No matter what species you’re after, there’s nothing like tossing flies that entice surface strikes. Whether it’s casting small dry flies to sipping trout, floating cicada flies against a bank for smallmouth bass or slinging foam surface patterns to stripers crashing bait, fishing topwater is simply the most visual and exciting way to catch fish with a fly rod.
When it comes to chasing saltwater game fish on both coasts of the United States, the consensus until now has always been to toss any of the “big three” surface flies – or more to the point, Crease Flies, Bangers and Gurglers.
All three have had their moments and caught numerous fish over the years. The common denominator among them is the ability to push water and create a popping noise on the surface when retrieved. Yet individually, their effectiveness is best served when they’re used in specific topwater conditions or situations.
Inside the Big Three
When the opportunity arises to fish topwaters, anglers have many choices as to what kind of commotion they want to make. For fishing a worm hatch, it’s often thought that a fly that makes a V-wake is better than one that creates a lot of noise. In situations like this, a Slider or even a Crease Fly can be used.
The V-wake made by these patterns often elicits a strike when nothing else seems to work. The Crease Fly, developed by Joe Blados, can be V-waked or popped, depending on the situation. If you tie one – or get a store-bought version – try adding a plug in the mouth cavity, using a piece of foam or a dollop of silicone or Clear Cure Goo Flex. The fly is then able to spit some water with ease.
Tied with bucktail, Crease Flies float high in the water column. They also tend to work best when used to imitate small prey. Bay anchovies, silversides, peanut bunker and small sand eels are usually a perfect match for a Crease Fly. When false albacore are gorging on rain bait in the fall in Montauk, New York, or Harkers Island, North Carolina, a Crease Fly can produce a bite when all others fail.
On the flip side, if you’re looking to generate a loud popping noise with a fly that pushes lots of water, it’s hard to beat a Bob’s Banger. Created by legendary tier Bob Popovics, this fly has been a staple for many years. I have found that a Banger is best used when fishing big water with a strong current. A Banger can make enough commotion to draw game fish from quite a distance, as well as draw them up to the surface from far below. That’s why Bangers are a favorite of surf fishermen.
Bangers are also some of the most indestructible surface flies ever designed. The silver tape covering the live body foam can withstand numerous bites from toothy game fish and keep on popping. Bangers are constructed with bucktail, along with a bit of Estaz behind the head.
If pushing water on the surface is necessary but so too is ease of casting, look no further than the Gurgler. A Gurgler’s best attribute is that it doesn’t have to be worked as hard by the angler to produce noise and commotion.
Developed by the late Jack Gartside, the Gurgler is great in that a fly-angler can regulate how much disturbance is produced. The pattern can be fished with a loud popping sound or used gently to create a small disturbance. I’ve had many strikes on a Gurgler as it was at rest.
The Gurgler body is shaped like a baitfish, and its recipe calls for a variety of natural materials that allow it to breathe and wiggle while sitting still. Most Gurglers are tied with bucktail or saddle hackles, with Estaz under the foam head.
A New Gun in Town
While the “big three” are all excellent in their own right, a new topwater pattern has emerged that I believe could well become the most effective ever. It’s called a Charlie’s Pole Dancer, created by West Coast fly designer Charlie Bisharat. What makes this pattern so unique is its built-in action when retrieved on the surface. A Pole Dancer has the ability to “walk the dog” when retrieved.
For years, conventional-tackle anglers have generated this side-to-side dancing action with plastic and wooden lures, such as pencil poppers, Top Dogs and Skitter Pops, with great success. Probably the most famous lure is Heddon’s Zara Spook.
Fly tiers from both coasts tried to figure out how to design a pattern that would create this walk-the-dog-type action. Bisharat finally cracked the code, and over the past 18 months, I was able to test his fly.
The shape of the Pole Dancer’s foam-injected head is what creates the side-to-side movement. It elicits the most vicious surface strikes I’ve ever seen on a topwater fly. The fish simply want to crush it.
Tied with bucktail, saddle hackles, Flash ‘N Slinky, a worm rattle and Estaz behind the head, the fly moves as if it were alive in the water. It was designed in three sizes: large (5/0 hook), medium (1/0 hook) and small (No. 2 hook, without a rattle). All that is required of an angler is pointing the rod toward the water and using constant one-foot – or slightly longer – strips. That gets the pattern dancing.
Bisharat is an Umpqua FeatherMerchants designer who for years has been pursuing trophy-size striped bass in the California Delta. Known as “the mad scientist” among his fly-tying friends, he is always tinkering with ideas considered outside the box of conventional wisdom. And that’s precisely how he came up with the Pole Dancer.
While you can successfully use any of the “big three” flies under specific conditions, Charlie’s Pole Dancer is so versatile it can be fished in almost all scenarios. Whether you’re fishing calm flats, fast rips, estuaries or beaches for either toothy or non-toothy fish, a Pole Dancer’s side-to-side movement almost always provides you with some of the most exciting takes when you’re fishing the long rod.
Lefty Kreh, when seeing this fly’s movement for the first time in my boat, thought it was incredible. And Dan Blanton said the Pole Dancer is one of the great flies of this era. Those are quite the testimonials from some pretty significant fly-anglers, to say the least!
In-the-know whippy stickers have already been using Pole Dancers to take Kentucky spotted bass, largemouth bass, peacock bass, dorado, striped bass, giant trevally, barracuda, false albacore, snook, tarpon and a host of other saltwater and freshwater game fish. Next time you want to see that big “toilet flush” on the water’s surface, try using what surely will become one of the most revered flies to emerge in a long, long time.
Pole Dancer Materials
Thread: White Danville flat waxed nylon, 210-denier
Hook: Gamakatsu SP11-3L3H, 1/0
Weed Guard: 35-pound-testhard Mason
Lead Wire: 22-gauge florist wire,size 0.035
Body: Pearl Estaz, medium
Eyes: Prismatic stick-on
Rattle: Worm rattle
Tail: White Schlappen saddle hackles
Underbelly: White bucktail
Flash: Pearl Flashabou
Wing: White Icelandic sheep fur and olive Flash ‘N Slinky