Of all the different things about Chesapeake Bay fishing, one that stymies beginners on a regular basis is rigging and rigs. In no small part this is partially due to the cryptic fishing lingo we anglers use, which can be confusing to say the least. Umbrellas? Wacky worms? Stretches? Tandems? It’s no wonder beginner anglers are often left scratching their heads. But beyond learning the lexicon, there are a few standard-issue rigs which everyone needs to know about no matter what type of fishing they enjoy — and that includes you.

fishing with a bottom rig
A standard-issue bottom rig has a pair of wire spreader arms with a leader and hook attached to each.

Top and Bottom Rigs

Many people cut the “top and” part, and just call these rigs “bottom rigs.” There are a million different derivatives, but all top and bottom rigs have a few commonalities:

  • They have a spine-like wire or filament running down the middle with a loop or swivel eye at the top for attaching your main line, and a loop or clip at the bottom for attaching a weight.
  • The spine of the rig is usually significantly stronger than the leader you’ll use for your hooks. So, if a hook snags on structure you can often break off the hook but save the rig.
  • Two hooks on leaders or loops sprout out from the spine, one higher and the other lower (thus the name top and bottom). In the case of bottom rigs made of wire, there are usually two wire “spreader” arms a few inches long with eyes at the ends which you can add the desired hooks and leaders to. These spreader arms help reduce tangles between the two hooks.
  • Most premade bottom rigs have beads located near the arms and/or at the top.
bottom rig for fishing
Add some bait and the bottom rig is ready to catch fish.

You may see three, four, or even six-hook bottom rigs on the great and awesome internets, but those aren’t legal in the Chesapeake, freshwater waterways, or state coastal waters where the limit is two hooks.

As a rule, bottom rigs are meant to be baited and then dropped all the way to the bottom. In some cases they’re cast from shore, in others dragged across the bottom as a boat drifts, or they might be dropped or cast from an anchored boat and allowed to rest on bottom. In some scenarios anglers might choose to let them sit without movement, and in others they’re slowly retrieved across the bottom.

You can catch a huge range of fish using bottom rigs, but their most common application in the region is for catching mixed-bag panfish like spot, croaker, and white perch in the Bay and its tributaries or in coastal bays. Some people also use bottom rigs for species like catfish in fresher venues, yellow perch during their runs in upper tributaries, or sea bass on structure in the Bay or ocean.

Turn to bottom rigs when you’re targeting fish that are known to be down deep on bottom and bite best on baits. But also be aware that since these rigs spend all their time right on the bottom, they’re prone to snagging whenever drifted or retrieved. In some areas, such as a shoreline with lots of deadfall, it may be virtually impossible to use one.

Note: Bottom rigs with small floats located by the hooks are called “doodlebug” rigs. These are generally intended for use in the surf, where crabs will often eat off your baits if they sit on or too close to the sand. Some anglers believe their colorful appearance helps generate more strikes, too.


Tandem Rigs


There’s a tremendous variation in tandem rigs, and they may be used for everything from casting to spawning shad to imitating those very same shad while trolling for big trophy rockfish. As the name suggests, what makes a tandem rig a tandem is simply that two lures are tied to the same rig and meant to be used in tandem. Some commonalities include:

  • tandam rig for fishing
    Tandem rigs allow you to double your offerings.
    The two lures are separated; the distance may be anywhere from a matter of inches to 15 or 20 feet.
  • One long leader connects to your mainline at one end, and to a lure at the other.
  • A shorter “dropper” line terminating in a second lure is attached to the main leader, sometimes with a dropper loop knot or sometimes with a triple swivel.
  • When lures of unequal weight are tied in a tandem, the heavier lure is always tied to the longer main leader and the lighter lure on the dropper.

The applications for tandem rigs are too long to list out. That said, a few of the most popular tandems you’ll see in use include using a tiny spoon tied with a shad dart for shad; tying two shad darts for perch or crappie; tying parachutes dressed with plastic shad for striper trolling; and tying a heavy jigging spoon with a streamer, fly, or similarly small, light offering (commonly one that doesn’t have enough weight to get to the fish’s depth on its own) for vertical jigging. Tandems are extremely effective in numerous situations and only have limited downsides in that sometimes the two lures may tangle. Also, stowing a tandem rig neatly can be problematic.

Split-Shot Rig

split shot rig for fishing
Add a couple split -shot to get your bait sinking.

A split-shot rig is a lesson in simplicity. There’s very little to describe, because all you have to do to make one up is tie a hook on the end of your line, then crimp down a split-shot or two a couple-few feet up from the hook. Poof! You’re ready to fish it. Or, at least you are after baiting the hook. This super-simple rig can be cast out and left alone until your rod tip starts jiggling, can be retrieved along bottom, or can be retrieved just about anywhere in the water column.

While these rigs are a bit too light for most saltwater applications, the simple split-shot rig accounts for an untold number of freshwater catches. With a blob trout dough on the hook it’ll be a killer for stockers. Put on a live minnow and freshwater predators from bass to walleye might take the bait. Skewer a chunk of chicken liver on the hook and there are catfish in your future. The list could go on and on.

Fish-Finder Rigs

The fish-finder is generally used in a situation when you’ll be fishing bait for a wary predator, and you need to let the fish take line without feeling any resistance prior to setting the hook. When it comes to fishing a delicate chunk of soft crab on bottom for black drum, which are known for having sensitive mouths, for example, fish-finders are the norm.

fish finder rig for bait fishing
The fish finder rig allows you to "feed" the fish line without it detecting the weight.

The fish-finder itself is a small plastic sleeve attached to a clip. When rigging up you pass your mainline through the sleeve before tying on a snap swivel, which is then used for attaching the leader. Then a weight gets added to the clip. Once the rig is sitting on bottom, you can fish with an open bail and if a fish takes the bait, as it swims the line slides through the sleeve and the weight remains sitting on bottom. With no resistance to detect the fish should be less likely to spit the bait and after waiting the appropriate amount of time, you can apply pressure and begin the fight.

An also-ran in this department is the egg sinker rig. When using an egg sinker you can accomplish more or less the same effect by running your mainline through the sinker before tying on a swivel.

Bobber Rigs

Bobbers are so basic and well-known even outside of the fishing community that we hesitated to include them even in an article for beginners. Then, we remembered just how many different kinds of bobber rigs there really are...

  • “Regular” bobbers—clip ‘em on the line with your bait or lure suspended at the desired depth below.
  • Quill bobbers – Reach for the long, slender quill-shaped bobbers when you need to minimize the resistance a fish feels when it takes the bait. These work best when going for a fish that may play with the bait for a while before taking it, such as crappie.
  • Slip bobbers – Slip bobbers don’t attach to your fishing line, but instead are rigged with the line going through the bobber so it can slide up and down freely. Then, a small “stopper” can be put on your mainline to set the depth the bobber will stop at. These are the best choice when the fish are too deep to use a regular bobber. They also allow you to set a bobber very deep and still be able to cast it from shore.
  • Floats – Floats are just big bobbers used for offshore applications, which can include everything from floating a swordfish line at hundreds of feet to suspending a live eel for rockfish. (But those salty guys can get defensive if you call it a bobber — if it’s bigger than your fist, use the term float to preserve their angling ego). Some are rigged to slide down the line after a strike and others are removed by an assistant when they near the rod tip.
fishing bobbers
There are a number of different types of bobbers and floats, and each has a specific application.

The more you fish, the more you’ll discover that there are countless types of rigs and countless derivatives of each type, often changing with locality or region. You’ll discover that a rig used in Seattle can have applications in Virginia, and one used in Maryland may turn out to work surprisingly well in the Florida Keys. When it comes to rigs and rigging, the learning curve never ends. But with these basics in your arsenal, you can catch a fish or two just about anywhere at just about any time.

See Critical Rigging for Beginners, Part II: Rigging Lures

See Critical Rigging for Beginners, Part III: Rigging Baits