Anglers often suffer from the "why didn't I think of that?" curse. Good fishermen ignore killer tactics for no other reason than forgetting to implement common sense. Such is the case for using an awesome technique for catching smallmouth — Carolina rigging —: and an awesome place to fish for smallmouth —: rivers —: and not putting the two together. Duane Richards, a self-employed carpet and upholstery cleaner from Vinton, Va., however, made quick sense of the strategy.
"My best fishing buddy, Tony Nunley, and I fish Smith Mountain Lake a lot for largemouth and smallmouth," says Richards. "Our best fishing tactic there has always been the Carolina rig. I am primarily a stream fisherman, and one day when Tony and I were really doing well with the Carolina rig on Smith Mountain, I got the inspiration that maybe I should try it on a smallmouth river."
That flicker of a thought has since evolved into a well-conceived game plan, where the venerable C-rig has become the Virginian's go-to stream get-up throughout the warm weather period. One of the most basic reasons for its success is that river runners have been slow to embrace the rig.
"River fishermen obviously know about the Carolina rig, but they seem afraid to use it," confirms Richards. "And make no mistake, in the typical rock-filled smallmouth river, they will lose many more rigs than they would on the typical largemouth lake. A river fisherman just has to develop the mind-set that it's all right to break off baits. After all, all he is losing is the cheapest stuff we buy: line, swivels, weights, hooks and soft plastics.
"There are just so many advantages to using the Carolina rig. First, it is a different presentation from what river smallmouth are used to seeing. Second, the baits just ease along above the river bottom in a very natural manner, especially as compared to Texas rigged baits, which lie on the bottom. This is key, because river bass have a tendency to look up for their food. And third, the Carolina rig takes a bait down quickly to the target area. In the fast moving current of rivers, this is extremely important."
Where to fish the Carolina rig
Richards relates that before considering where to fish the Carolina rig, anglers should understand how to cast it. Lake anglers can generally toss this bait in any direction, but the same does not hold true on smallmouth rivers. A stream fisherman cannot effectively cast the rig out in front of a boat, as his craft will quickly be floating over the bait. And a C-rig flung off the stern of a canoe will likely be floating high and unnaturally in the water column because of the speed the boat is traveling. Instead, for a more natural presentation, Richards recommends that fishermen cast off the right or left sides of a boat and slightly downstream as they drift.
"My favorite place to fish a Carolina rig is a deep water ledge with some current," he says. "If you can see the ledge, throw the bait just past the ledge and retrieve it so the lure sort of slides down the rock into the inner recesses. Almost as good a spot is any pool with current that has a lot of boulders lying on the bottom.
"An eddy that lies next to the bank is another potential hot spot. And any time you are drifting downstream through a swiftly flowing riffle that is 4, 5 or more feet deep is a good time to cast a Carolina rig."
Last summer on a river trip with Richards, he showed me how to extract smallmouth from such a riffle. We coursed through a riffle that, because of its speed, I had never been able to work effectively with Texas rigged soft plastics. Following Richards' instructions to hurl a Carolina rigged crawfish to the right of his craft and slightly downstream in order to account for the current, I caught a keeper-sized smallie on the second cast. The Virginian's knowing grin was enough to convince me that I, like many river enthusiasts, had been missing opportunities.
Richards relies on the Carolina rig from the time the water temperature rises into the mid-50s in the spring until it descends into the low 40s in late fall. Come spring, he says, the get-up excels when smallmouth have permanently left their deep water winter haunts and have begun to orient to cover that is adjacent to or within current. The season's lack of stability, in terms of cold fronts, stained water, and wildly fluctuating water temperatures, precludes the rig being effective earlier.
Summer is the time when the C-rig performs most consistently.
"From early June through late September, river fishermen will have to deal with primarily clear water," explains Richards. "Because the Carolina rig can be cast so far, it is the ideal setup for dealing with this situation. I cast the bait well beyond the cover and then retrieve it into the target area. A deep water ledge that has a lot of 'green water' is the perfect spot.
"I have usually caught the majority of my big summertime bass between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. When the sun is high, smallmouth head for those deep water ledges or shaded undercut banks on outside bends, especially if they have downed trees and/or submerged rocks."
If summer is the season when the Carolina rig performs most consistently, then autumn is the period when it results in the Virginian's heftiest brown bass of the year. Fall weather conditions, he emphasizes, are much more stable than those of the spring, thus making the bass much easier to pattern.
"In the fall, once I locate the bass —: and they are usually either at the mouths of feeder creeks or in deep, rocky pools —: I can usually catch a lot of really nice ones," says Richards. "If you catch one, say, 3- or 4-pounder, you can bet there are some more close by.
"The need to find the bass is another reason the Carolina rig is so effective; it's a great search rig for fall smallmouth. Plus, the heavy egg sinker is a big help in getting a bait to the bottom, where the fish are at this time."
One of the more interesting aspects of Duane Richards' Carolina rig lineup is that he doesn't rely on traditional lake baits, such as plastic lizards, grubs and jerkbaits. Instead, he opts for crawfish and hellgrammite look-alikes.
One of his preferred artificials is a 3 ½-inch Zoom Critter Craw in green pumpkin. He maintains that this bait performs well on a C-rig because of "its odd little long tail" that flaps about as the bogus crawfish descends.
Another favorite is a 4-inch Yamamoto hula grub in smoke or pumpkin with black flake. Richards says he often ties on a hula grub when he is in a locale that has produced jumbo smallmouth in the past. Other favorites include 3 1/2-inch Snoozers' tubes in green pumpkin or in dark melon with blue flake. Large tubes imitate vulnerable crawfish without claws when they sink, Richards believes.
Richards has recently added another soft plastic lure to his arsenal: the Case Hellgrammite.
"Case Hellgrammites are super baits when you are working an undercut bank or a deep water riffle," says Richards. "They imitate the real thing so well and are the first realistic hellgrammite imitation that I have seen. The key is Tex-posing a hellgrammite with a Size 1 live-bait-type hook. That hook allows a hellgrammite to wiggle about naturally during the retrieve.
Another good thing about Case Hellgrammites is their realistic size and color. I like the 4-inch hellgrammites in black or in the natural color, which imitates the grayish color of a hellgrammite right before it turns into a dobsonfly."
Richards' retrieve is very basic. So as to avoid snags in the rocky substrate of rivers, he keeps the rig moving at a moderate pace in what he describes as a "pull-stop, pull-stop swimming retrieve" as the sinker clicks along against the bottom. The only exception is when he plies a deep pool with little cover and lethargic mossybacks. Then, the angler will occasionally allow a bait to pause for several seconds before the retrieve is resumed.
Duane Richards' Carolina rig setup
Richards' preferred Carolina rig equipment is not unlike that which lake anglers employ. He uses a 6 ½-foot medium-heavy baitcaster, matched with an Abu Garcia 3600 series baitcaster. (The overhanging trees, under which Richards likes to cast, make longer rods impractical.) For increased feel, the Vinton, Va., resident opts for braided line (Power Pro 12/50) and a 2- to 3-foot fluorocarbon leader (Yamamoto Sugoi in 12-pound test). The standard ½-ounce egg sinker, plastic bead and swivel are also not out of the ordinary.
Regarding hooks, Richards favors 2/0 or 3/0 Tru-Turn worm hooks, depending on the size of the soft plastic. The exception is when he goes with a wide gap XPoint 3/0 hook for hulagrubs. All baits are Tex-posed.
"The Tru-Turn hooks with that rotating action are really good at hooking smallmouth that hit a bait in deep water," he explains. "I hook a lot of bass in the side or bottom of the mouth, using them —: fish I would've missed otherwise."
Spare time preparation
Richards constructs his Carolina rigs while sitting at home watching TV.
"I'll make up several complete outfits and place each one in its own folded up sandwich baggie, or place each one on a piece of Styrofoam with the hooks imbedded in the end, and the rest held on with two simple rubber bands," he says. "I usually go through five or six rigs every time out. If I don't, then I'm not fishing the right places."
Just how effective can the Carolina rig be? Last July 5, I accompanied Richards and Nunley to a heavily fished river that was receiving even more pressure because of the holiday weekend. Adding to the challenge was a water temperature of 80 degrees. With many of the fishermen tossing soft plastic jerkbaits to the shoreline and semicontenting themselves with small bass, Richards and Nunley moved out to the main channel and employed crawfish and hellgrammite imitations on Carolina rigs.
During an all day float, the duo caught and released several dozen keeper-size smallies, with Richards' best fish a shade under 4 pounds and Nunley's best topping out at just under 4. Considering the conditions, it was a very impressive outing. If more river smallmouth anglers will try the Carolina rig, they may well find out what their lake largemouth counterparts already know about the effectiveness of this get-up.
Bruce Ingram is the author of The James River Guide and The New River Guide; both are available from Ecopress, 800-326-9272. For dedicated, autographed copies, send $15 per book to Ingram at P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090.