The subtle art of the Pop-R

This story is not just about the Pop-R lure; it's about a method of fishing this and similar lures and flies.

As I mentioned in my previous story, guide Mike Starrett professes an undying faith in the power of the Pop-R in his home waters of the Mattawoman section of the Potomac. An email from Mike about a week after my July trip read in part: "The great things about Saturday will be the low tide at golden hour. It could mean, with the overcast skies, some great Pop-R action along the grass edges."


So I met with Mike and his fellow guide Dave Snellings that Saturday afternoon to join the flotilla of other boats fishing Mattawoman. Dave's boat proved to be a lot less than advertised, since it didn't have the front seat required by my replacement knee. I reluctantly settled for a rear seat, where my misgivings about this arrangement were realized.

The Pop-R was introduced by Rebel lures, now part of Pradco, in 1976. It did not sell well and was dropped in 1978. However, it was an insiders' favorite on the competitive bass circuit. In those years many of the tournament anglers were sanding down the bottom lip, converting the "popper" into a "spitter." Following an article in Bassmaster Magazine, Rebel resumed manufacture of the Pop-R in 1987. Today, the lure is made in four basic models ranging from 2 inches long and 1/8 ounce to 3 ¼ inches long and 9/16 ounce. The most popular model, the P60, is 2 1/2 inches long and weighs ¼ ounce. Probably the most popular colors in the basic models are bone and silver with either a blue of black back.


One writer described the factory hooks as "marginal." They aren't even that good, so most serious fishermen replace the hooks and even the split rings with better hooks, e.g., wide gap, red, light wire hooks of the same size. Likewise most tie in white tail feathers, about 2 inches long to the rear hook. (Poor hooks are common on many mid-priced –- and still outrageously high –- lures these days. Replace them if you want to land a fish.) Likewise most serious topwater fishermen carry popper and spitter versions. The lures can be fished on braid or monofilament attached via a 100% Loop Knot.

The Pop-R, like many poppers, does not lie flat on the surface. Rather the tail sinks to somewhere between 45 and 90 degrees from the surface, so that only the red, cupped face is visible when the lure is at rest. This is a key to Starrett's technique.

Our Saturday trip started slowly. We ran through a series of frogs, flukes and plastic worms with meager results the first few hours. Then it was Pop-R time. Legendary fisherman and outdoor writer, Lefty Kreh, has often said, "Nothing is as deadly as the local expert on his home waters." I would add, "Especially when he's in the front of the boat in a narrow channel."

So here's the technique: Mike made a gentle cast right to the edge of the weed line. Then he turned his rod hand palm up and held the rod loosely, with his fingers not his palm, holding the rod parallel to the water. He let the lure drift motionless until all the ripples from touching down dissipated. He mostly continued this drift only occasionally giving the lure a bob by dipping the rod tip down a few inches. He made no loud, splashy pops; a quiet "blub" was the most noise.

Did it work? Look at the pictures. "Mike, any fool could use this technique, and you just proved it," was my left-handed compliment. The bobbing action of the Pop-R, and improved hooks, are a key to his success, but the technique is far more important than the lure. Nor is this technique new. I have often used this technique fishing rivers for smallmouth bass and trout.

My favorite lure for this technique for smallmouth is the Tiny Torpedo, again with better replacement hooks that drop the tail of the lure. As the lure drifts with the current and responds to gentle twitches, the tail propeller turns –- and turns on smallmouth and bluegill/sunfish.

Several years ago Joe Bruce and I began scoring with this technique fishing fly rod poppers, sliders or hair bugs, on the Upper Potomac –- and I have the pictures to prove it. We simply cast out and let the bug drift, lengthening the drift to up to 100 feet downstream by wiggling the rod tip to create S curves of slack to create a natural drift. We would give the bug and occasional shudder by whacking the butt of the rod with the heel of the line hand.

Likewise Joe and I use this technique fishing dry flies for trout. I caught the largest trout on our writers' group trip to Pennsylvania last year by drifting a parachute Adams nearly 100 feet downstream this way. As the Adams approached a riffle I gave a slight twitch, and the fly disappeared down the maw of the brown trout.


(Fishing the Pop-R in saltwater can be a different game. Harry Pippin and I had several hours of continuous action for 16 to 22-inch stripers near Fort McHenry by furiously cranking and popping with the "try to take it away from them" technique after quieter retrieves proved fruitless.)

Back to Mattawoman Mike caught a half dozen nice bass, and a 10-pound snakehead on the Pop-R, while Dave also took several nice bass. I opted to be the "control" for this demonstration, trying several frogs in vain. My only success for the evening came on 3-inch flukes.

So I can recommend the technique for river bass fishing. But I don't particularly recommend the lure. Rapala's Rap Pop and Skitter Pop, though expensive, might be better bets.


1.(JPEG: DSCN0133 copy_edited-1) This 10+-pound snakehead inhaled Mike Starrett's Pop-R at the "golden hour."

2.(JPEG: DSCN0131 copy_edited-1) This typical Mattawoman largemouth nipped the middle hook of Mike's Pop-R.


3.(JPEG: DSCN0137 copy_edited-1) This shot demonstrates how cautious the pressured bass were. Note the tail hook is on the outer jaw, after the bass bunted the lure.