Over the past week and a half, sustained surface feeding activity has returned to the scene on both Belton and Stillhouse Hollow lakes.
This sustained surface activity, which may go unhindered for several hours under breezy, cloudy conditions, differs substantially from the unpredictable, sporadic, short-lived surface feeding activity of the early summer which I have referred to in this column as “popcorn” feeding.
Largemouth bass, white bass and hybrid striped bass all engage in this manner of sustained surface feeding at this time of year although, simply based on their sheer abundance relative to populations of other species, white bass will typically make up the majority of any day’s surface feeding activity.
Although these surface-feeding fish seem to eat with reckless abandon, they remain quite aware of their surroundings, including their awareness of anglers in boats with sonar pinging and trolling motors running. Fish will typically keep their distance when they sense such intrusions.
Although there are certainly times when fish are so abundant and so aggressive they will literally strike anything resembling the forage fish they are after, more often the more closely the angler matches the forage’s appearance, the more successful the angler will be.
These two factors — the fish keeping a “buffer zone,” and the fish having a preference for the naturally occurring forage — make the popping cork rig an excellent choice for anglers of all experience levels to cash in on the surface action this time of year.
The popping cork rig has but three components: a weighted popping cork, a fluorocarbon leader and a lightweight or weightless lure which resembles the baitfish the gamefish are feeding upon, namely, small threadfin shad.
The popping cork rig allows for a small lure to be cast a long distance so more area can be effectively covered with a bait sufficiently small to imitate young-of-the-year threadfin shad. More standoff distance from the fish can be maintained so fish remain on the surface for longer periods of time.
My preferred method of delivery is via a 7½-foot long baitcasting outfit loaded with 12-pound test mono. However, because many of my clients do not know how to use baitcasting gear, I also use 7-foot long spinning rods for this duty, as well. Generally speaking, a longer rod will render longer casts, all else being equal.
My favorite popping cork is a weighted, 3-inch long cork in either green or white, although the color of the cork is not critical. 2- or 4-inch weighted corks will do just fine, as well.
Because I prefer to pre-tie my leaders, I tie them with a surgeon’s loop knot on the end that is to attach to the swivel on the tapered end of the popping cork. I also use a surgeon’s loop knot to connect my lure to the leader. For leader material, I prefer 15-pound test fluorocarbon. It is critical not to go any lighter than this on the leader material if using spinning gear so as to avoid tangles during the cast.
I typically leave about 36 inches of leader separating the cork and the lure, and can cut this back at least once as the leader gets scuffed up near the lure from fishes’ teeth.
The lure is the critical part of this rig. The lure must closely imitate the color and size of the forage in order to provide maximum results. For this reason, I hand-tie my own streamer flies using a flytying vice. I start with streamers 1¾ inches in length, and tie them in half-inch increments up to 5 inches. I use long-shanked streamer hooks like the Mustad #9672 and white saddle hackles (a form of chicken feathers taken from the back of the bird’s neck) with white thread to make a very quick, simple, effective streamer which is weightless and therefore easily vacuumed into a fish’s mouth as the fish opens its mouth, flares its gills and tries to suck the streamer rearward.
When fish are crashing bait all around the boat, I suggest taking a “rifle approach” instead of a “shotgun approach,” meaning single out one small wolfpack of fish and cast just beyond them so your popping cork rig may be worked completely from one side of the school back to the side of the school nearest you. Avoid just casting out amidst all the commotion (the shotgun approach).
As for actually working the lure, I suggest working the lure back to the boat by constantly turning the reel’s handle while at the same time working the rod tip by pulling it away from the bait off to one side of your body by only 8-10 inches, then returning the rod to a centered position directly in front of you, and repeating this motion rhythmically as the handle is being turned. This is identical to the motion required to “walk the dog” with a cigar-style bait like a Zara Spook.
By returning the rod to a centered position after pulling it away from the bait, the bait speeds up (on the pull) and slows down (on the return-to-center). The speed-up draws fish, and the slow-down allows for the fishes’ vacuum action to take the bait into their mouths.
If this technique is too difficult to master, then just reel the rig back at a steady cadence. Vary your speed until you find a speed the fish like, then stick with it. The retrieve should not be so fast that the cork is constantly plunging under the water as the scooped face catches water.
Once you begin catching fish on this rig, you will soon recognize another of its many positive traits: that of the ease of removal of the streamer’s single hook. With a bit of practice you can catch two or three fish to every one caught by your buddy throwing a lure with a treble hook (or worse, two treble hooks) simply due to the minimal time required to remove the easily grasped, long-shanked streamer hook.
One last tip for those opting to use spinning gear: As the popping cork rig is nearing the water’s surface at the end of a cast, gently cup your palm over the spinning reel’s spool so as to cause a gentle braking action. In this way, the streamer will lay out on the water neatly beyond the popping cork and will not tangle. Failing to do this, and thus allowing the rig to land in a heap, will often result in frustrating leader tangles. The “thumbing” action required on a baitcasting rig takes care of this automatically on such casting reels.