Jimmy Mason of Rogersville, Ala., gave up a lucrative job as an electrical engineer to be a fishing guide and take a shot at becoming a professional bass tournament fisherman. His former bosses thought he was daffy when they read his resignation letter. They probably still scratch their heads when they talk about him around the water cooler.
But Mason couldn't be happier. Over the past four years, he has been putting his clients on bass at lakes Wheeler, Wilson, Pickwick and Guntersville instead of being stuck in an office. And, he qualified for the 2007 Bassmaster Elite Series through the Southern Tour last season.
The popper has played an important role in Mason's success as a guide and a competitor. He often recommends a popper to his clients because he believes it is one of the easiest lures to catch bass with, especially for inexperienced fishermen. One of his most memorable trips was the day a 6-year-old tad caught his first bass on a Rebel Pop-R. In tournaments, poppers consistently put bass in Mason's livewell spring through fall.
BAITS & TACKLE
When he wants to tempt bass with a quick, subtle spitting sound, Mason ties on the Xcalibur Zell Pop. This finesse popper was designed to spit. If Mason believes the bass want a more distinct popping sound, he switches to Rebel's Pop-R in the 1/4-ounce P60, 1/2-ounce P65 or 3/4-ounce P70 model. The latter bait is available by special order only.
"I throw the P60 most of the time," Mason says. "I'll move up to the P65 when the shad spawn. I'll occasionally throw the P70 if I feel like I'm in an area where there's a lot of big fish."
Over the past season, the Ghost color Zell Pop has produced bass everywhere Mason has fished. It has a black back, gold shoulders, translucent sides and a white belly. His standbys include silver with a white belly, and a black or blue back. If he's fishing a lake that has smallmouth bass, Mason opts for the bone color. He favors chicken hackles on the rear treble and replaces them when they show signs of wear.
"A fresh chicken feather on the tail makes a huge difference," Mason says. "When you stop retrieving, the feathers expand and breathe."
Make sure the size of your popper matches the profile of available forage. And if your favorite brand does not come with a chicken feather on the rear treble, add one. Photos: Mark Hicks
A 6-foot, 6-inch medium action Kistler Helium baitcasting rod gives Mason's poppers the best action, thanks to its fast, limber tip and strong backbone. However, if Mason is retrieving a popper over heavy grass, he steps up to Kistler's 6-foot, 10-inch Senko Worm Special rod. This rod has more muscle to turn a bass' head and get it out of the grass.
The popper is usually tied to 14- or 17-pound Super Silver Thread line. Mason claims the line is thick enough to prevent it from pulling the popper under, yet it lets the bait work freely. When he guides clients who can't use baitcasting tackle, he sets them up with a 6-foot medium action spinning rod and 10-pound line.
PRESPAWN & SPAWN
Mason gets serious about throwing poppers in the spring after a strong warming trend that lasts several days. "When the water temperature creeps into the upper 50s during the day and stays above 50 degrees at night, the first big wave of bass moves into the shallows," Mason says.
If bass are spawning, identify the preferred depth of beds and pop your bait over this depth, parallel to banks.
This is when he targets stumps, flooded bushes, grass patches and other cover he finds in the backs of coves and creek arms. Cover near a well-defined creek channel or ditch is especially productive.
Though Mason often works a popper over the surface with a fast, steady cadence, he slows down during the prespawn and spawning phases. One effective ploy is popping the bait up to a piece of cover at a deliberate pace, stopping just before it reaches the cover, and letting it rest for several seconds before imparting a single pop.
"That really works well when the bass are just going on the beds," Mason says.
If Mason believes a bedding bass is present, he might repeat this tactic several times. Though Mason wants at least 12 inches of water visibility for popper fishing, he claims that the water can be too clear for this tactic when bass are spawning. The water should have enough stain to prevent him from seeing, say, the roots of a stump, or the bottom beneath a flooded bush.
Whatever cadence Mason gives his popper, he employs the same basic rod motion. He repeatedly snaps his rod tip downward from 4 o'clock to 5 o'clock while taking up half a turn on his baitcast reel between snaps. He claims this imparts a spitting action to his popper and gives it a slight dog-walking motion.
During the postspawn period, Mason's poppers clean house on bass that are guarding fry. He finds balls of fry in spawning areas near docks, laydowns, grass and other cover. His favorite areas on Lake Guntersville are pockets off the main lake and in creeks that have patches of milfoil. Fry cluster in holes and irregularities along the edges of the grass. Mason stays on the move and works his popper over spots that look likely to hold fry. He isn't concerned with actually seeing the fry before he casts.
When shad spawn in the spring, Mason uses a popper to catch bass that feed on these baitfish. On grass lakes, he often finds shad spawning along the edge of the vegetation near river and creek channels. Shad also spawn on broken rock, riprap and boat docks. Whether he's casting to grass, rocks or docks, Mason positions his boat so he can work his popper parallel, or nearly parallel, to the edge of the cover.
"That's usually a short-lived morning bite," Mason says. "If it's a cloudless day, it might last only the first 45 minutes after daylight. Clouds and choppy water can make it last up to two hours."
The popper bite is also short-lived in the summertime, but it's definitely worthwhile. It typically ends when the sun hits the water in the morning and begins when the sun dips close to the horizon in the evening.
Although the topwater bite is short-lived during the dog days, the small window of opportunity can be fast and furious. Illustrations: Chris Armstrong
In lakes that don't have submerged vegetation such as milfoil or hydrilla, Mason casts poppers to emergent grass along the bank in the backs of pockets or creeks. For example, he targets water willow on Lake Wilson. On other lakes, the vegetation could be something like cattails or bulrushes. Mason claims the best grass is near a source of fresh water.
"Bank grass near an in-flowing creek is where you can catch two or three fish every morning to start the day off," Mason says. "Sometimes you'll catch a big kicker fish there."
On a grass lake like Guntersville, Mason works his popper along the edges of big milfoil and hydrilla flats on the main lake and in the creeks. These submerged grasses hold bass shallower in the summertime, and you can often find schools of bass with a popper.
By mid-September on grass lakes, the thick mats of vegetation start to decay and break up. This is when Mason goes back to areas on the main lake and in the creeks where he caught bass on poppers before the grass matted on the surface. He finds plenty of openings between the broken mats where a popper can work its magic.
"That's when you can cast to bass that lived under those mats all summer," Mason says. "And, they've haven't seen a popper in months."
On lakes where submerged grass isn't a factor, Mason gravitates to the backs of creeks that have well-defined channels. Shad migrate to flats in the backs of creeks as the water cools, and bass follow this forage. This is when a small, spitting popper like the Zell Pop pays big dividends for Mason. When the water temperature drops below 65 degrees, he works the popper with more pauses.
When the water starts cooling, focus on the backs of creeks.
When mayflies are hatching, bass hang out under overhanging trees and bushes where swarms of these bugs cling. Here, the bass readily pick off the mayflies that invariably fall into the water. The bass pay little attention to regular-size poppers because they are so tuned in to the mayflies.
Jimmy Mason brings bass on the run by fishing an 1/8 ounce Pop-R with a 6-foot, 6-inch medium action spinning rod and 10-pound-test line. This popper is too small to cast accurately with baitcasting tackle.
"That little Pop-R is the best topwater bait I have ever found for fishing around mayfly hatches," Mason says. "With a spinning rod, you can skip it under overhangs where the mayflies are hatching."
Mason isn't above casting a plastic worm into the branches and shaking a mess of mayflies into the water. This starts a feeding frenzy and makes bass easy pickings for the bitty Pop-R.
To make his poppers spit more than plunk, Jimmy Mason cinches an Improved Cinch Knot at the bottom of the bait's line tie. To stop the know from moving up, he puts a small drop of Super Glue in the middle of the line tie and lets it set for several days before fishing the lure. He reapplies the glue as needed.
Mason also modifies some of his P60, P65 and P70 Pop-Rs to make them better spitters. First, he sands the bottom of the popper's cupped face to eliminate its protruding lip. Then he sands the sides of the popper's face to reduce the depth of the cup.