Its rubber skirt long ago dried up and crumbled into dust, but the old yellow Hula Popper remains one of my most prized possessions.
I haven’t fished with it in 40 years, and, as best I can remember, I caught only one bass with it.
But that one fish . . . well, it set the course that I have followed as a lifelong angler, including to my friendship with Sam Griffin, a lure designer and one of the world’s best topwater fishermen. That’s why I so love that Hula Popper.
Yet, I didn’t make the connection between that lure and my addiction to topwater fishing until I wrote an essay in my book, Why We Fish.
As I started to write “The Proof Is in the Popper,” my intent was to point out that pleasant memories of previous trips are some of the main reasons that we fish. But then the essay took on a life of its own as I visualized that fall day on Turner’s pond so many years ago.
The water was flat calm, and I knew next to nothing about fishing a topwater. Since the bait was a “popper,” I popped it. In fact, I popped it as hard as I possibly could, sending ripples all across that pond.As the pond returned to glasslike following my second pop, water under the lure exploded, and I suddenly was tied fast to the biggest bass that I had ever hooked.
Of course, it wasn’t large enough to pull drag on my Johnson Century spincast reel. But at 3 pounds, it was a trophy in my eyes as I dragged it up on the bank. My heart nearly leaped out of my chest at the sight of that fish, and, after I put the fish on my rope stringer, I remember looking down to see my hands still shaking.
In the decades since, I’ve caught thousands of bass larger than the one that I caught that fall day, including more than a dozen that weighed 10 pounds or more. And I have caught some of those lunkers on Sam’s wooden surface baits, mostly the Offset Sam.
But I’ve never caught one that excited me more than that 3-pounder did. And as I wrote about that, I suddenly realized, hey, that’s why I like topwater so much!
How can a 3-pounder that I caught on top as a child mean more to me than 10-pounders that I’ve caught as an adult?
If you’ve ever returned to the elementary school that you went to as a child, you know that the halls, the rooms, the desks, everything looks smaller to you as an adult that it was in your memories. Well, it’s the same thing.
I have no doubt that if a 3-pound bass were to blow up on that Hula Popper today in exactly the same way as that one from my childhood, the explosion would pale in comparison to what I remember.
But just as school is larger in our memories than in the reality of adulthood, so too is that strike.
That’s why I’d rather throw a topwater than anything else. I remember how that blowup excited me, and I want more, in much the same way that an addict needs his fix.
And that’s why I’m so blessed to have Sam as a friend. It’s as if some higher power led the student to his teacher. For years, Sam made baits for Luhr Jensen, including the Jerk’n Sam. Now he makes his own line, including the Offset Sam, a slush bait, and the Lil’ Richard, a finesse lure that has been his biggest seller.
“Keep throwing a topwater and eventually you will get bit,” says the man who has been designing and making topwater lures for more than 30 years and who has been living on and fishing Lake Okeechobee for most of his 70-plus years. While guiding and “field testing” his lures, he has logged more time on the water than most any professional bass fisherman.
“My big things are to be confident and have patience. I’ll fish behind people throwing worms and crankbaits and catch fish they bypass. I like to fish that topwater slower and let ‘em read the menu.”
Here are some of the strategies that Sam has shared with me during our time on the water together:
- On topwaters, most fish are caught on the front hook. That means it is important to have a bigger, stronger hook there.
- Dress up the back hook. Sam has learned that he gets 25 percent more bites when he puts pearlescent Mylar tinsel on the back hook. It’s especially productive when the bait is still.
- The same topwater bait will work anywhere. “It’s a matter of confidence,” says Sam. “That’s why there are regional favorites.”
- Slow down. “Most of the time, people fish a topwater too fast,” the lure designer says. “They’re just pulling and pulling. I’d say that 85 percent of the time, the bite comes when the bait is still or coming to a stop.”
With most topwaters, Sam will jerk the bait twice, creating slack in the line and allowing the bait to sit. Then he will swing the rod tip toward the bait, taking in line, and repeat the sequence. With a popper, he might jerk just once.
“Pay attention and fish will let you know what they want,” he says. “If you are fishing too fast, they will follow but not hit.”
- “Early and late is a myth,” says Sam. “Those are not the only times to throw a topwater. People used to fish two or three hours before work and then come home and fish two or three hours. That’s the way that got started. I’ve found that 10 to 2 is the most productive time for big fish.”
- Color is more important to the fisherman than it is the fish.
“When I develop a lure, I seal it so it won’t take on water, but I don’t paint it,” Sam explains. “Then I fish with it. I’ve probably caught more fish on those baits than with painted baits. I’ve sold a few like that too, but mostly they’re too bland for fishermen.
“I offer 26 colors, but black and white is what I use the most. It’s what I grew up with and what I have confidence in.”
- Topwaters aren’t just for warm water.
“You can catch bass consistently on top in water that is 50 degrees or above,” the Florida native says. “Usually in colder water, you want to fish extremely fast or extremely slow, not in between.”
The popper is a good choice for colder water, he adds, because you can keep it in one place longer and because its tail sits down in the water, making it easier for the bass to take.
- Topwaters aren’t just for calm water either.
“Take what the weather gives you,” says Sam. “In rough weather, you can throw in the ‘wind rows’ in grass. And you can throw in troughs between waves. Most of the time, you’ll want a faster retrieve in rough water, to take the slack out of your line.”
- Not every topwater bite is explosive. In general, louder and larger baits will draw more aggressive bites. Smaller, more subtle baits will get the “suckers.”
“In cold weather and in calm water, when you’re using a small bait, it’s really important to watch your line, just like you would with other baits,” Sam says. “That’s because you’re more likely to get a sucking bite.
“With a soft, suck bite on the back of the bait, don’t set the hook hard,” he cautions. “Instead, lift up and reel. Otherwise you’ll pull the hook out. When you do get a fish this way, it’s usually hooked on the edge of the mouth or even the outside.”
If you want to incorporate some of Sam’s lures with his strategies, your best chance of finding them are in the bait shops around Lake Okeechobee. A few are listed from time to time on eBay and possibly you might find some at other websites as well.
Just as with that yellow Hula Popper, I’m not about to part with any of mine.