Many fishermen got their start early in life using a bobber. It may have been a red and white plastic one with a spring-operated brass hook for attaching a line, or a more-traditional painted cork with a stopper that the line went through.

The premise was simple enough; float the bait in the strike zone until a fish, usually a bream, decided to pull it under. Effective, easy to use, and with a strike so visible even a 6-year-old would know it’s time to set the hook.

For these reasons, many people still think of using a cork as child’s play, but in saltwater fishing, especially inshore, it is a deadly tool that allows anglers to catch plenty of fish. Many of the same attributes that makes the freshwater bobber so effective also make the saltwater cork effective. It allows anglers to place and hold the bait in a zone, or at least drift slowly through an area likely to hold fish. The strike is visible and easily detected, even if the line is slack to allow a more natural presentation of bait. 

But there is one more dimension that a saltwater cork possesses that sets it apart from its freshwater counterpart: sound. The addition of rattles allows anglers to do much more than simply stare at a bobber while waiting for a fish to discover the bait; it allows them to add fish-attracting sound to the set-up while imparting action to the bait. 

Children learn patience when bream fishing with a bobber, but saltwater cork-fishing is a more proactive and angler-involved technique. 

“A cork is, by far, the most-effective tool available when targeting inshore species like redfish and trout, especially in the late summer and fall when there is a lot of bait in the water and fish are putting the feed on,” said Capt. Steve Roll of Seas So Shallow guide service on Ladys Island.

With so much bait in the water, it is hard to believe that adding one more to the mix will do much good statistically, but fish like an easy meal, and something that seems lame or slower is quickly culled from the herd. A shrimp or minnow suspended under a cork is much easier for a fish to catch than one swimming freely around. Also, shrimp, minnows and other baitfish swim in schools for protection, but they often get separated from the group, and the chances for survival decrease exponentially. 

This is where sound comes into play. Our coastal waters are murky, except for a few cold months, so fish have limited vision, but they can feel vibration caused by sound or other disturbances — an injured fish thrashing about, for instance. Even if a redfish or trout is hot on the trail of a nearby school, it will change course if it senses that a bait is separated and in trouble. All it takes is a quick twitch of the rod tip every now and again to impart all of the fish-calling noise necessary.  

Roll likes to drift his baits close to structure like flooded grass — especially if there are small creeks nearby — and oyster beds that break up the current and hold bait. How close? “If you ain’t getting hung up every now and again, you’re probably fishing to far out,” he said.

Another thing Roll prefers is a little longer leader.

“When I’m fishing for redfish, I usually use a 2-foot leader and a small split-shot just above the hook because I want my bait to be in contact with the bottom,” he said. “A lot of people will only use 12 to 18 inches so they don’t get hung up on anything, but redfish feed on the bottom, so that’s where I want my bait.”

When targeting trout, Roll also likes to keep the bait deep, and since trout are often in a little deeper water he will increase the length of his leader until the bait is just a few inches off the bottom.

Many different brands of rattling corks are available in different weights and sizes, but the design is basically the same: a cork with two or three brass or plastic beads above and below it and a weight to help keep the cork upright and easy to cast. 

Roll said most corks, despite the difference in price, work about the same, but he doesn’t skimp on the business end of his rig. 

“I use 20-pound Seaguar Fluorocarbon for my leaders and No. 1 Owner Mutu Light circle hooks because leader and hooks are two things you never want to skimp on” he said. “Fluorocarbon is much more abrasion-resistant than mono, which is extremely important; a light-wire hook allows bait to move naturally, and a circle hook doesn’t require a hard hookset, which is especially helpful when slack-lining bait through an area.”

Many experienced anglers like to think they have evolved beyond using corks and bait — and for that reason avoid them — but the cork has also evolved and grown into a better fish-catching machine, especially in saltwater. Simply put, an experienced angler who knows how to use a saltwater popping cork is going to catch more fish than one who doesn’t.