August 14, 2020
By John N. Felsher
At the outer edge of what would be an extremely long cast, the captain shifted into neutral, letting the boat glide to a stop. I picked up my spinning rod and lobbed a popping cork rig sweetened with a live shrimp toward something floating on the water.
I’d aimed about 15 feet upwind of the flotsam, letting the wind carry the bait the rest of the way. As the cork drifted close to the object, I snapped the tip sharply, sending out an enticing "chug" and skitter of water. Milliseconds later, the cork was gone and the 25-pound tripletail began peeling line from the screeching reel.
For decades, people have used popping corks to catch everything from panfish to the biggest of tarpon. Today, popping corks are mostly used to entice speckled trout and redfish, however, they also work effectively when tripletail, cobia or dolphin suspend under or near waterborne debris or floating objects, such as buoys.
"I use a popping cork all year long for both trout and redfish," says Bobby Abruscato of A-Team Fishing Adventures (251-661-7696; ateamfishing.com) in Mobile, Ala. "I call it my ‘in case of emergency break glass’ rig because it will work when nothing else does. It may not always produce the biggest fish, but it’s great for numbers."
A popping cork rig is relatively simple, consisting of a weighted, brightly-colored float, a section of leader or line under the float, and the bait or lure. At first glance, popping corks could be mistaken for old-fashioned topwater bass poppers. Like the old poppers, when snapped, the cork’s concave top spits water, simulating a fish striking prey on the surface.
"All of my popping corks have cup-shaped tops," Abruscato says. "That top makes a sound like a trout striking [bait on the surface]. That brings fish in closer. Then, they spot the bait or smell it if it’s natural and grab it."
Few fishing rigs are as versatile as the popping cork rig. Popping corks allow anglers to fish an almost unlimited number of baits— live, dead and artificial, alike—under it. The most popular bait for saltwater action, a live shrimp, attracts practically anything swimming in brackish to briny water.
Fishing a shrimp under a popping cork couldn’t be easier. As the cork is capable of sliding up and down the mainline, you can vary the depth at which you fish your bait. Determining the bait depth is most times a trial-and-error affair. Vary the length of line under the cork until you start getting bites.
HOW TO FISH IT
When fishing with a live shrimp, gently hook it under the horn, taking care to avoid hitting the black spot in its head, which could kill it. Many anglers also throw soft-plastic shrimp imitations, such as Vudu, Gulp! or D.O.A. shrimp and numerous similar enticements.
Other great popping cork baits include live minnows, menhaden, small mullet, croakers, cut bait (fish), dead shrimp, crabs or crab pieces and countless other natural baits, depending upon the target species. Various lures, such as plastic minnows, jigs and flies also work with popping corks. Abruscato uses both live and artificial baits on popping cork rigs.
"I typically use artificials until the summer when natural baits become much more plentiful. That’s when I’ll switch to things like live shrimp," he says. "For artificial baits, I prefer a Gulp! Shrimp in the New Penny color. I also like a Vudu Baby Shrimp. With any of those baits, someone can catch just about anything in saltwater on a popping-cork rig."
When fishing a popping cork, let the float sit a few moments after hitting the water. Then, repeatedly jerk the rod tip to make the cork "pop" on the surface. The noise the cork makes sounds like fish popping shrimp or baitfish on the surface and draws fish near. It also causes the bait to rise and fall in a attractive manner, drawing aggressive strikes.
"A popping cork rig is a great way to locate feeding trout because it can cover so much water," says Mike Gallo of Angling Adventures of Louisiana, (985-781-7811; aaofla.com) in Slidell, La. "When fish scatter, a popping cork is very effective. I also use a popping cork to catch redfish. I use both live shrimp or a Dockside Bait and Tackle Matrix Shad under a popping cork. I pop my cork every 10 to 15 seconds. Every so often, I’ll pop it twice and then wait 10 to 15 seconds to pop it again."
WHERE TO FISH IT
Popping corks work most effectively in shallow water or around schooling fish. Points are excellent places to fish corks for redfish, flounder and trout. Toss the rig so that prevailing winds or tidal flow carries the cork along a weedy shoreline or across a point. You can also drift corks over reefs and wrecks or next to vertical structures such as bridge, dock or platform pilings and bulkheads.
When fishing a marsh or estuary, look for small ditches that are draining ponds. When the tide goes out, falling water forces minnows, shrimp and other prey to leave their cover and seek deeper channels. Flounder and redfish frequently lurk at the mouths of these drains waiting for the flow to deliver them something to eat. Fling a rig baited with a live shrimp or minnow as far upstream as possible. Let the current naturally carry the cork downstream, but occasionally pop it.
Most anglers throw popping corks in saltwater, but you can also catch crappies, bluegills and even largemouth bass with the same methods. For bluegills and crappies, dangle a light hair fly or jig under a cork. In coastal areas, bass readily devour shrimp. In many areas, anglers can catch several fresh and salty species on consecutive casts.
No matter your species preference, the next time the bite turns tough, tie on a popping cork rig. I’m confident it will turn a slow day into a day to remember.