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Fishing Lil' Corkies - A Steelhead & Salmon Primer

By Hugh Partridge , 🕔Mon, Mar 21st, 2011


While some fly-fishing purists may disagree, the truth is that a majority of anglers continue to prefer casting or spin fishing while fishing a majority of BC's river systems for either salmon or steelhead. The reason stems primarily from a clear, commonsense approach--these fish tend to hold in lower portions of deep, fast moving waters which comprise so many of BC's vast coastal rivers.

Presenting a fly in the "zone" under such challenging circumstances lends itself difficult to even the most accomplished fly-angler, which is why so many anglers turn to the 'bread and butter' hardware techniques for these pursuits.

Of the 'bread and butter' techniques we speak of here, perhaps the most common of these is one known as "drift fishing". Considered the most popular river fishing method above fly-fishing or plunking, drift fishing is a method fashioned specifically for a river's angling conditions and produces considerable results when it comes to salmon and steelhead. A number of subtle variations to the technique exist, although the most widely used approach is bottom-bouncing, whereby baits and lures tumble along bottom, irresistibly presenting themselves to the discerning salmon or steelhead.

While a vast array of baits and lures exist, our focus here will be on one of the top producers in this category--the "Lil' Corky" by Yakima Bait Company.Often, the tumbling action of these brightly painted plastic bodies as they struggle along the river's bottom, is just what it takes to draw the attention and fascination of the magnificent chrome beauties awaiting below.

When fishing "Lil' Corkies" (corkies), a balanced outfit suited to this style of fishing gives you a definite edge. Bait casting outfits with level wind reels are the favored choices of most anglers, while spinning outfits will also work well. Whichever type of reel you choose, it must balance your rod, have a good smooth drag, and hold ample amounts of line (up to 200 yds.). In selecting a rod, look for a rod that is 9 1/2 to 12 feet in length with a long handle of up to 24 inches. Monofilament line should generally have a breaking strength of 8 to 17 pounds depending on the species and size of fish targeted.

"Drift rigs" is the term used to describe how corkies and other similar lures are attached to the main line. Generally, a drift rig consists of a barrel, three-way, or snap swivel, pencil lead sinker (or ball weight), surgical tubing, leader, yarn, lure/bait, and the hook. There are a great many ways to combine these elements according to personal preference, although the results remain consistent Some of the more common types of drift rigs are the "snap swivel rig" (shown here), "mainliner rig", "mainliner plus rig", "pinch sinker rig, and the "sliding sinker rig".

The "snap swivel rig" is the personal preference of a lot of river anglers in BC. Here the main line is attached to the upper portion of a snap swivel, while the leader portion is tied to the lower portion of the rig (as shown on the right), allowing for surgical tubing and pencil lead sinker to be affixed to the snap swivel.

While being perhaps less responsive than a sliding sinker rig, the "snap swivel rig" has a definite advantage over most rigs in that there is less tendency for the rig to snag bottom, based on a "Y" being formed at the snap swivel. While occasional hang-ups will occur, many times the rig will free itself with the pencil lead dislodging itself from the surgical tubing. By simply adding a new section of pencil lead, your line can then be back in the water quickly following hang-ups.

In a "mainline rig", surgical tubing is run up the line from the hook to the desired leader length (about 14 to 20 inches), where a chunk of pencil lead is forced into the surgical tubing about a 1/4 inch. The tubing, once attached to the pencil lead can then be moved up or down the main line to increase or decrease the leader length.Disadvantages to this type of rig is that the pencil lead has a tendency to chaff the line, causing a weakness in the main line; and secondly, the sinker has a tendency to slide down the rig rendering the whole set-up ineffective. Another disadvantage is that during hang-ups, anglers often loose the entire rig as well as a good portion of their line. The advantage to this type of rig is the relative ease to which it is tied.

A variation of the "mainline rig" is the "mainliner plus" rig. Here, a barrel swivel is added to the main line which separates the leader from the main line. The surgical tubing is then added in the same manner as with the "mainline rig", but is instead, positioned above the swivel. This type of rig eliminates the tendency for the sinker to slide down the rig; and furthermore, chaffing of the line can be avoided by inserting the pencil lead sinker at the barrel swivel, with the swivel acting as a buffer.

Another popular rig is the "pinch sinker rig". A swivel is attached to the main line, separating the main line from the leader. The leader in this case, as in most, should be constructed from monofilament line that is about two pounds less than the main line rated strength. From the swivel a small tag (chunk of monofilament) is tied in, whereby a series of split shot lead, hollow core lead, or eyed pencil lead can be affixed. The advantage to this type of rig is that hang-ups will usually produce most of your rig (generally from the swivel up), while a disadvantage is that the increased sinker length (because of the tag) produces a greater number of hang-ups.

The last type of drift rig discussed here is the "sliding sinker" rig. A swivel is attached to the main line, separating the main line from the leader. Above the swivel, and egg sinker, bouncing ball sinker, or pencil lead sinker is attached. When attaching a pencil lead sinker, a snap swivel is incorporated so that surgical tubing and pencil lead can be attached in much the same manner as with the "snap swivel rig", the difference being that the line is run through the swivel allowing for free movement of the sinker. The greatest advantage to this type of rig is the ability to detect strikes. A disadvantage to this type of rig is the tendency towards line abrasion from constant sliding of the sinker, although some of this can be alleviated with the addition of a plastic bead above the swivel which acts as a bumper.

There are a number of fishing tactics that will serve to increase an angler success rate when fishing corkies, or any other drift rig for that matter. Perhaps the greatest of these is keeping hooks sticky sharp, and a keen sense of being able to detect subtle strikes, the latter of which comes naturally from experience.

Beyond the most basic requirements, skill in reading the water to determine the lie of the fish is a definite advantage, as is the ability to present your rig properly to these fish. One factor is relatively constant when reading the water for salmon or steelhead, and that is 9 times out of 10, the fish will be holding on the bottom. Is is important to read the water beforehand, preferably from a high vantage point, using polarized sunglasses to eliminate the water's surface glare.

Water levels and clarity will affect where fish will position themselves. Fish will seek surroundings that provide security, comfort, and at times, good oxygen flow. In low, clear water conditions salmon and steelhead will hold in deep pools or slots, with steelhead having a tendency to prefer slightly faster water than salmon. When reading the water, try to gauge water depth, current speed, flow patterns, and look for submerged structures (boulders, logs, depressions, etc) behind which fish will hold. Steelhead and salmon take advantage of submerged structures for protection and relief from the current, making them a preferred target for an angler's drifts.

Bank fisherman should pay special attention to not "line the fish". This is a common practice among novice anglers, who when casting, tend to cast too far (often well past the holding fish) causing the fish to become spooked. A typical approach should be to work from the head of the run or pool, fishing the nearest water first, progressing each cast to the far side of the river, before working your way downstream in the same manner.

With a grasp of the general fishing techniques used to successfully drift fish, it is time to turn our attention back to the Lil' Corky. Lil' Corkies or "corkies", as they are so often referred to, are typically known as a "bobber" style of lure. Bobber is the name given to this style of lure because of its buoyancy. This feature is perhaps one of the characteristics that make these lures so successful, in that their buoyancy effectively mimics the neutral buoyancy of real salmon eggs drifting downstream.

Lil' Corkies come in a vast array of colors and sizes (see the color and size charts below). There are over 90 colors to choose from and 6 different sizes. Included at the bottom of this page is a complete listing of all the currently available colors. With so many colors and sizes, how does one choose? Thankfully there are some favorite color schemes indigenous to angling in BC waters. Half and half color patterns, spotted patterns, and rainbow blends typically are a good producer of fish. More commonly however, solid colors can be all it takes to fool salmon or steelhead. The best way to choose appropriate color patterns, is to ask your local tackle store for advice, if you are not fortunate enough to have a fellow angler provide you with some firsthand knowledge. Another option is to visit Sport Fishing BC's Discussion Group, and post your question to some of the angler on this board.

In an attempt to reduce the confusion over color patterns, I will list some of the favored colors for anglers in BC. While I am certain a great number of colors could be added to this list, it will nonetheless serve as a general guide:

Size is another factor, and is generally determined by the species of fish being targeted as well as the level and clarity of the water. A standard rule of thumb is to reduce the size of the offering under clear, low water conditions. For large salmon, a large corky in sizes #8 through #4 is common depending on water levels and clarity. For steelhead, sizes #10 through #14 are more common.

Matching proper hook size to the diameter of the corky is important, and can be easily done. The corky should be small enough to be able to pass freely between the barb and shank or a chosen hook, without leaving too much extra space. This way you are assured that enough of the hook point is exposed to effectively hook fish, and that the corky does not impede hook striking.

Most steelhead and salmon anglers will fish corkies with a strand or two of soft yarn (see photo above), in the leader's bumper or egg loop. Yarns come commercially in a variety of colors, although pink, red and orange are perhaps the most common. Yarn may also be tied into the eye of the hook, or knotted on the main line and draped over the lure. Yarn should be cut flush to the bend of the hook so as not to impede the take. Using corkies with yarn can be a deadly technique, as the added color and improved action can be just enough to draw the attention of the lurking fish.

Leaders used to fish corkies should be from 14 to 30 inches long, depending on the clarity of the water and your reaction time. If you are slow to the take, it is probably best to stick to a shorter leader.

In most cases, if your corky is struggling along the bottom, or "bottom bouncing" as it were, than you are in the right zone. In rare cases, fish will hold above the bottom, a situation that can occasionally occur when fishing for summer steelhead. Under these circumstances, a float can be attached to the main line at a suitable distance from the leader to effectively present the corky.

Armed with this knowledge, you are now ready to effectively fish Lil' Corkies for salmon and steelhead in BC's famous coastal rivers. With a little practice, you will soon learn why this has become one of BC most effective techniques for catching these spectacular fish. Good Luck and Tight Lines!

To contact dealers carrying these products visit:

Berry's Bait and Tackle

Fishing Pro Shops

Island Outfitters Sportfishing Centre

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