Jack Allen has guided charter customers to catch thousands of fish in fresh and saltwater since the 1970s: bonefish in the Bahamas, tarpon in Cuba, permit in Belize and many more. But Allen’s abiding passion is catching largemouth bass on a fly rod using popping bugs in the Everglades.
“Bug fishing is the most neglected fishing in all of America,” said Allen, 83, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “I’m like an evangelist. I like to get people to do this. It’s so much fun.”
Dubbed “King of Poppers” by customers and friends, Allen escorts anglers a couple days a week in Everglades canals off Alligator Alley and U.S. 27 in his 16-foot aluminum john boat with 25-horsepower outboard.
He ties all his own flies using mostly closed-cell foam for the heads – that’s what gives them the signature “pop” when you strip them in – and colorful marabou, crystal flash and holographic tinsel for the bodies. Hooks are mostly #4 and #6 Gamakatsu straight-shanks cemented into the body and wrapped with chenille. Almost everything Allen ties has a stiff monofilament weed guard to counter the heavy cover in the Glades.
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Allen said first-timers who might be apprehensive about casting a fly can usually catch on – and catch fish – after about an hour of practice. To aid their casting, he typically overloads the rod with heavier line – for example putting 8-weight line on a 5-weight outfit. Newbies can simply roll cast the bug 20 or 30 feet to a shoreline and be rewarded with a sharp, explosive strike.
Allen said he once escorted a beginner client to release 340 bass in a single day in a canal in the Holey Land off U.S. 27.
“That’s the greatest thing about bug fishing – you don’t have to be good,” he said without a trace of irony.
He said there’s just something about the popping noise and bubble trail made by the bug that drives bass, bluegill and other fish crazy. But zeroing in on the exact tempo of the retrieve that the fish seem to want on any given day is the challenge.
“You have to pause the bug, or maybe they want it high-speed. That’s a lot of the fascination of it,” he said. “I find the take so much of it.”
On a recent half-day of fishing in canals north of Alligator Alley, Allen guided two customers to release 110 bass to about two pounds on bugs. With bluebird skies and mild breezes, the fishing wasn’t red-hot by his standards, but the two anglers never cast for more than about 15 minutes without getting a strike. They probably caught about half the fish they hooked, but the action was steady enough to keep them on the edge of their seats.
“It doesn’t matter how many times it’s repeated, you just can’t wait for the next strike,” Allen said.
Pioneered by Tennessee bricklaying contractor Ernest Peckinpaugh early in the 20th century, the bug subculture grew in popularity, peaking in the 1980s with Baton Rouge, La., manufacturer Tony Accardo buying Peckinpaugh’s designs and cranking out more than 500,000 of the poppers per year that sold in all 50 states.
Bugs have been used to catch a variety of species in fresh and saltwater, including sea trout and even bonefish.
But today, Allen said, fly fishing with popping bugs is becoming a lost art.
Fly fishers are a shrinking fraternity among the recreational angling community, and popping bug enthusiasts make up only a fraction of that fringe group.
Many bass anglers prefer to fish like the tournament pros they see on television, using bait-casting rods with plastic worms, spinnerbaits, topwater plugs and the like.
Some of the popping bugs sold in tackle shops today fall apart at the bite of a single fish.
“The market is flooded with bad bugs,” Allen said.
So he ties his own at home, occasionally selling them to customers. And he does what he can to keep the bug culture alive.
One of Allen’s early disciples is Islamorada fly fishing guide extraordinaire captain John Donnell. The two met when Donnell opened a fly shop on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale in the mid-’70s.
“I was pretty new to fly fishing when I opened the shop,” Donnell said. “You know how everybody has somebody in fly fishing that helps them get started? Jack was that person 100 percent. I felt fortunate to have him push me in the right direction. He was kind of low-key, but definitely a popper.”
The two still fish together when their schedules permit.
“He believes in keeping it simple and having fun,” Donnell said. “He gets as excited at a 1-pound bass as he does at a 12-pounder.”