Fly fishing with poppers: everything you need to know

26th of December 2022

There is nothing quite as exciting as fly fishing with poppers. Seeing a fish come and inhale your popper off the surface is just awesome. The take is so aggressive that it will leave your knees shaking as you set the hook! 

If you have never fly fished with poppers before: there is more to it than meets the eye, and getting it right is key to your success. 

Let's run through everything you need to know about fly fishing with poppers from what weight rod to use and what species you can go after, to the different ways to fish popper. 

How to fly fish with poppers 

What is a popper and how do they work? 

Most of you probably already know what a popper fly is but, for those who don’t, let’s run through it quickly. 

A popper is a fly that floats on the surface. It comes with a foam, plastic, or spun deer hair popping head that “pops” as you strip it through the water. Behind the popping head is a tail tied with feathers, bunny, or bucktail to give it the profile of a bait fish, insect or frog. 

From below, a popper has the profile of a fish’s natural prey. As you strip a popper across the surface, the head catches the water creating a noise and leaving a bubble trail. 

The popping sound and bubble trail attracts fish from afar. Once a fish sees the popper’s profile from below combined with the surface commotion, it can’t help but aggressively grab it off the surface. 

What fish species can you fly fish for with poppers?

There are quite a few different freshwater and saltwater fish species you can catch while popping with a fly rod:

In freshwater:

  • Trout 
  • Pike 
  • Muskie
  • Bass 
  • Chub
  • Asp
  • Perch 

In saltwater:

  • Stripers 
  • Bluefish
  • Tarpon
  • Snook
  • Giant Trevally 
  • Bluefin Trevally 
  • Barracuda 
  • Sharks 
  • Boha Snapper
  • Dorado 
  • Yellowfin Tuna 

What popper fly for which species? 

Poppers come in a range of different designs. Your first step to success is choosing the right popper for the right species. 

There are two main factors to consider when picking a popping fly - size and what it imitates. 

What size popper do I need? 

Try and match the size of the popper to the size of the fish you are wanting to catch. For trout, chub, asp and perch, sizes 6, 8, and 10 are perfect. You can also take it up a notch and use size 2 and 1/0 to tempt a larger fish.

When going after bass, pike, and muskie, size 2 and 1/0 popper flies are perfect. You can up it to size 2/0 or 4/0 for bigger pike and muskie.

For saltwater species, a range of sizes from 3/0 to 6/0 is perfect. Change the size depending on the species you are after. Stripers love a 3/0 whereas GTs love a big 6/0. 

What popper imitations should I have in my box?

Generally speaking, a popper can only imitate a few things including baitfish, frogs, and insects. The key is using the right imitation for the right species, matching the hatch, as we always do in fly fishing. 

Smaller baitfish and insect poppers are great for the likes of trout and perch. Frog poppers and medium baitfish poppers are great for bass, pike and muskie. Big bait fish poppers are best for saltwater species. 

It is always best to have a range of imitations and sizes. We would recommend having a dedicated popper fly box for both freshwater and saltwater so you are never caught short on the water. 

What weight fly rod do you need to fish poppers? 

Poppers are large heavy flies. They are heavier than most other flies you will be used to casting, and due to their large head, they also create a lot of air resistance when you cast. 

This means you will need a heavier weight fly rod to create enough line speed to cast them long distances. But, the weight of the rod you should use depends on just how big the popper is, which in turn, depends on what species you are going after. 

Here is a general guide for what rod to use by species:

  • Trout, chub, perch, and asp - use a  6 or 7 wt fly rod
  • Bass - use a 7 or 8 wt fly rod 
  • Big pike, and muskie - use a 8 or 9 wt fly rod 
  • Sea bass - use a 8 or 9wt fly rod
  • Stripers, snook, and bluefish - use a 10 wt fly rod 
  • All other big saltwater species - usa a 12 wt fly rod 

How to pop with a fly rod 

There are quite a few steps to fly fishing correctly with a popper. It starts with the cast and ends with setting the hook. Let’s run through all the steps one by one. 

How and where to cast 

When casting a popper, you have to manage the air-resistance and weight of the fly as well as wind direction. Ideally, you want the wind behind you or coming over your non casting shoulder. 

Use a double haul to create line speed, and finish your cast high at around 10 o’clock if the wind is behind or to the side of you. This lets the wind catch your popper and will turn it over beautifully. 

When casting into the wind use a double haul and tuck your elbow into your ribs. This gives you tight loops and a lot of line speed to punch through the wind with. End low around 9 o’clock. 

Always cast where you think the fish are. Deep river banks, underwater structures, drop offs, ledges, and mangrove edges are all great places to start. 

The Pop 

You can either fish a popper subtly or very noisily. Subtle approaches work best with insect poppers whereas, with a frog or baitfish popper, you want to make a lot of noise. 

The subtle approach 

Cast out your fly and leave it on the surface for 5 seconds. Make a short strip with your rod tip close to the water so the fly twitches and makes some noise. Leave it again for 5 seconds and repeat. 

The loud approach

This involves making medium length strips at speed while your rod tip is just in the water. This ensures the popping head catches the water and makes a large “pop” to attract the fish. Pause for 2-3 seconds between each strip. 

To make even more noise, push your rod tip down as you strip. This makes a lot of noise and is excellent for GTs. 

The eat and setting the hook 

More often than not, a fish will eat the popper on the pause, but they often miss it too. We would advise to strip-set every fish on a popper, whether it is a trout or a GT. 

By strip-setting, if the fish misses the popper when you set the hook, you have just popped it again, enticing it to come back. 

Once it inhales the popper, wait a second for it to have it in its mouth. Strip your line with your rod down to set the hook, and it is game on. 

Tight lines!

Image in the header: Gandalf the White from Backwater Fly Fishing

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