We’re about to move into the fall fishing season, which offers some of the best angling opportunities of the year. This rise in fishy action coincides with a decline in the availability of whitebait. For so many, whitebait are the bait of choice. Some folks seem to think it’s the only bait. How are you going to fish when it’s hard to find or not available?
Fortunately, there are lots of other things fish eat besides whitebait. And truthfully, even if you do locate whitebait in the fall, they’re not really the best choice.
Cooler weather has a way of changing a predator’s priorities. Whitebait are like potato chips. They’re a snack food that provides rapid energy for immediate use. When they’re actively spawning, as snook do over the summer, that’s important. But that’s behind them, and they need to prepare for the future.
Fish are gorging for the winter. Snook will be moving into their wintering grounds soon, and their metabolisms will go into low gear in the colder water. They will have fewer chances to feed and temperatures won’t be ideal for digestion anyway, so they’re looking to pack on some fat now.
The same goes for the resident tarpon that will overwinter here. Other tarpon will migrate south, which takes lots of energy. Redfish are gearing up for pre-spawn activities. Trout are recovering from a long, hot summer. All of these fish are looking for long-term energy, not a quick burst, so they’re hunting meatier prey that satisfies a more substantial hunger.
Of course, none of this is planned by the fish. They’re just doing what comes naturally. It’s all instinctive. They’re not snubbing whitebait on purpose — it’s just not what they want.
So what are they eating? Pinfish are high on the list. They’re abundant, available in a variety of sizes, and relatively easy for both anglers and fish to catch. You can castnet them, get them on a sabiki, use tiny long-shanked hooks baited with squid bits, trap them or buy them at the bait shop.
I rig pinfish one of two ways: Under a float (so they can’t hide at the bottom) or hooked sideways on a jighead and cast into a likely spot. This second method works well in dark water because of the frantic vibration, which fires predators right up.
Catching live finger mullet is a little harder because they’re immune to chum, but if you manage to net some they’re an excellent choice to use live or cut. Snook tend to prefer them live, but whole dead ones can work very well fished on the bottom near heavy cover. Larger mullet can also be used as cutbait. When you’re using cutbait, be sure to use hooks a size or two larger than you would use for live whitebait. A hook point that’s buried in the bait won’t stick many fish. If you can’t catch your own, mullet of all sizes are sold frozen at most tackle shops.
Ladyfish are another great option that you can easily catch yourself. In fact, if you bring young anglers along on your trip, the most fun they have all day might be catching high-jumping ladyfish on spoons or jigs.
Smaller fish make good live baits for big snook, and cut ladyfish are a standard for redfish. You can also freeze them for later. Yes, they get mushy when frozen, but brining helps a lot.
Sardines, commonly sold for grouper and snapper bait, also can be used to catch redfish and sometimes snook. Like mullet and ladyfish, they can be cut into large or small chunks. You can also dice them into bits, which can be scattered across a flat to hold the interest of a school of redfish. Thawed sardines are soft, so consider brining them as well.
Frozen shrimp are also a great fall bait. They put out lots of smell, and little fish will peck at them, releasing even more shrimpy scent. Letting them sit in the sun for a half-hour will make the aroma more pungent and also toughen them up a bit. I like to rig them on a jighead, hooked at the tail end because the head has a tendency to fall off.
If you’re tired of driving all the way out to the ICW to net bait, just to have it die when you bring it back up the Harbor, maybe it’s time to try using something else. There’s a whole world of other options — and we haven’t even started to talk about artificial lures yet.
Robert Lugiewicz is the longtime manager of Fishin’ Frank’s (4200 Tamiami Trail Unit P, Charlotte Harbor) and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Contact him at 941-625-3888.