Running ball sinkers
  |  First Published: July 2013

Earlier in the Back to Basics Series we delved into the use of snapper leads. Last month we looked into the moulding of running sinkers (specifically ball sinkers); this month we follow that up with a look into the uses of running sinkers.

There are many types of running sinkers used when bait fishing. The most common would be the ball sinker, with bean/egg and barrel sinkers vying with each other for the minor places on the podium with bullet weights being a distant fourth.

Just as an aside – when it comes to soft plastic lures it would be the bullet weight (aka worm weight or Texas weight) that would be number one in sales and usage. However, Aussie anglers also use ball sinkers instead of bullet weights when finesse isn’t required with soft plastics (such as targeting snapper with 7” soft plastics in more open water after dark).

Ball sinkers are a moulded lead ball with a hollow through the centre down which the fishing line runs. With ball sinkers, as with 99% of fishing situations, the objective will always be to use the lightest (least intrusive) sinker that will still put your bait in the strike zone.

The strike zone may be the surface (light weight or no sinker), suspended/mid-depth (medium weight) or on the bottom (heavier weight but still choosing as light a weight as you can get away with). Accordingly most anglers will have a wide range of sinkers in their very heavy tackle box.

In my ‘base-camp’ kit bag I carry everything from pea-sized models to stonkers, aka 10-balls. However, I typically carry a much smaller selection in my pocket/bum bag. If you are only estuary fishing then you’ll seldom use a sinker much larger than a four-ball sinker as your biggest size. In fact, in shallow low-flow creeks and backwaters you may only ever need a small container of ‘00’ size peas. The estuary sizes of ball sinkers are generally 00, 0, 1 and size 2. The bigger the number, the larger the sinker diameter and therefore the heavier the sinker.

The main influences on your choice of sinker are water flow (current), drift rate (breeze and current), the depth at which you want to present your bait, desired casting distance and size of bait. In rough surf with big baits that you want to cast out far beyond the breakers, you’ll often be using 8 ball sinkers; the smaller sinkers will be left behind in the tent.

A ball sinker rig is often termed a running sinker rig. The sinker can either run all the way down to the hook or the sinker may free-run along the line above a swivel. In the case of the sinker being above the swivel, a hook-length/leader connects the hook/bait to the swivel (below the swivel). This ‘trace’ method of rigging allows the bait to waft around and is usually used when you want the bait to have some movement to entice the fish.

The trace also separates the bait and the weight and plays a part in the fish not spooking when it picks up the bait. If the bait doesn’t feel right, such as feeling too heavy, and the fish is finicky (such as a wary bream) then it is likely that the bream will drop the bait.

I find it hard to explain exactly; however many times the decision to downsize my sinker has turned my fishing session from being skunked into a bag limit. I may not be able to explain it, but I can tell you that I believe firmly, and have had it proved to me many times, that carrying a variety of sinker weights and downsizing to the smallest that will do the job can be critical to fishing success. If you only take one thing away from this article – I urge you to remember to keep sinker weight to a minimum most of the time.

Regular readers may recall that I covered offshore bottom bashing with snapper sinkers last year. Snapper sinkers and paternoster rigs are used to target fish on the bottom. Well, the other technique used offshore is confusingly called floatlining (some overseas countries call it freelining which might be a more accurate description).

Floatlining is essentially a running sinker rig used to target suspended fish. Accordingly, to target mid-depth fish, the sinker and bait are dropped (or cast a short distance) over the side and slowly let to fall through the water column. Hopefully your bait presentation gets to spend long enough at each level on the way down so that it finds the suspended fish and they find your bait.

A lot of anglers will use ball sinkers and short traces when targeting bread and butter fish, such as whiting and bream. In snaggy country, the bream fishing norm is to run the sinker all the way to the hook as many feel that this reduces snagging. With the sinker on the hook, the sinker can be bounced around and hopefully rattle the hook out of some places that it catches.

In reef country, the running ball sinker rigs get used when presenting a single bait (as opposed to the two bait approach often used when paternoster rigging with snapper sinkers) in medium depth water.

Beans v Balls

In really shallow reef conditions, the running sinker rig is still employed. Although, if there is bit of incoming wash in the form of mini-breaking waves that threaten to move the bait around too much (and tangle the line), the well-equipped angler may choose flat-sided bean sinkers as their running sinker because the beans don’t get jostled as much.

The bean sinker is like a flattened ball sinker and because it doesn’t get moved around as much in turbulence you can often use a lighter bean sinker than you would have to with a ball in the ‘washing-machine’ zone.

Just a caveat here; some so-called bean sinkers are not flat-sided. Actually these are more like eggs. Other countries use the term egg sinkers (egg sinkers are very much like short fat barrel sinkers or half-way between a ball and a barrel). So I always specify flat-sided beans when ordering this type of sinker if the flat-sided bean is the one that I want.

Another flat-sided sinker is the ‘hex’. We had heaps of them once and used them a lot until we ran out at home. I haven’t seen hex sinkers for many years. Anyway to dwell on them too much would just confuse the matter.

Sinker Weights

A 10-ball sinker often weighs about the same as a 4oz snapper lead. Hence these sizes are often the crossover point between using a running rig and a paternoster rig for Queensland anglers (in southern states the paternoster rig can be more prevalent in lighter set-ups than is commonly traditionally used in Queensland).

Balls V Barrels

If you wish to use the running sinker rig with weights heavier than a 10 ball (round ball) then the answer is to go up to a big barrel sinker. A barrel sinker is not really barrel or egg shaped, it is much more tapered and offers more weight.

Barrel sinkers are often used at anchor around the reefs when you want to present a big live bait down very near to the bottom. The alternative if you really want contact with the bottom is to use a big bean sinker that can sort of lay flat on the sea floor. Both the big bean sinker and big barrel weight rig are generally used in faster water flows and they usually employ a long trace between the hook and the swivel with the weight above the swivel on the main line (or shock-leader if you are using braid).

It is a fine line between when to use balls, bean or barrel. I opt for big ball sinkers and I run the ball all the way to the hook if the current is slow enough to get away with a lighter weight. Of course a mid-sized barrel sinker can also be used instead of the balls. I’m sure that the fish and or the conditions will seldom force you to choose one over the other when the sinkers are about the same mass.

These are only guidelines, nothing is hard and fast, you do what works in the situations that you encounter and adapt to. For example, if your larger heavier sinkers are in short supply – ball sinkers with big holes can be used above snapper leads, two ball sinkers can run down the line together, etc.

Remember, keeping the sinker weight as light as possible while still getting bites in the strike zone will catch you more fish most of the time. That is as close to a fishing rule as you can get!


Running sinker rig, running sinker rig with trace.

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