On Wednesday afternoon I was guiding a couple anglers on the St. Joseph River just over the state line in Michigan. We were after smallmouth bass primarily, but unfeisty rock bass, tasty walleye and northern pike occasionally engulfed flies as well. The pike occasionally broke off by biting through the relatively light tippet material we were using.
When smallmouth key on the surface and the popper bite kicks in, it doesn’t get much better. There are very few fishing opportunities in the Michiana region better than this as far as I’m concerned. The perfect set-up is a six-weight fly rod and a floating line with a Boogle Bug.
By “popping” the fly with quick twitch of the rod tip and stripping a little line in at the same time, the concave face of the cork fly pops in the water. This creates not only a surface disturbance but a sonic signature as well. The more forceful the “pop” the louder and more obvious the presentation. Interestingly, the vast majority of the time smallmouth hit surface flies and lures when they motionless, after the pop.
This is where most anglers screw things up; they cannot stand to just let the popper drift along motionless. Day in and day out you will hear me say “Let it sit…don’t move it." Most of the time after a few casts anglers will increase the rate of pop and I’ll have to remind them again.
On the contrary, toothy species such as pike and musky prefer surface lures and flies to be almost perpetually moving.
The first time I caught a musky on a surface fly was in Northern Wisconsin. I had a big foam-bodied popper in my box that was designed for saltwater fishing. The exact fly was my go to for big largemouth at Cranberry Lake in Mill Creek. Fished on a ten or eleven weight fly rod, this popper is capable of creating a splash that can easily be seen and heard by fish in deep water or raging rivers.
It was not unusual for six to nine-pound largemouth to come straight to the surface for this presentation in eight feet of water at Cranberry Lake during the direct sun of midday. Those big girls would be buried as deep as they could go on the bottom, often in heavy vegetation but that fly would coax them all the way to the surface. It was amazing.
It was the same presentation as the smallmouth on the St. Joe — one or two big bumps of the popper and then let it sit. On the lake, I would often count to 10 before popping again. It wasn’t that difficult to execute but the wait could be excruciating.
Back to that Wisconsin musky: two drift boats, six expert anglers and fishing was rough. Keep in mind, musky flies typically run between eight and 12 inches in length and they are a lot of work to cast all day with sink-tip fly lines.
I was getting sick of the same old presentation. While digging through my fly box I came across that old saltwater popper that was so well-worn from being chewed by La Porte County largemouth bass. I figured what the heck, maybe the musky would react the same.
I swapped the sinking fly line for a floating line and tied a 12-inch section of 40-pound test knottable wire bite leader to the fly, then looped it to a three-foot long leader consisting of 80-pound test fluorocarbon.
The key to presenting a popper of that proportion properly for ultra-aggressive predatory species such as pike and musky is having the ability to work it super aggressively. This means the angler needs to rig the fly in a way that allows the maximum amount of control — no stretch, nothing finesse — just pedal to the metal stripping and popping. And do it with a very stout rod. Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow!
Nobody noticed what I was rigging as they were lost in Zen-like focus of working flies deep or the monotony of rowing the drift boat. When I blasted the first cast out and started to work the fly, they all stopped what they were doing and watched in awe as the fly created a massive splash and cone of water while it burrowed into the surface every second or two. The sonic signature of the fly could actually be felt under our feet.
It was exhausting work. I had wrapped my fingers with cloth tape to avoid burning my fingers while stripping the line and wore a fingerless baseball glove that offered some protection from blisters on my palm. I was in it to win it and I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so confident in a fishing situation. Sometimes you just know it’s inevitable — it’s coming and it’s going to be spectacular.
The other guys were ooing and ahhing and we all watched in anticipation as the big foam popper tore through the tannic Northwoods water like a bull in a China shop. Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! On the fifth cast I was just about to lift the fly from the water for another cast when all hell broke loose.
I can remember the take like it was yesterday. All I could see was flared gills, an open mouth and eyeballs as a good-sized musky came from the depths and exploded on the popper like a submarine-borne missile. The fish leveled-off in the air close to eye level about fifteen feet in front of me then smashed back into the water.
It dove back to the depths, but given the heavy gear and terminal leader I was using there was no risk of a breaking the line. I reeled down on the fish and lifted it to the net within a few minutes. It was the showstopper for the entire trip.
And it provides an important lesson. Sometimes when the fishing is tough and you have nothing to lose, there’s no harm in doing something counter-intuitive. It may work.