Fly Fishing for Bass: Popper or Diver?
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
Say what? You've never fly fished for bass?!?!?!
These highly-accessible fish can be found in a ton of locations and offer incredible sport on a fly rod. Of course there's many different flies that will trigger a bass to strike, but none offer the sheer overall awesomeness of a topwater fly. Getting that first blowup on the surface is nothing short of addicting and might cause you to temporarily forget about trout. As I type this post here in late May, you folks out there in bass territory need to start fishing those topwaters or at the very least begin to think about it. But which type to choose?
The two major topwater fly styles are poppers and divers/sliders. As you may already know, poppers typically have a large cupped or even flat face that makes them pop to a certain degree based on how hard of a twitch is given. On the other side, divers/sliders are a bit quieter and stealthier overall. They are each built with more of a tapered, pointed head and are made to smoothly slide along and quickly dip below the surface.
These two categories of topwater flies attract plenty of attention from bass at pretty much any time during topwater season, but each style offers strengths and weaknesses. Like any fish, bass can be unpredictable and may not always go along with what we humans think will work best, but here's some things to think about when initially choosing a topwater fly for a day of bassin'....
Divers are relatively subtle which often makes them a great place to start when there's little to no wind. They can also be a great choice in very shallow, clear water where a more audible, boisterous offering may send bass scurrying for cover. Retrieve aside, many divers are constructed with spun deer hair or soft foam heads which also helps them to land slightly softer than a hard popper might. With all of this said, poppers can work extremely well in these conditions too, so if the diver isn't getting bit don't hesitate to experiment. The diver is merely the place I'll typically start at when I think a quieter presentation is the way to go.
Divers cover water quickly without an obnoxiously loud retrieve. If you want to quickly blow through a large section of water, you need to strip longer, faster, or both. Doing so with a popper will result in a louder, more violent retrieve, and some poppers don't run too well on longer pulls. The fact that divers merely slip below the surface gives them less resistance and allows them to run straight without causing a ton of crazy commotion.
Divers can even be fished on a sinking line in open water or around junk. The sinking line will keep a diver subsurface, but a nice buoyant fly will ride above moss, grass, and other junk along the bottom.
Divers can make great tools for fishing through standing cover. Since the head is tapered and some divers feature a more streamlined body structure, some of them are able to snake and slither through sparse grass and tullies easily. When fishing stuff like this, you'll want to make sure your fly is equipped with an appropriate weedguard.
Divers are better to pick up and re-cast quietly. The cupped face of a popper catches water more easily and can make a loud sound if yanked out of the water too quickly. A diver's tapered face slips out of the water easier with less commotion.
Poppers are typically capable of attracting a lot more attention. The sound and splash they can produce make them a good starting point if there's some wind chop on the water or if you simply want the fly to be noticed from a further distance away. This lets you spread your casts out further when searching out larger areas of water. In very clear water, poppers can even bring a fish up from very deep water to take a look. Conventional bass anglers have been known to throw poppers over 20+ feet of gin clear water with success!
Poppers can be loud and shoot water all over if stripped hard, but short strips can give them a more subtle yet attractive look for calmer waters, too. I mostly prefer a pretty "standard" popper with a firm body and round, cupped face. This versatile design gives the fly's body a bit of bulk and that style face works really well to efficiently pop whether a long or short strip is used.
Poppers work great for night fishing. Divers can as well, but my first choice when fishing in the dark will often be something that has the capability of making more noise and commotion—and poppers can do just that.
Personally, I give poppers a slight nod simply because they are quite productive in different water types and I also think they are a little more fun to fish. However, there are no winners or losers here and a lot of times it can just boil down to which style has your preference and confidence. A well-prepared fly angler will definitely want to stock both poppers and divers to be totally ready for the varied conditions and environments he or she faces!