Poppers in the North

Fishing with Poppers for pelagics might look easy, but as Ben Knaggs explains it can be a little tricky. He gives some great advice for the techniques to use and the size of the popper.

Pelagic fish like longtail, mack and yellowfin tuna are willing popper eaters too. The best poppers for these fish are those which are easy to cast long distances.

Pelagic fish like longtail, mack and yellowfin tuna are willing popper eaters too. The best poppers for these fish are those which are easy to cast long distances.

I guess for most Aussie anglers, one of the real attractions of fishing our country’s northern waters is that the fish species that live there are ultra-aggressive. While this perception is in reality a little inflated, that the common saltwater species calling the top part of Australia home are easily excitable and willing lure eaters, is for the most part true. This is particularly the case in remote and little fished areas – which is almost the definition of northern Western Australia anywhere from Shark Bay northwards. Healthy fish stocks, low fishing pressure and brutal predatory fish species through this massive swathe of coast is a recipe for thrilling lure fishing, and there’s no more stimulating approach to this hot lure flicking action that working surface poppers for our tropical brawlers.

Nothing really beats the thrill of seeing a fired up fish race up and nail a popper off the surface. It’s entirely visual fishing, and the kind of thing that hopelessly addicts people like you and me to our wonderful sport. Surface poppers will account for a long list of fish species throughout northern WA and the rest of tropical Australia for that matter, although there are a few tricks to getting best results from these unique lure types.

That characteristic cupped face is what differentiates a popper (top) from a surface stickbait (bottom).

That characteristic cupped face is what differentiates a popper (top) from a surface stickbait (bottom).

Pick your Poppers

As with all lure types nowadays, there are literally hundreds of different popper designs, shapes and sizes available. Some are absolute fish catching weapons; others just take up tackle box space.

Now before we delve into the best types of surface offerings for northern species, I must first make mention here that we are talking about poppers in particular here – those lures that feature a cupped or flat face designed to trap air, stray water and ‘bloop’ across the surface when worked by the angler. Similar surface lures that lack this face arrangement are what we call surface stickbaits, and such a different (and deadly) lure type that they demand their own examination.

So with that in mind, we can have a look at some of the styles of surface popper you should not leave home without when fishing the North West. Exactly which popper type to fish is largely decided by the fish species you’re chasing. Through coastal waters or when fishing the shoreline, the main targets are queenfish and various trevally species such as, but by no means limited to, brassies, gold-spot, big-eye and small giant trevally. These fish respond best to poppers that can be worked relatively quickly, so think relatively small (8-15cm) poppers with small cup faces that can be both skittered across the surface and slowed down to produce a small but defined ‘blooping’ action.

In the estuaries where barra and mangrove jack are the predominate popper eaters, the best surface poppers are those that can be worked slowly, producing a loud and splashy ‘bloop’ with very little movement so that they stay in what may be a small strikezone (snags, feeder creek mouths etc) for as long as possible on each retrieve. Again, small-ish poppers below 15cms long will draw more strikes in the estuaries.

Queenfish are incorrigible surface lure eaters and one of the primary targets when popper fishing the north. Despite appearances though, smaller poppers under 15cms long are best for these fish.

Queenfish are incorrigible surface lure eaters and one of the primary targets when popper fishing the north. Despite appearances though, smaller poppers under 15cms long are best for these fish.

Heading offshore, shallow reef dwelling species like spangled emperor and coral trout love poppers too, and are best targeted with heavily cupped face or jetted poppers that will produce enough noise and draw these fish up from their reefy lairs. Be sure to beef up hooks and split rings on any poppers fished for these species over coral country as the near locked drag fights required to keep these fish away from the coral will quickly destroy average terminals.

On the weather edge of fringing reefs and offshore islands, thumping, bucket list giant trevally are prime popper targets, along with red bass and the odd big cod or mega coral trout. Big, heavily buoyant, deeply scooped face poppers that have the weight to cast a long way and can move a lot of water are the go here, and it almost goes without saying these need to be retro-fitted with virtually indestructible terminals to handle lock-up, drag-out fights with these strong jawed fish.

The key to fooling mangrove jacks into hitting small poppers is to incorporate plenty of long pauses into your retrieve.

The key to fooling mangrove jacks into hitting small poppers is to incorporate plenty of long pauses into your retrieve.

Then there are less conventional, pelagic popper targets like longtail, yellowfin and mack tuna, and Spanish mackerel. Weight for casting distance is the key to a good popper for these fast moving and flighty species, and poppers with small faces that can quickly skitter across the surface will do the most damage on these fish.

As you may have ascertained from much of the above, a good general rule to stick to is to remain conservative with the size of popper you fish. A lot of fishos tend to go overboard with popper size, I guess thinking that these aggressive northern species like a big target. But often a more modest offering will get the most bites. Because of the disturbance a popper creates on the water surface, even a small lure will makes a solid target that is capable of attracting attention from a long way off.

Popper fishing doesn’t get much more high octane than casting the reef edges for giant trevally.

Popper fishing doesn’t get much more high octane than casting the reef edges for giant trevally.

Putting them to Work

This is where many folks fall down with their popper fishing. Working a popper seems completely straightforward at first blush, but in actual fact requires a little skill. Attracting our aggressive northern species with a popper is relatively easy, but actually convincing them to eat that piece of plastic or wood noisily blundering across the surface is another matter.

There are two basic ways to work any popper – either employ a continual pulsing retrieve to get the lure splashing across the surface or use long sweeps of the rod tip to make the lure ‘bloop’ loudly before pausing and repeating. The mistake many fishos make is to get carried away ‘blooping’ their popper. Yes, this retrieve will attract fish and trigger strikes, but it can also scare off fish that are a little cautious.

As you can see from the hook hold location on this queenfish, attacks on poppers from these aggressive northern species are often quite frenzied. Slowing your retrieve down as the fish is about to strike can help cut down on missed hits and pulled hooks.

As you can see from the hook hold location on this queenfish, attacks on poppers from these aggressive northern species are often quite frenzied. Slowing your retrieve down as the fish is about to strike can help cut down on missed hits and pulled hooks.

A good rule of thumb to keep in mind when popper fishing is the rougher or more discoloured the water, the more noise your popper should make. So if you’re fishing low vis water (say in a muddied up estuary) or in washing machine like current (on the weather edge of a fringing reef for example), very aggressive, heavy ‘bloops’ of the popper may be needed to attract fish. At the fine end of this scale though in calm, clear water, the best approach will usually be short, subtle ‘bloops’ that won’t spook any fish that rise to the popper.

Another common mistake is fishing a popper too fast. As with many other lure types, the pause after a lure has moved is often when fish will strike, so be sure to throw in plenty of pauses in your retrieve to give following fish a chance to crunch the lure. Even when you have a fired up fish chasing your popper, it’s worth slowing down the retrieve to allow the fish to eat it. A lot of attacks our aggressive northern fish species make on surface lures are quite frenzied, so it’s common for them to completely miss the lure. Therefore, slowing things down once a fish is right on your lure lessens the incidence of missed strikes and pulled hooks.

Loud, splashy poppers that can be worked really slowly are best for dirty water predators like barra.

Loud, splashy poppers that can be worked really slowly are best for dirty water predators like barra.

Last of all, don’t be afraid to mix up your retrieves. If a slow, blooping action isn’t scoring strikes, try a continual retrieve, interspersed with the odd pause and bloop. Fishing poppers for our glorious northern sportfish is all about having fun, so experiment to trigger some of those unforgettable surface explosions.

Ben Knaggs

About Ben Knaggs

Born and bred in South Australia, Ben’s love of fishing developed from a very early age and evolved to become an obsession which would ultimately shape his life. Actively involved in fishing related journalism from his mid teens, Ben has written articles for most Australian fishing titles and served as editor of Saltwater Fishing magazine for eight years.

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