A great indoor activity that will pay off when the weather finally warms is tying your own bass poppers.

A finished popper rests in the vise with others on the drying rack in the background. Author photo

Catching bass on surface lures is great fun – and catching them on a light fly rod is even more fun – about as much fun as you can have, on the water. Even that level of enjoyment can be enhanced if you are fishing with lures of your own manufacture. As trout anglers know all too well, the art of fooling fish is most enjoyable when fishing with lures of your own creation. Even if you have never tied flies, you can easily begin tying your own bass poppers. While this is a similar enterprise, it requires much less skill and much simpler materials and tools. The product will probably be better than the store-bought variety and they are sure to be more attractive to you, if not to the fish.

The list of materials is fairly short; you will need:

  • Special “hump-shanked” popper hooks. The hump makes for a solid lure, when it is glued into the cork body.
  • Cork popper bodies. You can buy them just shaped or shaped, slotted and dished, ready to glue.
  • A good two-part epoxy with more than a fifteen-minute working life. That quick-setting stuff doesn’t give you enough time to glue up a number of poppers.
  • A variety of feathers and hair. You can use deer hair but dyed calf tail is finer and easier to use. You can buy second-rate and large hackle feathers in packets that will serve well. You don’t need to spend big bucks for fine hackle necks.
  • Stout fly-tying thread.
  • Head cement.
  • Vinyl, enamel or lacquer for finishing the bodies. You can use fingernail polish and it is available in about any color.
  • Waterproof marking pens in black and/or red for finishing touches.
  • Rubber hackle.

The best source I have found for materials is the Hook and Hackle company at 7 Kaycee Loop Road, Plattsburgh, NY 12901 or on the web at www.mailordercentral.com/hookhack.

While you won’t need all the fancy tools required for tying good trout flies, you do need a few essentials:

  • A fly-tying vise. You could get by with a bench vise to hold a pair of vise-grip pliers, which, in turn, will hold the hook.
  • Hackle pliers.
  • A small pair of sharp scissors, like those used for fly-tying or manicuring.
  • A couple of straight pins or hat pins.
  • A drying rack of some sort – you can fashion one out of a wire coat hanger.
  • A drill motor and a very small drill.
  • A large needle from a sewing kit.

The actual manufacture consists of several simple steps. Before you start or buy any materials, you need to think about what size poppers you want to use. If you go big, you can fish for the largest bass in the lake but you may not catch any bluegills. Bluegills, especially in the spring, are great fun and they bend a light fly rod like crazy. If you tie your poppers on number six hooks and popper bodies, you can dress the hook big, to appeal to about any bass and dress some smaller, for the largest bluegills in the lake. For summer bass fishing and to appeal to the largest bass, you might want to tie some poppers on number four hooks. You can handle the size six poppers easily on a light-to-medium fly rod – a five or six weight – but you will need a heavier rod to handle anything much larger. The lighter rod and thus the smaller popper is usually preferred because you can fish with it for hours, while the heavier rod will wear you out from constant casting.

The first step is to glue the hooks into the popper bodies, using the two-part epoxy. Be sure the eye of the hook is centered nicely and just protruding from the cork. Also, avoid sinking the shaft of the hook too far into the cork – you need to have some good hook clearance if you want to hook most of the fish that strike. The glue should fill in the slot made for attaching the hook, making for a smooth surface underneath the lure.

Painting is next. At one time, I thought that all poppers had to be yellow and black, like a bumblebee. Now, I paint most of them pearl white with a few yellow ones as well, really relying on the hair and feathers to give the popper some lively color. I use two coats of white vinyl paint with a finish coat of pearl white fingernail polish.

Add a few streaks and dots of color to the painted popper body with waterproof marking pens, in red and black. These marks are to suggest fish features like eyes and gills.

Tie on feathers and hair for color and body. Hair is more durable but feathers provide more action and flutter on the water. A combination is great, using tufts of hair tied on the hook and projecting back and adding a wound-around hackle feather. The hackle feather is the feature that determines the apparent size of the finished popper. If you use a feather with long projections, it becomes quite an apparent mouthful but it really doesn’t add much to the real size or even the wind-resistance of the finished popper.

Put a few drops of head cement on the thread windings to secure the hair and feather dressing. Using a tiny drill, make a hole in the popper body about half way back and above the line of the hook shank and, using a stout needle, pass a double strand of rubber hackle through the popper body until it projects about an inch and a quarter through. Cut the hackle and secure with a drop of head cement at the holes. The rubber hackle is an important element of the popper, giving some wiggle and life to the lure even as it rests on the water.

As you use the poppers, you will find that they will deteriorate with all that biting that they experience. Generally, the most fragile parts are the rubber hackle and the feathers. Just put them aside or store them in a special partition or box in your tackle, planning to restore them next winter. The used poppers can generally be restored to new condition in a few minutes and be ready for another season of fun fishing.

You can produce nicely-finished poppers for about a fifth of the cost in tackle stores and you will take more pleasure in using lures of your own design and manufacture. This is also a wonderful way to fill those long winter evenings that are a burden at this time of the year.