I started popping for steelhead by chance. I was swinging a wet fly with a twitch, an effective technique for half-pounders. Fishing was good, so a change in tactics was timely. I switched to a surface fly, and without thinking, the ingrained routine of twitching the wet fly automatically engaged. The fly skated and popped a few times, and ‘wham!’, a big surge and steelhead on. At that moment, I realized the fly was skating and popping and soon I became obsessed with this technique. Countless times I have been amazed at the effectiveness of popping. I have had many unbelievable situations and incredible takes with popping. The first photo is one example of many impossible moments. The iced rod guides and ice-coated rocks hint at the below-freezing temperatures that popping is effective in. The fish pictured is the second of three landed in the pool and one of many in extreme conditions.
Popping a skating fly is a quick and effective way to search for steelhead. The key word is ‘search’, as it is extremely effective in getting a fish to boil, while less effective in actual hook-ups. However, once a fish is located, via the initial rise, a choice can be made to come back with the surface bug or change to a wet fly. Coming back with a wet fly will have higher odds of getting a solid grab. For several years, I have cross-checked popping by following back through with a wet fly. Nearly always, the popper located more fish in the run. When reversing this experiment by having the popper follow after the wet fly, occasionally an additional fish would show. Popping has a few weak points, but is outweighed by its strengths, such as quickly locating fish.
What is popping all about? This technique combines both skating and popping the fly. The popping technique is more intense and versatile than skating alone, and has a wider angle-of-change, around 45 to 60 degrees. If needed, a wide angle-of-change (as much as 90 degrees) can be made by using a ‘pop-and-strip’ technique. ‘Pop-and-strip’ is done by cracking a pop, and then following with a smooth strip to remove any slack and maintain the fly’s presence on the surface. Creating a presence on the surface is important and defined by some motion to the fly disturbing the surface, even if it is not waking. This presence on the surface, waking or not, will better guide a fish to the fly.
To visualize the popping technique in another way: imagine you and a friend are in a crowded airport lobby. Needing the friend’s attention, you turn and call ‘hey’. The friend turns back, looking at you. A short, clear call gets the desired attention. Now, in the same setting, you shout ‘HEY!!!’ loudly. The friend and all others move away as security moves in; not good. So, a streaking outburst is not presentable. Visualizing a short attention-getting ‘hey’ is a clear picture to the principle of popping. This technique is about creating spunky pop to make the bug stand out, creating interest. If overdone, the commotion becomes a distraction. When popping, don’t shout; more is not better.
Popping is a short-line game with an effective distance of around 50 to 60 feet. At distances beyond 70 feet, it can be difficult to make the pops crisp, and consequently it becomes less productive. When working at 40-feet and closer, greater care must be given to the approach and wading. A short-line game requires a level of stealth; often you are working within the comfort zone of holding fish. When working short, extra caution is needed and is well worth the experiences gained with the action happening up close.
This popping technique is effective in all water types. Pocket water can be searched effectively at various angles. In a classic steelhead run, one can start popping in the riffle, moving non-stop to the end of the tailout. Popping can draw fish from a distance, so a slightly faster pace through the run can be used in comparison to wet flies. The ideal popping water is much like perfect wet fly water; a soft flow of three to six feet deep with good rock.
Step one in this game is getting the right tool. To effectively twitch a fly, a responsive fast to medium-fast action rod is needed. The key word is responsive; how the rod reacts to a command. Add in the stealth aspect of the short-line game, and spey casting becomes a necessity. The TCX rods have been a good choice. However, the ONE rods have the edge as the perfect steelhead popping rod. The Konnetic graphite construction makes for a more responsive and durable rod shaft. The ONE rod has spunk without the feeling of a stiff stick, providing a sharp pop of the bug with ease. A rod that is more responsive also makes for a better spey casting rod. I used a 691 in tight spots where long casts were needed and this rod performed awesome. The 691 ONE has lifting power too, handling 6 to 9 pound fish without a problem
When popping, presentation matters. The ‘pop’ must be short and crisp. It is critical that the bug moves a minimal distance, less than a few inches. In teaching this technique, most attempting to ‘pop’ use their wrist and forearm, resulting in the bug streaking across the surface. Moving the bug three or more inches is less productive. Popping is about creating momentary attention to the bug; not an alarming streak.
Two variations to this technique: popping and ‘walk-the-dog’. Popping is a short and distinctly crisp movement of the bug, whereas, ‘walk-the-dog’ is a more passive rock or wiggle of the bug. Both methods work well and can substitute for the other. That said, each method will excel in specific situations. A crisp pop can be more effective in pocket water, deep holding lies, riffles and fast water (places where greater awareness of the fly is desired). The more passive method of ‘walk-the-dog’ works well in quiet water, or when close and fish are wary, and with long casts where a pop is not sharp, or when a two-handed rod is used.
The skinny on how to pop effectively: Making a spunky pop without streaking is essential. A sharp pop comes from a flick of the rod shaft. In contrast, most perceive popping as snapping the wrist, which creates a streak to the movement. A streaking or strip movement may work for bait fish patterns, but is far less effective in raising a steelhead
A distinct pop is best made with a tightening of the hand-grip in a sharp clinch. Do this by the rod hand relaxing the grip, slightly opening the fingers, and then snapping into a tight clinch. Some twitching of the wrist is included, yet the hand clinching tight is the dominate energy source to a snappy pop. When the hand-grip relaxes, the rod lowers, slightly creating slack and then immediately snaps the line tight, creating a sharp pop while only moving the bug an inch or two.
Here’s the step-by-step ‘how to’:
To pop with a single-hand rod or a switch rod:
Begin with the fly sweeping or skating across the surface.
Slightly open (or relax) the hand-grip, allowing the rod tip to drop around two inches or so. The intentional lowering of the rod tip allows some slack momentarily in the line.
As the rod lowers and nears the bottom of the drop, the hand-grip snaps close, flicking the rod upward. This snap of the hand-grip creates a controlled shock of the rod, making a sharp upward flick of the rod tip.
The hand snapping tight raises the rod tip, removes the line slack and bumps the line taunt. The hand twitching the rod comes to an abrupt stop as the slack line bumps tight. This creates a sharp pop with minimal travel. Bumping the slack line tight is the key to cracking a sharp pop without traveling the bug. The line slacking is subtle; the fly should continue to skate without detection.
The hand grip opening to lower the rod is subtle, while the hand snapping close is quick, sharp, and abrupt, distinctly snapping the slack line tight. The line bumping taunt creates the sharp pop without streaking.
Use a 3 or 4-count between pops (3 to 4 seconds) as the fly skates on the surface. Generally, when a fish strikes, it is about 1 or 2 counts after a pop.
Popping with a two-handed rod is doable, utilizing a slightly different technique. Because of the length, a two-handed rod responds slower than a single-hand or a switch rod. A sluggish responding rod can be difficult to pop a fly with, via a rod twitch. With a two-handed rod, use the line hand to twitch or tug the fly line, causing the fly to pop. Using a hand twitch may take some practice to get the short and sharp pops in play. A good alternative is the ‘walk-the-dog’ method, using the line hand to work and rock the bug as it skates.
To pop with a two-handed rod:
Start with the fly skating across the surface
Hold the rod in one hand; grasp the line in the other (line hand)
Create the pop with a sharp tug, using the line hand and wrist. Make it short, a few inches.
Be careful not to streak the fly in a stripping fashion (fly moving four inches or more); short pops are key to success.
The passive alternative, ‘walk-the-dog’, is effective and easy to do. This method is done similar to popping, and is less intense. It is just a rocking the surface bug as it skates. The rod tugs the line, rocking the bug, rather than causing a sharp pop. In teaching surface fishing techniques, ‘walk-the-dog’ is the easier for most to master.
To make the bug walk, use a similar method as popping, just soften the hard snap or twitch. When using a single-hand rod, use the rod to rock the bug. With a two-handed rod, use the line-hand to work the fly line, nudging the fly. Make the rock distinctive; the motion is just one notch lower than a pop. Use a 3 or 4 count timing between rocking strokes. In slower moving water, allow the bug to travel around 4 feet between nudges. A ‘pop-and-strip’ technique can be modified to walk a bug across tanky-slow water. When ‘walk’n-the-dog’, try a simple small bug with legs that will pulse with each tug.
Popping demands focus in working the fly. It is important to see how the fly is coming across the surface. The fly must be on the surface waking between pops. If the bug is submerged under the surface, it’s not likely to raise a fish. When popping, the pops must be short, and ideally spit a little. If using a ‘walk-the-dog’, the bug needs to shake or rock without traveling or streaking. A critical part in maintaining focus is reading the rise when it happens. Reading the rise is a story within itself, and will best guide you in making a good comeback choice.
To be continued… Look for part two tomorrow!