Surface poppers or walk-the-dog lures: What catches more whiting?

The latest craze to hit the estuaries of south-east Australia is whiting on surface lures.  In this article, three of us share our experiences in chasing these often elusive and incredibly tasty predators of the shallow water.  We hope to answer the question: which is the better type of lure – the cup faced popper, or the walk-the-dog stickbait?

Another popper caught whiting

Whiting on surface lures – it’s visual, it’s exciting and it’s addictive! But can you crack the code?

Hamish: Stickbait (walk the dog lures). I am a stickbait kind of guy. In general I like finesse presentations and natural colours. That is usually where I start in most forms of fishing. For example in the estuaries, I often fish much lighter jig heads with soft plastics than Lee. This can be a blessing and a curse. If the fish are a bit lethargic, the slower sink rate can work wonders by giving them extra time to inhale the lure. If they are on like Donkey Kong and hitting anything that comes within a few meters of them, Lee cleans up.  The fact that he covers more water with his heavier jig heads means that he presents a lure to more fish in a given amount of time and hence catches more. This means Lee can be 6 fish in front before I’ve even blinked and reconsidered my approach (and dug out a heavy jig head in an attempt to catch up).  Lee isn’t called Flathead Dundee for nothing and I should probably follow his lead earlier than I usually do.

Hamish whiting on popper

My reward for tirelessly popping for Whiting at Wonboyn lake while Lee and Graz cleaned up on plastic and metal lures

Anyway, back to the debate, when it comes to stickbaits vs poppers I am almost certain that stickbaits will out-fish poppers on 9 out of 10 trips. They have a slightly more subtle, less in your face presentation, that is incredibly seductive to hungry whiting. On numerous occasions, I’ve had a popper on and had whiting following but not hitting. Tie on a stickbait and the fish stop just following it and some start having a go! So for me, most of the time, stickbaits would be my whiting surface lure of choice. The only time I will start with a popper is when it’s really windy and properly working stickbaits becomes hard, that’s where poppers shine 🙂  So buy some stickbaits, learn to walk the dog and I think you’ll catch more whiting 😉

A nice little whiting taken on a bushy's stiffy. With a bit of wind behind you, these lures cast a mile. However, as I alluded to before, the have a large, noisy bloop that can sometimes scare the fish

A nice little whiting taken on a bushy’s stiffy popper. With a bit of wind behind you, these lures cast a mile. However, they have a large, noisy action that can sometimes scare the fish

Lee: Initially, I was a big popper fan. As mentioned by Hamish, they cast well, make a lot of commotion and bring in fish from far and wide for a look.  However, they seem to only work for me when the fish are truly on … usually this is when the water temperature is above 21 degrees Celsius, there is a stiff northerly or nor-wester blowing, and something for the fish to feed on. If these conditions don’t come together, which isn’t all that often, it can be incredibly tough to even get a look. As such, I’ve started to lean towards stickbaits as my surface-lures of choice. However, there are some nifty little ‘hybrids’ coming out, such as the sebile poppers, which can give you the best of both worlds. What makes these lures so cool is that they have a cup face, and can be popped like a normal popper, but sit much lower in the water, like a stickbait. In terms of ease of use, they’re somewhere in the middle. It takes a little more finesse than simply blooping a popper, but it’s definitely not as difficult as walking the dog with a traditional stickbait. Not that this is too hard!

Flathead don't seem to care whether it's a popper or a stickbait - they generally inhale both!

Flathead don’t seem to care whether it’s a popper or a stickbait – they generally inhale both!

One good example of a session that lead to this preference of stickbaits and hybrids is when Graz and I were out on Wallaga Lake (see ‘Bring back the boof’). We had been popping around all day and having a great time, with a few bream, whiting, mullet and a trevally joining in on the act. After a while, the fish stopped biting. They were still following – we could see them sitting about a foot beneath our poppers, just eyeing them off. I decided to tie on a stickbait, and before long, started hooking up. I suspect that had I been using the stickbait the whole time, I would have caught more fish overall, and over the entire session.

Graz: I’m going to start by coming clean.  I’ve never caught a fish on a stick bait… I know my position as writer on this site might be in jeopardy, but that’s the truth.  To be fair I haven’t given them nearly as many hours on the water as the humble cup-faced popper.  The problem is that even though you might blank out for several sessions in a row, the excitement of a surface strike on a popper is just so addictive!

In low light and foggy conditions this hefty whiting boofed a white popper

In low light and foggy conditions this good-sized whiting boofed a white popper on the pause

On reflection, everything Mish and Lee have said I have experienced.  I’ve caught whiting on poppers on foggy days, in low light conditions and when the conditions are otherwise conducive to a strike.  While fishing the flats during a big run-out tide, on a pop, pop, pause retrieve, I’ve had a whiting boof the lure so hard, it launched several feet in the air and landed a couple of metres away.  At the other end of the spectrum, one of my most memorable surface sessions was in choppy conditions at tuross lake. In this instance flathead and bream were taking it in turns to boof a constantly moving stiffy popper, somehow finding it within the chop and froth.

A tuross flathead that happily took a popper in windy and choppy conditions

A tuross flathead that happily took a popper in windy and choppy conditions

For whatever reason, timing and technique seem to be important when using surface lures.  On some days the fish prefer a rapid fire bloop bloop bloop, this is usually the approach for whiting.  On other days a mixed retrieve with plenty of pauses is vital.  Bream for example, nearly always hit on a pause of a second or more. And on other days a slow and minimalist approach works well – good for lazy flathead.  Then of course there are the sessions that prove exceptions to all those rules!  Just why the retrieve matters so much I’m not sure, but like Mish eluded to earlier with flathead on plastics, I suspect that sometimes their heart just isn’t into the chase.  So while I haven’t cracked the stickbait code, far from it, my gut feeling is that there will be just as much finesse and variation required to consistently catch fish walking the dog as there is using poppers.

The final word

While the whiting on surface lure phenomenon may have started with poppers, it appears to have been quickly overtaken in popularity by the stickbait.  These lures are a bit harder to use in windy or choppy conditions, and take plenty of practice to get that seductive waggle.  So if you’re just starting out, maybe go for one of the popular poppers (Bushy’s stiffy, Rebel Pop-R, Luckycraft etc.) and start learning about when and where you are likely to get a strike.  Being in the right spot and locating feeding fish is much more important than which lure you throw at them!  If you’re keen to experiment with stickbaits but want a more gradual transition, test out one of the sebile hybrid models.  Then once you’ve mastered that, grab a stickbait and get out there.  Just remember to leave some for the rest of us!

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