Is there any technique more visually exciting and rewarding than popper fishing?
For a start, you get to decide exactly where to cast your lure amongst some finger-lickin’ territory, largely determine the popper’s movements on the retrieve, and get to see any heart-thumping lead-ups and strikes – which can be spectacular!
At times, big groups of hungry hoodlums charge over, shouldering each other out the way in their eagerness to grab the lure. On other occasions, just one or two fish flash up, creating a big bow wave before engulfing the popper. Or you may see nothing – until a violent detonation of white water replaces your lure.
And, of course, that’s just the beginning; now you must try to wrestle what is usually a large, powerful predator from gnarly and unforgiving territory. Brutal drag pressure is often required, skilful boat handling helps, and luck often plays a bigger role than you’d like, especially when very big fish are encountered. Needless to say, those anglers using inferior tackle usually end up disappointed, as even the best tackle is found wanting at times.
So what will eat a popper? Here in New Zealand, you can’t think of popper fishing without automatically thinking of kingfish, as they are our most common and truly wonderful popper target. Indeed, a competent popper-fisher only rarely fails to elicit some sort of response from any kingfish in the vicinity.
Then there are kahawai, a common and willing by-catch, and, out further, yellowfin tuna and mahimahi are realistic candidates, too – but you’ll need to be lucky to stumble across them. And, for those who like a challenge, striped marlin are also surprisingly enthusiastic popper chasers, although to have a reasonable chance with such big, powerful fish, your poppers will require some customisation, as well as an outfit up to the task required.
Despite the popper’s uses here in New Zealand, it’s in the tropics that their full potential is realised, as they attract a wide range of impressive, hard-fighting species from a variety of locations and situations. Consequently, I’m never without a rigged popper outfit, no matter where we are and what we’re fishing for. And as for those sessions when we’re specifically targeting fish with poppers, I’m in heaven.
Despite differences in the species encountered in New Zealand and the tropical Pacific, popper-fishing outfits are pretty similar, as the basic elements remain the same. Essentially, tackle must cast a large, bulky lure and then control and subdue sizable predators, often in shallow, unforgiving territory. Whether you use a freespool or spinning outfit is up to you, as both have advantages and disadvantages. The keenest popper fishers tend to have both at their disposal.
There’s no doubt about it, a popper rig incorporating a spinning/threadline reel is far easier to use than one with a freespool, and also more effective when casting into a headwind. And once hooked up, with the fish charging around and doing what it can to bust you off, the angler has one less thing to remember, as spinning reels automatically distribute retrieved line evenly on the spool – unlike freespool reels. Better still, the spinning outfit’s design also allows the angler to exert more fish-fighting leverage, as the angler’s hands are not restricted or compromised by line-guiding duties. Finally, these rigs cast more accurately than freespool outfits – a big advantage when success depends on your cast being ‘on the money’.
But there are disadvantages, too. Possibly the biggest hurdle is the price. After all, a large, high quality spinning reel will set you back several hundred dollars, while the best are well in excess of a thousand bucks.
Then there is the problem of guide and tip wraps, which occur due to the line’s spiralling action as it leaves the reel. There’s nothing worse than firing off a cast towards a great looking spot, only for the lure suddenly slow and fall well short – and then see your mate cast and pick up a good fish from this very area while still sorting out your tangle.
Nor am I a fan of a spinning reel’s relatively bulky and heavy construction, which makes it more tiring to use over long periods of time and hinders the angler’s ability to co-ordinate the best possible lure movements during retrieves.
As for the bail-arm, this can be quite a pain, too. The most common problem is a tendency for it to flick back in the midst of a forceful cast, which can be simply embarrassing, but may also result in a lost lure or even tackle damage and/or injury. Also, if a fish crashes the lure immediately upon touchdown – as happens sometimes, especially in the tropics – the line may not have been trapped securely by the bail-roller, and a hurried, reflex strike will flip the bail-arm back open momentarily, preventing any pressure being exerted, and wasting a potential hook-up opportunity.
And don’t even get me started on bail-hinge returns giving up the ghost at the most inopportune times!
So what features should a suitable popper-fishing spin reel have? Basically, it needs the following: a large line capacity; a reasonable rate of retrieve; a drag that is smooth and powerful; and gearing that can endure plenty of hard work.
Line capacity: Although I did remarkably well many years ago using just 15kg nylon (and even 10kg once by mistake!) on my trusty Penn Spinfisher 850SS reel, I certainly feel much more confident with the 37kg braid (which actually breaks over 100lb!) I now use. Its diameter is similar to 15kg nylon, anyway.
As for the length of line required, do the math: competent casters can cast a big popper up to 100m, and a very big giant trevally or kingfish may remove another 100 metres or so of line under heavy drag before being turned or busted off. Then you need a little extra line to cater for those inevitable break-offs. Realistically that adds up to at least 250-300 metres of line, so if your reel’s capacity is a little shy of the mark, consider going down to 24kg braid instead; after all, with a likely actual breaking strain of around 27kg-plus, it’s still got plenty of come-here. (In fact, sometimes the harder you pull, the harder the fish pulls back, so using maximum grunt isn’t always the best strategy. The ‘softly-softly’ technique is another option, but we’ll come to this later in the series.)
Having said that though, 37kg braid is always the best option when practical, because despite rarely utilising the full power available, the line’s extra diameter provides valuable abrasion insurance should it be dragged around rocks and coral bommies. Secondly, it helps to compensate for inefficient and poorly tied knots.
Let me also say here that this is not the time to be sporting and ‘having fun’ with light tackle: there is no benefit in busting big fish off so they’re left trailing tackle.
While your reel won’t always need to exert brutal pressure, there will be times when that is the best strategy. Your line’s breaking strain and the rod’s capabilities largely determine what’s possible, but you should be able to make the most of 24kg line if necessary. Consequently, I find that a reel with 8-13kg drag-pressure capability generally gets the job done.
There are, of course, reels built to exert significantly more pressure – up to 25 kilos or so – but very few people are physically powerful enough to exert this kind of power through a long, powerful rod. Also, it is a rare popper rod that can actually transfer such weight without threatening to pole-vault the angler into the tide.
But the amount of drag pressure isn’t the only item of interest in this area – just how smoothly the line is released is also important. I find the closer the drag is set to its maximum pressure (greatly compacting the drag washers in the process), the more likely the system will chatter, squeal, wear or fail over time. Better then to have a reel offering drag pressures that exceed your needs, so that you can work well within its capabilities for longer and with fewer problems.
A smart retrieval rate is definitely an advantage when popper fishing, as it not only efficiently removes any slack from the line after casting or while working a chugger, it’s also useful when retrieving pencil poppers, which are designed to skitter across the surface, imitating a fleeing baitfish.
However, retrieval rate should not be confused with the reel’s gear ratio, as this is only half the equation, with the spool’s circumference and its line level supplying the remainder. Which is fortunate, because very high ratios – more than 5.2:1, say, on a big spinning reel – tend to be at the expense of winching power, which becomes more effective as the gearing gets lower. Consequently, we’re always looking for the best compromise between gear ratio and spool diameter to give us the best of both worlds, with all sorts of clever ideas and features helping them be as efficient as possible. Basically though, the bigger the circumference of the spool, the lower the ratio can be without losing the necessary line-retrieval speed. That’s why spinning reels, with their bigger spools, don’t need a ratio as high as those required by casting freespool reels.
Of course none of the above matters if your reel doesn’t have gears strong enough for the task. Machine-cut stainless steel seems to be the most popular material used by the better brands these days, as it’s corrosion resistant and strong – important features for a saltwater spinning reel that’s required to smoothly and efficiently transfer pressure from the handle 90 degrees to the reel’s rotating bail-arm, even when under great tension.
Strategically placed ball bearings help, although low quality ones are a liability instead – so be careful of reasonably cheap reels with lots of ball bearings!
Suggested options: The Daiwa Saltiga Expedition Z6500 and Shimano Stella 18000SW/20000SW are commonly believed to be the best popper reels available, and are worth every cent when a big fish bites. However, several other cheaper models appear to be pretty decent candidates as well, including: the Daiwa Sealine Bull 6000; Shimano Saragosa 8000/18000; Shimano Spheros 14000; Okuma VS V80; and the whole Fin Nor Offshore range (OF65, OF75, OF85 and OF95).
A good popper rod requires: plenty of power; an overall length of at least two metres (including a tip that’s strong enough to load up and cast a big popper, but which still ‘folds away’ when a big fish is on, leaving a shorter, very powerful butt section); sufficient good quality guides; and a butt length that provides plenty of leverage when casting, yet is short enough to provide good winching power when hooked up. Also, it should be made of graphite; while there are some excellent fibreglass rods around, graphite can’t be beaten for its combination of lightness and power.
While I’m always on the lookout for a rod that casts poppers great distances and then becomes an efficient fish-fighting tool upon hooking-up, it’s well-nigh impossible for both properties to occur in the same rod. This is because the best casting rods possess power right through to the tip, making them relatively stiff and crowbar-like. Although not a huge disadvantage while battling the fish horizontally, once the fight becomes more vertical it’s a very different story, with the fish using the rod’s unbent length as leverage against the angler. This leads to an increasingly sore back and exhaustion for the angler if the battle’s a long one. Consequently, I’d rather sacrifice a little casting distance for a rod that bends more, so I’m effectively left with a shorter length of rod to fight the fish with.
Look for a rod butt that’s long enough to generate a decent cast, but not so long you can’t whack it into your rod-holder belt and wind the reel handle hard and effectively.
As already mentioned, the rod needs to be gutsy; from a practical point of view this means handling maximum drag settings suitable for 24kg line (around 12-13kg minimum).
A spinning rod’s guides must be large enough in diameter to smoothly collect and channel the spiralling line coming off the reel’s spool during the cast. Correct placement of the first (butt) guide will also make a big difference to the amount of line slap and the number of guide wraps generated throughout the cast, enabling greater distances to be achieved. They must also be able to distribute the pressure effectively when fighting fish. Just as importantly, the last three or four guides, as well as the tip, should be slightly bigger in circumference than usual, or the leader joining knot/splice can smash the inserts out over time.
Although several different types of guides will handle the task – for a while, anyway – it’s better to have the best possible if serious about your popper fishing. Ideally, this means the super-smooth Fuji silicon carbide guides, as they are light in weight, structurally strong and consistently high quality.
Potential rod options: These include the Shimano T-Curve Bluewater spin 1524, the Daiwa Monster Mesh 702MHS/832PS and the locally produced Synit Terra Firma. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Carpenter and Smith range, as many consider them to be the very best – with prices to match. I believe that Yeehaa Fishing Tackle in Panmure, Auckland, occasionally gets some in, including the famous Smith’s ‘Komodo Dragon’.
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