In the course of doing seminars, chatting at the tackle shops and spending time with clients on the water, I spend a lot of time talking with folks who are new to fishing Southwest Florida. Some of their most common questions revolve around whitebait: What is it, why is it so popular, and how do I get it?
Whitebait is a catch-all term for small baitfish without spiny fins. Most of the time it’s a reference to scaled sardines (aka pilchards or greenbacks), but it’s sometimes used for thread herring, bay anchovies and Spanish sardines.
Whitebait is a warm-weather thing for us. These baitfish are migratory, showing up in spring and leaving in fall. When it’s around, it’s an important food source for our inshore and pelagic gamefish.
Acquiring it generally means throwing a net. A few bait shops that are waterfront can keep it alive, but most cannot. Even of they could, you can’t keep more than a few in a bucket. They go from net to livewell, or they probably die. That’s problems #1 and #2 with whitebait: A pain to get, and easy to kill.
So why is it popular? Two words: Fishing guides. Guides love whitebait because it becomes almost easy for unskilled anglers to catch fish with it. Here’s the standard routine: Black out the livewell, sling some live chummers to get fish popping, cast the bait for the customer, hand them the rod and tell them to hang on. Most of what they catch is small snook. It’s fun and reliable.
I understand why the guides do it, although I’m not a fan of all the wasted baitfish. (Pull up to popular chumming spots and you can often see hundreds of dead baits on the bottom, glistening in the sun like coins in a fountain.) But is it really what the rest of us ought to be doing? I mean — they’re baby snook. It’s fine for tourists that have to be spoonfed. The rest of us should aspire a little higher.
Besides, there’s problem #3: Whitebait has been getting harder to find. Not only for us, but also for the predatory fish — you know, the ones who really need it. Last years was a little better than the previous three or four, but it’s not like there was a flood of bait on every flat. Many whitebait fishermen still drove a dozen miles each way to locate bait.
To me, that’s the biggest issue. We too often treat whitebait like its only value is in our chum bats and on our hooks, but when it’s not around for our larger fish to feed on, they don’t reproduce as well. Whitebait are oily and high in calories — perfect food for spawning fish. Take that away, or make it hard to find, and fish struggle to replace those calories.
We like to complain about all sorts of things, including a lack of whitebait and gamefish getting harder to find. Yet despite the clear connection between these two things, many of those who complain the loudest will also be the ones who load up their livewells the first chance they get. My advice: Try a MirrOdine or a DOA shad. They’re great whitebait imitations.