Put Some POP In Your Angling!

When targeting redfish and seatrout, there is no more effective rig than a popping cork. Here's a primer on this type of fishing.

The tactic of suspending a live bait beneath a popping cork is like ringing the dinner bell for inshore game fish -- it brings them to the table, so to speak!
Photo by Polly Dean.

Most anglers' early experiences begin with a minnow or worm dangling a few feet from a "bobber" or "float." These are just different names for the cork that was used to simply present the offering a desired distance from the bottom. But most of all, when the float disappeared under the water's surface, it let us know that we had a fish on the hook.

How often did we hear as youngsters, "Hey, set the hook, you got a fish!" It was so easy to let our minds wander, and keeping our eyes glued to that red and white bobber was just too much to ask of a fidgety child.

Nowadays a great portion of my saltwater angling is done with a cork of a similar nature. This "popping cork" used by many Gulf Coast fishermen is much more than just an indicator of whether we have a bite or not. This staple of the saltwater angler's arsenal is a very effective tool for catching limits of speckled trout and redfish, but does require some skill and finesse to fish correctly.

A popping cork is a specialized form of a bobber or float. Like all floats, it does signal a strike when pulled beneath the water's surface, and similarly to other floats, it also allows the angler to present the bait at the desired depth. But unlike other floats, the popping cork is concave at the top. When given a sharp tug, the hollowed-out surface creates a loud popping noise in the water, imitating the sound of a trout attacking bait on the water's surface. The sound of a feeding fish in turn attracts other fish to the area. The bait dangling below the cork is then too much for the attracted trout or reds to resist.

Popping corks are especially successful in inclement weather. When the wind is blowing, causing a chop on the surface or even staining the water, trout and red drum more heavily rely on their sense of sound rather than sight. The "chugging" of the popping cork attracts attention.

In calm conditions and shallower areas, the popping cork is still the tool of choice by anglers. If the water is very flat and clear, just try a smaller cork so that the shadow cast by the cork won't spook fish. The chugging sound still carries a great distance.

A great advantage to popping cork angling is that your bait remains in the target area longer. Rather than casting and retrieving a lure, the cork and bait are simply "popped" every few seconds and the rig stays within the area or drifts with the current. A strong tide can be advantageous in pulling the bait back to the target area after each tug.

An effective way to use the popping cork rig is to cast it upcurrent and allow the bait to drift along a grassy edge, oyster bar or just across the flat where specks and reds are likely to be. In situations where a direct cast to the likely spot may spook the fish, the rig also can be allowed to drift to the desired spot.

RIGS
Popping cork rigs are usually used in water that is 6 feet deep or less. A good start for gauging the length of leader needed is to begin with enough to put your bait in the bottom third of the water column. Most popping cork action takes place in shallow water with a leader of only 18 to 24 inches in length.

Whether you attach the cork at a fixed distance or as a sliding cork depends entirely on the situation. Casting a cork that is fixed several feet above the bait can be quite cumbersome. In this situation, or when trying to get your bait under overhanging shore cover, a sliding cork rig is most efficient.

A sliding rig allows the cork to move freely down to the hook or lead weight placed just a few inches above the hook for a more accurate cast. Once the rig hits the water, the leader and bait can drop freely through the cork as far as needed. A stopper of some sort, such as a bead or thread stopper, can be placed above the cork to set the depth. The stopper needs to be able to pass easily through the guides when casting.

Small plastic beads are commonly used with a popping cork rig. They are attached to a short, stiff wire that passes through the cork, above and below the cork. The beads add a "clacking" that imitates the sound shrimp make when snapping their backs to quickly flee a predator.

EQUIPMENT AND TECHNIQUE
A sturdy rod with enough backbone to control casting the rig, but not so heavy that casting and tugging repeatedly wears you out, makes a good combination. A light- or medium-weight 7-foot graphite rod is sufficient.

Keep the rod tip up with the line out of the water, so as not to rip it across the surface when giving the cork a pop. Also, keeping excess slack out of the line allows you to quickly set the hook when the cork goes under.

More often than not when fishing in salt water, there is a wind blowing and you will have a "belly" in your line. Just keep taking in slack and after you give the rod a few jerks to pop the cork, you should get a feel for how much "belly" you can handle and what it takes to set the hook when needed.

Experiment with the cadence of jerking the popping cork. Fish generally take the bait while the cork is sitting still, but a consistent rhythm of tugging the bait keeps it chugging and getting noticed. Popping the cork too often can scare the fish away. The rhythm may vary from a pop every five seconds or so to one tug every 30 seconds, depending on conditions.

In deeper or choppy water, you can be more aggressive with the tug in strength and frequency, giving it a sharp pull every few seconds. In very shallow and calm water, a more conservative approach works better. Give the smaller-sized cork a lighter tug and less often. A light pop every 30 seconds or so may be all that's needed in order to not spook the fish.

Watch that the cork floats freely and upright. A cork leaning to one side is either tangled up in the line or hung up on the bottom. Give it a tug to free it.

BEST BAITS
By far, shrimp are the most common bait used on a popping cork. There are not many situations where a shrimp won't attract a speckled trout or a redfish. In fact, if you aren't getting bites with a live shrimp, then it may be time to try another spot or even another day. If the only bait you use is shrimp, you are likely to catch plenty of fish.

On days where the water is stained or your live shrimp aren't producing bites, try

pinching the heads to release more scent into the water. This helps the trout or reds to home in on your offering.

There can be a downside to shrimp, however. If the area you are fishing is loaded with pinfish or other nuisance species, then they can get to your shrimp before the trout and reds do. Soft, artificial shrimp imitations, such as Berkley Gulp!, can work just as well. They hold up better to the pecking of the smaller baitfish and allow the bait to remain in the water long enough for a bigger fish to take hold.

Small pinfish and scaled sardines or "whitebait" also work well under a cork. Hook minnows behind the pectoral fin so they stay low in the water.

A jig or a spoon can even be used under a sliding cork rig. Once a trout or red is attracted to the popping sound, it can be fooled into attacking what appears to be a minnow escaping into the grass. A falling lure may draw an impulse strike from a fish that isn't necessarily feeding.

Keeping an attentive eye on the cork is still required at all times. The cork is your indicator of when you have a bite. You almost never feel the fish until you pull up hard setting the hook.

And, boy, does it feel good when you do!

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