Bass Bug Paint Shop
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Written by Max Birnkammer   
Discover the finer points of creating first-class popping bugs

All warmwater fly fishermen know that bass are very tough on flies, and I believe that most poppers fail because they are made of inflexible body materials and paints that chip and crack. I have experimented with just about every method of painting poppers, and have come up with a formula that I would like to share with you.

Let’s start with some of the pros and cons concerning the application of paint to popper bodies. I have tried numerous types of sealers and paints, and think I’ve hit on a combination that will save you a lot of time and frustration. My early attempts to produce painted poppers did not go well. In most cases, I was using enamel or oil-based products such as model paint, which can take as long as 48 hours to fully harden. I wanted to speed up the drying time between applications and switched to using water-based paints that dry in as little as 30 minutes. Water-based paints are also much more flexible and don’t produce hairline cracks. And finally, water-based paints are less toxic. You must still allow ample drying time between coats of paint—each popper requires several applications to get a really smooth, professional-looking finish—so you will want to make a batch of popper bodies at one time. In the end, you will have a fly box full of great bass bugs.

Choosing Body Materials
Before discussing the painting process, we need to review popper body materials and hooks. You may use many materials to make popping bugs; balsa wood, cork, and foam are all common ingredients. If you decide to use balsa or cork, be aware that you will spend a lot more time shaping these materials. Cork also has a lot of cavities that must be filled and sanded before applying the paint, and it soaks up water when the paint cracks. Balsa bodies are better than cork, but they are heavier than foam. Gluing a bass hook to a balsa popper is also difficult because you must slit the bottom of the body to accept the hook, and sometimes, the balsa will split in two.

I prefer using closed-cell foam for my custom poppers because it is a lot more flexible and holds up to vicious strikes from bass. There are many sources for good-quality closed-cell foam. Wapsi Fly sells 13⁄4-inch-thick closed-cell foam blocks that can be drilled to make popper bodies; look for these in your local fly shop. These foam blocks come in olive, yellow, white, and many other colors. Other fly-tying materials suppliers also offer foam blocks in a variety of thicknesses and colors. A fun option is to glue together flat sheets of 2- and 3-millimeter thick closed-cell foam using 3M Super 77 spray adhesive; use a combination of colors to create some really wild-looking bodies. And finally, discount stores sell very inexpensive foam sandals that can be drilled to form dozens of bodies. You can drill solid cylinders out of any of these materials using a commercially available foam plug cutter or a length of sharpened brass tubing.

Shaping the foam body is the first step to making a popper. I like to place a heavy darning needle in a high-speed drill, and place the foam plug on the needle. Turn on the tool, and rough sand and shape the plug using an emery board. Use progressively finer sandpaper, from 220 to 600 grit, to finetune the shape of the body. You are now ready to attach the foam body to the hook.

Press a large darning needle through the body where you would like to place the hook. Make sure there is plenty of space between the bottom of the body and the hook. Use a hook that is long enough to accommodate the body and still allow ample room to tie the tail of the fly; do not cover more than two-thirds of the hook shank with the body. I prefer using a widegap bass-bug hook such as the Gamakatsu B10S Stinger. Wrap the hook shank with a layer of size 3/0 (280 denier) tying thread. Coat the thread with Zap-A-Gap or superglue, and slide the hook through the foam until the eye appears in the front of the body. Quickly straighten the hook before the glue dries.

Getting Creative
You're now ready to begin the creative process of painting the bug.

I use only water-based sealers, paints, and clear finishes; look for these in craft stores and the crafts sections of discount retailers. The first step is to coat the body with a good-quality sealer. I prefer using Delta Ceramcoat All-Purpose Sealer. The sealer penetrates the foam, makes the body more durable, and creates a smooth painting surface. The first coat of sealer may raise the grain of the foam, but don’t worry; it disappears after the second coat. Allow one hour of drying time between sealer coats. Examine the surface of the foam, and use 600-grit sandpaper to remove any high points.

Next, you’ll apply a base body color. I am making a frog body in the tying photos and am using green paint. Use a fine hobby brush to apply one coat of paint. Allow the paint to dry for one to two hours, and then apply a second coat. On the fly in the photos, I added a little flash to the body using Delta Ceramcoat Sparkle Glaze; this adds a clear, iridescent sparkle to the popper. Again, allow the clear sparkle paint to dry for a couple of hours.

Now we’ll get fancy and paint a few details on the body. First, use your fine-tipped brush to paint the mouth red; use a Q-tip dipped in water to remove any excess red paint that gets on the sides of the body. Next, we’ll make the eyes. I use three brass rods, each a different diameter, to paint the eyes. You can purchase narrow-diameter brass rods at your local hardware or hobby store. I prefer using brass rods rather than wooden dowels because I can easily replicate the same sizes of eyes, and the brass is easy to clean.

Painting the eyes is simple. First, dip the tip of the largest rod in black paint, and press the rod to each side of the head. Let these black dots dry for a minimum of three hours, and then repeat the process using the medium rod dipped in white paint. Allow the white paint to dry; then paint small pupils using the narrow-diameter rod and black paint. This procedure creates very satisfying eyes that have a slight three-dimensional quality. I use these same brass rods to paint spots on the body.

After the paint fully dries, coat the body with waterbased Delta Ceramcoat Gloss Exterior/Interior Varnish. This is perhaps the most important step because it will make your popper extremely durable. I apply a minimum of four coats and allow two hours for drying between applications. Use a sharp darning needle to clean any paint or varnish out of the hook eye after the last coat.

You may now place your custom-painted popper in the vise and add marabou, hackle, and rubber legs. Your finished popper will be very durable, and the bass will love it.

Max Birnkammer is a talented fly tier who lives in Georgia. In addition to tying flies and building his own fly rods, Max loves classic wooden boats. This is his first article in our magazine.

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