The Payoff of Popping Corks, Afoot or Afloat

Fish like this big Baffin Bay redfish can put up an exciting fight when caught on a popping cork rig.

Many of my fishing friends are what I call “purists” when it comes to fishing the coastal bays. They consider artificial baits and lures the only sporting way to catch a fish. Having a shrimp – dead or alive – in or even near their boats is completely out of the question.

During the predictably unpredictable coastal weather, coastal waters experience sudden changes in tides, temperatures, winds, and other elements that keep fishing the bays and the jetties off-balance at best. Throw in the effects of rainstorms and freshwater runoff, and the rules for catching fish change dramatically.

Periods like this may be a good time to change your techniques and tactics as well as your baits if you want to catch fish. While I enjoy fishing with lures, I’m all for using whatever method is necessary, short of illegal, to put a fish dinner in the boat.

This is an excellent time of year to hook up with live shrimp, depending on the water temperature. When the water temperature is warm, game fish in the bays tend to like the real thing. A good way to improve your chances of catching them is to rig up with live shrimp fished under a popping cork rig.
Game biologists have discovered that for much of the year, the diet of big speckled trout is small finfish such as croaker, pin perch, and piggy perch, although live shrimp is a favorite of trout, redfish, or flounder almost any time of the year.

I like to use different popping cork rigs to lure game fish on an incoming green tide. In stalking speckled trout and redfish in the bays, there are several types of corks and terminal tackle making up popping cork rigs. Individual fishermen have their favorites, but any of these rigs can be effective.

The basic pre-rigged popping cork is what I use most of the time. While many dedicated “old salts” prefer to make their own, the standard popping cork rig is available, rigged, and ready to fish in any tackle shop or sporting goods department of larger retail stores.

The basic rig is usually made up of a single 30 lb. monofilament or plastic coated wire leader. It is available in lengths of short, medium, or long, with predetermined fishing depths from 18” to 36”. Various sizes of weighted or unweighted corks are crimped into the leader. The concave shape of the top of the corks is designed to make a loud slurping sound with a sharp twitch of the rod tip. This “slurp” imitates the popping sound of surface feeding trout.

Another type of popping rig is the Alameda or rattling cork. This rig usually comes in medium or larger sizes and is designed to go in line with different terminal tackle. It is best to use about 3’ of 20 lb. to 30 lb. leader. The small steel bb’s inside the plastic cork produce a rattling noise when the tip of the rod is twitched. The noise attracts fish to the bait. These rigs are ideal to use in choppy waters because they are more visible and are easier for the fish to locate.

The slip cork rig is a version of the popping cork and can be used in various depths from 5’ to 30’ of water. For casting convenience, the cork can be adjusted to stop at whatever depth you want. You can make a knot in the line or attach a “bobber stopper” bead on the line just above the cork to set the desired depth.

On any of these popping cork rigs, I usually use a small #8 or even a #10 mustad treble hook. The popular single circle hook in a small size can also be used. These tiny hooks are less visible and will hold a surprisingly large fish. They also allow more freedom for your shrimp, which you want to keep lively and kicking.

One of the most common techniques is to use these popping rigs when drift fishing the bays. You can quietly cover a lot of water in order to find schooling fish. Once a concentration of fish is found, you can slip the anchor overboard to stop the drift within casting distance of the feeding action of the school. If your boat is cross-wise to a stiff wind or a strong tide while you are drift fishing, you may want to use a drift anchor to slow your progress through the water.

If you can catch the wind in the right direction, drifting the length of a long rock jetty can be very productive while using a popping cork rig. If you hook up with a fish at a break or a bend in the jetties, you can always come back and anchor. You can also make repeated drifts over the spot as long as you are catching fish.

Another favorite way to use popping cork rigs is wade fishing a bay shoreline. You can quietly cover the length of a shoreline as well as the coves to locate guts and pockets holding feeding fish.

Use a little perseverance in drift fishing or wade fishing. The payoff for using popping corks will be worth it when that big redfish starts stripping line from your reel while it makes a sizzling run across a saltwater flat.