Bait fishing - What rig?

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Michael 'Smudge' Parker
17 December 2015

Anyone can slap a bait on a dropper rig and catch a fish, but there is absolutely no question that some anglers have a lot more success than others. How do they do it? I believe the most important aspect of bait fishing is choosing the right rig for the conditions. How you tie a rig, how you present the bait, the size and quality of your hooks and your choice of sinker size all have an important bearing on the outcome.

Dropper rigs

Also known as a ledger rig, derivations of it are the flasher rig and sabiki rig. While a ledger rig typically has two loops with a hook on each, some fish with only one hook, while other commercially available flashers come with three hooks. I guess you could use even more hooks but if you’ve ever used sabikis to catch little fish you will understand what a liability five hooks can be!

While some regard the dropper rig as an old school setup, it is my favourite rig. Dropper rigs came back into favour a few years ago when flasher rigs appeared on the scene. Available in a myriad of pretty, sparkling colours, they are as good at catching a fisherman’s attention as they are at catching fish. They have remained popular for two reasons: being pre tied they are convenient to use, and they are very effective at catching fish.

Whatever form they take, dropper/flasher rigs are at their best when fished in deep water. At the extreme end they are used almost exclusively for the likes of hapuku, bass and other deepwater monsters. They’re brilliant when fished directly under the boat, when either anchored or drifting.

I use dropper rigs for catching gurnard and I tie the rig so the bottom hook sits at the same level as the sinker. The top hook is tied about 400mm above that. I suspect that gurnard see that top bait so I dress it up with a couple of fluoro beads just to help grab their attention. For snapper I prefer to have the bottom dropper tied a little higher, around 200mm off the bottom. In all situations the droppers should be far enough apart so the hooks don’t touch. For shallow water work using light line, it is important to use fine, sharp wire hooks as snapper and gurnard have relatively hard mouths.

Recurve hooks

These days the only hooks I use on dropper rigs are recurve (or circle) hooks. Recurves, probably more than most other hooks, need to be used correctly for them to be at their best. There are three points to remember:

Tie them so the trace enters from the gape side of the hook

Hook the bait through only once, right on the end. It may look wrong but with its turned-in point, the hook will not perform well if the gape is full of bait

Do not try to set the hook with a hard and fast strike. Give the fish time to get the bait in its mouth then set the hook by smoothly but firmly lifting the rod and winding the reel. Too fast and the hook is likely to fly out the fish’s mouth; too hesitant and the fish will drop the bait.


When using recurve hooks don’t be afraid to use a lot of lead in deep water, especially if using small baits. The fish will hook themselves in the corner of their mouth very effectively.

The humble kahawai, redeployed in the hunt for a snapper..

In the wash

Used correctly, dropper rigs are very effective and work in most situations. However, they are not particularly well suited to applications such as wash fishing.

Straylining is also a must have skill in a fisherman’s bag of bait catching tricks. Compared to ledger fishing it is much more refined, taking patience and skill. For bait fishing applications I suspect that more big fish have fallen to this technique than any other.

I often strayline using small baits and recurve hooks for snapper, gurnard and trevally.  When fishing for snapper with big baits I prefer suicide style hooks set so the points are well exposed. I define straylining as having as little weight as possible bearing directly down onto the hook. Better still use no added weight if you can get away with it. I have used a 6 ounce sinker successfully on a fast drift but to be at its best you want to use just enough to get to the bottom.

Straylining TIPS

  • Use as little weight as you can to get into the strike zone
  • Stay in touch with your bait at all times
  • Keep the hook points well clear of the bait.
  • For shallow water wash fishing (casting into the surging water around rocky headlands) you can’t beat straylining. Likewise, an unweighted bait cast out into a well-established berley trail can be one of the most exciting ways to catch snapper. Straylining is a very effective method for fishing big baits for big fish and the bait feeder type function on some reels is a perfect match for this style of fishing. Straylining suits both anchored or drifting boats and is probably the best way to fish from rocks.

Do a runner

The running rig is a form of straylining rig and is possibly the most common set-up used by boat fisherman while snapper fishing. This method comes into its own when fishing in areas with a lot of current. When used where there is no current a metre or so of trace ends up lying in a heap on the bottom, a perfect recipe for gut hooked fish. I don’t use recurve hooks for this rig, preferring suicide style hooks.

I define a running rig set up as a sinker that is free to slide up the mainline, which has a swivel tied on the end. A trace is tied to that swivel and a hook or two are attached at the end of the trace. The trace can be as long or as short as you wish it to be.

One major advantage of recurved hooks is the tendency to hook in the jaw, rather than deeper in the mouth or throat.It's better for the fish and potentially better for you.

Running rig tips

  • Use enough lead to keep the rig hard on the bottom
  • Experiment with different trace lengths and see what works best.
  • It is most effective in channels with lots of current when using small to medium sized baits, especially when used with a bait runner type reel.


A rig I have used very successfully in high current areas is a combination of a flasher rig and a running rig. I have a sinker on the main line, which has a swivel tied on the end. I tie a two hook flasher rig to the other end of the swivel so it lays out behind the sinker. You can add a third hook in the loop where a sinker would normally go or you can simply cut that off. It is a rig that can be very effective in fast flowing water.

Another hybrid rig I have used for both drifting and in high current areas is made by tying a swivel to the mainline and attaching a trace to that swivel around 1500mm long. Tie a loop in your trace about 400mm down from your swivel and attach a recurve hook. Tie another loop about 400mm down from that. In this loop attach a bomb type sinker. You will now have a tail of around 300mm left and on the end of that attach another recurve hook.

The humble kahawai, redeployed in the hunt for a snapper..

This rig is prone to tangling on the drop so take care getting it down, being careful to let the last hook to trail out behind the rig before you lower it slowly down. This is a good rig for drifting small baits or for fishing from an anchored boat when there is plenty of current flowing.

Hook suggestions and rig types

4/0 to 6/0 recurves on a dropper rig, or a strayline rig with small strip baits

6/0 to 8/0 recurves for dropper rigs. Take care not to fill the gape of the hook! 6/0 to 11/0 suicide style hooks for straylining, matching the hook size to the likely size of the fish and to the size of the bait you’re using. I’ve caught undersized snapper on 10/0 hooks before. Sharp hooks are always important but even more so when using big hooks and light gear.

4/0 to 6/0 recurves on dropper rigs or straylines. Keep your shellfish, squid or pilchard baits small.

Better anglers equal bigger fish

Earlier I made the bold statement that successful anglers not only catch more fish, they also tend to catch bigger fish. Why do I think that? Firstly, you have to be where the fish are to catch them and you have to be where the big fish are to catch big fish. Often there are smaller fish hanging around their larger mates, and an experienced angler knows how to weed out the smaller specimens.

While there are different rigs that perform better in different situations, what becomes very important is how the bait is presented to the fish. While a poorly presented bait is unlikely to deter the huge numbers of little fish competing hard for food, a big fish of any species is likely to be a little more wary. IF they see a bait not behaving naturally they will steer clear. When that big fish makes his move the little ones will soon give him right of passage or they will pay the ultimate price themselves.

Sometimes small works best, especially for specialty fish like trevally.

Presenting a natural looking bait to a fish takes some skill but it is worth the effort. If the bait goes zooming down & landing with a thump, the wiser fish are going to treat that bait with caution while the younger ones pay for their foolishness when they rush in.

To gauge how a bait will behave I will often check its action on the top of the water. In a high current environment the biggest problem will be the bait spinning. You can alleviate that by altering the shape of your bait, by altering how you have hooked it up and sometimes by using a heavier trace. The hybrid rig I described above, where there is a short trace below the sinker and a dropper above, it is a good one to try in strong tidal flows especially if tied on a heavy trace of 60 to 120lb with small baits.

Paying attention to the details will certainly improve your catch rates, and the use of recurve hooks will most likely reduce the number of gut hooked fish if used correctly.

For straylined big baits I tie both hooks to the trace rather than have a sliding ‘keeper’. That way the bait is unlikely to end up all bunched up in an unappealing heap where it will catch the current and look very strange indeed to a wise old fish.

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