How to Fish Pencil Poppers for Striped Bass

Color Me Bass

The first time I saw fishermen working pencil poppers, I nearly laughed out loud. I was lying back on one of the sandy spots in Turtle Cove after the morning bite under the Montauk lighthouse had died.

Most fishermen were in the process of leaving, headed home or into town for lunch, when two surfcasters arrived, each carrying honey-colored fiberglass rod and with a long, narrow-bodied plug hooked onto the first guide. Despite the fact they were using monofilament, I was taken aback by how far they cast the lures. Then, each surfcaster positioned the rod between his legs and began whipping it back and forth. It looked ridiculous. I nudged my dad, who was sitting next to me on the sand, and was getting ready to say, “Get a load of these guys,” when the water in front of one fisherman erupted and the honey-colored rod bent down to the grip. An hour later, I was in Johnny’s Tackle Shop, placing a pair of Gibbs pencil poppers on the counter.

(Note: On The Water is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.)



What is a Pencil Popper?

The origin of the pencil popper is said to be the Cape Cod Canal, where Stan Gibbs sought to create a plug that mimicked the frantic tail-walking action of a whiting on the run. The resulting plug design had a narrow head that flared into a wide tail section. Because they are tail-weighted, pencils cast a long way, allowing fishermen to quickly cover a lot of water. This makes pencil poppers a prime “searching” plug, and fishermen working an unfamiliar area in the daylight would be wise to make a pencil popper the first plug out of the bag.

The action of a pencil popper is erratic, but slow, making a convincing impression of an injured fish struggling on the surface.

Working A Pencil Popper

Fishermen fall into two camps when it comes to working pencil poppers. Some want the plug to splash around and create a commotion, while other want the lure to nose gently back and forth on the water’s surface. Both retrieves catch fish, and switching back and forth, sometimes even on the same cast, will result in more strikes.

Braided line and fast-action graphite blanks have eliminated the need to violently whip the rod back and forth—as I saw the anglers doing in Montauk years ago—but some fishermen still do. To impart a fish-catching action into a pencil popper, place the butt of the rod between your legs, grab the rod a few inches above the reel seat and begin steadily and sharply pumping the rod, all the while slowly reeling in. The harder you work the rod, the more frantic the lure will appear.

For every striper that comes out of nowhere and smashes a pencil popper, hooking itself, there will be four or five fish that roll, splash and swirl next to the lure without actually taking. When this happens, the surfcaster becomes a salesman, trying to convince the interested striper to commit. Some fishermen maintain the same retrieve speed and cadence, and this works. Sometimes, I’ll stop the lure cold. My largest-ever striper on a pencil popper came this way. A fish had blown up next to the plug twice, so I stopped my retrieve and the pencil popper—a heavily weighted sinking version—slipped below the surface and the line came tight as the bass grabbed it. Leaving a floating pencil popper still for a few seconds often triggers a bite the instant the lure begins moving again. Speeding up the retrieve can also convert following fish into biting fish.

Types of Pencil Poppers

Most pencil poppers are floating, but several builders make sinking pencils. The extra weight in sinking pencil poppers helps them cast farther and track straighter in rough seas. Some sinking pencils have a flat bottom. These “Canal-style” pencils plane to the surface quickly, and easily glide across heavy currents.

Pencil poppers will work anywhere—inlets, boulder fields, jetties, sand beaches—but they are especially effective when large baitfish are present. Even if no baitfish are showing, it’s worth starting out with a pencil popper. If stripers are around, you can count on at least one fish taking a swipe at a pencil popper, even in the middle of the day.


Gibbs Lures Pencil Popper
Even with dozens of newer pencil poppers on the market, the classic Gibbs Pencil still accounts for plenty of large stripers throughout the year.

NorthBar Flying Squid
The unique wings on this pencil popper allow it to fly straight on the cast and chop up the water during the retrieve.

Tsunami Talkin’ Popper
This plastic topwater can be fished like a pencil or a traditional cupped-mouth popper. It has a great walking action and a loud rattle that helps it stand out in the surf.

Island X Lures HellFire

IslandX Lures Hellfire Pencil
The slender design and heavy tail-weight allows for long casts to reach distant bass and blues. 

The thoughtful design of the Ocean Born Flying Pencil cuts wind resistance on the cast and allows the plug to “Swim” as well as walk.

Related Content

Topwater Walkers for Striped Bass

Essential Minnow Plugs for Stripers

30 on “How to Fish Pencil Poppers for Striped Bass

  1. Jimmy Fee

    Hi Wally! Thanks for getting in touch. You must not have seen your Danny Plug included in the May 2015 Issue or your Needlefish included in the March 2015 Issue. That’s more coverage than we’ve given to the vast majority of plug builders in the Northeast, but then again, none of them leave us such nice messages.

    1. Wally

      Jimmy I sell thousands of pencils over 500 a year in one shop alone. I have yet to have anyone tell me they are not catching fish on them. I know of at least a dozen fish over 50lbs have been taken on my pink Mac pencils alone. Everyone who fishes the 3.0 sz tells me it is the longest casting pencil they have ever used. I have the best dollar value for out there don’t you think your readers deserve to know that?

      1. Robert

        Hi…how do I access your website/product.


      2. Chris

        WALLY’S plug???? never heard about them…never will. I’ll stick with reputable brands that don’t have D-bag owners.

      3. Cory

        hhaha Wally relax bud. I can tell you I won’t buy your pencils because you sound absolutely insane!

      4. Njsurfcaster

        Wally.. After reading this comment and much internal debate, I just took a ride to Fisherman’s supply in Pt. Pleasant and purchased one of your pink mac pencils. While I do feel your advertisement delivery was less than stellar and borderline childish, it enticed me. Let’s see if this popper will put my $15 in the mouth of a bass….

  2. Pat

    Wah, Wah, Wahh. That’s a great way to get included in an article… P.S. iI haven’t caught anything on your parot green pencil…

  3. Walleye

    Hey Wally, do you want some cheese with that whine? Your plugs are awesome, but my kids like it PG you bag of rocks!

    1. Wally

      My apologies to your children when I posted my initial comment I thought it would go to on the water staff only it was not intended for public view

  4. ScottM

    Wally you are a good guy and your comments are not a reflection of your true persona. I have caught plenty of large on your products. In a month, I will be enjoying the fruits of your labor.

  5. mattp

    Wally, I will not buy any of your plugs due to the lack of class you displayed here

  6. MacGregor

    Wally sounds like a guy I wouldn’t want to have a beer with….

  7. BigFishLarry

    I make my own lures and I do not worry what others do or don’t do and whether they are included in an article or not! My lures speak for themselves and thats how I like it! I am not re-inventing the wheel, its not life or death its fishing! Glad when people like them and do well and I sell all I make! Happy customers are all I care about and turning out a quality product! More honey and less vinegar Wally! You do make some fine lures I have seen them!

    1. BigFishLarry

      PS- There are a lot of great plugs out there……the folks at OTW can’t mention them all! 😉

  8. James Mientkiewicz

    Wally makes the best priced pencils around. My personal best came onhis 3 1/2 oz lure. Flies true as an arrow. 5-10 bucks cheaps than all other wood pencils. And there are almost no other wood pencils that big. Props Wally! Your plugs are my go-to when I need to weed out schoolies!

  9. flyvice11787

    How is it that BigFish and Afterhours gets no mention is beyond me. D-mags are nice, but how many pencils does he make a year?

  10. Steve S.

    Nice article Jimmy, you “Asshole”. I can’t believe you didn’t mention every pencil ever made… Remind me never to buy one of his plugs.

    Big fan Larry. Love your pencils, but not as much as your jointed eels… 😉

  11. RayJ

    I know exactly how it feels to be left out of an article when you make a product that fits the bill for the article written. I think it was even worse for me since I was a paying advertiser in the magazine. I was told, we don’t tell our writers who to mention in their articles … Not sure I fully believe that and it still didn’t minimize the sting. For this particular article, I think most anglers know what a pencil popper is so the meat and potatoes part of the article would have been sufficient without shoutouts to friends. What most people don’t realize is that omission from an article like this can have a direct impact on a companies sales … So if someone speaks out in frustration … Although it may not be the right thing to do …. I think most of us should at least understand why it happened. That is why the old adage “Sometimes less is more …. ” applies.

    From experience , being mentioned in an article has a bigger impact on your bottom line than a formal advertisement. It is the highest form of credibility because you didn’t have to pay for the pat on the back.

    With all that said … I always enjoy reading Jimmy’s stuff.

    1. Wally

      You get it Ray I think what offended me the most was the fact that my top three competitors were mentioned and rather than mention my lures they featured lures that weren’t even pencil poppers. But I’m not the only local guy that gets excluded. I can think of a number of plug makers that produce an excellent product that are also ignored. People want to call that wining fine by me I call it pointing out an obvious discrepancy

  12. Ted L

    Wally I will still check out your lures,, I understand if what was written was intended to be read privately then I’m not going to point my snout in the air and based on what I read I understand why you’d be pissed.

  13. bruce

    I can’t believe people are that upset over a fishing plug get a life

  14. mikey F

    All I know is that the Red Sox like getting popped in the tushy with Big Papi’s pencil.

  15. Luca Canzano

    Which popper is your favorite? If you ever go to Maine which popper works the best?

  16. James E Taylor

    I have met Wally down the canal many times. He is a class act and very generous giving free plugs away. Also caught many bass on his plugs. By far the best bang for the buck. Very very inexpensive compared to other custom plugs.

  17. Brennan

    I just came across this article while researching plugs, and NEED to know what the initial comment Wally left was! I’m so invested in this discussion, I ended up buying two of his pencil poppers from Tomo’s website, so I guess any press really is good press…

  18. Gary

    Try this technique behind the dams known for big strippers , from the bank. Even as the waters are really turning they will still find it , ! Believe me, when I say you will need a heavy duty line ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *