Bass, bluegill, and surface poppers – now is the time
By JIM MATTHEWS
I took all my fly rods and reels out of their cases this week and cleaned them up and put on fresh leaders. I did an inventory of my bluegill and bass popping bugs, and dug out the boxes with shallow-water streamers and nymphs. Then I found my fly-tying kit and unpacked it on my fly-tying desk to make more flies where gaps existed in my line-up of faux fish meals. Then out came the wood and glue and paints.
Tying flies and making wooden popping bugs is nearly as engrossing as fishing them, and while I will fish subsurface patterns, I prefer to have those flies floating so I can see the strike. Most fly-tyers don’t make wooden bug patterns because it is more like woodworking than fly-tying. We will buy pre-made foam heads and glue them on a hook and then tie the rest of the pattern, or we will spin deer hair into thick whorls and them trim them to shape. That’s still traditional fly-tying. Shaping cork, balsa, or other wood, grooving it for the hook, gluing the hook in place, and then laying down layers of paints is a multi-step process done over time – usually days of time. You do poppers in steps and batches; you tie most flies one at a time from start to finish.
A single popper will have more time invested in its completion than even an elaborately-tied fly, but the actual time per popper probably isn’t more than double that invested in a fly. The prep-time, glue- and paint-drying time, and then the final tying make it seem like it takes weeks to get a finished product. I tie regular flies in between completing the steps in popper making this time of year, but that is filling the time between poppers.
When I fish with one of my own home-made poppers, there is a great sense of pride, especially if I’ve used wood cut in the field and shaped from scratch. (I like Mexican elder and California buckeye, woods that are light and fun to work.) I’ve tied my own flies since I was 11 or 12 years old, and catching fish on those seems commonplace, normal. While I’ve made my own popping bugs for a few years now, it is still a source of great chest-swelling when I watch a bass or bluegill slam my popper and then see the lure stuck in the lip when it’s landed. I have been looking forward to this time of year for months.
As the bass and bluegill spawns wind down and the water in local lakes continues to warm up, the metabolisms of all warmwater species speed up, mandating they feed with more frequency and eat a greater volume of food. The rigors of spawning drain their systems and they go on feeding sprees to put back on weight and improve their condition. In short, they get active. Even I can catch them this time of year.
I am hardly a snob fly-fisherman. I grew up fishing bait and conventional lures for trout and panfish, and still use all of my spinning and conventional gear. Heaven forbid my fly-fishing friends read this, but I also will kill and eat fish where I know the resource can handle the harvest. I even annoy some fly-anglers by calling their strike indicators “bobbers.” Why clutter up the language with a snooty jargon, let’s just call them by their real, historic name. Still, where some people might think I’m a snob is my insistence on pretty much only fishing surface patterns or near-surface flies when fly-fishing. The reality is simply that I relish the surface strike, watching the fish take the fly or popper, and that there is simply no better gear for presenting surface or near-surface lures than fly tackle.
Some will argue with that contention, but all we have to do is fish from the same boat one time when you can see the surface strikes or fish taking natural food on the top. The reason is simply: A fly-fisherman can put his fly or popper on a new spot or back to the same spot instantly. Conventional gear anglers have to reel in and re-cast. Fly anglers power the line and fly off the water and put it right back down in a two-stroke cast. It takes less time that it took you to read that sentence.
I’ll never forget a spring day in a bass boat during a pretty wide open bite. I was catching a few few fish, but I was being back-seated pretty badly as we hurled spinnerbaits and buzzbaits toward the best spots in flooded brush. I put the baitcaster away and rigged up a fly-rod with a big bass bug, and started fishing that. My friend was missing quite a few fish, jerking the bait away from the bass on the strike, and the fish would usually linger on the surface looking around for the bait it had just hammered. It would take my friend 10 or15 seconds to reel the lure back to the boat and make another cast. Once I switched to the fly rod, each time my partner missed a fish and starting reeling frantically to recast, I'd calmly lift the bug out of the water and slap it right down on top of the bass he missed. Instantly. Most times the bass ate my bug as soon as it swatted down on the water. Being back-seated turned into a good day. It also created a new fly-rod angler.
While I’ve fished for trout all over the West and love the country where trout survive, if you forced me to pick a lifetime of fishing for one type of fish, I’d probably pick the sunfish family over the trout and salmon family. Largemouth, smallmouth, bluegill, redear, and pumpkinseed would happily fill my days – and they would fill them in warmer environments. I’ve never thought I might freeze to death fishing for bass or bluegill, but there have been days fishing for trout when the idea seemed it could be a reality. The members of the sunfish family all have attitude, if a fish can have attitude, while trout (with the exception of maybe big brown trout) are pretty docile, neurotic characters. I’ve had bass attack my legs while I was wading. Bluegill will glare at you. Trout bolt in terror.
The other bright spot is simply that the bass and bluegill clan are just about everywhere there is year-around water – city park lakes, local reservoirs, even golf course and flood control ponds. You probably have them within 10 or 15 minutes of your house, if not within walking distance.
This time of year, they will be up in the shallows looking for something to eat early and late in the day, perfect for people who work for a living, and need a few minutes to get away. The balm provided by a few bluegill smacking lures on the surface isn’t available at a pharmacy. I’m heading out for an hour or two this evening with a light fly rod and a little box of my popping bugs. My wife made me mow the lawn this morning, and I need this.
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.]