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Part Ninety-three

Randy Fratzke

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Poppers 101, Part 3
Body Materials

By Randy Fratzke

Okay, now lets take a look at body materials. I should state here when you are using wood as a basis for your poppers weight is crucial. You need to remember you now have the weight of the popper plus all of the line material on your rod tip. I highly suggest you stay on the conservative side in popper size and weight or you will break the tip of your rod. As I stated earlier, you have many material choices to build popper bodies out of, so let's take a look at some of the characteristics of each one:

Wood Blanks

Pine. It's readily available, almost anywhere in the world in some form or another. It's relatively inexpensive. It's extremely durable. It's also extremely heavy, by fly fishing standards. (Hint: You can also use wooden dowels to save time. They come in a variety of sizes and all you have to do is cut them to the length you want and shape them.) It has to be cut, carved, whittled, shaped, sanded, sealed and painted. You will need to learn to work with the grain of the wood. It's not a very 'forgiving' wood either. In other words, one wrong cut of the knife or saw against the grain and you can throw it away. Wood filler can be used for repairs, but the filler has a different density than the wood and the lure won't usually run 'true' or sit straight in the water. You will usually need to use some sort of power tool, such as a Dremel or other rotary tools unless you have a lot of time on your hands. You can carve a very deep 'mouth' for the popper though and, depending on the size and shape of the mouth, actually make the lure produce a particular sound pattern when it's tugged at in the water.

Bass Wood. It's available at most hobby shops. It is the wood primarily used by wood carvers because it is soft enough for using hand tools and yet sturdy enough to use power tools. One of its best assets is you can actually carve or burn details into it with ease and without the worry of melting the wood. It's less dense than pine, which makes it lighter in weight. It usually has very wide, straight, grain which makes it much easier to work with than pine. Like pine, it has to be cut, carved, whittled, shaped, sanded, sealed and painted. However, it does take a lot less effort. I use it primarily for making poppers for fish with teeth, such as Northern Pike or Walleye or Muskellunge and salt-water species because it will stand up to the abuse better than most lighter material. You do have to remember to keep the lures relatively small though because of the weight of the wood and probably a good 6wt or better rod to make sure you don't snap a tip. . (Hint: anytime you sand on basswood, lay a piece of paper under the area and save the powder from the sanding. When you need to fill in large pores or holes in the wood just mix some of the sanding powder with some wood glue to form a paste or wood filler. Use it to fill in the holes, let it dry for a day or so, then sand it smooth.)

Balsa Wood. It's available at most hobby shops or hobby sections of large chain stores. It's a very light, soft, wood, easily carved with a sharp blade or even just sanded into shape. Power tools are definitely not needed (or recommended) for working with balsa because it is so soft that any little slip will result in a major flaw in the popper. (Hint: You can also use balsa dowels or square lengths to save time. They come in a variety of sizes and all you have to do is cut them to the length you want and shape them.) Attempting to carve any detail is very difficult because the wood is almost too soft. Care needs to be taken while working with balsa so as not to actually crush the grain with your fingers. It is easily paintable, holds up fairly well for most warm or cold water fishing, and can be cast by almost any size rod, within reason. I use it mostly for small sunfish, bluegill and crappie poppers, usually under 1/2" in length. (Hint: if you want to carve some detail into the balsa wood, dip or spray the near final popper shape into some polyurethane finish and let dry. This will seal the pores of the wood and then, carefully, carve any details or drill any holes in it.)

Cork. Cork can be found in numerous places. You can find it at hobby shops, large chain stores (usually in the kitchen gadget area) or, my best source, from wine and champagne bottles. (No, not the plastic corks or screw off tops, I mean the better quality stuff!) Just ask friends and relatives to save the corks for you. If you really want a lot, stop by a couple of local (finer) restaurants or bars and see if they will save some for you. Regardless of where you get your cork, working with it is very easy. I usually use two tools: A single edged razor blade and some sandpaper. (Hint: anytime you sand on cork, lay a piece of paper under the area and save the powder from the sanding in a small container or zip lock bag. When you need to fill in large pores or holes in the cork mix some of the sanding powder with some wood glue to form a paste or wood filler. Use it to fill in the holes, let it dry for a day or so, then sand it smooth.)


Foam. Foam is a very popular material used in making poppers. It is light in weight, very easy to work with, inexpensive, comes in a variety of forms and minimal tools are needed in their production. There are a couple of cautions when using foam you need to be aware of. It is very reactive to certain adhesives and paints. In other words, if the adhesive or paint contains ethyl alcohol, mineral spirits, or acetone additives (usually used as a thinner or evaporative agent) it will melt the foam into a jelly like mass on your work surface. I generally use 2 part epoxy for adhesive or filler and either acrylic or latex based paints just to be safe. Some of the foam materials I use and their assets and drawbacks are listed below:

Preformed: Preformed popper shapes can be purchased from various catalog vendors (Cabela's, Stamina (out of Minneapolis, MN), Netcrafters (out of Ohio)). These are preformed, pre-shaped, and, sometimes, the hook slots are already cut into them. Minimal work needs to be done to get to the finished product. The drawbacks are they only come in certain sizes or shapes, usually 1/2" to 3/4" and cone shaped.

Foam Injector Systems: These can be purchased through catalog sources also. They consist of 2 part mixes of chemicals to create the foam, an injector, and a set of molds. You mix the chemicals together, place it into the injector and inject the foam into the mold. I don't own one but do know several people who have tried them, most were not happy with the results. But it is an option out there, especially if you want to get into some heavy-duty production and can get the consistency and method down to a science.

Closed Cell Foam: Closed cell foam can be picked up at a lot of places. It can be purchased at hobby and craft stores in sheets and dowels. You can find it in boxes, used as packing material. You can find it at construction sites (especially roadwork) that are pouring concrete being used in the expansion joints. It's also sold in 'ropes' at many contractor supply houses and chain stores. It can be painted (though the paint will chip off) but waterproof magic markers work great for coloring and details. Simply cut off the amount and shape you need using a razor blade or Exacto knife, thread the hook through it (or tie or glue the hook onto the piece), detail it with the magic markers, add a few feathers or rubber legs and you've got yourself a popper! It comes in a wide variety of colors so have fun and be creative.

Foam Insulation Board: Yes, you know what I'm talking about, the stuff they use to insulate houses. It comes in 4 foot by 8-foot pieces for a couple of dollars at most home improvement centers. There are also a variety of densities, colors and thicknesses to choose from. The easiest way to avoid having to by a full sheet is to find a construction site and ask if you can pick up a few scraps around the site. Most of the time the contractor will be vary accommodating, especially if you offer to make him a few also. It is most often used around the outside of basement walls and put on just before it is back filled. The foam board is very easy to work with. It can be cut and shaped with a razor blade or Exacto knife, the hook placed into it, painted and finished in a couple of hours. (Hint, don't try to force your way through the material with the blade, it will crush and tear, slice the material with a sharp blade).

"Canned" (Liquid) Spray Insulation: Most of you know this stuff. It comes in a can, you shake it up and spray it into cracks and crevices and it expands (and expands, and expands. . .) to fill the gaps. Please note that there is now a water-soluble type (or latex based) out there and, while it's great for insulation purposes, it won't work for this application. You want the regular kind, it's yellowish in color and sticky and you can't wash it off anything without using gas or mineral spirits. A can only costs around $4.00 (I watch for sales) and you can always find an area of your house that needs a little repair. The thing is, once you start a can you might as well use it all because trying to get the nozzle clean enough to use the rest is nearly impossible. What I do is lay out a few sheets of wax paper and spray the 'left over' in lines on the paper. Let it dry for a couple of days, cut off chunks with a sharp blade and shape it into poppers. I also go around the different areas I filled and cut off the excess and us it also. Once dry, this stuff can be painted, sanded (carefully), filled, glued, etc. Just remember the rule of not using petroleum products, paints or solvents.


Spun Deer Hair. Deer hair is hollow, like a paper straw, as is the hair on some other animals such as elk and moose. It comes in a wide variety of dyed colors, along with the natural colors. 'Spinning' the hair is almost an art form in itself and does take some time and lots of practice to learn, but once you learn it, the variety of poppers you can produce increases dramatically. Spun hair poppers and lures have been around for probably several hundred years (or more). The process basically involves placing a small bunch of hair on the hook, wrapping a rather loose first turn of thread around the hook and hair, then a series of gradually tighter loops. In the process, the hair will flare out, like a fan, and in the winding process, rotate or 'spin' around the hook. That bunch is then pushed into position and another group is put in place. This process is repeated until the hook is covered with a tight mass of spun hair. Then the fun begins. Using a scissors or razor blade, start trimming this big hairball into a shape that resembles something real. You can make frogs, mice, poppers, the limit is only your imagination. Once you get good at it, you can start combining colors for special effects and color blending. For those of us who have done this, I realize this is a bit over simplified, but essentially that's what happens.


Miscellaneous Materials: There are many other materials that can be used in making popper bodies such as wool, yarn, cotton, and rubber. Almost anything you can think of that will float on the surface of the water can probably be adapted in one way or another. I know of one guy who used plastic soda straws from a fast food place, cut them into two inch pieces, ran a piece of monofilament line through them, tied a hook on the end. He used a nail head, heated with a lighter to carefully seal the ends of the straws (without melting the mono) so they would hold air. He then painted it dark green on top with a light colored "belly", put a couple of yellow stripes down the top side and calls it a garter snake. The design is so simple and it works great for large mouth bass and northern pike. Plus the materials are practically free.

Poppers! Let's Get Going!

Ok, so now you have materials. Hopefully next week we'll start building a few poppers. I'm going to skip the pine and use basswood. The procedure is about the same for both and I'll actually use the basswood popper. Until then, go fish! ~ Randy Fratzke

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