Big sheepshead

WaterLine file photo

Although some fish are particular about live bait, sheepshead aren’t.

For a lot of local fishermen, the saddest words they’ll ever hear are these: “We’re all out of live shrimp, but we have plenty of frozen.”

It’s a fascinating study to watch the play of emotions that cross an angler’s face upon hearing that phrase. First, there’s disbelief, followed by some degree of annoyance. Then the question: “You’re completely out? You don’t have any at all?” When they’re told (again) that the live shrimp have all been sold, they hang their heads for a moment, then usually shuffle to the freezer and get a bag or two of frozen.

If that sounds familiar to you, you’re either a fisherman or a psychologist. The classic five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and these dudes go through all of them in 20 seconds.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Frozen bait is a viable choice for most fishing here in Southwest Florida. In fact, there are many times when it’s a better option than live.

The biggest gripe about frozen bait is its lack of durability. There’s some of truth to that, especially with frozen shrimp. Anyone who’s ever hooked a frozen shrimp right under the horn and cast it out with any force at all has probably watched in dismay as their bait flew apart midair. That’s a problem, but it’s one we can fix.

When I fish a live shrimp, I usually hook it through the tail with a short-shanked hook. When I fish a whole frozen shrimp, I switch over to a long-shanked model and I always —always — hook it through the tail. Why? Because I can use that longer hook as a reinforcing rod to help hold my shrimp together. Also, I expect the shrimp’s head to fall off.

Really, that’s no big deal. I’ve caught lots of fish on chunks of shrimp tail. You think they care if the head’s missing? Unless you need to make a very natural presentation to spooky fish, it doesn’t matter at all. And the added scent appeal that the exposed shrimp meat has can sometimes tempt even picky fish into snapping up your bait.

If you just can’t get over the softness of frozen shrimp, there is a workaround. You can brine them to toughen them up. This is a great technique for times when pinfish are thick on the flats and are relentless about pecking baits apart, and it’s also highly useful for offshore anglers who can have the same problem with smaller reef fish.

Brining isn’t difficult but it takes a bit of time. A small cooler makes a good brining vessel. Place a single layer of shrimp in the bottom of the cooler, then cover them with ice cream salt. Top the salt with a layer of ice. Then leave it overnight. As the ice melts, it will dissolve the salt. The chilled, salty water running over the shrimp will basically pickle them. This not only toughens the meat but also adds a flavor fish seem to like.

If you have lots of shrimp to brine, you can stack multiple layers: Shrimp, salt, ice, shrimp, salt, ice, and so on. I find brining works best if the cooler has an open valve to keep water from pooling in the bottom, and I leave the lip open to encourage melting. You don’t want the ice to melt away completely, though.

Once the shrimp are brined, you can freeze them again. This is an exception to the rules, though. Unless you’re brining baits, you shouldn’t refreeze them. They’ll be very mushy if you refreeze them, and it’s not uncommon for them to get freezer burn (which is basically freeze-drying). This technique can be used for any frozen bait, by the way. Brined fish is popular with offshore anglers.

While shrimp are our most popular frozen bait, there are others that see a lot of use in this area. Finger mullet and whitebait are used whole or chunked for snook, reds, smaller sharks and reef fish. Larger mullet and ladyfish can be used when your target fish are bigger. Spanish sardines and threadfins are used offshore, both for bottom fish and pelagics. Snapper fishermen sometimes use silversides, both as bait and chum. Pompano and sheepshead anglers go through good numbers of sand fleas and fiddler crabs.

I need to say a little bit about squid. Squid — whole or pre-chunked — makes a fantastic bait, but only when you’re fishing in an area that has squid around. In this part of Florida, that means out in the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes in winter, we’ll see some squid move into the Harbor, but for the most part it’s not a natural food for our inshore species.

Basically, using squid inshore is the equivalent of using hot dogs. You’ll get action, but it will be mostly from catfish, stingrays and other less-desirable species.

Once you understand when and how to use frozen baits, you can start to catch more fish when live baits aren’t available — and believe me, there will be times that you can’t get live shrimp for love nor money. Learn to use what you can get, and keep those rods bent.

As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.

As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.

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