If there is any tackle item as fundamental to Florida fishing as hook, line and sinker, it is the good old popping cork. Slide it on the line, peg it with a stick run through the center, and you’re ready for trout, snook, reds or anything else that happens by on the grassflats.
Popping corks not only suspend baits such as shrimp and sardines over the grass where gamefish can find them, they also make pinfish struggle to dive, thus attracting attention of predators. They’re called popping corks because the cupped face can be ripped sharply across the surface, thus imitating the popping sound of striking fish, to which other predators instinctively are attracted.
But a pegged popping cork has limitations when it comes to casting. The farther it is pegged above the bait, the greater the whirligig motion when cast. The awkward rotation of a pegged cork limits casting distance, and it is a real problem to anyone trying to snake a cast under mangroves or a low dock. The cork and bait tend to work like a caballero’s bolas, (no, his critter catcher, silly) wrapping around everything with which they come in contact.
A cork would be handy in plenty of situations under the bushes, where it’s hard to keep track of a frisky bait. But getting it in there is a challenge.
The answer to those problems is to rig a sliding cork-something that can be done with any popping cork that has a hollow plastic peg. The rigging is more complicated than pegging a slotted popping cork, but sliders add considerable versatility to a cork’s effectiveness.
A weighted, sliding cork that is rigged to sit atop the hook will cast like a bullet, actually adding distance rather than hindering it. The same rig also will skip across the water like a bullet, enabling an angler to fish considerably farther up under mangroves than when casting a live bait with no cork.
Of course, it’s important that once the cork has landed, the line slides through the cork so the bait can settle to the intended fishing level. Under the mangroves that may be only six inches, although sliding corks can be rigged to fish almost any depth desired-certainly to dozens of feet, as bass and crappie anglers sometimes are wont.
The key to sliding cork rigs is for the bait or a weight to pull line through the cork without hangups. And the keys to smooth sliding are plastic beads. Some tackle shops carry plastic beads in the familiar international orange color, but by comparison, the price and variety in a hobby shop is way better. Hobby beads come in many shapes and colors, faceted to refract light, and even clear.
The one caveat to the buyer is to be sure the center holes are large enough to allow the passage of the fishing line or, in some cases, shock leader material. The fit must be loose, but not so loose that the bead can slide over the knot, and thus jam on the line. That is the point of using a stopper bead, rather than using the variously sized holes in the cork peg to do the job. Even when a swivel is used to join the leader and line, a bead helps keep the peg from jamming over a knot.
For bead colors, I like orange or red, which may imitate blood and may be inspiring to predators. Even if it isn’t, red never seems to hurt, although it does fade out of the color spectrum beyond certain depths. The only other color I have heard positive comments on is lime green, which some commercial grouper hook-and-liners are said to favor.
One stop bead must be rigged below the cork, to stop the float at the point of line-leader interface, or atop the hook. Another bead must be rigged above the cork, to stop the cork at the point of maximum depth. Rigging otherwise can take many different paths.
The knots in the shock leader can be used to set the cork depth when fishing under mangroves. In that case, a maximum leader length of about 18 inches will work for most shorelines, unless the edge is exceptionally deep. If fishing with shrimp, and likely with sardines or other herrings, a weight sufficient to slide the leader through the cork will be necessary. Pinfish are stronger and require less weight (possibly none) to separate themselves from the cork. The size weight will vary with the fit between leader and bead, but a quarter-ounce is a good starting point. Smaller splitshot usually won’t do the job. Use a sliding egg sinker so the bait can separate itself from the lead.
A sliding cork also is a great tool for covering a lot of bottom with a live bait fished in a current. Rather than pegging a bait to the bottom with a sinker, or allowing it to dive into grass or rocks, it is possible to drift a bait just above relatively smooth bottom with a sliding cork and a thread stopper. The advantage of a thread stopper is that it can be slid up and down the line as needed, and it will pass easily through rod guides and on and off a reel without weakening the line. Thread stoppers can be rigged 10, 20 or more feet up the line of a freely sliding cork rig.
Thread stoppers can be bought in some tackle stores, already rigged on a short piece of tubing. The thread is tied in a nail knot around the tube, through which the line is threaded. Then the loosely knotted thread is slid above the tube onto the line and the tube is removed from the line. The thread knot then is snugged down so that it stays pretty much in place on the line unless grasped with the fingers and slid up or down for adjustment. The ends are trimmed off and the top bead, sliding cork and bottom bead are threaded onto the line so that the thread knot serves to stop the bead and cork.
Thread stoppers can be made in advance with dental floss and coffee stirrer straws, provided the angler is proficient with the nail knot or tube knot. One source is Vic Dunaway’s Complete Book of Baits, Rigs & Tackle. To pre-tie a thread stopper, two sections of straw are used to tie a nail or tube knot to one of the straw sections, just as a leader is tied to a fly line. With a pre-tied nail knot on a straw it is a simple matter to rig a stopper thread for cork fishing in relatively deep water.
A sliding cork rig is also great for trout fishing with a jig or spoon. Trout, as noted, are often attracted to the sounds of surface-striking fish, effectively imitated with a popping cork. Trout also are total suckers for baits that appear to be diving into the grass to escape them. A falling lure often causes an impulse strike from trout that might not be in a real feeding mood. A jig or spoon rigged under a sliding cork combines the noise and action that calls and incites trout to bite.
The best jigs for a sliding cork rig are relatively heavy by normal grassflat standards. A
1/4-ounce leadhead is a bit shy of what it takes to free-fall like an escaping bait; try a 1/2- or 5/8-ounce leadhead. Add to that a flattened, stingray grub-type tail that tends to spiral downward. Spoons add the element of flash to the illusion, but the tradeoff is a tendency for trout to spit out the metal if they can, so try a treble-hook spoon like a Johnson Sprite, Dardevle, Krocodile or Doctor, unless you’re catching small trout that will have to be released.
Whether you use it for live bait or artificials under the mangroves or out on the grass, the next time you’re inclined to use a popping cork, think about letting it slide.