The questions that come are which baits to use and how to present them. In a nutshell, you will catch fish the best by using their favorite food. That's simple and holds true even with humans. We'll exert more energy for a free meal at our favorite seafood or steak house than we will to redeem a freebie coupon at a fast-food restaurant.
The presentation is where there are unknowns and many variables. The ease of making a rig, the prediction of how it will react to the bottom, how the bait reacts to the rig, the expense of a rig, how many rigs will be lost and more contribute to what is the best rig for the situation - which can change from day to day conditions, stage and direction of the tide and more.
What I'll try to offer is a pretty versatile way to present live baits from along the bottom to on or just below the surface, plus a few ideas to fine-tune for some specific situations. It is an inshore-based technique and geared towards catching puppy drum, speckled trout and flounder. It will also attract and catch several other species, including black drum, ladyfish and more, depending on your location and the time of the year. In other locations, I've used one or the other versions to catch snook, snapper, and I even had one baby goliath grouper that couldn't refuse a live pilchard fished this way.
The first thing to discuss is what a good bait is. It doesn't matter how great the rig is or how well it's tied if you offer the fish something it doesn't like. Figure out what is the preferred main course, and then set the dinner table for the fish.
Shrimp are the No. 1 inshore live bait. This is a hands-down, no-questions-asked fact. Shrimp may not always be the best bait to use, but it is always the best bait. The hair-splitting difference here comes from all the bait thieves and other undesired or less desirable species that will attack a live shrimp with reckless abandon. Many of these fish are faster than the target species and will chew up a lot of bait. That's the only problem with using live shrimp.
Minnows may not be quite as desirable to your target fish, but they aren't as readily attacked by less-desirable species, either. Keeping this in mind, minnows often last until the fish you are targeting decides to eat. Mud minnows are good from late fall through late spring when they are the primary forage available. Once mullet minnows, silversides and killies become available in the late spring/early summer, they are generally preferred by the target species. Small fish are also excellent baits for larger flounder, specks and pups, and they are rarely attacked by undesirables and bait thieves. Some of my favorite small fish are peanut pogies, spots, croakers and pinfish.
My expectation is that most fishermen are familiar with the Carolina rig. It is a very basic way of rigging that involves using a short to medium piece of leader, a swivel and an egg or bullet sinker to make a bottom rig. The Carolina rig uses two basic concepts. A round or tapered egg or bullet-style sinker is used, so it will slide across small irregularities on the bottom and allow the bait and rig to be retrieved. The sinker is placed above the swivel, on the line coming from the reel, which allows it to move freely up and down the line and allows the bait to move a little more naturally.
The basic Carolina rig consists of a piece of monofilament (or fluorocarbon) leader with a hook at one end and a swivel at the other. Some fishermen like to make long leaders, but I have found 12 to 15 inches to be a good, working length.
An Eagle Claw Series L042 Wide Bend Hook in Nos. 4 or 2 is the favorite hook of many fishermen, and I concur. The slightly wider bend holds live baits and chunks of cut bait well. It also works well to present artificial and bio baits. This hook has an offset in the bend out through the point, which gives an excellent hookup percentage on most inshore fish, including flounder. Once the fish has it in their mouth and closes their mouth, the offset makes it difficult to jerk out without grabbing something.
I like the ultra-small Billfisher Krok stainless-steel swivel in No. 14 for this rig. It is rated at 70 pounds yet is only about 3/8 of an inch long.
The sinker is an egg or bullet sinker that is placed on the line to the reel, which is then tied to the other eye of the swivel. The sinker is not pegged and may slide along the line. The lightest weight that will take the bait to the bottom is preferred. Unless fishing in a location with stronger currents, a half-ounce is usually all the weight that is needed.
One of the easiest modifications to the Carolina rig is to add a bead or two between the sinker and the swivel. The original purpose for the bead was to avoid chafing the knot. Many fishermen believe there is an audible click when the sinker strikes the bead, and this click often attracts fish.
I believe in this modification. I add two beads and go a step further by adding a plastic bobber-stopper to the rig on the line to the reel, just above where it ties to the swivel. This prevents the bead from sliding all the way down onto the knot and offers protection from chafing and shock. I believe having two beads gives a louder click than a single bead. Glass beads are noticeably louder than plastic beads.
The Carolina rig is popular with freshwater fishermen as a way to fish soft-plastics baits for bass. It began with worms but has become a regular way to fish lizards, craws and more. The presentation also works in saltwater with soft-plastic jerkbaits, shrimp and grubs.
The attraction of the Carolina rig when using artificial baits is two-fold. It begins with the puffs of sand as the sinker is bounced across the bottom and brings attention to the action of the bait following it. Second, by using the sinker to hold the bait down rather than a jighead or weighted hook, the bait stays off the bottom longer and flutters more before settling back to the bottom. This rig and action has accounted for many fish, including many tournament-winning fish, and the numbers of fishermen trying it are growing daily.
After years of looking at the Carolina rig primarily as a way to easily and effectively fish live baits, saltwater fishermen are imitating their freshwater counterparts and also using Carolina rigs to fish artificial baits. With the recent development of many synthetic, scented or bio-baits and scents for artificial baits, this has also become a surprisingly productive way to fish them.
Without any questions, the Carolina rig is an excellent way to fish live or other baits across the bottom. However, when the oyster rocks or other structure are too dense and ragged, what can you do?
The simplest thing to do is add a float and suspend the bait above the bottom. The easiest way is to add a slotted float above the weight. This won't work with a small float, but a Shur Strike 4- or 5-inch slotted popping cork has plenty of buoyancy to float up to an ounce.
Even better, adding a slotted float doesn't require any re-rigging; it can be used with any Carolina rig. Pull the peg from the float, lay the line on the inside of the slot hole through the float and away from the slot and reinsert the peg. The float will stay on the line where you peg it.
I prefer the popping-style cork for this addition to a Carolina rig. A popping cork adds noise of its own, like a fish gulping a bait on the surface. It is an attractor in itself, but when rigged in combination with a pair of glass beads under the weight on the original Carolina rig, there is also a loud click as the rig drops below the cork after popping it. This sounds like the crunch of a fish biting through a shrimp's shell and is a second attractor. The reasoning is that after hearing these sounds, the predator is excited and should pounce on the next bait it sees.
Slotted popping corks are available in weighted and unweighted versions. I prefer the unweighted one. First, this will give more floatation, which will support the sinker and allow the cork to float higher and give better visibility. This is important, as I will often drift this rig down a bank or along an oyster rock with the tide as a way to find where the fish are feeding on that day.
The other reason is the unweighted cork will usually tell you if the rig became tangled during the cast or landed in water shallower than the depth it is set. When one of these happens, the unweighted cork will lay on its side rather than floating upright. The weighted cork will almost always float upright because its weight, rather than the weight of the sinker, is the ballast that holds it upright.
When using a floating rig, the usual starting-point for depth is approximately a foot above the bottom. This is usually enough height to get the bait above the pinfish and other bait thieves, but not high enough to escape being seen by the higher-level predators. However, in areas where the oyster rocks are tall, this must be adjusted up a little so the bait will float across the shallowest point at the top of the oyster rocks.
One of the most-exciting sights in inshore fishing is when a bait that is being fished under a float abruptly rushes to the surface. This could be a minnow that suddenly begins swimming around its float or my personal favorite, a live shrimp that comes to the surface and begins dancing around a float. These are signs a predator is in the area, and that the bait believes it is about to get eaten.
Whether you choose to fish it on the bottom or add a float and suspend your bait, the Carolina rig is one rig all fishermen should know. It is simple and effective: a deadly combination. With a few simple modifications, it can be tailored to work well in a wide variety of situations and applications. You would have to listen for quite a while if you asked most coastal guides how many fish they catch on Carolina rigs or modifications of them.