XCalibur Zell Pop perfects shad imitation

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Meticulous sanding and even more sanding to shape and modify one of the most trusted topwater lures was a labor of love for Zell Rowland.

The 54-year-old Texan used to spend a whole day at a time two decades ago doing that to a Pop-R, then another Pop-R, then another Pop-R. Then, about five years ago, XCalibur Tackle Co. asked one of its leading pro staffers — someone who has amassed more than $1 million in bass tournament winnings and ranked one of the Top 35 Anglers of All-Time by BASS — to do what he does best. XCalibur Hi-Tek Tackle and Rowland wanted a “spitter” rather than a chugger for a topwater artificial lure.

Thus was born the XCalibur Zell Pop, which has been on the market since the mid-2000s.

“They wanted a bait that spit more than a chugger, that sounds like a shad flicking on the surface of the water. Ever been fishing at dawn and hear that?” Rowland asked rhetorically while talking about a topwater that has emerged as one of the leading go-to baits among anglers on pro bass fishing circuits and weekend anglers, too, trying to get as many bass as possible on the business ends of their fishing rods.

The artificial lure manufacturers in Fort Smith, Ark., got what they wanted after an especially circuitous route.

“I got with the guys in the back who are the engineers and the designers. We shipped baits back and forth 30 times,” said Rowland, who lives in Austin.

He chuckled at the memory. Back then, when the topwater was being born, it was a big deal.

“When you shipped back and forth (at the time) you had to sign for it,” he said, noting the practice was to discourage bass anglers from just saying “to heck with it” and keeping the prototype.

Rowland remembers the first one they gave him and, after modifying it for the first time and blistering the bass, thus knocking all the paint off it, he had the urge to refrain from shipping it back.

“It was a fish-catching dude, just like it was,” he said.

But he did, and to and fro went the progressing prototype. Thanks to his input, the Zell Pop was XCalibur-engineered and Hi-Tek-designed to create a popper that sat tail down and created the optimum spitting action.

“The flatter I made the face of the bait, the better it got,” he said. “It’s about as close as you can come to imitate a shad.”

That pride translated into a bogus shad, beautifully painted and shaped, that was difficult to distinguish from the real thing heard flicking on the surface. That it bears a remarkable resemblance to the original Pop-R is a tribute to the Pop-R.

“Every popping bait you see on the market today is a knock off of the Pop-R. That bait took the fishing industry by storm,” Rowland said with reverence, recalling that those were the models he modified 20 years ago to get more of the spitting action he desired.

The XCalibur Zell Pop is making waves, or small splashes, on the pro bass fishing circuit.

“There’s almost not a guy who doesn’t have one of those in his box. Those baits are not going to go away, like Zara Spooks, Pop-Rs and Zell Pops. Like the Spook, they’ll be around when I’m long gone,” he said proudly.

“I’ve won hundreds of thousands of dollars throwing that bait. It’s helped me make a terrific career in the industry.”

He has caught several fish weighing more than 10 pounds on the XCalibur Zell Pops. He has triggered bass into striking the spittin’ topwater from Texas to North Carolina, he said, particularly at his favorite bodies of water — Toledo Bend, Lake Sam Rayburn, Lake Okeechobee, Santee Cooper and Guntersville.

A Bassmaster Elite event was won on one about 1 1/2 years ago by a young bass pro in a tournament he was fishing at Lake Oneida in New York, he said. The winner caught bass, which were schooling, three straight days on the XCalibur Zell Pop. Unfortunately, Rowland couldn’t get on any schooling bass, he said.

“There ain’t a lake you can go to that it ain’t going to work,” he said.

XCalibur Zell Pops have striking colors that look just like baitfish. But Rowland doesn’t have a favorite color, he said.

“You don’t see many colors,” he said. “You see colors that catch fish.

“Every one of those baits is made to imitate something.”

But, he confided, he does paint some.

“I paint a lot of my own baits. I play with colors. I’ve got one that nobody’s got because I painted it,” he said, noting it’s green and bone and looks exactly like a minnow.

Rowland had one key tip for fishing his namesake topwater. The lighter the fishing line size, the more action the plug has, he said from years of experience. For example, it works best with 12-pound-test line, he said, and each upgrade (to 14-pound to 20-pound) it loses action that can make the difference in getting a bass’s attention.

“You want to let the fish tell you,” he said.

Hardware on the XCalibur Zell Pop is the best in the business, according to Rowland.

“That’s why it’s not cheap — from the O-rings to the hooks to the finish, it’s the best you can buy,” he said.

He’s right about the finish. The paint job is meticulous, just like those sanding jobs he did so many years ago.

For more information, go to www.XCaliburTackle.com.

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Don Shoopman
About Don Shoopman 384 Articles
Don Shoopman fishes for freshwater and saltwater species mostly in and around the Atchafalaya Basin and Vermilion Bay. He moved to the Sportsman’s Paradise in 1976, and he and his wife June live in New Iberia. They have two grown sons.

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