Patrick McDowell uses one so he can sling his bait far enough to reach places where big redfish live, perhaps 50 yards past the point he can maneuver his big deep-draft boat.

Dan Smith uses one to add sound to his live shrimp offerings, hoping to entice any nearby specks or reds to join what they might think is a feeding frenzy too good to pass up.

Jerome Allen puts them on the lines of his young son and daughter so they can cast farther in the ever-present Gulf breezes and to see when they’ve gotten a bite.

But, maybe it’s Capt. Sonny Schindler of Shore Thing Charters in Bay St. Louis who gives the best reason of all for using a popping cork:

“They work.”

Most fishermen on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast consider popping corks a necessity for all the reasons given — and many more. They aren’t new, and they long ago left behind the image of just a way to see when a fish takes a bait.

“Been around for a long, long time, but the ones we see on the market today aren’t your daddy’s popping cork,” said Allen, who is from Biloxi. “Back when my dad first started taking me out on the Gulf of Mexico, 30 years ago, the only corks around were those cone-shaped Styrofoam ones that had the slit down the side and a U-shaped weight molded into the foam. We were lucky if we got one or two throws with them before they started sliding up and down the line. But they worked.

“I remember daddy telling me to jerk-twitch the cork in a way to make it go bloop-bloop, like the sound a fish makes when it takes a minnow or a shrimp on the surface. ‘That makes them think the other fish have found food, and they will come looking,’ he’d say. All I knew was that I sure could cast a lot easier and farther than I could without one.”

Four decades later and now himself a father and a boat owner, Allen has taught his kids to fish using the corks.

“Some look the same, but most of them don’t,” he said. “Dad bought them three for a dollar, but I paid $21 for three of them last week. You can believe I tie them on to heavy, braided line with a much-lighter leader to the hook, so if a big fish breaks off, I get that dang $7 cork back.”

It’s a racket

When Smith talks about the cork business being a racket, he is not talking about the cost. No, his latest discovery, the Blabber Mouth, made in Jackson about three blocks from his body shop business, by United Plastic Molders — makers of the original Fish Grip — is simply the loudest fishing device he’s ever seen or heard.

“Dang thing is noisy, and I like that,” Smith said. “If your objective is to get a fish’s attention and call him to a feeding frenzy, then this cork is the dinner bell of choice. It has rattles inside and out, both metal and plastic, to create multiple sounds, like more than one fish or one shrimp. And that ain’t the half of it.

“This little jewel not only has a cupped top like the Styrofoam corks to create the glug-glug noise and round weights that bang around, it has a plastic propeller to give it a different little splash. It looks like small, plastic buzzbait blades.”

On a recent fishing trip, Smith had three fishermen in his boat using the Blabber Mouth, and it was hilarious how it sounded like shaking maracas with a Latin band.

Seriously, it did, and Smith was kidded about it. He got the last laugh.

“You did notice that on my first cast along the point, it only took about 30 seconds of it drifting with that shrimp along that drop and me popping it twice to get the first red,” Smith said.

Three reds hit on three casts, two slot keepers and a 15½-incher that was set free. Smith later caught another 15½-inch fish on the same spot with a hole in its lip.

“Probably the same fish,” he said. “Reckon he liked that Blabber Mouth.”

Schindler’s list: a Monkey?

A charter captain who often faces days on the water with casting-challenged clients, Schindler knows the value of having a good popping cork. His preference is a line of corks also made in Hattiesburg, the Boat Monkey.

“I’m not leaving the dock without the Monkey,” he said. “I always have popping rigs on the boat, and we need them when we have novice fishermen. That’s a big thing; the extra weight does help in casting. You get more distance, and it helps throw against the wind.

“But, popping corks produce fish when nothing else will. A lot of time, the water we fish in the marshes is dirty and the extra sound certainly helps bring in more specks and reds.”

Schindler is willing to throw them anytime, in any situation, but there are some places that just simply call for a popping cork, like when he’s fishing oyster beds in the Gulf.

“I like them when drifting live baits over oyster reefs,” he said. “Most of the reefs we fish are in 4 or 5 feet of water. Setting the leaders under the cork, a foot or so off the bottom, works perfectly. The live bait or artificial bait is in the perfect strike zone, and you don’t ever have to worry about snagging up on the oyster shells either.

“Another place I really like to use them is when we are fishing for redfish against the banks in the marshy areas. You put a live shrimp or minnow against that grass, under a cork, and give it a pop every so often.… It never gets old, watching that cork swim off in shallow water.”

Why the Boat Monkey?

“I am all Boat Monkey, for several reasons,” Schindler said. “No. 1, they are built with the best components, including heavy gauge wire that lasts much longer than other corks. No. 2, the metal washer in between the weight and the float is what makes all the noise. It also protects the float from getting beat up when you are popping it. “No. 3, they are made locally, in Hattiesburg, by a father and son. Tommy and Asa Theus make each one. I think that is absolutely the coolest thing that a father and son get to do that together. I have fished with both of them, several times. Besides being good, honest, hard-working people, they both know how to fish, so they understand what works and what doesn’t.” 

Triple the action

Another unique use of the popping cork that Schindler employs is the summer fun of catching tripletail (black fish) on the surface.

“We always save our biggest live shrimp for the tripletails, and we put them on a hook, weightless, with no more than a foot of fluorocarbon leader under a weighted Boat Monkey,” he said. “When we run the lines of crab pots or other structures looking for tripletails and spot one, we pass it and then idle back up close, approaching downcurrent. Then we switch to the trolling motor, and the guy up front casts the popping cork past the fish and then reels it back into its strike zone.

“If there’s anything more fun than seeing a redfish swim off with a popping cork in the marsh, it’s watching a big tripletail roll off its side and swim over to check out the cork and see that shrimp. He has to eat it, and then it’s on.”

Triple the distance

One day last summer, when three of us were fishing for spawning speckled trout in the grass beds south of Cat Island off Pass Christian, I spotted a fish strike a shrimp on the surface at least 50 yards away on the opposite side of what had been a productive grassy spot.

Then we saw another, and another, and each time we could see shrimp hopping like mad to escape the melee. The problem was, to get to them while they were actively feeding, Capt. Tommy Sutton would have to cut through the middle of the grass and ruin the spot.

“I got this,” McDowell said, reaching in the rod holder for a long spinning rod with a rather large and well-worn popping cork that had ‘fish killer’ carved by McDowell into the Styrofoam. He let loose a cast that sailed like a Drew Brees Hail Mary.

“Gosh, can he sling it,” Sutton said.

“Forevermore sling it,” I added. 

The cast landed a good 10 yards behind the spot where the surface feeding had taken place. McDowell had to reel up slack to get the popping cork to pop — well, we guess it popped; it was too far to be sure. When he did, the cork disappeared.

“Got one,” he said, “and it’s a big one.”

McDowell worked the fish through the grass to the boat and held up the fat, egg-laden trout for us to admire. He wouldn’t wait for a picture, sliding the prize catch into the fish box before rebaiting his missile launcher and blasting off another mega-cast.

This one landed right on top of the action and the cork kept right on going, disappearing under the water.

“Got another one, guys,” McDowell said, with a devilish laugh. “What you waiting for?”

This one was even bigger, maybe 5 pounds, and was the biggest of the five trout he caught in six casts with his spinning gear and weighted cork.

“Had that thing so long it’s about beat up,” McDowell said. “My boat isn’t really made for redfish or speck fishing. My wife said I could buy a boat as long as it had a cabin; that eliminated a trolling motor, and the boat’s size means I can’t go shallow. I knew I needed something I could throw a long, long way, so I found this big cork, added weight to it and matched it to a spinning rod that could handle it.”

McDowell’s homemade rig was a game changer for him in the marshes at the west end of the Mississippi Sound, and it was a winner that day on Cat Island.

For the birds.…

In early April, on a trip to Catfish Lake just west of Golden Meadow, La. — hey, it was the only place open to fish during that cold, windy stretch of weather — Sutton, Smith and I struggled with reds before managing to find 11 keepers on spinnerbaits.

Back at the dock, brothers John and Jimmy Guidry of Galliano, La., came riding up in their 14-foot john boat. In it were two rods, each with rather mundane-looking popping corks, two big smiles and an ice chest that they simply couldn’t stuff another trout.

“We didn’t get the limit, unless you consider we got the limit that we can put on ice,” John Guidry said. “Probably 30, maybe 35. Caught them under birds out in (Catfish Lake), just right out past where you break out of the channel beyond those oil rigs.”

They explained that they had caught 15 good ones before lunch fishing over oyster beds, then stopped and ran errands for their mom.

“We came back because we thought we could get 15 or 20 more before dark, but before we could get to the oyster beds we saw birds diving,” John Guidry said. “We got this small boat without a trolling motor so we couldn’t get too close. We switched from live shrimp to tandem-rig jigs under the corks to make long casts and to keep the jigs near the surface.

“We were catching them two at a time, and then they stopped. The birds broke up, and we thought it was over, so we started to run back to the oyster reef. We never made it. The birds regrouped about 200 yards from the first spot and started diving again. We ran over and caught ’em again, just as fast as we had the first time. We had to cull a lot of small, undersized fish, probably 20 or 30, so we were steady catching fish, usually two on a cast.”

Why’d you stop? We had to ask.

“Well, 15 this morning, and 30 to 35 this afternoon, that is our limit,” Jimmy Guidry hollered with a smile as big as the marsh. “I’d have never thought I could catch trout like that under cork with tandem hair jigs, but boy, it sure did happen.”