Over the last twentyfive years, I’ve won and placed in more tournaments on Carolina rigs than all other baits combined. Prior to the mid-90s, I won or placed in my fair share, but I had not learned to fish a Carolina rig. When I finally learned how, it allowed me to catch many more fish during a day. It basically opens up the entire day to fish catching, not just the early and late bite.
Many people do not believe stories of 50-75 fish per day, but this is common under ideal conditions. On an average day, under average conditions, 20-30 fish are common. When the fish are bunched up and actively feeding (say summer time when the fish are in deep water-say below 18 feet) these numbers are very possible with a Carolina rig. You are going to have to get up pretty early and have a really good top water bite to out fish a good Carolina rig fisherman most of the year. Remember, as Buck Perry said many times: “The home of the bass is deep water.” Some of you younger guys may never have heard of Buck Perry. There’s something you can “Google”.
Exception: One time of year that’s least likely to produce the best fishing on deep Carolina rigs is the peak of the spawn. However, some of the heaviest stringers are produced in the spring on Carolina rigged lizards in relatively shallow water. In this situation, the pros are fishing a Carolina rig in 3-8 feet, as compared to the summer and fall depths of 18-25 feet. The spawn is the one time of year I do not use the Carolina rig as my primary tool. For “staging” fish just prior to the spawn, it can be the deal.
Also, never fall for the “secret bait” trap. There are many soft plastics you want to try on a Carolina rig. Start with a trick worm or finesse worm and you can’t go wrong. There’s more to it than just having the right bait. What’s the old saying? “Location, location, location”. Or as Dave says: “There is no substitute for being on the fish.”
Rule One: The longer the leader, the harder to feel the bite.
Rule Two: Start with a 18-24 inch leader. In grass, go to a longer leader. In clearer water, go to a longer and lighter leader, say 4 feet. In heavy timber and brush, go shorter to avoid hanging the fish up and loosing it, use a 14-18 inch leader.
Rule Three: Use the lightest hook you feel comfortable with and can get away with on the bait you are using and still get a good hook set. This allows the bait to suspend briefly when it comes over something. That’s when you will get the most bites! I prefer Daiichi hooks. Look at the point close or under a microscope and you will know why. I get a very high percentage hook-up and land ratio with them.
Rule Four: THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. Use the heaviest weight you can get away with. You want to keep your weight dragging on the bottom. This means you must vary the weight depending on the depth of water and amount of wind. However, the typical East Texas lakes in the summer will hold fish in 18-25 feet of water. A good starter rig is a 2-3 feet leader of 12 pound test, on a main line of 15 pound test (I like Seaguar fluorocarbon. Think about why fluorocarbon is better for deep water fishing, which is the subject of future article), a #6 swivel, a 2-0 or 3-0 hook, plastic (not glass) bead, and a 1 oz weight. Weights: Barrel or egg-shaped sinkers work good on roadbeds or points that are not heavy with cover. When fishing in grass, switch to a bullet sinker which punches through the grass without getting hung up or pulling stalks of grass up fouling your rig.
Rule Five: Fish slow, d-r-a-g-g-i-n-g the weight versus hopping it. As always in fishing, there are exceptions to every rule, but this works best most of the time.
The Bite: If you have never felt a bite on Carolina rig, it may be difficult at first. You may feel a slight tap, but more often the line just gets tight and starts going the other way. Generally, a tap-tap indicates smaller fish, whereas the line getting tight indicates you might want to look to see where the net is.
The Rod: Use a long (7 ½ foot) heavy rod. I’m 6’2” and a 7 ½ foot heavy rod fits me fine. My favorite rod is an American Rodsmiths 7 ½’ Kicker Stix Magnum Flipping Stick. It does not have to be an expensive rod. Rod manufacturers are producing models specifically designed for Carolina rigging. Looking at one of these will give you an idea of what is desirable.
You need a stiff tip for good hook sets, and for climbing your worm weight through brush. When you get hung up in brush with a limber tip, you can’t “pop” the worm weight free of the brush. You’ll figure that one out after a couple of years.
The Hookset: This is no hurry in setting the hook. Again there are exceptions, such as finicky little Kentucky bass. Allow the fish to take up his own slack, then drop the rod toward the fish and reel up all of the slack, and then make a long sweeping hook set sideways. Do not make a sharp jerking hook set upward like you would use on a Texas rig or when flipping. Remember, especially if you are using fluorocarbon line, your line is sinking and the weight is in 18-25 feet of water. A sharp jerk upward is simply working against the angle of the line in the water, which will result in only popping the weight and have no effect on the hook. You will lose a lot of fish if you set the hook wrong. That is because you did not penetrate the fish’s mouth well enough with the barb. Keep your rod tip low to the water and sweep your rod tip back at a low angle. Usually a 2-3 second wait between bite to hook set is OK.
The Leader: Tie your leader without the hook to the swivel first, and then tie the swivel to the main line after you have placed the sinker and then a plastic bead on the main line. Tie your hook on last. It’s easier that way. You will see. I use Palomar knots for all three connections.
The Bait: In clear water use watermelon colors and you may not have to try another color. I’ve caught 80% of my Carolina rig fish on a watermelon/watermelon candy/green pumpkin or similar colors. Think about subtle colors. A lot of these bass I categorize as “resting” fish, but they can be encouraged to eat! Use aggressive baits, such as lizards, creature style baits like the Stanley ItzaBugs, brush hogs, etc., when the fish are aggressive. Switch to finesse baits when they are not as aggressive or want smaller baits. Light colors are best in clear water and high skies, maybe green pumpkin/pumpkinseed early in the morning, switching to watermelon later. Use darker colors or a chartreuse combination during low light conditions or slightly stained water. I don’t fish a Carolina rig in off-colored water. So as you can guess, summer and fall usually presents the best clear water times.
Where to Start Fishing: The easiest thing to find on a new lake is a main lake point. The next easiest is a main lake point with some structure or cover on it or one with a creek that swings close by. One of the hardest to find, and probably the best, is a submerged hump, preferably one with cover or structure very nearby. Everyone can find a main lake point, but not everybody can find a submerged hump or ridge in the middle of nowhere. However, humps are what I look for. That is because I know they get the least pressure, and typically hold better concentrations of fish. At certain times of the year, especially post-spawn, they will hold bigger fish.
What kind of hump is best? One that’s not on the map! In the summer and fall, try to find one with considerably deeper water nearby. Such as one that comes out of 30 feet to a 12 hump, or 40 feet to a 20 foot hump or ridge. Next look for road beds, and especially work the area where the road bed crosses a creek. Many times there will be a submerged bridge or culvert there. Ah, a Honey Hole. Nearly every bridge that crosses a lake has a submerged roadbed parallel to it and it nearly always has a bridge or culvert at the creek channel(s). Any descent map will get you close to the creek, and then use your electronics when moving down the road to find the creek or ditch. Start off with you boat on top of the road bed, if that doesn’t work, try positioning to the sides a bit and try the bar ditches of the road bed. Here’s a 9 pounder caught in June in 18’ on one of my brush piles with a Carolina rig/finesse worm. Note the two distinctive marks on the fish, which was released immediately.
I caught the same fish two years later on the same brush pile, during a Thursday evening tournament, and it weighted 12#6. I released it again on the same brush pile! I saw the same marks on the fish. I only wish I had captured that side of the fish in this photo!
Boat Position: I almost hate to give this away. Consider carrying a good heavy anchor, and if you find the fish bunched up on one spot, pull back away, anchor and fish for them from a distance. This saved a tournament for me when my trolling motor failed mid-day. If on a point, try anchoring (tying up is just as good) uphill from the fish. You’ll like this much better, because the fish will head toward deep water after biting, making bites easier to detect. If you do the opposite, you may not feel the bite. Also, Carolina rigs are more effective coming “uphill” because the bait tends to suspend a little off the bottom because of its tendency to follow the weight, which is above it.
Casting: Use a swing cast, not a snap cast using the rod tip. Don’t even try to use the tip, just make a long sweeping side arm swing and let the heavy 1oz weight do the work for you. Try to position yourself where you can make long casts. Long casts allow for a better presentation, because the line is more parallel to the bottom and allows better bottom contact. It also allows you to keep your bait in the strike zone longer. What was it Dave said? “Keep your hook wet.”
Electronics: When fishing in deep water, good electronics is very helpful, but not an absolute requirement. They take a lot of the guesswork out of your fish finding expedition. I know one lake where the fish tend to concentrate on several main lake points. I can pull up on a point, put the trolling motor down, spend 2-3 minutes moving over the point, and very quickly see if the fish are there. If not, off I go to the next point. Note: while I’m looking with my electronics, I’m dragging a Carolina rig behind the boat. Another tip: sometimes dragging a Carolina rig works better than a cast and retrieve. I’ve found this to be true more on fish that have received a lot of fishing pressure. I only use this presentation as a secondary approach, it is not my preference.
What’s the best way to learn? Go fishing with someone who is an expert, and already has the fish located, either a guide or someone willing to share. Remember, you can benefit from years of experience from a pro in one day.
What’s the best time of year to learn? Probably summer. In April-May, (or when ever post-spawn occurs on your lake) fish begin to move out to the main lake, and they particularly like humps at that time. By June the majority of fish are relating to main lake points, then ridges and humps. You will hear a lot of people moan the post-spawn blues, but when bass first get “out there” after the spawn, it can be the best for big fish. Summer is best because the bass are going to stay deep till fall movements. They are also going to stay in the same areas for a long time barring major changes. Water temperature causes their metabolism to require more food. Sometimes they may feed most of the day. Other groups of fish will feed primarily at night. At each location, a particular time of day is better.
When you really learn a few spots, as to the time of day when feeding is best, you can hit them in order, and catch fish all day or all night. On one lake, I had six good night spots. At the first spot, fish bit good at dusk. My last spot turned on just at daylight. My last night tournament there impressed my partner. We caught fish all night long winning the tournament, and he had big bass with a 7 ¾ pounder. He had not fished in over a year due to an operation. Needless to say he had a great time.
After the Basics: After you learn the basics, and believe me this is the most important step, you can begin to develop the finer aspects, such as varying leader length, baits, retrieves, etc.
Why is a Carolina rig so effective? It’s the easiest way to fish deep water. It gets the bait to the strike zone quickly. It keeps the bait in the strike zone longer. It allows a slow presentation. Fishing pressure has driven many fish deep. Bait fish have moved deep. Many people are fishing the bank. It’s easy. You sit in one spot, anchored or tied up and make long casts with long slow retrieves. When you are doing it right, you might get a bite on nearly every cast.
And remember these quotes:
“The home of the bass is deep water” -Buck Perry
“Get off the bank”-Dave Mauldin
“Life’s too short to fish bad lakes, read bad books or work with bad people” -Dave Mauldin