Power Bassin' with Finesse: Carolina Rigging For Bass Right

Though more than a decade had passed since "Sweet Baby James" topped the charts, I couldn't keep the tune out of my head as I heaved a weighty worm rig over an expanse of stumps and hydrilla at Lake Seminole, Georgia in the mid-1980s. Carolina rigging was coming into prominence and was unbelievably effective. A hefty sinker and red bead were matched with a prerigged worm, labeled a "dumb" worm by those too sophisticated to try it. Catching was so easy, it seemed like cheating: Cast it out, hum a tune, and haul in bass.


Today, one hot tournament trend is to find a shallow bite and beat it to death. Anglers insist that bass can always be found in shallow cover, and you can make them bite by deftly flipping baits into pockets in wood and weed. That's good news for deepwater fishermen who know how to locate groups of big bass on structure and can catch them one after another on this rig, while most other anglers are fishing shallow.

"I call Carolina rigging for bass power-fishing with finesse," says Kyle Mabrey of Birmingham, Alabama. "Your basic setup, a 3/4-ounce weight, swivel, leader, and lure, calls for a 7-foot medium-heavy baitcasting rod and a main line from 15- to 20-pound-test. That's power for setting hooks at long range and hauling big bass off the bottom.


"Yet the action of your lure is subtle," Mabrey maintains. "The bait appears natural because it's free of any other tackle. It glides along and slowly settles to the bottom when you pause the retrieve. If a bass picks it up, it feels no resistance. That's finesse for fooling big fish that may not be in a feeding mood."


PHYSICS AND CAROLINA RIGS

Though Carolina rigs have a substantial history, confusion continues about how these rigs really perform. Ralph Manns, long-time In-Fisherman contributor and expert on all scientific aspects of fishing, comments, "You often see illustrations with the lure floating above the bottom. This doesn't happen unless the lure and hook combination is lighter than water. Once heavier-than-water lures reach the bottom, they tend to stay there.

"If you rig a floating lizard or other floating bait, it rises whenever the retrieve is paused. Slightly buoyant lures rise slowly, while highly buoyant baits ascend at only moderate speeds because the leader resists upward movement, and the weight of the hook slows the rise. A slow retrieve with many pauses allows floating baits to rise above the bottom. The longer the pauses and the longer the leader, the higher a bait rises.

"Standard plastisol lures or Berkley Gulp! baits sink when rigged on a hook. And each retrieve motion pulls the lure downward, keeping the bait on the bottom or in contact with weeds or other cover. Lengthening the leader doesn't change basic laws of physics, so lures don't ride higher with long leaders. Combined with floating lures, however, long leaders mean different arcs of up and down movement. But with sinking lures, long leaders only extend the time the lure falls after the sinker first contacts the bottom. Once on bottom, standard baits stay down until the entire rig is lifted off the bottom.

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Power Bassin' with Finesse (cont.)

"Rigged on a 4-foot leader, a floating lizard may float 4 feet off the bottom -- if sinker movement is slow enough and pauses are long enough to allow the rise. But floating lures are forced downward each time the sinker is moved. Long rod-sweeps and rapid retrieves keep floating baits near the bottom.

"A slow-sinking lure may land on the tops of vegetation, but each pull tends to force it down into the cover. And baits sink when they don't land on weedstalks or brush."

SEASONAL SCENARIOS

Anglers have generally regarded Carolina rigging as a summer tactic, since the big sinker quickly can put a bait into deepwater bass hideouts. But modifications have made it effective from the Prespawn Period well into fall.

Spring Patterns: Texan Clark Wendlandt began his pro fishing career by relying on a Carolina rig and has used it with success from Lake Fork, Texas, to Minnesota's Lake Minnetonka. "Though the Carolina rig is regarded as a deep-water tool, its characteristics make it ideal for shallow fishing, too," Wendlandt notes. "In natural lakes and reservoirs with vegetation, the inside weededge is a draw for prespawn bass, and largemouths sometimes nest there, too. The attraction of the Carolina rig lies in the weightless presentation of the plastic lure. It falls slowly and, once on the bottom, it slowly meanders along the edge in lifelike fashion."

This same minimal action can entice spawning bass, as well. Bass sometimes build beds on sandy flats where clumps of vegetation form in spring, particularly hydrilla, Eurasian milfoil, or curly pondweed. Often these beds can't be easily spotted, as can those along a bank. But casting a Carolina rig and slowly retrieving it among the clumps entices bass to eat the bait. Pull the rig quickly through open areas, then pause it alongside clumps. The water may be clear and just 2 or 3 feet deep, but bass lurk out of view to bite a passing bait.

"After the spawn, inside weededges remain a focus for bass activity in grassy lakes," Wendlandt says. "Largemouths cruise the edge or hold in thicker weed clumps, looking for bluegills, shiners, and other preyfish that are shallow feeding and spawning. Bass can be spooky in clear shallow water and you have to make long casts. Again, the Carolina rig is ideal, as it allows distance casting with the action of a weightless lure."

Summer C-Rigging: In reservoirs with little or no submergent vegetation, the bite shifts offshore once the spawn is done. Wendlandt comments: "There isn't a better way to catch bass on deep structure, a key location after the spawn, when females quickly shift to underwater bars, points, roadbeds, and other structure and begin to feed heavily. Males move out later, after they've left the beds. At first, all the fish you catch are big, spawned-out females. If attractive structure with cover like stumps and brush is nearby, fish tend to move there first, but they may also appear on spots far removed from spawning bays."

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Power Bassin' with Finesse (cont.)

Because the rig sinks fast and can be worked at a good pace while the lure stays near the bottom, Carolina rigs excel for finding groups of bass. Deep-diving crankbaits work in this situation, but bass often hold beyond the max diving depth of 16 feet or so. Moreover, crankbaits move briskly across a structure, which works fine for active bass. But finicky postspawn fish may require a slower presentation. Carolina rigs let you deadstick a lizard or a tube by a big stump in 20 feet of water, or work it gently down a drop-off.

Though most anglers hold the boat deep, cast onto shallow structure, and drag the bait deeper, the opposite approach works better at times. On steep structure, a rig can tumble down a break, bypassing key cover like stumps, rock crevices, or brushpiles. Working uphill allows you to locate these features by feel, then pause the lure near them to tempt fish to bite.

Carolina rigging also can be extremely effective in weedy lakes. Witness the first Bassmaster tournament held on milfoil-infested Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota. While local experts relied on heavy jigs, crankbaits, and jigworms to work grassy areas, several savvy pros immediately saw the potential for dragging. Peter "Peter T" Thliveros, a tournament veteran from Jacksonville, Florida, was one of them.

"Carolina rigging was not popular in Minnesota's grassy lakes, just not a tradition there," he recalls. "The technique takes some preparation but is effective along deep grasslines. I use it in Florida and Texas in hydrilla spots, and it works around coontail, milfoil, cabbage, and other grasses, as well."

Sweetening his standard rig with a 4-inch green pumpkin craw at Minnetonka, he found a series of hard-bottom spots associated with milfoil beds in 12 to 16 feet of water that were loaded with big bass, enough to keep him in the lead for the first 3 days of the tournament. The large bass moved out the last day and he fell to second. Though his success spurred some local experts to try Carolina rigging, most gave up in frustration when they encountered thick grass.

"The Carolina rig is not user-friendly in grass," Peter T admits, "but with a little work you can lay out a fishing course to precisely fish edges. It's a 4-step process that starts with map reading. Look for transition areas with grass adjacent to rock or shell beds, with gentle contours. Transitions are bass magnets everywhere.

"Next, check the area with sonar to pinpoint hard bottom to weed transitions or holes indicated by the map. Place GPS icons on those features as you move along. Finally, go back and place marker buoys adjacent to points, inside turns, or rockpiles. GPS just isn't accurate enough for these fine features. Moreover, buoys help you visualize the shape of the spot better than dots on a screen, so your casts are more accurate.

"The most productive weedlines generally aren't straight," he notes. "The best casts keep the lure on the open-water side of the edge so it doesn't land in the thick cover. You must know exactly how the structure runs. Another point: Most people fish Carolina rigs too fast, particularly around grass. Once you've defined a good area and pinpointed key spots, work them slowly and methodically. It sometimes takes bass a while to move out and eat the bait. I think the sound of the sinker with beads and swivel is part of the draw around thick grass." If you've watched Thliveros on TV, you know he's not kidding about fishing at a slow pace.

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Power Bassin' with Finesse (cont.)

Late Season: As summer dwindles into fall, Carolina rigs typically see less use. Peter T admits that he generally puts aside the Carolina rig when water temperatures fall below 50F, relying on jigs and Texas-rigged plastics late in the season.

In grassy lakes vegetation thins, providing less cover, less prey, and less oxygen than in summer. Bass often shift to hard-bottom areas or to shallower flats where better cover remains. While hard-bottom spots or deep flats with clumps of vegetation are fished effectively with Carolina rigs, shallow flats with mixed vegetation are not.

In many reservoirs and river systems, bass in fall move to main-lake points, feeder creeks, or manmade structure like old bridge abutments and roadbeds. Here, Carolina rigging lets you work a small area precisely while keeping your bait in the strike zone.

Last fall, for example, the Bassmaster Open Championship on the Ouachita River in Louisiana was won by Bradley Stringer, a young pro from Texas. During practice, he located several drop-offs and deep points that held groups of bass. The bite was tough and he was the only angler to secure a limit each of the four days. To get bites, he worked a milk-run of spots, alternating between a Carolina-rigged Stanley Wedge Hog and a 1-ounce Vibra-Shaft spinnerbait retrieved among brush and stumps.

SINKER SELECTION

Weight: The basics of Carolina rigging have remained unchanged for two decades. Early on, the rig's anonymous inventor tried a 3/4-ounce bullet weight and found it worked well. It still does, with a few exceptions and some new wrinkles. Both Clark Wendlandt and Peter Thliveros fish a 3/4-ounce sinker at least 80 percent of the time. But both are ready to lighten up, at times.

"I generally switch to a 1/2-ounce bullet sinker when fishing around grass, since the lighter weight more easily slips over stalks without tearing them," Thliveros says. "You want to present the lure as naturally as possible, so try to avoid ripping up grass. If you've carefully marked your target zone, this is easier.

"Many anglers fish weights that are too light," he notes. "The key to Carolina rigging is keeping your weight on the bottom at all times. The sinker helps you detect bottom features, so you can pause the lure near a high-percentage spot like a stump or rock. Moreover, Carolina rigging is a great way to cover deep structure and find small key spots. Heavy weights make long casts easy over expansive cover." Wendlandt switches to a full-ounce sinker when the target area is at least 20 feet deep or when it's windy.

Material: Big leads paved the way to Carolina-rigging success and they remain the norm. Clark Wendlandt favors lead for Carolina rigging, though he may switch to brass or tungsten for Texas rigging or flippin'. "I want to avoid calling attention to the sinker," says Wendlandt, who goes against some popular theories in this regard. "A noisy sinker clicking along with a bead and metal ticker can distract from the lure itself. Bass often bite the sinker, then swim away when they find it inedible. Lead makes minimal sound and, though I use a bead, it's a plastic one that protects the knot from the sinker's impacts but doesn't make much noise."

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Power Bassin' with Finesse (cont.)

Wendlandt's view is far from universal, however. Near thick vegetation or in darker water, in particular, other anglers have found that sinkers of harder metals like brass, tungsten, or Bullet Weight's Ultra Steel 2000 create more sound, which attracts more bites. Another favorite is the Carolina Quake from Top Brass Tackle, a hollow brass weight from 1/2- to 1-ounce weight with a rattle chamber inside. Tennessee River bass guide Jimmy Mason rigs a pair of 3/8-ounce Excalibur TG Tungsten sinkers, with the flat sides touching to create extra clatter as it's pulled along. "Drives those big smallmouths crazy," he says.

Thliveros has been using tungsten weights from Tru-Tungsten. These colored weights produce sound, while the density of the metal also means they're barely more than half the size of equivalent lead sinkers. "These dense weights transmit changes in bottom type better than any other weight," he says, "making it easier to find key spots."

The Penetrator Weights Company has produced a new line of tungsten weights with a "slickery coating," according to company president Sam Aversa. The coating on these weights helps the sinker slide through grass, whether you're flipping mats or dragging the edge of a grassbed. For extra sound production, Lindy Legendary Fishing Tackle offers the Carolina Mag Weights (1/2 to 1 ounce). These pre-rigs have an integrated magnetic system that separates the weight from the beads and ticker as the rig lies still, and they click back together on each pull.

Shape: Since Lindy teamed with legendary sinker-tinkerer Ron Lindner to produce Lindy's Rattlin' No-Snagg Sinker, Carolina-rigging around rocks has not been the same. Now, you can drag a riprap wall and rarely hang up. This banana-shaped weight consists of a balsa and lead-antimony body encased in a rubberized coating, with a stainless-steel line tie. The weight's shape and unique balance keep it pivoting back and forth to pass through the nastiest wood and rock snags.

Larry Glavinich of Mojo Weights designed the Rock Hopper, a version of his popular cylindrical Mojo but turned lengthwise to move vertically through cover. The line passes through one end of the elongated lead sinker, leaving the lower part to dance through rocky terrain with few hangs.

Standard Mojo weights and other cylindrical sinkers, like Top Brass's Pro Jo Weights, work well for down-sized Carolina rigs. Their elongated shape helps them slide through grass or over rocks without too many hang-ups. Magnum Weight Systems offers a versatile sinker composed of a brass cylinder with 6 BBs that can be removed to adjust the weight. Three sizes are available, 1/8 to 1 ounce. For easy rigging, they include a swivel at one end and an eye at the other.

Carolina rigging represents a mindset as much as a way to rig a worm. That's why humming or belting out a tune can help you focus and get into the appropriate rhythm. Your tackle become tools to probe the bass' mansion, telegraphing information about its kitchen, living room, sometimes its bedroom. Understanding structure and fish positioning, combined with precision-casting and a dose of patience, implement summer's deadliest tactic.

After checking his map, Peter Thliveros studies the area with sonar to pinpoint key weedline features. Marking them with GPS icons or waypoints, he then returns and places marker buoys to help him visualize the shape of the structure and plan efficient casting angles.

Though Carolina rigging is undeniably effective, even some adherents admit it's not the most exciting way to catch a bass. Some pros groan when they anticipate such a bite. "Boring," they say. Well, perhaps it's during those idle minutes dragging a big sinker around that inventive folks think of alternative tactics. Since bass sometimes bite the sinker, several "sinker-lures" have been invented to catch those fish, in addition to those attracted to the softbait. Or how about rigging a pair of baits behind the sinker, to offer options or to simulate a natural grouping of small defenseless creatures.

In addition to Jimmy Mason's double-sinker trick, I've reversed my weight to create more bottom commotion. The concave face puffs sand nicely, and also makes baits trip awkwardly over rocky bottoms.

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