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The Ol' Ball & Chain: Don't Overlook Carolina Rigs for Bass

The "C-rig" is one of the most versatile bass-fishing techniques ever devised. September is an excellent month to deploy it.

The Ol' Ball & Chain: Don't Overlook Carolina Rigs for Bass

The beauty of the Carolina rig lies in its ability to be tweaked to succeed in many situations, making it one of the most verstaile rigs available to bass anglers. (Photo courtesy of Z-Man)

Soft-plastic rigs for bass have a variety of interesting names. "Wacky," for example, is an apt descriptor of a wacky rig’s unusual appearance. The Japanese word "neko" translates to "cat," which describes the way the rig of that name prowls the bottom. The Ned rig is, well, named for a guy named Ned.

One might assume the Carolina rig to have come from either the Palmetto State or the Tar Heel State, but its origin can’t be pinpointed to either with great certainty. To further complicate matters, the Carolina rig first gained national attention when an Alabamian named Jack Chancellor won the 1985 Bassmaster Classic with the technique on the Arkansas River. On top of that, he referred to the technique as the "do-nothing rig," which is now an entirely different rig altogether.

Today, anglers often refer to the Carolina rig as "the ball and chain" due to the heavy sinker and accompanying string of paraphernalia often made of brass, tungsten, lead, plastic or steel. Call it what you will, the technique remains one of the most effective means of rigging a soft plastic for catching bass.

illustrations of bass fishing lures
The Carolina rig was first introduced to the fishing world in 1985 by Bassmaster Classic champion Jack Chancellor. (Illustration by Peter Sucheski)
CLASSIC ORIGINS

When Chancellor won the Classic in August 1985, it brought him instant stardom and put the spotlight on the unique method of dragging—rather than hopping—a soft-plastic lure across the bottom (in this case, sandbars). His rig consisted of a heavy lead sinker followed by a plastic bead and a swivel tied to a 3- to 4-foot leader.

At the terminal end of the leader was a pre-rigged, hand-poured soft plastic of his own design that resembled a fast-food french fry. The exposed, pre-rigged hooks were rather small and positioned at the front and rear of the 5-inch worm.

Six years after Chancellor’s success, in early spring of 1991 on Lake Sam Rayburn, another major bass tournament was won using the Carolina rig. Instead of sand bars, the winning bags of bass were caught along the edges of submerged hydrilla, which required some adaptations for the rig to succeed—chiefly, a leader length of 6 to 7 inches, a single offset hook and a 6-inch lizard rigged weedless. The success of two different anglers, in very different habitats, with variations to the setup, speaks to the versatility and effectiveness of the Carolina rig.

HOW TO RIG IT

The original sinker style was a lead “egg” sinker, which remains effective. However, manufacturers introduced brass and eventually tungsten sinkers, which have become more commonplace than lead. Brass and tungsten are both harder materials than lead. As such, they each transmit a sense of “feel” through the line into the angler’s hands. This is useful for detecting changes in bottom composition from soft mud to gravel, rock or shell.

In addition to stirring sediment, the lure attracts fish thanks to the audible “clicking” of the sinker banging against the various beads in front of the swivel. These beads also provide some cushion for the weight of the sinker against the swivel knot. To create a more audible attraction, many anglers utilize specially made brass beads or “clickers” as a replacement for, or in addition to, the glass or plastic beads.

Sinker weights vary with depth and speed of retrieve. The “lighter” 1/2- to 3/4-ounce sinkers are effective in depths of 10 to 15 feet, while the 1-ounce version is necessary to keep the rig dragging on bottom at greater depths. Consider that the weight needs to be consistently dragging bottom to achieve the stirring of sediment that attracts the bass; therefore, lighter sinkers require slower, shorter pulls of the rod tip.

Leader length is a debate among hard-core proponents of the Carolina rig, though most settle on 3- to 4-feet as typical. At this length, the soft plastic has enough distance to be able to lift and settle softly behind the bouncing sinker. Longer leader lengths of 6 feet can also be effective, especially when trying to keep the soft plastic above submerged vegetation. However, longer leader lengths make casting the rig rather awkward, requiring more of a lob to launch it toward the target.

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LINE CONSIDERATIONS

Main-line material has evolved from stretchy monofilament to zero-stretch braid, which does a better job of transmitting the feel of the weight, as well as assisting with a hookset at the end of a long cast. Furthermore, though some anglers still utilize monofilament as the leader material, the low visibility and superior abrasion resistance of fluorocarbon makes it an excellent leader choice.

Braids in the 30- to 50-pound-test range are good choices for the main line, while test weights of leader material often vary by cover type and water clarity. Fluorocarbon in 15-pound test is a good median weight among leader choices, though 17- to 20-pound test may be necessary around weeds and brush.

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If going with a lighter test weight for the leader, consider that the no-stretch characteristic of the braided main line can overpower lines of less than 12-pound-test on a hard hookset. If you want the soft plastic to achieve neutral buoyancy (depending, of course, on the bait type and hook size), you may opt for a monofilament leader. Monofilament allows for a bit of stretch when setting the hooks with braided main lines. Moreover, it tends to float, keeping the bait off the bottom.

Choices in soft plastics are often a matter of angler preference, ranging from short and subtle to big and bulky. When the bite is tough due to weather or fishing pressure, the simplicity of a 5-inch straight-tailed worm cannot be beat. Creature baits and fluke-style baits are an excellent choice when a bulkier profile is preferred, and many anglers opt for a 6- to 8-inch lizard or ribbon-tail worm as a reliable default choice.

Floating soft plastics have emerged as a favorite among “draggers” due to their propensity to rise on the pause rather than fall. On the pull, the floating plastics will approach bottom again, providing a unique action that differs from traditional soft plastics.

A 3/0 offset extra wide gap (EWG) hook is standard, yet its size can increase with larger soft-plastic offerings. However, lighter gauge hooks will allow the plastics a softer fall on the pause or allow floating plastics to rise higher above the bottom on the pause.

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HOW TO WORK IT

The success of the rig lies in the heavy sinker (up to 1 ounce) that allows for long casts that cover large swaths of the lake bottom with each retrieve. Additionally, the heavy sinker creates a disturbance by stirring up sediment and debris as it’s dragged across the lake or river bottom. The fish are naturally attracted to the silt cloud and accompanying clacking of the weight dragged on bottom. They are then quickly drawn to the “business end” of the setup as the soft plastic is pulled near the weight. The leader allows the soft plastic to glide and bounce more naturally along the lake bottom as it’s pulled at a short distance behind the sinker.

The “C-rig” is typically pulled in short bursts of 1 to 2 feet with the rod tip, with the slack line reeled between pulls. However, retrieve variations allow for moving the rod in longer pulls or by simply allowing the setup to pause for longer periods between movements of the rod tip.

The beauty of this technique comes from its simplicity, as new and experienced anglers alike can succeed by dragging a Carolina rig. Bites are often telegraphed through the line and rod as a series of taps from the bass inhaling and crushing the worm in the back of its throat. Occasionally, though, the bite is simply gentle pressure as the bass swims away with the worm.

Hooksets need to be tailored to work through the heavy weight of the sinker. A sideways sweep of the rod tip is better than an overhead hookset that must lift the sinker before driving the hook point home.

WHERE TO FISH IT

The Carolina rig’s ability to be cast a long distance, combined with its propensity to draw a bass’ attention from afar, make it perfectly suited for any offshore approach to bass fishing. Points, ledges, humps and bars next to deeper channels will often hold schools of bass from summer through the early-fall months.

It is this that makes the C-rig an excellent choice for both locating and catching these deep-water bass. The “sweet spot” for any of these offshore locations will be hard spots consisting of rock patches, shell beds or hard clay that act as bass magnets. These changes in bottom composition can be detected by the heavy sinker, alerting the angler when the rig is in the target zone.

The Carolina rig is not simply a one-trick pony limited to deep, offshore locations. The rig also excels on shallow flats of 3 to 6 feet of water near meandering creek channels, particularly when bass have moved shallow during the pre-spawn or in late fall. Prime locations for dragging a rig in the shallows are sand flats and points. If cover such as scattered bushes is present, the rig can be cast and dragged between the sparse wood cover.

Lastly, Southern reservoirs containing deep aquatic vegetation such as hydrilla will often have an outside and inside edge of the grass bed. The outside edge is formed when sunlight cannot penetrate deep enough to support photosynthesis. The shallower inside edge is created by winter drawdown followed by a rise in water due to early spring rains.

This phenomenon is common on lakes such as Sam Rayburn, where the inside grass line becomes a staging area for big, pre-spawn females prior to committing to the shallow nesting areas. A Carolina rig tossed toward the sandy bottom and dragged into the interior edge of the hydrilla can be deadly for bass feeding along the edge of the grass lines in major creeks and tributaries. Similarly, the Carolina rig can be dragged along the outer edges of tapering grass beds in late summer and fall to attract bass feeding along the deeper edges of the vegetation. No matter how you fish it, the Carolina rig is tough to beat.




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