PERFECTING POPPERS AND STICKBAITS
Calm surface waters are ideal for most popping styles because conditions won’t hamper your ability to work the plug. Rough water, however, can cause a popper with a large head to tumble in the troughs. Popper fishing really thrives with two types of fish species.
“For me, it’s aggressively feeding fish on the move, or deeper-holding fish with the potential to launch into aggressive feeding behavior,” says Capt. Jack Sprengel, of East Coast Charters in Rhode Island. “Aggressively feeding fish include tunas, jacks and even bluefish, while the explosive strikers that hold in current or orient to structure comprise species like cubera snapper, wahoo and mahimahi.”
Capt. Jamie Thinnes, of Seasons Sportfishing in San Diego, California, targets bluefin tuna from 40 to 70 pounds at the surface when his local waters hit 66 to 68 degrees.
“The ‘foamers’ are those tuna attacking anchovies at the surface,” says Thinnes. “‘Puddler’ tuna also hang at the surface, creating ripples but not necessarily eating. Feeding tuna hit plugs almost immediately, destroying the lure when it hits the surface.”
Thinnes watches for followers behind surface lures such as the Shimano Coltsniper. If he gets bumped on the retrieve, he’ll speed up the lure even faster. No bites at all are a sign the retrieve is too fast, or the tuna are simply puddling at the surface.
Sprengel tries to emulate the speed of fleeing baitfish. “The key with [surface feeders] is for the lure to hit the water moving, consistent with your patterned speed,” says Sprengel. “Slow it down or speed it up in a pattern; once you get their attention, keep it there.”
When casting a popper near structure, start the retrieve with long, deep sweeps of the rod, quickly taking up the slack line. The long, deep sweeps are perfect for grabbing the attention of the deeper-holding or structure-oriented fish, and often result in a large swirl behind your plug.
“Once a large boil forms behind the lure, begin a series of fast, erratic chops, acting like an injured or disoriented baitfish, and you will likely be rewarded with a classic, full-body breach [attack],” says Sprengel.
A lure is only as effective as the angler applying the action. Be creative and mix up retrieves until you fool fish into striking. If fish are receptive, you might be able to work the bait without much thought. But when fish get picky, that’s the time to try to figure out necessary changes in how you retrieve your lures.
Often, big tuna want a stickbait like this (above) cranked at top speed across the surface, but at times, stickbaits and, particularly, poppers (right) will be most effective when paused intermittently.