In low-light conditions, you might not even be able to see your popper, but there is no mistaking when a slab Des Allemands sac-a-lait hits it.
Allow me to get this disclaimer out of the way very quickly:
I have a strange relationship with fly-fishing surface baits, particularly poppers. Strange in that I enjoy few things more than watching a bluegill suck down a chartreuse/black popping bug, while having little interest in placing a bigger model in front of a redfish.
Watching tuna poppers get blasted is a kick, though a few rounds with small blackfins and bonito were unfulfilling. And somehow, to me, speckled trout are just meant to be caught on walking-type baits you can cast a quarter mile, knowing that the state’s next 9-pounder is most likely not going to let you get within 50 yards of her location.
Again, a few hours casting poppers to an active school of 2-pounders was enough to send my confidence in the tank. I’m sure the pair of baitcasters experiencing four strikes a cast had something to do with it.
But when Capt. Gordon Matherne of Gordon’s Pro Guide Service (877-600-3967) spoke to me several years ago about catching sac-a-lait on a popping bug, it moved the needle well past mere curiosity. With a fight as soft as their paper-thin mouth, it was difficult to imagine these incredibly tasty fish with such affinity for dark and cool places to make their home summoning enough gumption to smack a baitfish or insect darting across the surface.
My disdain for redfish poppers undoubtedly goes back several years with my good friend Robert Lummis, a New Jersey native and fly fishing fanatic. School and the endless variety of fishing brought him here, and from the beginning, he made out just fine stalking the marsh just north of Port Sulphur with a canoe and a pushpole.
It was one of our first trips together that my first cast in the first spot was the beginning of a hate-hate relationship with poppers intended for redfish.
A beautiful 5-pounder cut a sharp path toward the offering as soon as it landed near the grassy point. There’s little time to think in this instance, but the way I jerked it away from the fish, you would have thought I’d been planning it for two weeks.
“Put it down again and let him eat it this time,” said Lummis, half snickering and half barking.
The second cast just infuriated the fish more, and it came over the top and flushed marsh hens in a hundred-yard radius with its splash. I thought I felt heaviness on the line, but it was surely the weight of a nasty stare on my neck as the fly flew back toward the boat and settled harmlessly 10 feet from us.
Instantly, my partner and the fish were inside my head and crawling around, poking at every weakness in my psyche. I summoned the coordination to make another throw, which turned out to be, mercifully, the final insult, a clean miss and one entirely on the fish.
It was a perfect opportunity to laugh at myself, but quite simply, I’d had it. This wasn’t the first time a red had made a monkey out of me with a popper, but I decided it would be the last, at least for a very long while. A redfish’s mouth is ill-equipped for surface strikes, and besides, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of flies better suited for taking reds. Discipline is one thing, but when you factor all of the other baggage that goes with a popper, why bother?
Besides that, if I ever reported that I caught redfish, or any fish for that matter on poppers, Lummis would remind me.
Crappie, on the other hand, have more suited jaws for topwater work, similar to those of a bass or trout, another saltwater species that confounds fly anglers wanting to experience the violent, watery concussions on the end of their line.
“Trout do much the same thing to a popper as a sac-a-lait,” said Matherne. “I think it has a lot to do with (trout) hitting shrimp. They’ll pop at it, hitting the feathers like they’re trying to eat the legs or the tail off of a shrimp (to disable it).
“Nothing is as good as a bass at getting it in its mouth, of course,” added Matherne, explaining that he catches plenty of good-sized bass in the same areas as they prepare for the spawn. “One of the main reasons I use a bigger fly is so that I can land the bass that hit it.
“Many times, sac-a-lait will have to hit it three or four times before getting stuck. They’ll sit underneath it and look at it, fool with the feathers, short strike it.”
Matherne explained that getting a bass hooked on a small hook that is present on a popper such as the No. 8 Peck’s Grey Ghost is challenge enough, much less trying to keep a fish hooked in the tissue, which the hook usually finds. A bigger No. 6 or 4 is more apt to grab hold of a more-secure place in the jaw of a bass.
Matherne and I were fishing the canals off of Bayou Gauche in late March for the area’s incredible variety of sun perch when the loquacious guide first mentioned the crappie/fly rod union. I’d spent several hours listening to the easy-going banter, nodding and acknowledging with “mm-hm”s while scribbling notes, trying to figure out how I was ever going to decipher what I had and how I’d remember what was lost in the middle.
This was something I’d never heard of, not even in fly fishing magazines, which either a) gave new meaning to pretense or b) did their darndest to give to the tax code a run for its money in explaining technique and equipment composition. Deep, sinking line fishing with streamers is a subject I recall, but any kind of surface action flew under my radar.
I followed up on the offering and Matherne was off again, explaining one of his passions which wonderfully rolls around shortly after duck season every year in the waters surrounding the Bayou Des Allemands system.
“It’s a very specialized fishery. It generally only happens at certain times of the day during the spawn,” said Matherne. “But they really come up and smack it at times.”
This, too, was difficult to picture. I’ve spent plenty of time dabbling jigs under a cork in the marsh, watching the light Styrofoam stopper do its sometimes incredibly subtle dance. Most times, it doesn’t come close to going under, instead laying on its side as the fish picks it up from the bottom or ticking slightly to the side. (I’ve caught many speckled trout under a cork in really cold weather, and have often wondered if we miss strikes when the weighted cork of choice leaves little notice of manipulation of a bottom to top strike.)
A practiced sense of timing is needed to be proficient with these fish on any but their most aggressive days.
We agreed to meet the following year when he would show me how it was done. A 60-degree, cloudy February afternoon was as close to ideal conditions as I wanted to chance without the primetime window being over. Matherne is nothing if not exact about his good combination of weather conditions and the time of day.
“Ideal conditions are in the afternoon with about a 10- to 15-m.p.h wind out of the south or southeast, low pressure and about to rain,” said Matherne.
We splashed his bass boat at Fisherman’s Wharf on Bayou Gauche with about two hours until sunset (and an unanticipated Mardi Gras traffic jam on the way home). A quick ride to his favorite canal, and we were ready to go with the warm-up act, a pair of ultralight rigs with clear/sparkle tube jigs under a Styrofoam cork.
“They don’t generally start in on the poppers until sunset, and then they’ll hit it until it gets completely dark,” said Matherne. “I’ll start with the fly rod as soon as the fish start hitting my stopper. When it gets too dark to see your bait, you go by sound. Forget about it if it’s raining. Just go back to the jig and cork.
“Afternoons are always best (for fly fishing). The water temperature has to have been warming up for a while. In the morning, it might be 50 degrees (air temperature) and be warming to the 70s in the late afternoon.”
The fun usually starts in this area around the first of February and goes through mid March, with about a three-week period in the middle being the best. Sac-a-lait spawn extremely early in this region, and Matherne will generally begin scouting as soon as the first batch of warm days rolls around in January.
Matherne theorizes that the sac-a-lait are generally attacking insects when choosing to eat the poppers. Two kinds of insects, with Matherne’s local names for them, of course, frequent the area that the fish are particularly fond of: the fish fly, a large mayfly-looking insect, and a blind mosquito, a pale, yellowish mosquito look alike.
“Blind mosquitoes are a swarming bug. They may be the male of a species of mosquito or another type of insect altogether, but they don’t bite. I guess that’s why they call them blind mosquitoes,” said Matherne.
But the fish bite them, as we were to soon find out. Sac-a-lait fishing was a little slow, but a few nice bass were caught and released on the grass shrimp-imitating tube jigs. A few were big enough to make a couple of bass fishermen sheepishly acknowledge our success as they beat the bank with traditional gear.
We worked the wide variety of wood and grass structure in the dead-end canal thoroughly with the ultralights. Diehard bream fishermen would scoff at the inefficiency of our technique, but Matherne says it is important to be stealthy when targeting sac-a-lait. Light tosses with the light combo took a little getting used to, but the pan-sized crappie could actually fight back on the rods.
“When we switch to the fly rods, our fish will get a good bit bigger. You won’t catch a whole bunch of them because of the time (around 45 minutes) you have and the fly weeds out a lot of the smaller ones. You’re going to miss some, of course.”
The fish we were catching, though lacking in size, more than made up for it in their beautiful colors. Almost all black crappie, Matherne says that these fish make their way into these canals during the spawn, then migrate back to the main deep canals and bayous for the bulk of the year. Certain canals are better than others, and Matherne explained the nuances of picking a winner.
“First of all, the best areas are all the way in the back of a canal system. These canals generally have a clean, sharp bank rather than a gently sloping bank (caused by boat traffic and its erosive wave action),” said Matherne, adding that canals with turnarounds or cuts in the marsh where a barge can sidle up next to a well are often dug deeper and cleaner, affording the fish the type of reproductive environment they crave.
It got close enough to sunset for me, and I pulled out the long rod. The No. 6 Grey Ghost was tied on to a straight 12-pound mono leader. Matherne says that light leaders are not necessary to coax these fish as opposed to perch, where he generally goes to 6-pound.
“There is plenty of structure and overhanging limbs out here, and plenty of big bass that you want to have a chance at landing. If I’m fishing more open water, I’ll go to 8-pound,” he said.
The first fish went much like Matherne said it would, with a light strike that I missed badly. Bad thoughts went through my head, but the 25-foot cast made it easy to get past, and a 1-pound beauty wiped the slate clean, coming completely out of the water and landing on top of the popper. I was instantly hooked in more ways than one.
“That’s the way I like to see them do it, too,” said Matherne as he readied the small net.
The unexpected fierceness of the wimpiest of the sunfish family made this incredibly fun and fascinating as a dozen nice ones added themselves to the livewell in the next 30 minutes, and most every one was an aggressive strike, with plenty of “over-the-top” strikes.
Curiously, the fish ceased suddenly when sunset arrived by the count of my watch. Dark, rolling clouds gave no indication of its descent, but there would be no after-hours show tonight.
Though I’m still off redfish poppers, the trip did the trick in renewing my faith in poppers for some other species and gave something to look forward to in the bleakest month of the year.
Heck, I was even able to push the answer key when my caller ID said “R Lumm.”
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