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Winter Carolina Rigging

By Russ Bassdozer

As early winter comes to most parts of the country in November, weedbeds shrivel, bass evacuate their summer homes in shoreline cover, and they aggregate on or near structure in deeper, open water. The colder it becomes, the deeper they will go.

Until the bass return to the snaggy shorelines in spring, it is a great time for the Carolina rig. The reasons are several:

1) At this time of year, bass are often not in dense cover. Typically, they hug bottom on structure with sparse cover - relatively open bottom - where the Carolina rig works best.

2) You can dredge a small bait deep with a heavy Carolina rig. You cannot easily pair a small bait with any other heavy rig or jig. A skinny 4" worm, for example, would be mismatched on a 1 oz. jighead or Texas rig - but a 4" worm is perfect on a 1 oz. Carolina rig.

3) Bass often like a muted movement from a bait during winter. A Carolina rig does just that - the leader line between the weight and bait mutes or dampens the action imparted by the weight.

Let's talk about that last point for a moment. Now, most people will say a Carolina rig allows the bait to develop more movement. Not me. I say a Carolina rig allows the bait to move less.

Try these three tests and decide for yourself: First, rig a soft bait on back of a 1 oz. jig head. Drop it in water. Lift and drop the rod tip. What happens? Obviously, all the action you give to the jig head is exactly duplicated by the bait. The bait moves as much and as quickly as the jig head. Second, Texas rig the same bait with a 1 oz. weight pegged to its nose. Drop it in. Lift and drop it. What do you see? All the action of the weight is completely imparted into the bait, right? Third, Carolina rig the 1 oz. weight and bait separated by a 3 foot leader. Lift and drop it. What do you notice? The sinker has a lot of action, but very little of the sinker's action is imparted into the bait. That proves my point. The Carolina rig allows a bait to move LESS than any other type of rig or jig - and LESS movement is often better for cold water bass!

Okay, that was important point number one I wanted to make about Carolina rigs:

#1: The bait has less action than most other types of rigs that get down deep. Bass often like less action, especially in winter waters.

Important point number two, at least for me, is that I like to use a Carolina rig going DOWN structure - down the sloping tip or sides of a point, down a series of stairstep ridges, down a channel edge, down the side of an underwater hump or saddle - just down.

#2: As a heavy Carolina rig plummets down a depth break on structure, the bait flutters directly above like a helium balloon tied on a 3 foot tether. When the heavy weight bangs bottom again? The weight thuds to a stop but the bait that's been fluttering above it now begins a totally weightless 3 foot fall - that is when bass bite best! Work the heavy weight DOWN structure, and pause often to let the bait freefall weightless behind it. That freefall is when bass bite a Carolina rig best, and it doesn't happen enough when you work up structure or across level bottom - only down.


Let's begin with a quick review of what we learned so far.  We started talking about Carolina rigs for bass that have moved onto deep water structure for the winter. We talked about retrieving so the rig falls DOWN structure which can be a series of stairstep ridges, tips of points, the sloping sides of humps, channel edges or whatever. As the heavy weight falls deeper, the bait flutters directly above it like a balloon on a tether. When the weight thuds to a stop on bottom, pause for the bait make a totally weightless freefall the length of your leader - which is when winter bass bite best during the pause.

The sinker creates most of the action on a Carolina rig. Because the bait is separated from the sinker by a leader, the bait itself has less action than if it was pinned directly to a jighead or Texas rig, plus the separateness allows you to present a small bait better in deep water without the bulkiness of a jig or weight ruining the small profile of the bait. Winter bass are often fond of smaller offerings, and it seems that chilly bass often prefer baits that don't move too much during winter.


On a Carolina leader in winter, I want a bait that has that do nothing fall of a dying critter descending those last few feet to the bottom. Squiggly, active, multi-appendaged baits (lizards, craws, ribbontail worms, curly grubs, and other critters) work well in spring, summer or fall, but they are not my favorite choices in winter. For winter fishing, I opt for baits that both look simple and act simple. No waving claws, skirts, tails, antennae or anything else. Just simple baits like tube baits, Ikas, straight-tailed worms, Senkos and soft jerkbaits. Just a bait that does a dying flutter down to bottom and lays there like it's not going anywhere after that. Lethargic winter bass will snap it up as it lays there.


Try to get away with the HEAVIEST weight possible without excessive snagging. There's nothing wrong with one ounce provided your rod and reel can handle that. If your rod can handle 1 oz, use it! If your rod can only handle 3/4 oz, use that as your "go to" weight. The big weight does not bother the fish. In fact, a big weight raking and digging the bottom attracts bass over to the weightless bait kiting behind it. The heavy weight gets you to the bottom quick, keeps you in constant bottom contact, makes maximum noise and stirs things up on the bottom. All very good.


As you drag bottom, it's perfectly normal for the heavy weight to get temporarily bogged down in dead weed tops, mucky bottom, or on the edge of a rock or stump (but the trailing lure should not get snagged).

This temporary bogging down is generally a good thing. It will get you to slow down and pause up against the edge of something - just the kinds of places where bass hang out! Wait a minute for a bite, then give a slow deliberate nudge on the rod tip to jump start the weight and pop it loose to keep the weight moving.

However, if you are snagging and having to break off your line too often with one ounce, you may have no choice but to lighten up to 3/4 or 1/2 until you stop snagging so much. A lighter weight will guide itself over snags and stuff that would bog down a heavy weight - but keep in mind that a lighter weight takes longer to reach bottom, tends to rise up from bottom very quickly as you retrieve, makes less noise and does not stir up as much commotion as a heavier weight. So, only lighten up the weight as little as possible to avoid excessive snagging - do not lighten up unless you absolutely have to avoid break-offs!

Also note that it may not be the size - but the shape - of your weight that needs changing. Oval egg sinkers are the best shape on rocky bottoms because eggs do not wedge into cracks as easily as pointy bullet-nosed sinkers. In crisp weeds or brushy areas, a bullet weight is more weedless and snagless than the egg. A thin, elongated weight like a Mojo or Water Gremlin Needle Nose slides along better on silty, mucky bottoms or in soft grassbeds (dead or alive).


As far as Carolina rig rods go, you DEFINITELY need a heavy rod to hurl a heavy weight as far as possible. Use a heavy action rod at least seven feet long and hurl/lob the Carolina rig out there as far as you can DIRECTLY AHEAD of the boat. Cast out and when the weight thuds bottom, simply keep a semi-tight line and DO NOTHING for the first one or two minutes. Even though it seems that you are doing nothing, your lure is still side-shifting around down there on its tether and attracting fish towards it. You may often just get bit on the initial drop while you do nothing for one or two minutes. After that initial time, then gently walk your weight and lure back to the boat by using three to four foot slow, deliberate draws of the rod.


Do not retrieve the Carolina rig with the reel. Only move the rod very slowly starting from horizontal to the water to nearly vertical - slow and steady about three to four feet. Do not give it any rod action. Don't worry that the rod tip is too high at the end of the lift to set the hook. They never hit you on the drag. Now reel in the slack that the rod lift created and WAIT and WAIT SOME MORE...It's when you're waiting that you'll get bit...that's when the bait is fluttering back to bottom and laying there.


Make a concentrated effort to bumble and bang the weight into everything in its path. Bang the weight up good as you make the long slow draws with the rod tip. The action of the bait occurs naturally as the weight drags through the different degrees and densities of the bottom terrain. Keep in mind it's preferable to go down the terrain. As the terrain plummets off, the weight plummets too, but the bait should mostly stay above the weight as it falls. Then the bait waffles down to the bottom like a dazed and dying critter. Then wait for the fish to bite during the one to two minute pause between rod draws.


With so much weight, such a "do nothing" retrieve and the lethargic habits of winter bass, you may not feel any bite at all. You may not even notice a bass is on your bait until you begin the next rod draw. So it's very important that when you are done waiting, you have reeled up slack (without moving the weight) and the rod is back at horizontal. When you start the next lift, you are trying very hard to feel if a fish sucked you in during the one to two minute wait. Keep in mind, it may not be a fish, but just a temporary snag bogging you down. (You are pausing the retrieve at spots where the weight bogs down on irregular bottom, right?) So, make a SLOW sweep until the rod tip loads up. This will either un-bog the weight, popping it free - or else take the slack out between yourself, the heavy weight and the fish if you still suspect you have one. A good fish indicator is that a snag will pop out, but a fish will not! You'll either pop loose at this point - or follow through to rear back and set the hook completely like you see them do it in the movies! That's how to detect a fish is laying on the line. All this happens in a split second - much less time than it takes to read this!

Nothing could be finer! Dress warm. Pause long. Go Carolina!

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