Many anglers swear it’s best to “feed ‘em what they eat”.
Why natural bait?
Like the song says, there’s nothing like the real thing, baby. I’m an avid fan of artificial lures – mainly flies and plugs – but it’s impossible to argue that, day in and day out, live bait in its many forms catches more fish than artificials. It’s relatively easy to acquire, gets the attention of hungry gamefish and is the the best way to entice picky fish. An added bonus: fishing live bait is the best way for a novice angler to learn the sport, as it dramatically increases the odds of at least hooking something that will pull back, even for folks who don’t know how to crank a reel.
There are two ways to acquire natural bait: buy it or get it yourself. If you opt to buy it, your choices will be limited. Most bait shops and marinas carry shrimp, and many will sell crabs. Shrimp, especially, make great bait when used around bridges, lights and shorelines. However, the selection of baitfish is often meager or non-existent, which ain’t good news. If you aim to catch shallow-water gamefish fairly consistently on live bait – especially larger ones – you need to use baitfish. And by “baitfish” I mean any of a number of proven favorites, including finger (juvenile) mullet, thread herring, pinfish or sardines. Many types of small fish will catch fish, including ladyfish, mud minnows, sailor’s choice and a host of other species . But of those many choices, scaled sardines (often called pilchards or “whitebait”) are the best bet, by far, for catching fish in Florida’s shallow inshore waters. Whitebait, in fact, are so effective that many longtime bait fishermen simply won’t settle for anything less, spending hours looking for them rather than settling for another option. So if you plan on becoming a proficient shallow-water bait angler, you need to go with Option B: catching your own. Specifically, you need to purchase a cast net, learn how to throw it, learn where to throw it and then learn how to keep your bait alive and lively. If I were to try and address each of those steps in great detail, I could go on for pages on end. Instead, I’ll touch on some useful high points.
How to catch your own bait
Live bait can be caught by several means, but using a cast net is by far the most effective method. There is no single net that can be described as the “best live bait net.” The net you need is dependent on the bait you’ll be targeting, the depth of the water they frequent, and a number of other factors. That said, it’s safe to say that a six to eight foot net with a 1/2 inch mesh will catch plenty of bait in shallow water, and will serve you well if you fish beaches or flats most of the time. Smaller nets are easier to throw, but they also sink slowly – allowing fish to escape from under them – and their small mesh can trap baitfish so that the net is hard to clean out after each toss. If you really plan on catching large amounts of bait, a larger net is the way to go. I use a 3/8 inch mesh, but some of my live baiting buddies (who know far more than me about this) swear by 10 foot nets with 1/4 inch mesh, saying they sink quickly, spread nicely and trap less small baitfish, meaning you end up with the right size baits on each successful throw – not cleaning tiny fish out of the net after each cast. Before you buy, I’d suggest contacting a custom netmaker such as Betts or Calusa. They’ll recommend the best choice and provide you with instructions for throwing the net effectively.
Where to find baitfish
To catch bait, think like a little fish. That is, imagine that you’re small fish trying to move in and out with the tide without becoming the meal of a large predator. What would you do? Well, you’d do your best to avoid larger predatory fish, either by hiding in the shallows, tucking into spaces near structure or balling up in great schools and counting on the odds. As an angler, that tells you to look for the big, easy-to-find schools first, and then to check out spots that offer some sort of protection from predators, including beachfronts, grassflats, shorelines, and the like – especially areas with grassy bottoms or eddies adjacent to moving water. To consistently find bait, polarized glasses are a must, as the slightest flash or movement is often the best clue you’ll get that baitfish are close by. Finding spots that consistently hold bait is a process of elimination, but areas that are productive once will often hold fish on ensuing trips. Once you find a likely area, move slowly along its length looking for bright flashes, dimples on the surface or actual baitfish flipping on top. And be sure to watch for birds. Pelicans, especially, can point the way to bait, if you know what to look for. If they’re making long, straight dives, they’re after very large baitfish – ones you probably won’t want to use. Short, flopping dives – followed by a slow process in which they strain excess water from their bills before swallowing – usually means they’re eating glass minnows, which are far too small to put on a hook. But slicing dives from an intermediate height – followed by a relatively quick chugging of their meal – often signals whitebait. And that’s where you want to move in quietly and toss your net. Take your time, make mental notes (or actually circle areas on a chart) and you’ll soon have a good list of productive spots.
How to use live bait
Once you’ve learned how to find and catch bait, it’s essential that you have a good livewell that circulates plenty of water to keep them lively. The livelier they are, the more likely it is that a fish is going to smack them. In fact, the best live bait fishermen I know won’t put up with a less-than-hyper bait, switching to a fresh offering on a seemingly constant basis. For this reason, they require a lot of them – and that requires a big, gushing livewell. Too little water or circulation, and all of your efforts will be for naught as fish – even more durable species such as pinfish – will die quickly. (It should be noted that mullet require a round livewell to stay alive long, as they’ll swim into the sides of a squared-off livewell, injuring themselves). Again, whitebait is the preferred bait in Florida, because fish (especially snook) love them. And though they are fairly durable once on a hook, they’ll die in droves without plenty of oxygen.
Assuming you have nice, lively baits, the next step is to use the proper tackle. When using bait, it’s important to use long, limber rods – especially in open water. Spinning outfits are preferable, though baitcasting outfits are OK if you’ll be fishing at anchor and drifting your offering with the tide. Live baits work best when “free-lined” (when not accompanied by a heavy weight). Without a weight to drag them down, they stay active much longer and retain their natural action. If you must use a weight, try a small egg weight placed above a swivel, or use small splitshot weights – just enough to allow you to place casts to your chosen spot. An average size whitebait isn’t very heavy or aerodynamic, so to sling one any distance at all, lighter tackle in the 8-12 lb. class is a must. Snook are notorious for shredding light line, so be sure to use a three foot section of leader line – 20 lb. test for smaller baits, and 30 lb. test for larger offerings. In deep or moving water where a weight must be used, a sliding sinker rig – created by using the smallest egg sinker possible tied above a swivel – is ideal. This rig allows the bait to be cast a fair distance, but to swim unencumbered since the line slips through the sliding egg weight once it sinks. As for the business end, many folks tend to use hooks that are far too big, wearing out their bait in short order and betraying their intentions to a wary quarry. For small mullet, whitebait, pilchards, and the like (3-4”), a No. 4, short shank hook is perfect, and a No. 6 will work just fine. If you happen to catch heavier, larger baits, bigger hooks will naturally be required.
The best way to hook up a baitfish is the subject of much debate, but it needn’t be complicated. Many anglers hook baitfish through the lower lip and out the upper lip. This is fine for heavier baitfish such as ladyfish, pinfish and (especially) mullet, but it can drown smaller (and often more effective) baits. A proven method for small baits such as whitebait and threads is to simply run the hook through the nose (a short distance behind the eye) on one side and out the next. A bait fished in this manner can breath easily, does not suffer any major physical harm (until a fish hits) and will stay lively for several casts.
Once you’re set up with the right bait and tackle, it’s time to find a hotspot or two and go to work. As you arrive at a likely location, cut your motor and approach it quietly. Grab a few baits out of the livewell and toss them toward your intended target, and watch carefully for signs of feeding fish. Check your reel’s drag, cast a free-lined bait into the mix, and hold on. If fish are in the area, you won’t be in for a long wait. If you don’t get a hit within 15 minutes or so, move on and repeat the process.
In time, you’ll develop not only a number of your own hotspots, but also a feel for the types of areas that hold fish consistently. Remember to treat the fish you catch with care. Live bait is effective, but it can also be hazardous to fish since they have a tendency to swallow baits whole. If you hook a fish deep in its throat or gills, snip the line as far down as possible, resuscitate the fish carefully and let it swim free. And once you’ve mastered the art of baitfishing, take the next step and try to fool them consistently with artificial lures, keeping your live bait skills in your hip pocket for those slow days when only the real deal gets their attention.
Popular Shallow Water Baits found in Florida
Also called “pilchard” or “whitebait”, this little critter is the top choice of Florida’s most successful live bait anglers. Snook, especially, just cant see to leave them alone, attacking them with a gusto seemingly reserved for this species of bait. Sardines can be caught offshore, but are more commonly cast netted in eddies, on shorelines and along beachfronts. Look for these baits flipping on top, and scan the water for the flashes of their silver sides.
Also known as “threads” or “greenies”, these baits are a prolific bunch. Greenies can be found in the summer months balled up in large schools either right offshore or – on an incoming or higher tide – farther inland. Though they don’t always stay atop the water column, more often than not they give away their location by dimpling the surface of the water – or “boiling” it – when found in large schools. If you’re having a hard time finding bait, run along a beachfront or up to a mile or so offshore and look for these customers.
Some guides swear that this is the bait of choice, and prefer them over all other baitfish. I’ve had success with Spanish Sardines, but they don’t seem as durable as whitebait or threads. Like threads, these baits are often found in large schools offshore, although in some areas they can be found in significant numbers in the backcountry.
Accurately named, these tough little baits feature spines above and below that can inflict a nice little puncture wound. The hardiest bait of the bunch, pinfish can be found offshore, but are usually cast-netted inshore around grassflats, or near bridges and piers.
Mullet make great live bait in a variety of sizes. Small 5-8 inch “finger” mullet are excellent backcountry and flats’ baits, known for leaping from the water as they’re pursued. Larger mullet make good big fish baits when used at night under bridges – toss out a 2-3 pounder and don’t be surprised if a tarpon takes notice.