After flying through the air like a gaucho's bolas, the rig hit the water with a splat. While perhaps not the presentation most anglers prefer when sneaking through shallows under trolling motor power, Capt. Lee Parsons (Gottafly Guide Service, Wilmington, North Carolina, 910-540-2464) knew his popping cork rig would command attention.
The float righted, indicating the mullet head bait had settled. Reeling in the slack, Parsons snapped the rod, causing the float to plow across the surface and leave a trail bubbles in its wake.
"Look!" he said. "A red drum is charging it."
The fish was the first of many that day, including flounder and speckled trout, that fell for one of angling's oldest tricks. Today, popping corks are made of Styrofoam or harder expanded foams, so "float" is technically the more accurate terminology. However, "cork" remains in the lexicon as an admiring nod to the first angler who threaded a line through a flat-topped bottle stopper.
Parsons used a large styrofoam float in this instance because it has more flotation than a hard-foam float of similar size, and a mullet head is a big, durable bait that will sink a lesser float. The styrofoam float's large-diameter, concave head churned up more commotion than a hard-foam float would.
A smaller, oval-shaped float is better for fishing a delicate bait like a shrimp. Jerking the line too hard rips the hook from a soft natural bait, and the rounded float head doesn't create as much resistance. Adding noisemakers compensates for any lack of surface pop.
HOW IT'S DONE
Popping corks come in myriad styles, and many come pre-rigged with leader and lure, like a plastic shrimp with an internal weight. Pre-rigged popping corks have perfectly matched hook, lure and leader combinations to give the lure balance. Some lures are more durable, and many require special hooks that are weighted "just-so." Or they may have barbed shanks to keep them in place during the violent presentation.
Some modern shrimp lures can catch dozens of fish before they need to be replaced. Nearly any gamefish might strike one, and toothy fish like bluefish can destroy a soft lure or monofilament leader. Therefore, many anglers build their own popping cork rigs and buy inexpensive soft lures by the bag.
Grass beds, points, sandbars and manmade structures are great places to use popping corks. If current is present, the angler can use it to maneuver the cork to just the right spot. In areas with no current, such as a grass bed hole, the lure can be fished for a long time while scarcely having to move it from where it splashed down.
The hallmark of the popping cork is its distinctive sound. Snap the rod tip and the float goes "pop-pop." The lure rises then falls tantalizingly, the fish investigates the sound, sees the lure and eats it. Most rigs have wire harnesses extending through the float. Various arrangements of plastic and/or metal beads sliding on the wire strike the bottom and top of the float when the line is pulled, imitating the sound of a shrimp flipping its tail.
Detractors call the popping cork a "lazy fisherman's rig" because it's so easy to use. Nonetheless, it takes pounds of patience to fish a popping cork properly because it is important to allow the rig to sit between pops. The cork may be what attracts the fish, but the lure or bait must fall naturally to entice strikes. Even after the lure has fallen fully, current, wind and reeling slack line still impart movement to the offering. A fish might simply be looking at or sniffing it. Any subtle movements it makes after the fall can incite the fish to strike.
The best way to know whether the cork, leader and lure combination is functioning properly for the conditions in which you're fishing is to plunk the rig beside the boat and count the time it takes the offering to fully descend through the water. To make it fall faster, add weight to the leader or use a heavier lure.
POP A HARD BAIT
Casting a hard-plastic lure on a popping cork is an expert's trick. It is deadly for fishing rocks, oyster beds, jetties, seawalls, bridges, docks and artificial reefs, where the rig's ability to avoid snags comes in handy. Casting a lure with treble hooks above or beside such snag-filled hotspots is fraught with peril, and hardbaits are expensive to replace.
The popping cork rig not only keeps the lure suspended above or at a safe horizontal distance from structure, it has the added benefits of attracting fish to the lure and keeping the lure in the strike zone longer than a normal cast-and-reel presentation will.
The best lures are buoyancy-neutral or suspending models, such as MirrOlure's MirrOdine suspending twitchbait. Popping the cork makes the lure resemble an injured baitfish, rising erratically then falling slowly.
This versatility is what makes a popping cork such a popular rig. It'll put a novice angler on the bite almost immediately, but the skilled angler can adapt it for more subtle presentations that make the bait more productive. This summer, make sure popping corks are part of your inshore arsenal.