Simple Popper Carving>>
Tying poppers and more importantly carving poppers is widely regarded as an advanced technique for seasoned fly tiers. But it doesn't have to be...
Who doesn’t love catching gorgeous bass or rocking bluegill on a popper. Just about any fish that swims will all chase poppers from time to time. Salmon and trout may be the exception. Poppers of all shapes and sizes have landed many trophy fish from the muddy rivers of Africa to the silent backwaters of anywhere USA. They riddle fly boxes around the world rivaled only by wooly buggers and clousers as the go to summer fly for warmwater fishing.
But tying poppers shouldn’t be limited to the premade popper heads that might as well be a shelf you bought from Ikea. These cookie cutter bodies allow for little of the imagination that should be prevalent in any good popper pattern. The limited sizes, colors, and shapes make for limited fishing too.
Don’t be afraid to enter the seemingly complex field of carving popper heads. It's not nearly as hard as it appears. Videos, blogs, and magazine articles make it seem difficult. Most tutorials show the use of air brushes, expensive finishes, and dremel tools. But the reality of the matter is that none of that is necessary. Airbrushes certainly add a certain official appearance to the popper but hand painted bodies cost far less to make, add character, and fish just as well.
The first step in starting your fleet of simple, effective, and aesthetically pleasing poppers is deciding: a) what you will be fishing for b) how many do you want to add to your box c) are you looking for a fishing weapon or do you want something that can impress your fishing buddies just as much as the fish?
To address the first question you can break it down into three more categories. First being large fish (really large). This group is made up of muskie, pike, catfish, tarpon, sailfish, giant trevally, monster stripers and many… many more. Medium sized fish consist of mostly largemouth and smallmouth bass, as well as bull heads, pond catfish, wipers (hybrids) and white bass, etc. Of course the small fish are the classic popper quarry, bluegill, goggle eye, red eared sunfish, and the majority of the panfish family.
The reason you must know the fish you’re chasing is to know the material that needs to be used. For large fish I would recommend using wide gap hooks and balsa wood bodies. Believe it or not balsa wood is actually lighter than foam and allows for easier casting. Balsa wood is also easier to find in larger sizes than foam, making it ideal for large poppers for large fish. For medium sized fish I would once again recommend balsa wood for poppers but foam for sliders. Foam is much easier to carve into a slider head than balsa wood and will produce a softer slurp in the water. Small fish require smaller poppers which are both hard and dangerous to make out of balsa wood, which is why foam is the way to go for panfish poppers. Carving small popper heads in balsa can cut you just as much as the wood. Foam poppers also take less time to make which are great for bluegill which are rarely picky when they’re looking to the surface.
This brings us to the second question, how many do you want to make? That’s a simple answer. If you would like to load a box full of them in a week, foam poppers with sharpie art on them is the way to go, no questions asked. They are quick to carve, color, and tie but may not produce the artistic appeal some people crave. In that case balsa poppers are the right choice for you. They take much longer to make, as they require extensive carving, sanding, painting, and finishing. But they produce a fantastic fly in the end that is both aesthetically appealing and extremely effective on fish. Considering the third question and the tying concepts foam poppers are more effective as a fishing weapon, not because they produce a better fly but because they are more efficient to tie.
When it comes to tying these foam poppers it is extremely straightforward. For materials I use the hard foam letters you can find at Hobby Lobby or Michaels. This foam is rigid enough to cut easily with a razor but light enough that it doesn’t inhibit casting. Usually I cut out simple square patterns in different sizes using an exacto knife or razor blade then I use a pair of old tying scissors to truly shape the head (some people use gun shells to cut cylindrical patterns). When the head is shaped I use a bodkin to start a couple of holes running from the back of the body to the front, I then coat the shank of my hook with a generous amount of super glue and slide it into the foam. For the back end of my poppers I like to be creative. I use every material from deer hair, to multiple brands of flash, mallard flank feathers, and more. On most of my foam poppers I add rubber legs by poking them through the head with a needle or tying them into the back end.
Balsa wood poppers are an entire nother level of poppers than foam carving and can be so intimidating for someone who is trying to take their tying to the next level. But it’s not as difficult as it may appear. For your beginning popper carvers I would strongly recommend going to your local hardware store and purchasing some 3/4“ square balsa wood rods. The size of these is great because they are already close to size for many of the standard poppers one would normally ty. To add a slanted back and rounded shape to the popper simply use an exacto knife to carve the wood into the rough shape you are looking for, then take some heavy gauge sandpaper and round out the edges to the desired shape. Finish the carving by sanding the entire body with a small scrap of light gauge sandpaper. Next use your exacto knife or razor blades to cut a slit in the bottom of the popper for the hook shank to fit into. Once the hook is glued in securely cover any gaps with wood putty.
Now that the body is on the hook you can begin painting. I use simple paint brushes and Apple Barrel modeling paint but high dollar acrylic paints and airbrushes are a common site in this kind of fly tying. Classic patterns such as red heads, fire tigers, and great whites are relatively easy to paint and have brought in as many fish over the years as any color combination. I do use craft mesh or aluminum support mesh as a stencil for simple diamond shaped scales that I spray paint on the backs of some poppers. After finishing the painting add 3d eyes to each side of the head, I prefer slightly larger eyes than are probably necessary but each’s own. The key to making nice hand painted poppers is in the finish. Once the paint has completely dried on the body I put two to four coats of clear Sally Hansen Hard As Nails nailpolish on it. This cheap but effectively simple finish brightens the colors and gives the final appearance a pleasing shine. The final step is adding the back end, which I highly recommend a wide variety of flashes, furs and feathers mixed with a wild imagination.
Balsa wood poppers and popper tying in general is not as challenging as first appearances suggest. Breaking down the process into ideas and simple steps makes it much more manageable. If you follow my vague guidelines while adding your own twists poppers can add an entire new level to your fly tying and fishing ability.