Chop, Chop! How to Rig and Fish Cut Baits
These four bait rigs will catch the biggest channel catfish, flatheads, gator gar, and redfish in any water
Almost every angler started out as a cut-bait fisherman. If you chop it, slice it, or behead it and then stick it on a hook, it qualifies as cut bait, including those nightcrawlers you ripped to pieces to catch your first bluegills. Soaking cut bait has a bit of a stigma of being dumbed-down fishing, but there’s actually a lot of science and technique that goes into the proper hacking, rigging, and fishing of a bloody, dripping chunk of flesh. This is especially true when you’re targeting species like alligator gar that rely on their sense of smell above all else before they commit to a strike. These four rigs were designed to give you an advantage when chasing cut-bait-loving fish, and they’ll help you hook more giants in muddy rivers, roiling surf, and your local lake.
Flathead Catfish: The Double Snell Rig
Every flathead angler I’ve met has a different opinion on how to rig for these brutes. What most of their go-to rigs have in common, however, are circle hooks and the strength to fight these rod benders out of nasty hard structure. This rig is a hybrid, featuring elements I gleaned on the Susquehanna and Ohio rivers. It’s designed to present a bait slightly off the bottom, which many pros believe makes it easier for flatheads to eat. You can use this rig with live bluegills (in states where legal), but I’ve also never met a serious flatheader who didn’t tell me a fresh bluegill chunk often gets bit first.
Two 8/0 to 10/0 Charlie Brown circle hooks are snelled in line roughly an inch apart on the short 50-pound dropper leader. On the water, the top hook is left bare to provide an insurance policy in case the bait twists or turns when it’s inhaled, covering the point of the baited hook so it can’t penetrate. The longer 40-pound dropper leader for the weight ends with a strong barrel swivel, to which the sinker gets connected via a zip tie. The idea is that when the rig is wedged in a tough snag, the zip tie will (hopefully) snap before the line, allowing you to replace just the weight instead of the entire rig.
Alligator Gar: The Hi-Vis Cable Rig
The muddy rivers of southeast Texas are ground zero for trophy gator gar, and guide Dawson Hefner (texasmegafishadventures.com) knows every eddy that holds the giants. In this low-vis environment, Hefner sends out ooey, gooey, thick-cut carp steaks that gar can smell for miles. Since these baits are so heavy and the gar tend to feed out of the main flow, there’s no weight required. A large, highly visible float, however, is important.
Hefner fishes with a 2- to 3-foot length of seven-strand cable that has a barrel swivel crimped to one end and a 3/0 bronze treble hook crimped to the other. He’ll heave the rig into the current, letting it get pushed toward the bank until it naturally settles, the idea being that the heavy carp chunk will stop in the same breaks and soft spots where a gar is likely to hold. While the slip float tips you off to a pickup, it also provides a visual marker for Hefner to follow with the boat as the angler takes up all the slack between the float and the wire. This chase can last for several minutes because it’s critical to give a big gar plenty of time to work the bait into the soft part of its throat before setting the hook. To up his odds, Hefner removes carp scales around the hook so it pulls out of the chunk faster when you finally swing.
Channel Catfish: The Float Rig
There are many kinds of water that hold tasty channel cats, and there are loads of different rigs to catch them. This one is essentially a simple three-way rig with a little twist that can make a big difference. It’s great for presenting any kind of cut bait, live bait, or dough bait, but if you’re looking to show your cats something new, try marinating some hot-dog chunks in cherry Kool-Aid. It’s a salty-sweet combo that milks out for a long time to draw channels in from a distance, and a dog chunk presents particularly well on this rig.
If you’re fishing vertically from a boat, the standard three-way rig is killer, but when you’re casting from the bank, there’s a good chance your bait will end up lying on the bottom despite its being positioned above the weight. By pegging a small slip float on the main line a few inches to a foot above the three-way swivel, your bait will stay suspended off the bottom, even when it’s fished in current; the heavier the flow, the closer you want the float to the swivel. Snell a bait-holder hook to 20-pound fluorocarbon to create the 6-inch dropper leader because this will ramp up abrasion resistance and strength. As for the sinker’s dropper leader, stick with cheap monofilament—no need to waste fluoro on those inevitable break-offs.
Redfish: The Hatteras Drum Rig
Twice a year, anglers standing on the sand at hallowed Cape Point on the Outer Banks find huge migrating red drum within casting distance, although closing that distance often takes a mighty cast. To drop large menhaden heads into troughs and cuts beyond the breakers, fishermen employ “Hatteras heavers,” which are stout rods that can measure as long as 15 feet. The key to a smooth, far-flung delivery of such large chunks, however, lies in the rig.
Every element harmonizes to create a compact package by keeping the weight and bait close together so they don’t spin—or “helicopter”—in the air, which severely hinders casting distance. A 2- to 4-inch length of 100-pound leader connects the 8/0 to 12/0 circle hook to a stout barrel swivel, providing extra stiffness to reduce fouling as the rig soars through the air. A sliding fish-finder clip keeps the anchorlike hurricane sinker close to the bait for the cast, but allows a fish to move away with the bait without feeling the weight. To guard against knot chafing, a plastic bead rides on the 60-pound shock leader that connects to the main line ahead of the fish-finder clip. Although this rig was designed for drum, it’s equally effective for stripers farther north.