August 03, 2020
Given the innovative minds of anglers, novel ways to fool fish continue to arise, even after all these years. And we also see many minor tweaks that can enhance the effectiveness of older systems. In recent years, we’ve been blown away by umbrella rigs, Neko rigs, Ned rigs, Tokyo rigs, and more. Each represents a new way to put lures in front of bass in enticing ways.
Some are versatile—opening an array of locational and seasonal situations. Others are dialed into particular times or ways bass relate to specific cover, structure, or baitfish. Rod companies have made specialized sticks designed for the characteristics of each new rig. But in our fascination with all that’s new, old ways can be forgotten.
Old-timers like myself reflect on the cyclical nature of fishing for bass. Systems and lure styles fall by the wayside for many years, but suddenly prove extremely effective when tried again, sometimes slightly tweaked with some new hook style, type of weight, or line choice. That’s why we’ve chosen to bring out of the closet an oldie and a goodie—the Carolina Rig.
It, of course, involves a hefty sinker to bring it swiftly to the bottom, trailed by a leader (usually from 1 to 4 feet long), separated by a barrel swivel and bead. It excels for keeping a lure just above bottom in deeper water, gliding along the bottom as the retrieve is paused. This setup emerged in the early 1970s according to legend, perhaps at South Carolina’s Santee-Cooper Reservoir. Bill Dance reportedly caught wind of it there and used one to finish second at the 1973 Bassmaster Classic on Clarks Hill Reservoir, on the Georgia-South Carolina border. In those days, few lures existed to fish the 18- to 28-foot depths where reservoir bass held on deep flooded structure.
I first used it on south Georgia reservoirs in the early 1980s, when I lived there. Once I became familiar with options in lure, leader length, and choice of weight, I realized that this setup is the epitome of power-fishing with finesse. The basic rig calls for a medium-power, moderate-action baitcasting rod from 7 to 73/4 feet. You need a long one since the lure hangs behind on a cast, with a lengthy leader. From that position, you execute a swing or lob cast to deliver the lure, though accuracy is not great. The long rod also enables long casting, which brings out another advantage of the C-Rig that’s as valid today as it was 50 years ago.
The finesse aspect of Carolina rigging involves presenting a lure at any depth in a weightless, natural manner as it slowly follows some distance behind the weight. A worm or lizard glides or scoots across bottom, depending on your retrieve cadence, a look that’s hard for bass to resist. With the hefty weight, you can send a 3-inch finesse worm onto deep structure to tempt lock-jawed lunkers, the kind that color up the sonar screen and eventually make you think they must be suckers, quillbacks, or catfish.
Peter “Peter T” Thliveros of Florida has been recording top finishes in pro tournaments for over 25 years, mostly on Carolina rigs, and at diverse waters from north to south and east to west. This former chef is a patient angler, an important attribute for fishing this rig. Many weekend anglers and pros find it too tedious, giving it the derogatory name, “ball and chain.”
“Styles of fishing come and go,” Thliveros says, “and Carolina rigging doesn’t seem to suit today’s more aggressive young anglers. Moreover, they came of age after the heyday of this rig. They feed off the latest trends in fishing through Internet media. This style of presentation has been out of the limelight for years but always has been and always will be a very effective rig.”
He’s right, since this rig appeals to fish that may not respond to chucking a ChatterBait across the flats, or pitching a drop-shot to deep grass edges and breaklines, or shooting a jig into cover with a pitching approach. The weight and leader allow you to meticulously drag it across the bottom, pausing as the sinker snubs up against a stick, stone or stump, allowing the lure to settle. Often there’s a “heavy” sensation, though at times you feel taps. Raising the rod up and back is enough to hook a bass, another plus for a lengthy rod.
“Its advantages include subtle lure presentation and the ability to cast light lures far, to reach unsuspecting bass,” Thliveros says. “When anglers go down a bank flipping and pitching to cover, they unknowingly spook lots of fish, due to shadows, boat noise, and unfamiliar vibrations. If you’re 25 yards away, they don’t detect your presence. That’s the advantage of using a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce sinker.”
While many anglers consider it a summertime, deep-water tool, a Carolina rig can be effective during the Postspawn and Prespawn periods when bass occupy shallow areas for spawning. During those times, fish hold near cover, including rock, wood, and vegetation. While this rig tends to snag in woodcover, it’s great for working slowly along inside weedlines, rock walls, and other spots that hold bass early in the year. The slow fall of the lure tempts bites from inactive bass.
“While it’s been traditionally considered an offshore rig, I use it in shallow situations at least as much,” Thliveros says. “It works before and after the spawn, and I often catch bass that are spawning but can’t be seen, either due to the thickness of cover or the distance from the bank that you hold the boat.”
In those situations, he often relies on a variant of this rig that other pros came to call the “Petey Rig” for his prowess with it. “During the entire Spawn Period, which can last for months in southern waters, bass often are most susceptible to a slow, subtle presentation in water that’s just a few feet deep but has cover,” he says. “Years ago, I started using a toothpick to peg a lighter weight to the line, with a lure tied a few feet below. It was similar to the split-shot rig popular on the West Coast. It worked well for big bass on Rodman Reservoir in Florida, somewhat to my surprise.
“At some point, I began using a couple of neoprene bobber stops instead of a toothpick, and that made it easier to adjust the length of line between weight and lure,” he says. “For weight, I usually use a 3/16- or 1/4-ounce tungsten sinker.
“It’s best to slowly drag this rig; I rarely twitch it. Subtle and slow gets it done. You can fish various softbaits, but the best ones have minimal action. My favorites are a Fluke and a finesse worm.”
Fishing in waters with potential for double-digit bass, he switches to baitcasting tackle for his downsized setup, with 15-pound fluorocarbon. But he sticks with spinning equipment in sparse cover, when bass are running small, or bites are hard to come by.
When reservoir bass move onto offshore structure in summer, a full-sized rig comes into play as the big weight propels long casts to submerged roadbeds, pond dams, creek channels, and other key structures. And it can be outstanding for deep grasslines as well. Thliveros demonstrated it at the 1995 Bassmaster Top 100 on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota when he took fifth place by Carolina-rigging rock fingers that extended out past the edge of milfoil beds in Wayzata Bay. Local experts were astounded as they had never figured out how to use the rig effectively on deep edges until the Florida C-Rig master showed the way. Thliveros also works a full-size rig on near-shore areas, including piers, marinas, breaklines, and brushpiles.
Carolina Rigging in Current
Rivers represent many of the best bass fisheries from coast to coast. Here in Minnesota, we’re at the headwaters of the Mississippi, and its upper pools provide excellent habitat for both largemouth and smallmouth bass, with connected lakes, back channels, and manmade features. Bass thrive from there to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana, where they consume shrimp and crabs in competition with redfish and sea trout. On the East Coast, you could create an ultimate bass excursion, starting north at the St. Lawrence River and proceeding to Florida’s bountiful St. Johns. Out west, bass abound in rivers from the Columbia to the Sacramento-San Joaquin system that creates the fabled Cal Delta.
Current positions bass in predictable areas, which helps you break down these vast systems, selecting potential hotspots from home with the aid of a digital map. Seth Feider of Minnesota has quickly risen from a local phenom in team events to a national star on Bassmaster’s Elite Series, succeeding on waters across the country. But he still fishes his old stomping grounds including Minnetonka, Mille Lacs, and the Mississippi River, which has become a popular destination for national circuits.
“Largemouths use river current for their feeding and cover,” Feider says, “but quite differently from smallmouths. Before the spawn, both species head into side channels where the main river’s current is greatly reduced. While smallmouths may remain and spawn in hard-bottom spots on the edge of current, largemouths move into quiet pockets, back channels, or connected ponds until after they’ve spawned.
“In summer, some largemouths stay in shallow weedy backwaters that function like shallow lakes,” he says, “but others move into current areas where they can easily feed on schools of small gizzard shad. I’ve caught lots of big largemouths relating to main-river wing dams, sand drops, and island points in summer. This bite only gets better as rivers cool in fall. Bass make more use of back-channel wing dams and closing dams in fall as well, as they shift toward wintering areas on northern rivers. These rock structures create deep scour holes close to shallow sandflats that make good sanctuary areas for winter bass.”
As in most river fishing, Feider generally casts upstream to work his rig toward fish nosing upstream into current. Check depths around closing dams and other structures, and avoid spots made too shallow by sand or siltation. Bass favor deeper cuts formed by current, often running close to the bank. “I use a Zoom Speed Craw or a 6-inch lizard on a short leader, just 12 to 18 inches,” he says. “You need control of the lure in current, which means a short leader. It also makes it easier to detect bites.”
'Rigging Deep Vegetation
After reviewing his digital map and sonar readings, Peter Thliveros pinpoints key features along the deep edges of vegetation. He sets waypoints at key turns to make boat control easier while planning optimal casting angles.
Not many softbaits are unsuitable for some form of Carolina rigging, though those that require a steady, upbeat retrieve to move action appendages aren’t good choices. So, flappin’ craws, swimbaits, and paddletail or buzz-tail worms are best saved for other applications. Similarly, line choice is pretty wide open and subject to personal preference and budget. I continue to use 20-pound low-stretch mono or fluorocarbon for most applications, switching to a braid mainline only when bass are unusually deep or bites are hard to detect. Reducing the strength of the leader helps salvage the bulk of the rig when you snag it up. Fifteen-pound fluorocarbon is ideal for a standard leader material in most cases. Where double-digit bass are present, I upsize to 25-pound mono with a 20-pound leader.
Straight, finesse-style worms and “French fries” make fine choices, as they fall horizontally and slowly, and are hard for bass to refuse. While 3-inch models like Zoom’s French Fry are all-around favorites, my pick for big bites is the Ring Fry from Lake Fork Tackle. It falls with a slight wiggle and lunkers seem to like its ribbed body and garlicky flavor.
Where filamentous algae, black grime, or zebra mussels coat the bottom, a floating lure can glide above it, offering an easy target for bass in the area. Z-Man’s ElaZtech material fits this bill, available in dozens of shapes. Over the years, I’ve used floating lizards, but they seem to have been discontinued, likely a result of neglect of Carolina rigging in general.
The classic sinker was a 3/4-ounce lead bullet, and it’s still my favorite. Some anglers have switched to tungsten for reduced size and the potential to make more sound as this material is pulled across hard bottoms. And I do consider this factor when Carolina-rigging for smallmouths. They seem more interested in and attracted to random clicks than largemouths. When targeting smallmouths, I often add a round brass clicker between the bead and the weight, to increase sound. But losing a $9 sinker to a snag isn’t fun, though pros sponsored by sinker companies have no such concerns.
Carolina-rigging is admittedly an “old-timey” technique but one that can outperform others throughout the season. If you’ve stowed your barrel swivels, beads, and 3/4-ounce sinkers, it’s time to dig them out and get into the swing of things.
*Steve Quinn is a former In-Fisherman Senior Editor and now a Field Editor, and has written articles on bass topics for In-Fisherman publications for over 30 years.