It seems fitting in hindsight. After all, it was almost Halloween.
A friend and I were sitting in a canoe, having just gotten into position to probe the first of several small bays on a local state park lake. We were looking for largemouth bass in little backwaters full of weeds and timber.
Setting my paddle down, I reached for and opened my tackle box.
It was like staring into the crowd at a horror movie, right at that pivotal moment when someone is about to get hacked, whacked or smacked. Looking back at me was a sea of big googly eyes and gaping mouths, like countless astonished face emojis.
This must be what it feels like to walk into a cemetery full of college kids after dark wearing dirty overalls and carrying a chain saw, I thought.
In any case, I did turn deadly.
There’s no surprise there.
Poppers, with their bug eyes and concave faces, are proven fish catchers, with a reputation for tempting large ones especially.
They come into their own each year in spring, as soon as the water hits 50 degrees or so, said Dave Lefebre, a bass fishing professional from Pennsylvania. Bass continue to chase them until water temperatures dip back below that threshold.
“Fish will bite them all year round except for winter,” said Zell Rowland, a 16-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier from Montgomery, Texas.
They work because of their design. Rowland said fish decide whether to bite a bait based on four factors - sight, sound, vibration and smell.
Poppers — fished on the edges of, but not right in, cover like logs, rocks and grass — cover most of those bases, Rowland said. They have a unique sound and action.
“Plus, they resemble a small baitfish more than any other bait in your tackle box,” Rowland said.
Sometimes it pays to fish them slow, casting to the same fishy-looking spot over and over and over, until the bait appears to bass less like food than a sheer annoyance.
“It’s like a mosquito flying around your head. Sooner or later you’re going to smack it,” said Daniel Gray, a one-time pro angler from Pennsylvania with dozens of tournament wins to his credit on both the Bassmaster and FLW circuits.
“Well, bass don’t have arms. The only way for them to smack it is with their mouth. So sometimes, when that popper just sits there, it irritates them until they just have to hit it.”
Fast can work, too, though. Rowland – who only fishes poppers on monofilament, since it floats – varies the speed of his retrieves until the fish tell him what they want.
“Then I start working that bait just how I was when a bass hit it the time before,” he said.
As for color, Rowland likes poppers that look like shad “because every lake everywhere has shad or little bitty baitfish swimming around in it.”
Chromes and blacks and poppers with green, black and blue backs are likewise pretty consistent producers, he added.
Gray likes black and brown poppers in May and June, to coincide with mayfly hatches, chartreuse ones for smallmouths and bluegill-colored ones for when bass attack their spawning beds.
No matter the color, though, he wants poppers with a feather tail, believing it gives his lures a more realistic baitfish profile.
“And it’s the motion, the way it kind of waves in the water. It’s going to get you a lot more bites,” he said.
When it comes to size, Gray throws bigger poppers during the pre-spawn, downsizes a bit for the post-spawn, then goes big again when bluegills are breeding. Rowland matches his poppers to the size of the baitfish in the lake when he’s fishing it.
All three anglers agree that, generally speaking, poppers work best early and late in the day and on calm rather than choppy waters. But that’s not an absolute.
“The real key is it’s a low-light deal,” Lefebre said.
So poppers can work midday if it’s rainy or foggy, he noted. They can also work throughout the day if and when bugs are hatching in late spring and early summer and again in fall when fish are feeding up for winter.
Always, Lefebre said, topwater fishing with a popper is one of the most exciting ways to fish,
“A lot of times you can see that bass coming,” Lefebre said. “It’s heart-stopping.”
Almost like a horror movie, you might say.