As I get older, I’m finally realizing that things that seem simple on the surface are often more complicated than they appear. When editor Ross Purnell returned from a trip to Venice, Louisiana, he told me that schools of bull redfish had mangled a foam popper. He asked me to write about building a durable, functional foam popper, and I brazenly thought, “No problem.” As I dug into the subject a bit more, and enlisted the advice and experience of my good friend and foam popper tier extraordinaire Brian Schmidt, I realized how much thought and design goes into these things.
Like many of us, I’ve tied poppers for a long time, but my personal preferences, based on an elevated sense of self-worth and tradition, have dictated that I use only perfectly tied deer-hair poppers. Foam poppers always seemed like the low-rent, quick-and-easy versions of what should be a considerable time investment in both the learning process and each individual fly. Boy, was I wrong. As it turns out, foam poppers are just as interesting, and can be just as detail-oriented as good deer-hair flies. They can be beautiful, or just about as simple as you like.
I’m going to share with you the best way to secure the foam head so it doesn’t break loose and spin, the proper placement of the hook shank to produce the best “pop,” and how to attach durable eyes. And I’ll share a cool new trick I’ve learned using compressed air and permanent markers to airbrush colors and patterns onto the foam heads.
I’ve owned a Copic brand airbrush system for several years, but I’ve been unhappy with the size and longevity of the proprietary compressed-air canisters. A DIY alternative is to use a common can of compressed air to blow across the tip of any permanent marker, spraying ink onto the head. It takes a bit of practice to gauge the right distance and volume of air to apply the ink in the desired manner, but it doesn’t take long before you’re producing beautifully blended, colored foam popper heads.
Use a test spray next to the popper head on a disposable background sheet to gauge the distance and intensity of color. You can add patterns to your popper heads by spraying the ink through mesh sheets. I’ll warn you that this can be quite addictive, and it won’t be long before you have 50 markers in various colors strewn about your desk. I have been leaving the faces of my poppers white so I can more easily see them in low evening light, but feel free to paint the face if it makes you feel good.
I’ve filmed a detailed video that shows how to use compressed air and a Sharpie to airbrush a popper, and it shows exactly how to produce the color scheme shown here. You can find the video and many others at flyfisherman.com by searching for my name “Charlie Craven.”
I have always used short lengths of 30- to 50-pound mono lashed along the sides of the hook shank to create a base to adhere popper heads. When I was talking with Schmidt, he said that the best method is to cover the hook shank with a synthetic dubbing, preferably Ice Dub, then saturate that dubbing with Zap-A-Gap cyanoacrylate adhesive before quickly sliding the popper head onto the shank. The Ice Dub creates a highly irregular surface for the popper head to adhere to. A word to the wise when employing this technique—you must slide that popper head back quickly, or the cyanoacrylate glue will lock everything in place before you get it all the way into position.
As for adding the eyes, Double Barrel popper heads come with sockets for appropriately sized eyes. I add a tiny drop of Zap Gel to hold the eye firmly in place. Take a little pride in your work, trust me, and use the glue sparingly. The end of a half-hitch tool works perfectly to press the eyes into place without adhering your fingers to the foam.
All these tricks can be put to use on poppers or sliders for anything with fins, from panfish to billfish. Saltwater denizens like jacks and redfish seems especially drawn to poppers, and of course there’s nothing better than spending a warm summer evening on a bass pond waiting for that explosion.
Hook: #2 Gamakatsu B10-S
Head: Medium Double Barrel popper head from Flymen Fishing Company, painted with canned air and a permanent marker
Tail: Stacked possum, bucktail, or synthetic fibers topped with flash and flanked with dyed grizzly neck feathers
Collar: Possum fur spun in a dubbing loop
base: Ice Dubbing, any color
Eyes: Red Holographic Eyes
Legs: Chicone’s Crusher Legs or standard Sili Legs to match or contrast body color
1. Heat a bodkin with a cigarette lighter and push the needle into the narrow end of the head and guide it so it comes out along the bottom third of the popper face. Spin the needle so the hole holds its shape. Placing the hook bore lower into the popper head helps set the fly lower in the surface and results in better popping action.
2. Hold the tip of a compressed-air nozzle close to the tip of a marker, and blow a short blast of air to spray the ink onto the popper head. I start with light colors first on the bottom, and gradually use darker colors as I work up the sides and finally to the top of the fly. Use a drop sheet to prevent a giant mess.
3. I used a cream-colored marker along the bottom of the fly with a light shot of orange at the front of the head. The sides are a copper-colored marker, and the top is dark brown. The mottled dots were created by covering the top of the popper head with a piece of mesh. The color combinations and possibilities are endless, and it’s relatively quick and easy to learn to blend the colors.
4. Mount the hook in the vise and slide the popper head onto the shank from the eye of the hook backward. Start the thread at the back edge of the popper head to mark the termination point of the tail and collar material. Once the thread is started, remove the popper head.
5. The tail materials should be dictated by the overall size and length of the fly. In an effort to keep things reasonably sized for the camera, this fly has a finished length of about 3 inches with a stacked tail of yellow, orange, and brown American possum fur flanked with a few strands of gold Ripple Ice Fiber.
6. Tie in matching pairs of grizzly-dyed brown rooster neck feathers at the bend and along either side of the shank, curving away from each other. It’s not a bad idea to add a shot of head cement or very thin UV resin to the thread wraps. Note that the materials are all tied in behind the thread starting point, and I haven’t crept forward into the popper head area.
7. I used yellow, orange, and brown American possum fur spun in a dubbing loop and wrapped as a collar here. You can creep the last couple turns just slightly past the thread tie-in point to assure that the head and collar butt up to each other, but make sure you have adequate space for the head. Dress the hook with several tight layers of thread from the front of the collar to the hook eye and back again. Coat this thread base with Zap-A-Gap to anchor the thread to the shank.
8. Dub a robust noodle of Ice Dubbing onto the thread and cover the bare hook shank with a layer of dubbing. Whip-finish and clip the thread in front of the collar. Coat the dubbing with Zap-A-Gap and quickly slip the narrow end of the popper head over the hook eye, and twist the head all the way back along the shank until the back end butts against the collar. The Zap-A-Gap adheres quickly to the foam, so if you hesitate, you won’t be able to slide the head all the way back before it catches.
9. Tilt the fly and put just a drop of Zap Gel into the recessed eye socket on each side. Press a red Holographic Eye into the socket and use a half-hitch tool to press it firmly into place. Repeat on the far side.
10. Heat up the bodkin and push it straight through the body behind the eyes. Twist the bodkin to bore open the hole before pulling it out. Push a hopper leg tool through the hole until it clears the far side. Make sure the catch is down to open the hook once it’s out the far side.
11. Cut six strands of leg material and loop them over the hook end of the hopper leg tool. Close the hook and draw the tool along with the short end of the leg bunch steadily toward you and through the popper head. It helps to pull on the long ends on the far side to stretch them and reduce their diameter, as it will create more room inside the hole to allow the near-side legs to pull through.
12. Once the near-side legs are cleared through the body, trim them all to about a hook shank length long. It will be tempting to leave them longer and livelier, but if you do, they will constantly foul around the hook bend. There is no need for glue on the legs, as they are held in place with friction.