April 13, 2023
By Shane Beilue
When veteran bass angler Courtney Copley relocated from the East Coast to Arizona, he tried bringing his familiar power tactics for bass with him. While there were occasional windows of time in which the old standbys of bulky jigs and fast-moving spinnerbaits would work, the ultra-clear and heavily pressured waters around his home near Mesa, Ariz., required a change of tactics for consistent success. What would ultimately benefit Copley’s need for change was being refined halfway around the globe by Japanese anglers facing very similar conditions: intense fishing pressure and extremely clear water.
One of those Japanese tactics that made its way to the U.S. market—and eventually into Copley’s bass boat—was the free rig, which involves running the fishing line through a heavy cylinder or bell-shaped drop-shot sinker and tying a worm hook on the terminal end, similar to a Texas-rigged worm.
"The free rig is just a new and better way of the old tried-and-true Texas rig, but the line slides through the wire loop of a heavy drop-shot sinker much easier than a Texas-rigged slip sinker, giving the worm a unique action as it settles behind the heavy weight on slack line," Copley says.
LIFT AND DROP
Copley, who is an avid tournament angler and owner of Liar’s Korner Tackle in Mesa, attributes the success of the free rig to the sudden separation of the heavy 1/2-ounce weight quickly plummeting to the lake bottom upon entering the water. Once the sinker is on bottom, the soft plastic settles behind in a near weightless and more natural descent, closely imitating a struggling or dying baitfish.
Copley is quick to emphasize the "secret sauce" to consistent success with the free rig is to allow the weight to drop on mostly slack line so the sinker can separate properly and slide away from the soft plastic. As the free rig enters the water, Copley will lower his rod tip to impart the slack line approach, allowing the weight to descend vertically. Once on bottom, he maintains just enough slack in the line to allow the worm to suspend above the weight for a few seconds, then aggressively pops the rod tip to shoot the weight from the bottom a couple of feet to start the soft descent of the worm all over. The rig is worked back to the boat with this aggressive lift-and-drop manner.
LET IT SLIDE
The free rig can be considered a blend of power and finesse tactics, as it allows an angler the benefit of covering water quickly with the aggressive lift-and-drop retrieve, yet also features the subtle action from the soft plastic as it slowly settles toward bottom.
Copley provides the background for his adoption of the free rig. "The reservoirs around Mesa are some of the most heavily pressured lakes in the country," he says. "I had read and heard about the success of the free rig from Japanese tournament pros competing in professional circuits in the U.S., and realized that might solve some of the challenges I was facing locally."
His hunch was correct. "In the spring of the year when the bass are moving up shallow, it can be one of the deadliest tactics I’ve ever used," he says. "It’s almost mind-blowing the size of fish we’ve caught the past couple of springs with this rig."
Copley details what’s become his bread-and-butter free-rig setup. "A 1/2-ounce cylinder drop-shot weight is ideal, but you need one with an enclosed loop for the line to run through cleanly," he says. "If you’re using the type of weight that pinches the line with a wire clip, you can take a pair of pliers to open the clip so it doesn’t grab the fluorocarbon. If the weight can’t slide freely up and down the line, it won’t work. I like 14-pound Sunline Shooter [line] because it’s a little stronger fluorocarbon. Keep in mind, we’re fishing this rig through submerged brush, trees and rocks, so I need the line to be light enough to not inhibit the action of the worm as it falls, but heavy enough to get the bass out of the cover."
Copley prefers a 1/2-ounce Woo Tungsten drop-shot weight and a No. 2 light-wire Gamakatsu EWG hook. The light-wire hook is key, as it allows the soft plastic to settle more slowly than a traditional heavy-gauge hook. For the specific soft plastics, Copley mixes it up, with fluke-style baits being a consistent choice due to their subtle fluttering action on the fall. Another popular soft-plastic choice for Copley’s free rig is the Z-Man TRD CrawZ, which is a floating soft-plastic crawfish imitation that actually rises away from the lake bottom on slack line. He’s also found consistent success for finicky spring bass with a floating soft-plastic tube that works in a similar fashion to the TRD CrawZ.
Copley notes that the free rig can be effective any time of the year; however, he’s found great success in the spring on staging bass as they begin the migration to the shallows. Copley focuses on working the free rig around main-lake points in late winter and early pre-spawn months, then transitions to secondary points leading into spawning coves as the fish approach their spawning destinations. Once the bass move onto the shallow flats immediately prior to the spawn, the Arizona pro continues to find success with the free rig by casting and hopping it across shallow flats with the same 1/2-ounce weight he uses in deeper water. The bite can be subtle.
"A lot of times you never even feel the bite–you just lift the rod tip slowly and it’s a mushy feeling, which means the bass has it," he says. "If you feel no resistance, pop the rod tip to make the weight shoot off the bottom a couple of feet, and the worm will settle all over again."
Ultra-clear water can pose challenges for bass anglers, as the bass have a heightened awareness of anything artificial. However, Copley notes the free rig helps address this frustrating issue due to the small profile of the soft plastic rigged on the small No. 2 hook. On those days when the bass are still reluctant to eat, Copley is willing to downsize his plastic and hook even more to get wary bass to commit to the lure.
The success of the free rig in heavily pressured reservoirs is attributed to the unique action of the worm shooting off the bottom and settling back slowly.
"It’s a technique that gives the bass something they don’t see very often. They just don’t seem to get conditioned to the movement of the soft plastic shooting off the bottom and then slowly descending," he says. "It has the look of an easy meal for the bass. We’ve consistently caught bass around other anglers that aren’t catching them, so that tells me there’s something special about the free rig."
Additionally, the free rig can be advantageous for better hook-ups, as the bass feel no resistance when picking up the lure as it suspends above the lake bottom. "Once they bite the worm, they [hold on] since it feels like their natural forage," Copley says.
Finally, another hidden benefit Copley has discovered about the free rig approach is its ability to quickly convert to a Carolina rig. "I’ll slide the weight a couple of feet above the worm and secure it with up to three bobber stoppers between the weight and hook to hold the weight in place," he says. "I don’t have to retie anything to quickly convert the rig to a Carolina rig, and I can easily change the length of the leader by simply adjusting the bobber stoppers and weight."
Copley notes that to convert the Carolina rig back to a free rig, he simply slides the bobber stoppers back down the line near the eye of the hook.
Since the free rig is most often paired with small finesse soft plastics, it’s preferable for the bass to have a clear line of sight to find the bait from afar. Therefore, water clarity of at least 2 to 4 feet is optimal. Though the free rig can excel along any bottom composition, the heavy sinker banging against a rock or gravel bottom is an added attractant for bass. Clear water and rock, of course, are hallmarks of many Western impoundments in the U.S., making the free rig a prime choice for finding bass in these types of waters.
To highlight just a few examples, northern New Mexico has Ute Reservoir and Conchas Lake, offering adequate water clarity most of the year, but also holding both smallmouth and largemouth bass. The free rig is custom-made to pursue both species by hopping and dragging it along the many gravel bars and rocky outcroppings common to both impoundments.
Arizona reservoirs like Mead, Havasu and Powell, with their rocky bottoms with scattered brush or manmade brush piles, are prime spots for using the free rig. The weedless method of rigging the soft plastic allows the free rig to come through any submerged brushy cover cleanly.
Farther west, Northern California offers many opportunities to work the free rig, with noted examples being Shasta and Oroville lakes, where the free rig can be an ideal choice for spring bass staging on gravel and rock points. Consider, too, that the free rig excels when hopped around boat docks, such as those found along the shorelines of Clear Lake.