March 17, 2021
By Dr. Jason Halfen
Few presentations have universal appeal to our finned adversaries. For example, you'll rarely catch bluegills when frogging in the lily pads for largemouths, and walleye will turn up their noses at a wad of chicken livers fished on the bottom for catfish.
Yet, in our array of strike-provoking tools, there is one technique that quite simply gets bit all year long, by every fish that swims in your favorite lake, river or reservoir: the drop-shot rig.
At first glance, the drop-shot rig seems like little more than a rearranged version of "hook, line and sinker," but in fact, the drop-shot is an extraordinarily versatile way of targeting fish during any month on the calendar. If you've never fished a drop-shot rig, use the beginning of this new season as your opportunity to learn—and perfect—your drop-shot technique.
Begin building your drop-shot rig by spooling up with a braided main line to support long casts and provide enhanced sensitivity. Select a braid with a smooth finish and the thinnest diameter possible. These attributes will help you cast the drop-shot far, and will reduce air and water resistance as you fish it back to the boat. Generally, an eight-strand braided line is preferable to other options. Because many subtle drop-shot bites are detected visually, select a high-visibility braid to make your main line easier to see under all sky conditions. Add a small swivel at the end of the braided main line to eliminate the line twist that a drop-shot rig can cause.
Next, add a fluorocarbon leader. A good general leader length is around 4 feet, but in ultra-clear water, or when dealing with line-shy fish, you may need to go longer. Eight- or 10-pound-test fluorocarbon is adequate for many multi-species fishing situations. Highly pressured fish may require you to move down to thinner 6-pound test, while using 12- or even 15-pound test will be just fine in stained or turbid water.
Now tie in your hook. For a live-bait presentation, a size 4 or 6 octopus hook is a good starting point. With a larger soft-plastic bait, a more traditionally sized bass hook is appropriate. In any case, match the overall hook size to the bait you're presenting. Attach the hook to the leader using a Palomar knot, leaving a long tag end. In general terms, if I have a 4-foot leader, my hook will be positioned halfway down the leader length. Pass the tag end back through the eye of the hook from the top to the bottom, which will help the hook stand out horizontally from the leader.
Finally, add a sinker. For simple drop-shot rigs, I like to use a bell sinker with enough weight to keep my rig on the bottom in the face of wind, waves or current. Carry a range of weights, from 1/8 ounce to 1/2 ounce or more, depending on the depth range you typically fish. Eco-friendly tungsten drop-shot weights are becoming popular and allow your rig to fall through the water column more quickly than when using a lead sinker.
The high density of tungsten also does a superior job of telegraphing bottom hardness or softness through the line to the angler. The hook-to-sinker distance on the leader is critical. A distance of 10 to 12 inches is probably the minimum that most anglers will use for fish that are tight to the bottom, but don't be afraid to position the hook farther away from the sinker in very clear water or when targeting suspended fish. In most instances, a 20- to 24-inch distance between the hook and sinker is a good place to start.
Dress the hook with the bait of your choice and make a long cast. Keep the bail open until the sinker contacts the bottom, then close the bail and reel up the slack. Now, on a tight line, wiggle and twitch the bait, but do so without lifting the weight off the bottom. After you stop that motion, get tight to the weight again and pause. This is frequently when strikes will occur. After a few moments, repeat that bait shaking, or, reel in a small amount of line and start shaking again.
We want that bait to hover, twitch and convulse just off the bottom, right in the faces of the fish living there. If your sonar unit shows fish in the area but your drop-shot rig isn't getting bit, the first change to make is to lengthen the distance between hook and sinker. Most fish won't feed down but will happily investigate an offering that is quivering a few feet above them. When you feel the strike, reel down toward the weight and set the hook with an upward sweeping motion to pin the fish.
Tailor the rig to the species and water conditions.
The drop-shot rig may most often be used for bass, but it's equally effective on other fish. The key is matching each component of the rig to the species you are targeting, as well as the area and time of year you are fishing. Hook, weight and the distance between the two should suit both the bait and the water conditions. Here are some suggestions, but don't be afraid to make adjustments.
- Conditions: Grass flats in spring and early summer
- Bait: Big Bite Baits 5-inch Sugar Cane Worm, rigged Texas-stylev
- Hook: Size 1/0 VMC Fastgrip Wide Gap Worm
- Sinker: 1/4 ounce, tied to suspend bait just above the grass. Estimate the height of the grass using your fishfinder, and adjust the dropper length accordingly.
- Conditions: Deep rock structures in late summer into fall
- Bait: Berkley 4-inch Powerbait MaxScent Flat Worm, nose-hooked
- Hook: Size 1 Berkley Fusion 19
- Sinker: 3/8 to 1/2 ounce, tied on an 18- to 24-inch dropper. Longer droppers are often necessary in clear water or calm conditions.
- Conditions: Rock piles and mud flats in midsummer
- Bait: Northland Fishing Tackle 4.5-inch Impulse Rig'n Leech
- Hook: Size 2 VMC Octopus Live Bait
- Sinker: 1/4 ounce, tied on an 18-inch dropper. Use 8-pound fluorocarbon for a stealthy presentation.
- Conditions: Channel edges and deep flats in reservoirs during fall
- Bait: Live shiners or fatheads
- Hook: Size 4 Eagle Claw Light Wire Aberdeen
- Sinker: 1/4 to 1/2 ounce depending on depth. A 20-inch dropper is a good place to start for bottom-oriented fish.