If you ever want to start a good debate amongst a group of carp anglers, ask them about the merits of pop-ups - then just sit back and then watch the sparks fly! Some anglers swear by them, others detest them. Odd that something as simple as a floating bait can evoke such passion, especially from a bunch of anglers!
For me, like most methods and approaches for catching carp, a pop-up has a time and a place – but it’s not something I would always chuck out regardless of the situation I’m faced with - like many seem to do. For me a bait that sits swinging away above the lake bed will look far from natural to any passing carp, and whilst initially it may arouse the curiosity factor within the carp, which we all know they posses, long term I think they will quickly wise up to a bait that is *always* going to be the hookbait – how many freebies do they take that just happen to be sitting two inches above all the rest? Not many!!
I think the use of pop-ups regardless of the situation stems from what many learn when they come into the sport – I myself remember being shown how to tie a hair rig, how to thread a bait on, and how to make a pop-up rig – it was one of the most fundamental things I learnt and I simply assumed that it was a guaranteed fish-taker. In the past I dare say it has been; I’ve read about popped-up baits being used back in the early eighties to great acclaim where it seemed their use was just as revolutionary as the hair rig itself, but carp wise up to new approaches and my guess is that *if used irrespective of the actual situation at hand*, the effectiveness of the pop-up might well have been on a downward spiral since.
On the highly stocked venues I started off on, pop-ups worked just as well as bottom baits, but the minute I started fishing tougher waters their effectiveness was soon outdone by the bottom bait, and then surpassed by a mile when compared to a critically balanced bait. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve watched the reactions of carp over a baited pop-up; simply mopping up all the freebies and then moving off, almost laughing at the ease with which they’d had me over - at times it was almost as if the pop-up had a sign around it saying ‘hookbait’. However, there are some situations when only a pop-up will do!
The most obvious circumstance for fishing a pop-up is to present the bait effectively over weed, leaves or heavy silt (though to be honest I’ve found critically balanced baits just as effective in weed or silt). Leaf matter and organic detritus can be different however, as it has a nasty habit of masking your hook. The worst time for this is through the winter months when all the leaves fall from the trees and accumulate on the bottom of the lake. As the leaves begin to decompose there are several different layers of organic matter with slightly different densities; the upper layers almost float on top of each other whilst the deeper you go the more dense it becomes, but all this can go on in just the top few inches of organic matter – so by popping up a bait by an inch or two, the lead/hooklink will sink down to the more dense layers whilst the pop-up will sit just above the upper layers. A common misconception is that the degree to which a bait is actually ‘popped-up’ on the rig is the same as the amount at which it will be popped-up on the lake bed – unless you are fishing on rock hard gravel or sand, you might well be surprised!
Curiosity caught the carp: Paul Smith with a stunning Birch common taken on a brightly coloured single pop-up within an hour of placing to an obvious feature when nothing else seemed to get a reaction.
I will often use a pop-up if I’m fishing at extreme distance, or if I’m in a situation where I’m looking to provoke a knee-jerk reaction by the carp. Both of which kind of go together. If I’m fishing at a range where it would be difficult to accurately apply freebait or where a single bottombait could easily be missed on the bottom, then by fishing a single popped-up bait I’m actively using the fact that it looks visibly different to my advantage - a ‘come and get me’ type approach if you like - as I don’t have a bed of bait to draw them in, and thus, as there are no other baits in the vicinity with which the carp can compare and contrast, the knee-jerk reaction comes into effect. Carp can be extremely curious creatures and will often sample something out of nothing more than idle curiosity, and a single hookbait with no other bait around it, albeit a pop-up, might not evoke the same danger signal as a big bed of bait – this is something that I’m a firm believer in having watched so many takes on single hookbaits at extremely close quarters when stalking.
As such, I will often use similar ‘curiosity’ tactics at short range; a single pop-up cast to a patrol route or an obvious feature, a pop-up fished zig-rig fashion in the upper layers, even a surface fished pop-up – anything that might just provoke a response from an inquisitive carp. As you might already have guessed, these kind of approaches are often be born out of ‘last chance saloon’ tactics when favoured methods and approaches fail to bring desired results, but that makes them no less valid as fish taking methods, as I say, it’s about using the right method at the right time.
What I would say is that when I’m using a pop-up presentation, ninety-nine percent of the time it is used single hookbait fashion with no freebait - which comes back to the un-natural way I feel a pop-up floats above a bed of bait. However, some people I know fish pop-ups and nothing else; bottom-baits being a dirty word! They will often wax lyrical about how they swear by pop-ups wherever they go as they always catch more fish - to which I always counter that if you always use them, then how do you really know, as you have nothing to compare against?
I guess much of it comes down to confidence. I once fooled a friend who swore by pop-ups on a venue where I knew the wary inhabitants would readily take bottom baits over pop-ups. After several sessions my catches on bottom baits were way more than his on pop-ups but he remained adamant that pop-ups were the only way to go. After initially setting up and weighting his pop-ups to perfection one session, I swapped his bag of pop-ups for my own identical bottom baits. On changing his baits later in the session he cast them out without checking and kept using them for the remainder of the weekend. He took four good fish in 48-hours, more than he’d taken in the previous six weeks. On packing up at the end of the session he took great joy in telling me how he knew the pop-ups would come good in the end. You can imagine his face when I told him to chuck one in the margin. Needless to say he fished bottom baits from then on.
My own feeling is that a pop-up approach can be fantastic at certain times but a hindrance if used without forethought. The key, as usual, is to find out how the fish in the lake you are actually targeting respond to the method you plan to use – fish on the bank (or lack of) is the time honoured test, but there’s no substitute for up close observations!
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