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February 28, 2013

Catch Stripers Near Structure on Poppers

When you have to first get their attention, pick a popper for the job.

We’d been unsuccessfully plugging the rock outcropping for an hour when I noticed David rummaging through his tackle box, resurfacing with a popper. “That’ll just spook anything here,” I naively said. One cast, one pop and a swirl formed behind it, another pop and POW! A broad tail sent the plug skyward. One more twitch, and the plug disappeared under a boil and line screamed off the reel. 

Poppers work magic on stripers, particularly on structure such as rocks, rip lines, and sod banks, and ­demonstrate the extraordinary aggressiveness of these animals. They’re sometimes effective when nothing else will draw interest. Nothing gets the heart pumping like a violent surface strike in what seemed like dead water. These explosions never fail to take my breath away. 

Active or Reactive?

Why stripers eat poppers, particularly on structure, is a relevant question given they will often slam them when they are not visibly feeding, or when they are feeding on a bait that looks and acts nothing like a popper. Opinions vary, but many believe that it’s an instinctual, aggressive reaction. “It’s a ­territorial thing,” says Block Island guide Greg Snow. “It’s in their zone; they’re going to smack it.” This is likely true. 

In those cases when stripers are feeding on small bait, or don’t appear to be feeding at all, I get more boils and tail slaps than actual strikes, as if they are trying to punish the popper rather than eat it. “A lot of the time, it aggravates them and they just blast it,” says Chesapeake guide Richie Gains.  

Frank Crescitelli, New York guide and designer of an innovative line of poppers under the brand Guides Secret, believes poppers simply get the fish going. “They inspire action,” he says. “They might not be in feeding mode, but poppers get things going by ringing the dinner bell.” 

Certainly poppers trigger a striper’s competitive nature. “In Block Island the water is clear, so we often see a dozen fish laying up,” says Snow. “They ignore a live bait, but when you throw a popper, it gets their attention. They get competitive.”

To Pop or Not to Pop

Sure, you’ll want to grab a popper any time you see surface action. But when no surface activity is apparent, I still give them a try, especially when working structure. Poppers often work in the most unlikely circumstances. Gains describes an excellent Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel bite last winter: “The best pilings are in 50 feet of water; the stripers are 20 feet down, and they still come up to grab a popper.”

One of my favorite popper-fishing settings is the back-bay sod-bank scenario found in saltwater marshes from Maine to Virginia. The mud flats in front of sod banks hold small bait, such as grass shrimp, crabs and worms. When small-bait ­hatches go off, there are thousands of critters in the water. “Matching the hatch” can be useless when there is so much of the real thing. Poppers cause that aggressive reaction though, especially in shallow water. They’ll draw strikes when nothing else will. 

Another good place to use poppers is along rocks, riprap, ­jetties and other hard, sloping structure. Stripers prowl these areas, staging on leeward rocks, waiting in ambush. New Jersey guide Gene Quigley does a lot of his popper fishing along central and northern Jersey Shore jetties. “Our jetties slope gradually underwater, and fish are right in those rocks,” he says. “They will smash something splashing around above them.”