Uneven Weight Distribution
Contrary to the philosophy of using the lightest weight possible to reach and hold bottom, lighter is not necessarily better with the knocker rig. Smith says the weight should be plenty heavy, enough to remain in solid contact with the bottom. And as simple as this rig appears, there are indeed subtleties involved in getting the most out of it. "You want to feel the sinker at all times," says Smith. "Once it's on bottom, you will reel up just enough to where you feel the weight. You will then actively hold the rod and make certain to feel that sinker at all times. That means you'll lower the rod when the boat lifts up on a wave, to keep the sinker on bottom, and lift the rod when the boat dips down, to maintain the feel of the sinker on bottom. To make sure the rig is where it's supposed to be and to sense the slightest activity from any fish playing with the bait, you have to keep enough slack out of the line so you can feel the sinker and keep it in place on the bottom.
"It's also critical to make sure when tying the line to the hook that the knot doesn't jam in the sinker, as could happen if the sinker has a large enough hole. If this occurs, it will prevent a fish from running line through the sinker and perhaps enable it to feel the weight and drop the bait. To prevent this, put a plastic bead on the line before tying on the hook. The plastic bead will rest between the sinker and hook eye and prevent jamming."
Where Lighter Is Better
One case in which going with a lighter sinker takes precedence is when you're baiting fish that are suspending within or adjacent to high-profile debris or structure, such as snapper around rigs and even Pacific yellowtail and kelp bass within kelp gardens. Here a lighter sinker enables the bait to settle a bit slower through the water column and stay where these fish are suspending. In the case of kelp gardens and rig stanchions, a knocker rig will keep the bait and hook together throughout the descent, while a longer leader has the potential to wrap around both sides of the kelp or stanchions.
As mentioned earlier, the knocker rig kept us into the yellowtail snapper action when the predator fish drove them down. Even when the 'tails are up and close to the boat, we often pitch a knocker rig well back into the slick, where it falls to the bottom behind most of the activity. And quite often, we pick off our largest 'tails that way. Just recently we spent a day on a different Bimini reef, dropping live pilchards on knocker rigs; we scored amberjack to 40 pounds, horse-eye jacks to 15 pounds and, of course, yellowtail snapper. The setup is excellent on mangrove snapper on the reefs and rock piles, and we've scored cobia and goliath grouper on the knocker rigs when fishing over wrecks.
In-line, non-stainless-steel circle hooks make effective knocker rigs, and they're required by law when bottomfishing in the Gulf of Mexico. I prefer using an overhand loop knot to join my circle hook to the leader, believing that the loop gives a live bait pinned to the knocker-rig hook more freedom to swim. And when the bite's slow, I believe that extra bit of freedom prompts more strikes. What's more, a properly lodged circle hook will remain intact, while a J-style hook becomes more susceptible to being thrown with that sinker riding so close.
Newcomers to the knocker rig often wonder why a fish wouldn't notice a lead sitting right on top of the hook and shy away from the rig. My answer to that question is that game fish strike deep jigs and even jigs tipped with bait - so why would the knocker rig look much different, save for the lack of a fancy coat of paint?
The next time you find yourself wanting to cull bottomfish from tough terrain, don't outthink yourself by dropping down fancy leaders and rigs, which just might tangle or snag. Give the knocker rig some soak time. It's certainly not much appearance-wise, but it has been catching bottomfish for decades, making many a marginal angler look like a rock star back at the dock.
Reels: Penn Conquer 4000, 5000 or 7000 spinning reel, or equivalent.
Rods: Penn Torque spin model TJ2050S70 (20- to 50-pound rating).
Line: 20- to 30-pound braid.
Leader: 15 feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon.
Hooks: VMC In-Line Tournament Circle (model 7385), size 5/0 or equivalent.
Chum: Capt. Mark's Pure Sardine Chum or a similar concoction.