Terminal Rigging for Piers

Ken Jones

Staff member
I need to revise the following and would appreciate any thoughts you may have on how to improve it. Thanks in advance.

Terminal Riggings For Piers

When it comes to terminal tackle I've always followed the KISS approach -- keep it short and simple (sometimes given as keep it simple stupid!). Given that stipulation, the key advice remains to tailor your rigging to the fish you are seeking, and to fish with rigs with which you are familiar. Proper terminal rigging must be positive in nature, not negative, it allows an attractive presentation of the bait and does nothing to scare away or discourage a fish from biting. Generally, at least in my opinion, the less hardware attached to your line the better your prospects; only use what is absolutely necessary.

Terminal riggings used on piers tend to fall into three broad classifications:

(1) Rigs in which hooks (or hooks and leaders) are attached between the main line and the sinker:

Basic High-Low Leader. The most common pier set-up, one which can be used for both light and heavy outfits, is a high-low leader. It is one of the simplest leaders to make but also one of the best, and has been used since the early days of saltwater fishing. It casts well, provides the angler the clearest feel of a biting fish, offers baits at different depths, seemingly holds the bottom better than a sliding leader, and is a good rig to use when you're practicing catch-and-release fishing (since fewer fish are deep hooked when using this rig). The basic setup is a leader that has a snap and swivel at one end which is connected to a sinker, and a swivel at the other end which is attached to your line. Between the swivels are two dropper loops and the hooks. Although this is the basic setup, a variety of different leader lengths, hooks and paraphernalia can be used to produce different leaders.

Most common is to place the bottom loop about 15-18 inches above the sinker, place the second loop about 15 inches further up the leader, and give yourself about 15-18 inches between the top loop and the swivel attaching the leader to the main line. You can make high-low leaders yourself (since dropper loops are easy to make) or buy the packaged leaders that are sold in most stores as surf leaders. You can simply string the hooks onto the dropper loops themselves or attach a short dropper leader to each loop. You can also make the dropper leaders yourself but most people buy the snelled hook leaders that come in small packages (usually 6 to a package). If fishing for small fish the "cheap" leaders will work okay. If fishing for larger fish on your heavier outfit, or you think you might hook a decent sized fish on your light outfit, then make sure you buy the better quality leaders since they have a higher test (and quality) line and better hooks. Why spend a lot of money on a top quality rod and reel, a good line, and good bait, and then trust your luck to a cheap leader that may break if you hook the "prize" catch?

The high-low setup can be used in almost any area of the pier. In surf areas, when fishing for large surfperch, fish on the bottom using size 6 or 4 snelled baitholder hooks. Further out on the pier, when fishing for larger species such as halibut or bass, use a heavier line and larger hooks, size 4 or 2. A lighter outfit using a size 6 or 8 hook can be deadly for smaller fish. Use a small strip of anchovy, no more than one half inch long, cast out and retrieve slowly for queenfish, white croaker, several types of surfperch, and in the north, tomcod. If there are no nibbles on the bottom, cast out, and then let your line sink about half way down for walleye, jacksmelt, and mackerel. The same outfit when baited with mussel can be deadly around pilings for several types of fish. One recommendation I do make is to use Kahle-type hooks if you intend to use ghost shrimp.

Some tips: (1) Tie your own high-low leaders using fluorocarbon or clear monofilament lines; it makes a difference. (2) Try different baits on the top and bottom hooks. Sometimes it will tell you the bait preference of the fish you're seeking, sometimes it will provide you with two different types of fish. (3) If you're fishing in a rocky area you might want to try using a lighter dropper line on the bottom hook. If the bottom hook hangs up on the bottom you may be able to break the lighter bottom leader without losing your main line and leader. (4) If flatfish are in the area -- sanddabs, sole, flounder, etc., you may want to make the bottom dropper loop closer to the bottom. Close enough that your hook and bait (either on the loop itself or a dropper leader) are close enough for the flatties laying on the bottom. (5) If crabs are making life miserable (as in attacking every bait you send to the bottom) make your dropper loops higher up on the leader. Some anglers also suggest putting a small bobber above the dropper leaders to keep them off the bottom but I like as little hardware as possible and am not sure if this would really solve the problem. (6) Circle hooks attached directly to the dropper loops provide one of the best ways to make sure that fish are lip hooked or hooked in the side of the mouth, a key ingredient in catch-and-release fishing. (7) A variation was submitted to the website by Scooterfish who said "the high-low rig can also be created using 3-way swivels... this has been my standard rig for all line weights for quite some time. A three-way swivel tied with quality knots (palomar or uni) is superior in my opinion to the standard dropper loop setup, and is less tangle prone." Not sure I agree but if you're having trouble with tangles you might give it a try.

Snag Line (Live Bait) Rigging. This snag line rigging is very much like a high-low leader although here you employ 3-5 small, size 12-8 hooks on your line. (Snookie, one of the truly expert "pier rats" recommends using shiny Mustad no. 92553, size 12 hooks.) The basic set-up is connector loop at the top, dropper loops with hooks, and then a snap-swivel. However, since you are using more hooks, and these bait fish tend to school in tightly compacted schools, place the hooks only 6-9 inches apart on the leader. Most common is to place the bottom loop about 15 inches above the sinker, place each succeeding loop about 6-9 inches above the preceding loop and then give yourself about 15 inches between the top hook loop and the loop attaching the leader to the main line. One way to use this setup is as a snag line for anchovies, sardines, herring (queenfish), smelt and small perch. All of these make excellent halibut bait. Although there may be times that a swift upward motion with your rod is best, most of the time it is best to simply yo-yo the rig up and down. This is especially true with herring (queenfish) in the south and soft-bodied fish like anchovies and sardines. Use a fairly slow motion and when you find the area that the school is in, keep your hooks in that area.

This simple rigging can also be used with bait for larger fish. Use three size 8-6 hooks and attach a very small piece of anchovy to each hook. Cast it out, let the sinker settle, then retrieve very slowly. White and yellowfin croaker, queenfish, walleye and silver surfperch, mackerel, and sometimes jacksmelt, seem to love this approach (although the jacksmelt usually prefer small pieces of seaworms). Often walleye are halfway to the surface, so simply lower the line halfway to the bottom and then retrieve slowly. The same outfit can also be deadly in calm surf areas when bloodworms or fresh mussel are available. Attach a small piece of bait to each hook and again retrieve very slowly after each cast. Large barred surfperch, yellowfin croaker and corbina are frequent prizes.

Some tips: (1) Tie your own Snag Line leaders using 4-6 pound fluorocarbon or clear monofilament lines; it makes a difference. (2) Use a small 1/2-1 ounce chrome torpedo sinker on the bottom to attract the fish. (3) To attract the baitfish drop a few pieces of bread or raw pizza dough into the water. You can make the pizza dough in a bread machine and then freeze it in small pieces to use as needed.

San Francisco Bay Jacksmelt Leader. A variation of the Snag Line rigging is used in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many of the piers in the bay see good runs of large, 11- to 15-inch jacksmelt, fish which love to hang from 4-6 feet under the surface of the water. Three size 8 baitholder hooks are attached (via a dropper loop) to the leader at 9-inch intervals, starting about two feet above a sinker. Two feet above the top hook a large float is attached. Two feet above float is the swivel and main line. The floats are usually simply a large piece of Styrofoam but many different materials are used including extra large bobbers. Once set up, each hook is baited with a small piece of pile worm, shrimp or anchovy. The entire rigging is long, gangly and not easy to cast, and a fairly heavy rod is required. But it gets results. At times anglers will bring in three of the large, good-tasting jacksmelt at one time—no easy feat!

Some tips: (1) Often the tension from the float itself will be enough to hook the fish but sometimes you will need to hook them yourself. Watch the float and don't be afraid to give a fairly strong pull when you see the float go under the water.

Snookie's Halibut Rig. Since halibut are one of the main species sought out by California pier anglers, they should try this basic rigging. It's one of the simplest rigs and has produced halibut for Snookie (aka The Halibut Queen), one of our key Pier Fishing in California members, for more than fifty years. The rigging uses no hardware. Instead, the sinker is attached to the end of your line by use of a Surgeon's End Loop. 12 inches above the sinker is a Surgeon's Dropper Loop. Attached to the dropper loop is a 24-36 inch leader incorporating a Surgeon's End Loop at one end and hook at the other end. Snookie does say that “the loops I use are triple tied loops… The difference is that I push the end of the loop three times through the circle…I have tested this knot at the Las Vegas Fishing show, and it beat or equaled all the best knots for strength. You won't find this exact knot in the books.” Most commonly the sinker is a flat sinker using only as much weight as necessary to hold on the bottom, generally 1-3 ounces. Use this rigging with live bait -- anchovies -- if you can find them. Use small smelt, grunion, queenfish, shinerperch, white croaker, or baby mackerel if anchovies aren't available. Keep the sinker on the bottom and be prepared for a strike.

Some tips: (1) Always check out the depressions between the pilings, this is prime halibut territory. (2) Often times a halibut will ambush the live bait from behind the fish so I like to hook the live bait near the bottom of the fish, between the anal fin and the caudal fin (tail). (3) You can usually feel the halibut mouth the bait; give it a couple of seconds and then strike.

(2) Rigs in which the hooks are attached at the end of the line and a sinker is somewhere up the line.

Basic Sliding Leader. The second most common rigging on California piers (and number one in some areas) is the sliding leader rigging, often called a Carolina rigging and sometimes called a “fish finder” rig (but I'm not quite sure how it's supposed to seek out the fish). The rationale behind this leader is simple: fish want bait to appear as natural or realistic as possible. Using this rig, a fish does not feel a weight and is more likely to take the bait and hook. The rig is easy to make and use and it catches a lot of fish. Simply take an egg sinker (that has a hole through the middle of it) and run your line through the sinker. Next, tie a snap-swivel to the end of your line (after adding a couple of red beads above the snap-swivel to help attract fish and protect the knot from abrasion). Next attach your leader to the snap and be ready to cast. Some anglers use the short, commercially prepared snelled leaders with baitholder hooks, some prefer a somewhat longer 18-24 inch leader. This rigging can be light, 1-2 ounce sinker and size 6-4 hooks for surfperch, croakers, bass and other small fish, or heavier, 3-5 ounce sinker with 2/0-4/0 (or larger) hooks for sharks and rays.

Some tips: (1) Fluorocarbon makes an excellent leader for the end of your line. (2) Since the hooks on sliding leaders are often swallowed by the fish, you might want to try circle hooks. They may reduce the number of deep hookings. However, if the fish is still deep hooked, and you intend to release it, I recommend you simply cut the leader. (3) Instead of a snap-swivel at the end of the main line, attached to a second swivel on the leader, you can simply tie the leader swivel directly to the main line. It's simpler and has less hardware (which I always like), but it also will slow you down if you decide to change leaders due to hook sizes, frayed lines, etc. Using a snap swivel you simply unsnap one leader and put a new leader on your line.

Songslinger's Berkeley Pier Rigging. This variation of the Basic Sliding Leader incorporates a float to keep the bait just a short distance above the bottom. It was designed for the halibut that are found in the shallow depths around the Berkeley Pier. As previously mentioned, Songslinger is one of the most esteemed pier rats and has his own fishing page (www.songslinger.virtualave.net/fishing.htm) from which this rigging is taken. I’ll let Songslinger describe the rigging.

“The first thing to do is tie a leader with a live bait hook at the end. Usually a size 4 hook is good, tied with a palomar or clinch knot (snells aren't good for live bait rigs). The hook line should be a minimum of 12 inches long-20 inches would be overdoing it. On the main line, insert the bead, bobber, and egg sinker and tie a safety swivel snap at the end. Attach the hook leader.

Before you put on bait, you'll need to adjust your rigging to the depth. At Berkeley Pier, the average depth is 8 feet plus whatever tide is on it. You will be guessing/estimating the point at which your hook will be about 6-12 inches OFF the bottom. This is important because halibut are ambush fish and strike from below. If your bait is dragging on bottom it will seriously lose effectiveness. You'll just have to work on trial and error until you feel comfortable with the setting. Once you're pretty sure, set a bobber stop above the bead.

Now put on your bait. If it's a live shiner perch, hooking through both lips is a good way to attach it. Some people like to hook it through the skin right next to the dorsal fin because halibut bite from the tail first. But bait seems not to last as long this way; also there's a chance it will slip or tear off. Live anchovies are used the same way. However, frozen anchovies can be effective and are easier to attach because you're not worried about injuring them. Thread your hook line (a piece of coat hanger with the top notched will work better than any threader purchased in a shop) so that the hook will be next to the tail. You can use elastic string to keep the bait on more tightly.

When you cast, don't try to get your rigging out too far. About 10-15 feet out from the pilings is sufficient. Halibut will hit anywhere along the pier, but the best places seem to be near the bathrooms and the cleaning tables because the gray water runoff attracts baitfish and their predators. But change locations if you're not getting anything after an hour. Finally, it's always a good idea to see what other anglers are doing. When the halibut season is in full swing (somewhere between late March and July when they come into the bay to spawn), there will be as many as thirty ‘regulars’ lined up. They are irritable, rough-hewn fellows, but they will yield crucial information if you ask. This rigging is only one of many possibilities. Experiment and observe and you should do well.i

Sliding Leader For Flounder and Sturgeon. Another type of sliding leader rigging, commonly used in the San Francisco Bay area, targets starry flounder, sturgeon and sharks. Here a little hardware is added to the rigging. The main line is run through a plastic sleeve then attached by way of a snap-swivel or swivel to a leader. The sinker is attached to the snap on the side of the plastic sleeve. Once baited, the rigging is cast out and the reel is set on a very light drag, or no drag with the clicker on. If a fish picks up the bait, the line can be pulled out without the fish feeling any pressure. Thus the fish has time to play with and mouth the bait, an important trait when fishing for fish that give a light bite. Flounder, like their halibut cousins, prefer to mouth the bait before striking. Give ‘em some line, wait a couple of seconds, then strike. Sturgeon of course are notorious for their light, almost imperceptible bite (more of a slight dip in the rod). If in doubt when fishing for sturgeon, strike!

Some tips: (1) Leader length, strength of the leader, and hook size will vary depending upon the fish you are seeking, the wind and the currents. For flounders a fairly light line, 2-3 foot long leader, size 4 hooks, and grass shrimp, pile worms, cut anchovies or small ghost shrimp should do the trick. Sturgeon require heavier line (typically 300 yards of 30-50 pound test line, larger hooks (2/0 to 6/0), nylon-coated wire leaders, and bigger baits. Several grass shrimp, a couple of pile worms, one or two large mud shrimp, or a fresh piece of herring should do the trick. Pre-tied sturgeon leaders can of course be bought at most bait shops. These leaders are typically three feet in length, with large hooks and 60-pound wire leaders. However, some regulars disagree with the three-foot length. They say that the faster the current the shorter the leader. They feel when the current is roaring along a short leader does a better job of keeping the bait down near the bottom with less movement. (2) A variation often used when seeking the bigger sharks with this rig is to use two hooks in tandem at the end of the leader, double hooking a whole squid or a squid with a sardine inside its body.

Lucy's Rock Rig. The following rigging was submitted by Lucy, one of the brightest curmudgeons on the PFIC board. With her Mencken-like wit and acerbic comments, you had better stay on your toes, but she is also the first to admit when she doesn't know something and is still learning. But she learns fast! The following was developed by her after many trips to San Francisco's Municipal Pier and the ledge that runs near the front of the pier, a ledge full of tackle grabbin’ rocks. The key ingredients are a float and a flex-o-sinker that is nigh impossible to lose to the rocks.

In Lucy's words, “the flexible sinker is kind of a tube of some kind of tough fabric (probably nylon) filled with small shot about the size of BBs. It slides and slithers over the rocks instead of getting hung up in them. I've been using the same rig for months now and haven't lost it yet, although the sinker material is getting somewhat frayed. I get the sinkers from Cabela’s (URL below).

The floats are also from Cabela’s. The float holds the hook up off the bottom so the crabs don't get the bait, but more important, it holds the hook up off the rocks so that it doesn't snag. (The hook is always higher than the sinker, so as the sinker is dragged up over rocks, the hook is well above the rocks.) The floats come in assorted ghastly Day-Glo colors that are supposed to attract fish, but I paint mine a dark green to match the seaweed. The Carolina Keeper is there to keep the float near the hook and prevent it from sliding up the leader in the wrong direction. (You could also just tie a piece of rubber band there.) The floats are made from a very hard Styrofoam and are very durable.”

Some Tips: (1) Cabela’s is one of the nation's largest distributors of hunting and fishing gear. They can be contacted at their Internet address of www.cabelas.com or by a toll free telephone call at 1-800-237-4444. Ask for a free catalogue.

(3) Rigs in which the hooks are allowed to slide down the line.

Trolley Rig. A rigging used for many years in southland waters (although not as commonly today), is the sliding leader known as the trolley rig. The leader is 3-4 feet long with a hook at one end and a snap-swivel at the other end. The sinker is attached to the line, then it is cast out to the desired location. Next, the leader is attached to the line by way of the snap, simply snapping it (and making sure it is closed ) over the line. Hook a live bait onto the hook and let the bait slide down the main line into the water. Remember to keep the line tight or the leader may hang up midway down the line. The way you hook your bait can help determine the depth at which it will swim. This is especially true with live anchovies, the most common live bait on southland piers. If you hook the anchovy through the nose it will usually swim deep down toward the halibut. If you hook the anchovy by the collar it will usually swim higher, which is better for fish such as bonito, mackerel or barracuda.

A problem with this leader is that no matter how you hook your bait it will probably eventually wind up down near the bottom; that's great for halibut and guitarfish, lousy for bonito and barracuda. An enterprising angler came up with a solution. Simply attach a cast-a-bubble to the sliding leader, just under the snap-swivel, and held in place by a small B.B. shot or twist-on sinker. Now when you slide the leader down it will be held up near the top of the water by the cast-a-bubble.

Some Tips: (1) If you are specifically seeking out fish on the bottom you want the bait to go to the bottom. Your live bait, especially if it is a smelt, may prefer to swim near the top of the water. No problem, just attach a small B.B. shot or twist on sinker under the swivel. Keep the weight small but that should quickly get the bait down to the bottom.

Pacifica Trolley (Salmon) Rig. A somewhat similar trolley rigging began to be used at the Pacifica Pier in the late '70s (or early '80s) when schools of marauding salmon began to make the pier their summer home. It was developed for use with frozen anchovies since live bait was (considered) unavailable from the pier. Although geared for the salmon at Pacifica, the rigging is now commonly seen at many Bay Area piers and is also sometimes used for striped bass even though the bass tend to hang down more toward the bottom and are typically closer to shoreline areas than the salmon. Although these rigs vary in length and paraphernalia (some people add flashers or salmon squids), most are around 9-10 feet in length and contain both a large bobber (or Styrofoam float) and a small amount of weight. The top section of the leader (nearest to the surface of the water) consists of a short 12-inch section with a large snap swivel at one end, a large bobber or float strung onto the line and a swivel at the other end. The second section is between 6-7 feet long with the top end tied directly to the swivel from section one. A couple of red beads are strung on the line followed by a 3/4-1 ounce egg sinker, followed by two more red beads, and then a snap. A third and final section is usually about two feet long and has a 2/0-4/0 circle hook at the end and a swivel at the other end.

As with all trolley riggings, the main line is first cast out with only a sinker. Next, a frozen anchovy, or (sometimes) a live bait, is attached to the hook, and the entire leader is slid down the main line by way of the snap just above the float. The weight makes the slider slide down the line (and keeps the bait down in the water), the float keeps it at the desired depth, the beads seems to attract fish, and the current and waves give it action. At Pacifica Pier as many as one thousand salmon have been landed in a single day using this rig.

Some Tips: (1) Although you can make your own trolley rigs, unless you plan to fish the pier on a regular basis you may simply want to buy commercial versions. The rigs cost around $4 and the large bobbers that go with them about $2; both are available at local tackle shops (although supplies may be limited during the BIG runs of salmon). (2) Regulars here like to use a four-legged (spider?) sinker. It's a sinker with several soft metal legs set into the lead which helps the sinker hold bottom. Although a pyramid sinker should work, the surf at Pacifica can be punishing, the bottom is sand, and you do not want your line drifting when the railings are lined, shoulder to shoulder, with fellow salmon seekers. These sinkers are available at local tackle shops.

Each of these various riggings can be used along the entire coast. However, when used in the appropriate area with the appropriate bait, the chances are considerably increased both for success and ease of fishing.