing Charters (570) 688-9466 or http://ixtapasportfishing.com Cortez Yacht Charters (619) 469-4255 Huatulco (all year): Contact VIP Fleet (52) 958-71115 or e-mail: email@example.com