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Part One hundred ninty-nine

The Panfish and The Popper
A Love Story


By Johnny (aka Hillfisher), Texas

For those who fish top water flies, especially warm water, in every collection sooner or later there will be poppers. There is a love affair among the panfish and bass for the popper. That noisy, twitchy colored object just seems to draw these fish like a magnet sometimes. Most new flyfishers here in the south usually start with poppers. There is a huge variety of them in all shapes, sizes, colors, and material. Also for the average beginner, discount stores such as Wal-Mart, Target etc. carry an ample supply of these in-expensive flies.

The first fly I ever cast was a popper. The very first fish I caught was on a popper. I still have the fly. I keep it in my fly box, but never use it. It's a memento now. It's not much to look at, but it holds all the memories of that first day. It was a typical warm Texas May afternoon. I can still hear the cicadas with their insistent singing, the willow trees gently swaying, beaconing the fisherman to the cooling waters of that lonesome creek. I had been practicing in the school yard for about a month, twenty minutes a day. I practiced techniques, distance and aim. It did not matter if the wind was blowing or not, I was out each day. Finally I figured I was comfortable enough to try some water. I was new to this kind of fishing and all I had were but a few poppers purchased at the local Wal-Mart while I was on another errand. I chose a size 12 popper with a chartreuse body, black eyes, white legs with a black and yellow-feathered tail. I carefully tied on the popper with a much practiced knot. I approached the creek's edge, payed out some line and carefully placed the popper out onto the water. As I had read from all my research, I let the popper sit until all the rings had disappeared. I twitched the popper. It made a slight gurgling noise and came to rest. Again I waited for the rings to vanish. I twitched it again. A slight pause and the water exploded! A large Blue Gill hit the popper and was heading for cover! In total astonishment, I just watched as the fish was peeling off line as my drag was set to very light. Finally I came to my senses, palmed the reel and slowed him down. I got him turned around and striped back in. He was a beauty, all eight inches of him. The love affair between the panfish, the popper and I, started that day.

Since then I make my own poppers. However unlike previous articles where I have introduced non-traditional materials for fly tying, poppers hold a special place with me and I make them only of balsa wood. Each popper is carefully crafted from balsa stock. Each shaped, sanded, painted and lacquered or epoxy sealed. Some of my poppers are quite unique, such as my furry poppers and soft body poppers, but each still has the shaped balsa core.

Allow me to take you on a tour of the "Hillfisher Popper Workshop." You just may be surprised at what you find here.

My popper creations start in the garage where my balsa hobby lathe resides. This was a birthday present, some years back, from my younger daughter and it has been one of the best tools I have ever used for creating popper bodies. It is a table saw, drill press, lathe and disc sander all in one. It runs on four "D" batteries and for a long time. It's small and breaks down for easy storage and travel. All the tools needed are shown here. A fine-toothed hobby saw for ultra fine cuts, screwdriver for locking in the lathe spindle in place. Sanding sealer to produce smooth bodies, small hobby hammer for knocking the spindle into the balsa wood, lathe cutting tool for shaping the body and last but not least the balsa stock itself. Having a variety of sizes will allow for different styles of bodies.

I start by choosing the balsa stock size, measuring the length needed and cutting with the hobby saw. Then drawing a line from corner to corner on the ends forms an X to locate the center on the stock. This is used to position the balsa onto the spindles.

After placing the stock in the lathe, using the cutting tool, shape the balsa stock to the desired shape. In this case I have created a pencil popper body. Notice at this point how rough the wood is.

Leaving the balsa in the lathe, run the lathe and lightly sand with fine sandpaper. Turning the lathe by hand, apply a coat of sanding sealer. Repeat the steps until a porcelain finish is obtained. You can really see the difference between this photo and the previous.

Again using the fine hobby saw, cut of the balsa stock ends and we now have a pencil popper body.

Shape the head if desired, in this case I am using the disc sander on my hobby lathe to place a 45 degree angle on the face.

Now I'll use the hook I'm planning to use and place it in the vice with the bend up. Then I'll run the base of the popper over the bend while applying a small amount of pressure. This creates a furrow that will allow the body to "Grab" the thread bed.

From this point on it's just a matter of laying a good but rough thread bed. This will give the ability to use standard hooks. I use Zap-a-Gap to anchor the body to the thread bed. And depending on what pattern you want, the tail, legs and paint are limited only by the imagination.

Poppers are fun to fish with and creating them is just as fun. Here is an example of some of my poppers. The top left is a balsa body wrapped in yellow chenille giving it a furry texture. The top right is a balsa body coated in E-Z sparkle body creating a soft flexible texture. The bottom center is the pencil popper created for this article, painted in a traditional red and white pattern and coated with epoxy for a clear hard protective coating.

So there you have it, the panfish and the popper. It is a love story, a love between imagination, creation, nature and the sport. ~ Hillfisher

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