Our fish have different cycles of food sources during the year. The two main ones are whitebait and shrimp. From late spring to fall, when water temperatures are above 80 degrees, whitebait is king. When water temps fall below 70 degrees, the main food source is shrimp. When the mercury registers somewhere in the middle, both are around in good numbers. But it’s winter now, and winter time is shrimp time.
For those of you who believe that you must have whitebait to catch fish, this may seem like a crazy idea. But really, it’s just adhering to one of the most basic ideas in fishing: Matching the hatch. When the fish are feeding heavily on something, use that as bait.
Whitebait is seasonal. Yes, there’s always some around. But when it’s not abundant, the fish aren’t focused on it. Even if you manage to net a few, shrimp will almost always work better in winter — because that’s what most of the fish are already eating.
Live shrimp are generally preferred over frozen, at least by fishermen. Shrimp are sold by the dozen, usually priced according to size (just like at the seafood counter, big ones always cost more).
Are bigger shrimp better? Sometimes. If you want to drop them down on the reefs for red grouper, then I’d say big ones are probably going to be much better. When you’re casting them into potholes for redfish, big shrimp will take more abuse from pinfish before being torn apart, which increases your chances of hooking a red.
But if you’re free-lining them around a bridge for snook, size is far less important. Many different sizes of shrimp will drift past those snook, and they’re all in equal danger of getting eaten if they’re close enough. And in some cases, such as fishing around docks for sheepshead, smaller shrimp (think of them as bite-size) are by far the better choice.
You pay a premium price for live shrimp, so it just makes sense to keep them alive until they go onto your hook. Keeping shrimp frisky isn’t particularly difficult, but it does require some effort on your part.
Aeration is important. Just like us, shrimp need to breathe. When you have a lot of shrimp in a small volume of water, the oxygen gets used up quickly. Worse, it gets replaced by the carbon dioxide the shrimp are breathing out. Suffocation doesn’t take long.
Battery-powered aerators are sold at your favorite tackle shop. Forcing tiny bubbles up through the water carries the carbon dioxide out, allowing the water to absorb more oxygen from the atmosphere. This allows the shrimp to live for hours or even all night.
If you want to keep your shrimp overnight or longer, 110-volt aerators are available that will save on batteries. You can also get 12-volt versions to plug into your vehicle or boat battery.
O-Tabs are popular temporary sources of oxygen. They work differently than an aerator. They create microbubbles of pure oxygen that can be dissolved into the water. We use them mostly as a way to take shrimp quickly from one place to another. If you’re keeping shrimp in the same container for more than an hour or two, aerators do a better job.
Many shrimp are killed by overheating. Shrimp prefer cooler water, and the cooler the water is, the more oxygen it holds. Even on a winter day, the Florida sun can be brutal. On a warm day, a frozen water bottle (make sure the cap is tight; melting ice will kill your shrimp fast) will help. In summer, we often do this overnight. Cool water will also slow down their rapid metabolism, leading to fewer losses.
Naturally, an insulated bucket stays cool better than a non-insulated one. They’re ideal for year-round use. However, insulation will also hold heat in, so do what it takes to keep shrimp cool.
Keeping shrimp overnight is always tricky. Shrimp you buy at the tackle shop were probably netted the night before and have been dumped from holding tank to holding tank several times, which beats them up quite a bit. If we’re near a full moon, shrimp are sometimes weaker due to them molting. Ideally, use your shrimp the same day you buy them, because it’s a bonus if they live overnight. It’s even hard to do at the bait shop.
That said, if you’re hoping to keep shrimp alive for days at a time, change the water every 12 to 24 hours if possible. Waste products in the form of ammonia and nitrites build up quickly and can kill your shrimp outright, even if you have ideal temperatures and plenty of oxygen. If you live on the water, put them in a bucket with holes all the way around for maximum water exchange and tied to the dock. A rock to submerge the bucket will keep it from baking in the sun.
Dry packing is another way of taking shrimp alive for a couple of days. As a bonus, it requires no electricity or water changes and allows for minimal weight.
Start with a six-pack cooler. Lay frozen ice blocks on the bottom. Wet a good-size rag or two, or even newspaper, with salt water and lay it flat on the ice. Pour the shrimp (no water!) on the damp rag and cover them up. It’s a shrimp burrito, basically.
Keep them out of the meltwater. If the cooler has a drain, let some water out before it becomes problematic. Don’t keep the drain open, though — your ice will melt too fast.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor and at 14531 N. Cleveland Ave. in North Fort Myers. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.