“Surface Lures Add Excitement To An Anglers Arsenal”
One indication that popping is rapidly becoming a popular fishing style is when the long range crowd starts getting involved. Reputed to be somewhat fanatical and focused only on live-baiting big yellowfin tuna, even they are taking some time to experience this fun sport. Ken Sievers at Fisherman’s Landing in San Diego is one of them. “I’ve been on about 15 of these long range tuna trips but I’ve gotta tell you about this last on, “ relates Sievers. “We went to Clipperton Atoll on the “Shogun” last April because the Revillas' were shut down. We were looking for big tuna but it was pretty slow. Captain Bruce Smith backed the boat up close to the steep shoreline and we started casting Mr. Pili sized poppers and Surface Cruisers. The bluestar jacks (a.k.a. bluefin trevally) went wild. It’s the most fun I ever had fishing anywhere. I like to see it happen. I like to see the boil. Surface strikes are exciting and bluestars make a heckuva boil. You just cast and crank and here they come. Captain Norm Kagawa got the biggest one about 18 pounds but they are strong fighters for their size. That was the first time popping that far south for me. Drew Grindley, who makes trolling lures and Seastrike Jigs, caught a 241-pound tuna on the trip but he said the popping was a high point of the trip,” says Sievers.
Such enthusiasm is not unusual when it comes to popping. There is something about surface – striking gamefish that gets the adrenaline going and poppers elicit some terrific strikes. One caution: not all gamefish will readily come to the surface so don’t get discouraged if your effort is not rewarded when casting to your favorite quarry or location back home. A general rule is “the warmer the water the better the popping”.
In Southern California where most of the yellowfin tuna are schoolies in the 15 – to 30 – pound range, they constitute a superior popping species along with dorado that venture north in warm-water seasons. At times, yellowtail, bonito, barracuda, and kelp bass will also take poppers. It is much more productive, however, to travel south for the most reliable surface action. The tropical zones hold the most gamefish species that are likely to chase a popper. In fact, in lower latitudes such as Panama even “bottom” species such as amberjack and cubera (dog) snapper will readily come to the surface after a popper on a year round basis. In sub-tropical Baja Sur, popping is usually better during the late spring to fall months. Roosterfish, sierra, yellowtail, jack crevalle, yellowfin tuna, dorado, black skipjack, cubera snapper and mullet snapper are some popular targets.
Popping is considered a “light to medium tackle” sport for good reason. Big fish eat poppers, including yellowfin tuna and billfish. The only problem is that making good repeated casts with heavier tackle can be difficult. Trolling these lures with tackle matched to larger pelagics would certainly get hookups but would not be considered “ popping” by devotees of this method. Fishing blue water in particular can create mismatches. During July 2001, I was casting poppers alongside a reef in the Marshall Islands when birds and bait showers got my attention only a hundred yards offshore. Getting on the spot quickly we launched our poppers to the edge of the frenzy and hooked up quickly – with yellowfin tuna well over 100 pounds. The Shimano Calcutta 400’s were spooled before we could say it was a bad idea to cast poppers in this situation where deep water and big pelagics are found so close to tropical atolls.
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. Most will float or at least sink very slowly. Popular brands include the PILI (Pacific Island Lure Innovations) Braid, Klassen, YoZuri, Gibbs Pencil Popper, Cotton Cordell, RFK, R & W, Heddon, Lee Sisson, Bagley, Mako and Williamson. 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.
TECHNIQUE AND BALANCED TACKLE
The classic popper is 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. If you can cast a lure you can pop. It is not a difficult style of fishing and can be mastered quickly by most anglers.
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 splash, 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. Some lures, like the Klassen Ranger have tapered fronts and should be cranked fast to imitate a skittering baitfish.
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 1 1/2 ounces because the larger rod and reel combinations necessary to do battle will not cast ultra-light lures very well.
Conventional and spinning 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. With medium casting tackle, most anglers should be able to handle most gamefish although large blue and black marlin and giant tuna would be pushing this style of fishing well beyond its design.
The levelwind feature is important since these plugs are more efficiently worked with one hand cupping the reel seat and side plate of the reel while turning the handle with the other hand. When using cup-faced poppers 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.
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. Most of 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. Shore anglers usually prefer spinning tackle and longer rods exceeding ten feet to maximize casting distance.
Also, for lures lighter than one-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 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.
Start with about 10 yards of mono 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. Most 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. When using fluorocarbon above 80 pounds I prefer to use crimp sleeve connections rather than knots due to the stiff nature of these lines. For live bait casting to striped marlin, for example, a three-foot leader of 80 –to 100- pound fluorocarbon with a crimped connection to the main leader works well and doesn’t have to run through the rod guide.
Most reel and superline manufacturers suggest that anglers set drags at normal settings even when using stronger lines, however, many anglers 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 casting 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 have more fun and better results with this style of fishing than ever before. Just remember that the further you go south the better it gets.
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The Roving Angler