The Pop on Top

How to Craft Classic Balsa Poppers

[by Steve Schweitzer]


IN THE LATE 1800s, tackle makers were experimenting with buoyant materials such as cork and lightweight wood, shaping them into floating flies and lures. The rudimentary shapes didn’t resemble much, but they caught the attention of both fish and anglers. This encouraged creative folks like Edmond Warren (he received a patent for a fly hook incorporating an attached, nonabsorbent material), William J. Jamison (he made the first commercially available floating cork-body lure called the Coaxer), and Ernest Peckinpaugh (the creator of the modern-day popping bug). These craftsmen, among others who were regionally based throughout the United States, had very influential bug-making techniques that are still incorporated in today’s modern topwater bugs.

The materials they used were not like the ingredients we have today. Fly tying thread was inconsistent in diameter. Lacquer or spirit varnish were the primary coating and waterproofing agents, but they cracked with temperature changes and quickly yellowed. Paints were not as vibrant and durable as they are today. Yet with all these seemingly inferior materials, their topwater bugs were quite effective

Minwax High Performance Wood Hardener is great for increasing the durability of balsa popper bodies. It dries in two to four hours, after which you can give the bodies a final sanding and finish the flies.

Best Popping-Bug Materials

Today, there is a multitude of natural and synthetic materials at our disposal to craft topwater popping bugs. Hard Styrofoam and high-density foam bodies come preshaped, making it easy to whip up a popping bug for a last-minute fishing trip. Yet, natural body materials such as cork, basswood, fir, poplar, and cedar are still in vogue and preferred by today’s top popping-bug designers. As high-grade cork becomes rarer and more difficult to obtain, balsa continues to be a go-to material for handcrafting popping bugs. Balsa remains one of the all-time favorites because of its soft texture, lightness, general availability, and ease to shape and finish. Balsa is an ideal and eco-smart ingredient for quickly creating a myriad of topwater bug shapes.

The pop on top or the trailing bubbles left behind from a diving topwater bug are the key fish-attracting features of these flies. Even in murky or stained water, fish will find your popping bug. Many fish use sound when locating food. They can hear the sound of a popping bug in several ways. A fish’s lateral line can pick up pressure changes in the water, essentially mid- and low-frequency sound waves.

The popping nature of a topwater bug makes those types of sounds in water. Most fish also have an inner ear that is adept at picking up higher-frequency sounds, such as the trail of bubbles left behind from a popping bug. So, a topwater bug that makes a myriad of different sounds can be more effective. There’s no doubt that sound is the primary ammo a popping bug has for attracting fish, and why these flies are so effective.

Use Specific Colors for Specific Fish

While the color of a popping bug is probably less important to the fish than to the fishermen, some colors do appeal to certain species of fish. White and chartreuse bugs generally appeal to smallmouth bass, and largemouth bass usually prefer black, red, or purple. Almost any bright color appeals to panfish. And, the old rule of thumb—use a bright lure on a bright day and a dark lure on a dark day—always merits consideration. Of course, rules are meant to be broken. How else can I explain catching several young smallmouths last summer on a whimsical, gambling-dice-style topwater bug? The dice bug didn’t pop, slide, or dive, nor did it look remotely like anything a smallmouth bass would eat. But, it was their favorite color for the waters where I was fishing, and it pushed a lot of water when striped across the surface.

Where topwater sliders and divers are used to imitate smaller fish, a light (nearly white) underside and dark top are key to creating a baitfish imitation. And don’t forget the classic frog popper pattern: the underside of a common frog is generally white or pale yellow, while the top is shades of green and olive with dark spots. While sound is the primary trigger of a popping bug, imitating common food sources also appeals to the fish.

Movement is another key feature of an effective popping bug. A bug that moves even when you aren’t stripping the fly across the surface appeals to the fish, especially to ambush species like largemouth bass. Wispy tail and leg materials add to this lifelike movement.

Use tailing materials that breathe in the water, even when the bug is at rest. Choose ingredients like extra-select long marabou or Whiting Farms’s Bird Fur. Tie these on to create the correct visual profile, and experiment with imitative colors and colors you think will irritate a fish into striking. Tie on silicone legs so they flare out when the bug is at rest, and then pulsate during the slightest strip retrieve. I catch more largemouth bass casting a popping bug that has a lot of sensitive tail and leg materials, letting it sit on the surface and giving it only an occasional subtle twitch.

In simple terms, there are only two ways to attract a fish to strike a fly on the surface of the water: using a pattern that imitates something a fish might eat, or casting a fly that irritates the fish into striking. Irritating bugs make a lot of noise and appeal to a fish’s sense of sound. Imitative bugs, however, look like and mimic some sort of natural food your quarry is seeking; they appeal to the visual senses of a fish. Using an imitative bug is like matching the hatch when trout fishing.

Flex Coat’s Lure Epoxy Gel Coat is ideal for finishing topwater bugs. It cures crystal clear and bubble-free within 24 hours. This material dries slowly so you can finish a group of bodies with one batch of gel, so you must use an electric rotary wheel to ensure no pooling or dripping as it sets.

What’s the Best Top Coat?

The final topcoat adds durability to the body of a bug. Flex Coat’s Lure Gel, a two-part epoxy specifically made for crafting fishing lures, is one of the best epoxies for making topwater bugs. It cures slowly (within 24 hours), is crystal clear, and is free of bubbles. Lure Gel requires using a drying wheel to prevent the epoxy from running to one side of the body. Flex Coat’s Rod Finish is also a great epoxy product for finishing topwater bugs. Both epoxies offer flexible yet durable finishes that withstand a wide range of water temperatures.

If you don’t have a drying wheel, Softex, which you’ll find in many fly shops, is a highly effective finish for bug bodies. Two coats of Softex give a popping bug a natural skin-like feel and also waterproofs the body. When applied, Softex self-levels and dries evenly. The only drawback to Softex is that it is a solvent-based product and can smear any colors you apply to the body using markers. Be gentle in applying the first coat, and you’ll be fine.

Making balsa bugs requires just a few tools and basic tying materials. A thin-kerf hobby saw, an emery board, sandable and paintable wood filler, and blue painter’s tape will help shape and paint the bug body. Use a ¾-inch round burr bit and drill for making a cupped popper face, but this step is optional and certainly not needed. Finally, a drying wheel is required if you use a slow-curing epoxy finish for the topcoat.

Popping bugs come in many shapes, sizes, and colors, but there is no denying that a tapered body with a cupped face and red-banded paint scheme is a classic that has withstood the test of time. That classic popping bug took fish more than 100 years ago, and it will catch fish a hundred years from now. When all is said and done, catching a lunker using a topwater bug you created is a thrill. Follow the steps to make the bugs in this article, and they’ll remain classics beyond our lifetimes.


Steve Schweitzer is the author of A Fly Fishing Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park and co-author of A Fly Fishing Guide to Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. His most recent book is Designing Poppers, Sliders & Divers (Pixachrome Publishing). For more information, go to www.pixachrome.com.