A school of Yellowtail Snapper. Some of the other fish we catch in the Florida Keys areTuna, Wahoo, Blue & White Marlin, Sailfish, Wahoo, Dolphin (Mahi Mahi), Sharks, Kingfish, Mutton Snapper, King Mackerel, Grouper, Cobia, Tarpon and more.

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Getting Bait on Your Boat

By Waldo "Double Treble"  Tejera Jr.
Islamorada Sport Fishing Online Contributor

Part 1  |  Part 2

            By now most of us who fish on a regular basis have learned that using “live bait” is a sure way to get fish on our boat.  We’ve all read the articles in the magazines and heard it in seminars.  Our boats come equipped with live wells with fancy pumps, aerators, and drains and we know that’s where the bait goes.  We know all the right rigs, hooks, lines and methods that are sure to increase our chances of hooking on to a trophy fish.  But we’ve got to find the bait first.  And after we’ve found it, we have to catch it, keep it alive and know how to hook it.  That’s where many anglers have problems and get frustrated.  Even experienced fishermen have tough days when it comes to catching bait for a day’s worth of fishing.  Well, having had my days of frustration, I’d like to share what I’ve learned and what helps me get the bait on my boat on a consistent basis.  Even if you don’t fish from a boat some of this advice will come in handy.

            First, let’s simplify things a bit.  What is “live bait”?  Well we know that bait is anything dead or alive (usually natural) that will attract a hungry fish or any other animal we are looking for.  If we hide a hook in it and the fish takes a good bite, we’ll have hooked that fish.  Live bait, as the term implies, is something that’s alive (preferably more alive than dead) that will do the same job.  If we’re trying to target a particular fish or are fishing a certain area the best live bait is usually whatever hangs around the same area as your target species and is smaller; although I’ve seen small fish take a bite out of a bigger one many times.  Many of us have had a nice yellowtail or grouper 10 feet away from our boat only to come up with a bloody head after a ‘cuda or shark has had its bite.  Well what that means is that any live fish can be bait.  I’ve had days of not being able to catch my bait of choice and have done fine on grunts or any other small reef fish.  There are certain bait fish that because of their physical characteristics (shininess, size, survivability) are considerably better to fish with.  That’s why we hear so much about pilchards, mullet, herring, etc.  It always helps to have “whitebait” that can be seen by a hungry fish.  It’s even better if it’s frisky and lively for a long time on your hook.  And believe it or not, fish like these bait fish because their dorsal fins and body shapes are so that it’s easier for them to swallow.

            I would say that there are 3 steps to catching bait.  The first and probably most difficult step is to find it.  Second is getting it or yourself close enough where you can actually have a shot at it.  Third is actually catching it.  In my previous article I discussed the importance of targeting the fish you want to catch.  Experienced anglers know what baits are good for what fish and will often seek out the bait they know will give them the best chance at the fish they are after.  In South Florida and the Keys we have several species that we can try to catch if available.  Pilchards, threadfin herring, mullet, blue runners, goggle-eye, ballyhoo, sand perch (mojarra), and pinfish are probably the most common.  There are different ways to find, attract and catch these guys and I’ll try to cover my experiences with them briefly.

            Pilchards and threadfins are my bread and butter bait.  Kingfish, Wahoo, snapper, grouper, tuna, sailfish, and most other fish will gladly take this bait.  It is important to use the friskiest of the bait you catch.  Don’t use bait that has red spots around the nose or has missing scales.  Don’t handle the bait with “suntan lotion hands”.  Handle your bait as least as possible.  Believe me it makes a difference.  Many anglers have their spots which they know usually hold bait.  They are common under and around bridges, docks (esp. around busy fish cleaning tables), markers, etc.  When I head out on a days worth of fishing and I’m not familiar with the area I’ll immediately start looking for birds flying in tight circles and diving.  Pelicans diving and staying down on the water with heads down means I’ll keep running ‘cause they’re feeding on glass minnows which are too small unless I want them for chumming.  If they’re putting they’re heads up right away and swallowing they’re on pilchards or herring.  Circling birds also usually mean pilchards.  If they’re diving aggressively in tight knit circles the bait’s on top.  If they’re staying high and diving every once in a while, the bait’s down deep.  Once you spot birds ease up slowly and look for dimples (like raindrops) on the water.  If they’re up on top put your chum bag out so you can bring them close to your boat.  Even if you don’t see them anymore once you’ve approached the area put your chum out and wait to see if they come up.  If they do, try a cast net or a Sabiki rig.  Use long surf type rods with 8# test so you can work the Sabiki rig slowly up or down.  Once you’ve hooked one leave it a little while longer until you feel you have more than one baitfish.  If you use a cast net use one with a ” mesh so the bait doesn’t get gilled and become difficult to unload.  If the bait is down deep use your depth finder.  Whenever you see a big dark ball somewhere between the surface and the bottom that’s the bait. Send your Sabiki down quick and load up on as much bait as you can.  Don’t wait to long to bring them up because other bigger fish will take them and your rig.  I always carry a few cans of cat food (Cozy Kitten seafood at Winn-Dixie) on my boat.  It never goes bad so I leave it on my boat.  It works as good as any other chum for catching bait.  The only drawback is that you need a can opener and someone to actually scoop it out and scatter it on the water. 

On to: Part 2


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