How many anglers were introduced to fishing with snapper blues and a popper? My topwater bluefish obsession began at age 3, as I watched my great grandfather catch snappers by the dozen with a popping cork and Kastmaster from their dock in Southold, New York. Half the time, rather than strike the spoon, larger blues ravaged his makeshift popper—a “borrowed” wine cork from my aunt’s custom cork-board collection. It instilled in me an appreciation—actually, a near obsession—for the bluefish’s ferocity at a young age. Today, framed bluefish paintings adorn my walls, a snapper from Grainger Pottery hangs in the bathroom, even on my phone case is a Nick Mayer rendition of a gator bluefish.
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Finning blues, like frothing albies, are a sight that sends most fishermen into a frenzied state, much like the way bluefish feed on the surface. Maybe it is their feverish aggression toward surface lures that sends my adrenaline skyrocketing when they show up in the surf; or maybe it is nostalgia, and the uncertainty of a strong run combined by years of overfishing and historically mysterious migration patterns. In any case, topwater is undoubtedly the most exciting way to catch the yellow-eyed demons. Eager for the topwater bluefish bite to erupt on Cape Cod, I surveyed my Instagram followers a couple weeks ago to gauge the essential surface plugs of bluefish fanatics. The results varied from long-standing classics like the Roberts Ranger, to the leaders of the new school like the Tsunami Talkin’ Popper XD. Truth be told, every lure mentioned by the audience—with the exception of a wet sock with a treble hook—will catch bluefish, but some of these lures excel in specific environments and conditions.
Back Bay Bluefish
Picture this: a group of daisy-chaining blues lazily creep across the sandy, shallow flats before you. Whether they’re in transit to new territory or on the prowl as a pack, a well-placed cast right on their noses in the crystal-clear water will set off the temperamental tailing blues.
When they’re picky, the loud and lazy side-to-side stroll of a Rebel Jumpin’ Minnow is difficult for even a cocktail bluefish to pass up. An interior rattle and the plug’s pronounced walking action call the blues to the surface as the 4.5-inch, 1/2-ounce spook saunters overhead, begging to be bitten.
For those days when you need a real attention-grabber, the rapid splashing of a 1-ounce Cotton Cordell Pencil Popper will infuriate any bluefish with an appetite for destruction, while enabling you to cast from a safe distance to avoid spooking them on the crystal-clear, sun-shone flats. When casting into slight wind and chop, the frantic action of this plastic pencil excels in bringing the blues to feed.
Although they were named in spirit of the striped bass, the Creek Chub Striper Strike and Atom Striper Swiper are two must-have backwater poppers that are most productive as they chug along the top, their cupped faces throwing water with each rod twitch on a taut line. The pronounced gurgle and subsequent spray of bay water resembles the surface activity of a feeding fish or a diving bird, drawing interest from any bluefish nearby.
With the Creek Chub Striper Strike, the most violent takes frequently come on the pause as it slowly sinks like a stunned baitfish. However, a rapid retrieve will get the blues so fired up that one or two will usually give chase, even after a fellow yellow-eyed demon has fallen victim to it.
At a certain point each season, typically around the end of May (depending on your location along the coast), the back bay bite ceases. Gator bluefish migrate to more temperate waters “out front” seeking larger, more abundant sources of prey to satiate their voracious appetites. When they do, it’s time to beef up your terminal tackle, pick up the surf stick and cover more water.
Blues Out Front
Open water, bigger surf and larger prey… everything is bigger out front. There’s no sight fishing in skinny water here. From ripping currents of the inlets and jetty points, to the troughs, sandbars, eddies and everywhere in between, big blues patrol like the bouncers of the beach. They control which baitfish, if any, will successfully make it in or out of the inlets. Sometimes they’re too low to spot, but when bluefish are suspended or pinning bait to the surface, a large topwater plug is necessary to grab their attention in the tumbling waves and sweeping currents.
A white Gibbs Polaris Popper is one of those staple plugs that does not leave my bag once the blues have arrived in the surf. The tail-weighted, bottle-neck-style wooden plug was the first of it’s kind, invented by Stan Gibbs to maximize casting distance into strong onshore winds and reach breaking fish in one of his favorite locations, the Cape Cod Canal.
Rhythmically retrieving the Polaris Popper is crucial to generate a significant splash with its cupped face. Twitch the rod tip just enough to throw water, reel down the slack, and with a taut line, repeat the process. Fast retrieves work as well as a slow “splash-and-pause” as long as it’s not so fast that the plug is surfing and being ineffectively dragged across the surface.
Another long-standing staple—especially to Cape Cod surfcasters fishing the squid run during the 1980’s— Roberts Ranger requires less rhythm to draw strikes from big bluefish. The plug’s aerodynamic and slightly bulbous, oblong shape allows it to soar through headwinds, and a steady to rapid retrieve with the occasional pause will have the lure skitter across the surface, inviting hungry bluefish to give chase as they would to squid in the rips.
Ideal for those days when bluefish are stacked off the jetty point, a Gibbs Pencil Popper creates a disturbance that is almost irresistible to a pile of 10-pound blues. Especially on the ebb tide, as the inlet funnels schools of bait to the staging blues, the Gibbs Pencil violently splashes and when fished effectively, can remain almost in one place.
With one hand a couple inches above the reel seat, quickly pump the rod to create the splashing side-to-side action while slowly using your reeling hand to keep a taut line. The nose of the plug should jump back and forth in its own froth, moving slowly toward you to attract any bluefish below.
Designed to mimic the largest of bluefish forage like bunker and mackerel, the wide-patterned walking motion of Shimano’s Coltsniper Splash Walk closely resembles mortally-wounded prey. Combine that tantalizing walk-the-dog action with its realistic profile, Shimano’s life-like color schemes and a loud interior rattle, and there’s no question as to how these super-sized spooks attract attention on a beach that seemed otherwise devoid of life.
Similar to the Polaris Popper, the Atom Atomizer is a wooden bottleneck-style plug that doubles as a popper and subsurface swimmer. Its cupped face is capable of throwing large amounts of water with a properly-timed twitch of the rod tip on a medium to fast-retrieve, but its versatility comes from the lure’s slow-sinking qualities. A baitfish in distress will swim frantically from its pursuer, and those occasional pauses allow the lure to just barely sink like a wounded bunker or squid, giving bluefish in chase just enough time to make an opportunistic swipe.
Surfcasters after big bluefish would be remiss to leave home without at least two Super Strike Little Neck Poppers in their bag. These hard-plastic bottleneck poppers are made in floating and sinking models, with different colored eyes to indicate their buoyancy. Designed by Donny Musso in the early 1970’s, they cast like a bullet in snotty surf conditions and excel in bringing bluefish to the surface when the wind and weather conditions are working against you. A steady “crank and twitch” will allow the cupped face of the slow-sinking popper to throw water while keeping it on top, and the floating model can be viciously splashed across the surface in strong rips or high surf, leading to acrobatic feeds from bluefish over 10 pounds. (Note: Green eye = floating, Black Eye = slow-sinking, Red eye = fast-sinking).
Leaders of the New School
With an affordable price point, tumble-resistant castability and heavy duty hardware, Tsunami’s Talkin’ Popper XD is equally as attractive on the tackle shop wall as it is when cast into blitzing bluefish. Branded with an XD for “extra distance”, it features a balanced interior weight-transfer system that allows the lure to fly tail first into strong winds and stabilize upon splashing down.
The retrieve style is variable, with the option to work it like a pencil popper or a standard bottle-neck popper. I clip on a Talkin’ Popper XD when I need a versatile plug to physically go the distance on each cast, and withstand the thrashing head shakes and jagged teeth of double-digit bluefish. Complete with a dressed siwash hook in the rear for simple and safe hook removal, it’s like this hard-plastic popper was designed specifically with bluefish in mind.
And perhaps one of the more cutting-edge mid-sized walking plugs, the Game On X-Walk is the two-in-one spook and popper. Designed by Game On LLC in Connecticut, the 2-ounce 6-inch plug features a cupped face like most poppers, but it swims with an irresistible side-to-side motion capable of throwing water in choppy surf conditions with sharp twitches of the rod. Loud interior rattles and natural color schemes heighten its appeal, and recognizing it’s versatility, Game On recently released a smaller 1-ounce model for back bay applications.
The Island X Hellfire 180 is a modified pencil popper with the same long-casting distance and splashing action generated by a cupped-face pencil. Its hard plastic body and through-wired construction are designed to withstand the ferocious headshakes and gnashing jaws of chopper bluefish, not to mention they are armed with two single inline hooks for quick, seamless hook removal.
Because the Hellfire is a sinking plug, the key to fishing it on top is to maintain a near constant retrieve and work it similar to a pencil popper to imitate fleeing prey on or just below the surface.
Although bluefish are notoriously aggressive and mean-spirited by nature, they can be incredibly picky eaters, they spook easily in shallow water and are infamous for trashing our terminal tackle. These loud and long-casting, often realistic topwater lures, are designed to even the odds with the Northeast’s most problematic inshore predators. Each year since age 3, I’ve anticipated their arrival and sulked upon their exit, but a surf bag loaded with the right topwater plugs allows me to enjoy them to the fullest while they’re here—however long or brief their stay may be.
All things considered, the next time bluefish are feeding by your feet on the beach lip, a wet sock with a treble hook just might do the job.