Popping Corks

The light ripple on the water’s surface had the popping float bobbing ever so slightly as it drifted into the riffle created by the oyster rock blocking the path of the falling tide.  Just after the tide pushed it around the corner of the oysters and it’s speed began to slow, the fisherman dipped his rod tip and jerked his wrist to pop the float.  It tipped over, scooped water and popped, then, as it was returning upright, it disappeared.  This time the fisherman put a little arm with his wrist action and set the hook on a nice speckled trout.  The popping cork had done its job again.

Fishermen call a lot of things popping corks.  Generally they are all corks that make noise, but I separate them into popping corks, rattling corks and combination corks.

Popping corks have a concave upper end, so they will scoop water when laid over and jerked and make a sound that sounds similar to a fish gulping bait on the surface.  Rattling corks have beads that click and make sounds like a fish grabbing bait under water.  To me, this sounds a lot like a shrimp.  Not many people have heard it, but shrimp make a clicking sound when they move, especially when startled and they move backwards quickly.

Combination corks are just that.  They have the shape, rigging and ability to be used as either a popping or rattling cork.

Fish are curious.  Loud and unnatural sounds, like an outboard cruising through their hole, or a deck box lid slamming, will shut them down for a while.  Just the opposite, natural sounds, like of other fish feeding, attract them.  Popping and rattling corks imitate these sounds, while suspending a bait or lure under them to be eaten when the curious fish arrive.

Let’s start with popping corks.  There are many different varieties from many manufacturers.  Then one thing they all have in common is a concave top to scoop water and make sound.

One of the easiest popping corks to use is a slotted popping cork.  Many fishermen use Carolina rigs and a slotted popping cork can be added to a Carolina rig in a matter of seconds to make it a float rig.  The depth can be adjusted as needed, but be aware with this quick rig that deeper depth settings become more difficult to cast.  The cork and weight tend to helicopter through the air which hurts accuracy and distance.

Slotted popping corks are roughly cone shaped, with the concave at the large upper end.  They come with and without weights in the bottom end.  Weighted popping corks can help add casting distance, but will always sit upright unless in 2 inches of water or less.  Unweighted corks will usually tell you if something is wrong, like tangling during the cast or being in water shallower than your depth adjustment.  When this happens, the rig doesn’t pull down and they won’t sit upright, but lay on their side.  This will save you time of fishing with a tangled rig or in water shallower than you want.

The way to work a popping cork is with your wrist, not you arm.  Lay the rod tip over, just above the water, and with a tight line give a quick snap of your wrist.  This will pull the cork the rest of the way over and cause it to scoop a little water, making the intended noise without being pulled out of the area.  Using your arm will move the float several feet and could take your bait or lure out of the feeding zone.

Rattling corks are more subtle, and generally suited to smaller water.  They typically use a cigar or egg shaped float and with the same action as the popping cork, these corks will only make a loud rattle.  Toning down your wrist movement also tones down the volume of the rattle and that is sometimes necessary in a small creek or on a small flat.  Rattling corks are made on a small wire, with beads above and below the cork, and eyes, or sometimes swivels, at each end of the wire.  The cork is attached to the end of your line and a leader is attached to the bottom of the cork and runs down to your hook or lure.  The leader length varies for different water depths.

Combination corks are made like rattling corks, but with concave top corks.  They are on a short piece of wire and have beads above and below.  I use a lot of combination corks for their versatility and my favorite is the Back Bay Thunder from Cajun Thunder.  This cork has a shallow concave top, but it is enough to scoop water and make the “bloop” sound of popping corks.  It has plastic beads above the cork and brass beads below the cork and they make the clicking sound of shrimp and fish feeding.

To make the popping cork sound with combination corks, lower your rod tip to near the water, tighten the line and jerk your wrist, just like with a regular popping cork.  When you want a combination cork to rattle and not pop, keep your rod tip high and make a less exaggerated wrist jerk.  It won’t lay over and catch water, but will just click the beads.  I like this because you have both sounds available without having to change anything.  Like a rattling cork, you adjust the depth below the cork, by changing the leader length.

NOTE:  When using braided lines with rattling or combination corks, especially those with swivels on their end, add a short piece of mono or fluoro leader between braid line and the top eye of the cork.  Braid tends to occasionally tangle on this if tied directly, but a short piece (minimum 6 inches) of mono or flouro usually solves any problems.

Rattling and popping corks work well with baits and lures.  These are used mainly for speckled trout or red drum, with live shrimp or minnows as the bait.  However, they also work very well with a variety of lures.  Soft plastic artificial shrimp are my favorite lures for below corks, but other lures also work well.  Soft plastic minnow shapes are popular and some fishermen even use hard lures successfully.

Many other fish like this combination too.  Black drum and ladyfish are other fish caught frequently under popping or rattling corks in the Carolinas.  In those areas that have tripletail, this is a great way to present baits to them.  Flounder will also come up off the bottom if a bait fished under a cork drifts close enough.  In farther south locations, snook will readily grab  baits and lures fished under popping and rattling corks.

Some fishermen have taken this idea larger and use larger popping and rattling corks to entice cobia, bull red drum, tarpon and more.  It all goes back to fish being curious and willing to check out natural noises.  Popping and rattling corks can be a very productive part of your fishing tackle and tactics.  Take the time to learn the differences and how to work them loud or subtle and you’ll have more opportunities to add a variety of fish to your catch.

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Capt. Jerry Dilsaver has been fishing since he was a child and writing about fishing, hunting and the outdoors since 1986. He is from Southport-Oak Island, N.C. and continues to live there in semi-retirement. His writing features this area prominently, but he has fished and written about the East Coast from Virginia to Florida, the Gulf Coast, California, Alaska and several of the Great Lakes in the U.S., plus several countries in Central America and several Caribbean Islands. He has been on staff at Carolina Adventure, North Carolina Sportsman and South Carolina Sportsman Magazines and his byline has appeared in several other magazines and newspapers.