Whitebait is the hottest thing going right now. It seems like every inshore fishermen is talking about: What they’re catching on it, where to find it, and just how great it is.
And there you are, wondering how you can get in on this deal. Let’s say you want to be a whitebaiter. You want to be just like the pros. OK, here’s how.
First, you need a big livewell. If yours only holds 10 or 20 gallons, rip it out. The serious whitebait guys will laugh at that. You want at least 50 gallons, and it needs to be rounded in shape. If it’s got corners, your bait will get crushed in those. Keep them swimming in a circle.
Your well needs lots of water exchange to keep your baits lively, but strong current is bad as it will weaken the baits. Wide inlets and outlets are the key to solving that problem. Aeration is also a good idea, since when you’re flats fishing you’ll often be in warm water. Warm water is lower in oxygen. Knowing when to pump outside water and when to just recirculate is often the difference between live and dead bait.
Now to find bait. This used to be easy: Drive up to where the baitfish gather in large numbers, throw the net a couple times and fill the well. Nowadays, whitebait is scarcer and more scattered — hence the tackle shop discussions of where to find it. Since all fishermen are liars (except you and me), you’re probably better off going in search yourself that relying on tips. Some good places to start: Hobb’s Point, Jug Creek Shoals, and between Alligator Creek and Cockroach Mound.
Of course, that bait’s not gonna catch itself. Early in the season, we see a lot of smaller whitebait. To catch them, you need a smaller mesh size. A quarter-inch mesh is good; anything larger and the baits get caught by the gills (aka a Christmas tree, aka you just killed all your baits). A 6- to 8-foot radius is usually big enough, though bigger is always better.
As they grow, they get faster and more wary. That quarter-inch net doesn’t sink fast enough, so you bump up to a 3/8-inch model. And a large radius is no longer an option. Whitebait will scoot out from under a smaller net too fast. A 10-foot net is sometimes too small, especially if the water is more than 3 feet deep. Better learn to throw a 12. Many die-hard whitebaiters own a half-dozen or more nets for use in different situations.
To corral the baitfish, you need chum. Back in the day, the recipe of choice was Kozy Kitten cat food or jack mackerel mixed with bread and tossed out. Now, all the cool kids use powdered chum (actually commercial tropical fish food). Some guys use it dry, others mix it with menhaden oil or secret ingredients. Either way, the goal is to get the whitebait feeding in a tight group. That’s when you toss the net.
Having loaded your well with as much bait as it can hold (to the point you can’t see the bottom for all the bait in there — that’s called “blacking out” the well), you’re now ready to find some fish. Got your chum bat? It’s a kid’s toy baseball bat with the end cut off.
Here’s the plan: Position the boat near a mangrove shoreline. When you see a spot that might hold fish — an overhang, a stump, a creek mouth — dip up a few baits and squeeze them hard enough to damage them but not so hard you kill them. These are live chum. Drop them into the chum bat and then sling them into your chosen spot.
If there are fish there, they’ll often come out to eat your live chummers. Now you can put a bait on a hook and cast it into the same area. Since the fish are already looking for food, the strike is usually quick. If the baits go uneaten, simply move on to the next spot. You can see how this style of fishing requires a lot of bait, which is why there’s so much focus on gathering as many as possible.
Now, let me explain why I don’t do any of this stuff, and why I think you’d be better off if you didn’t either.
This style of whitebait fishing was developed for a specific reason: To allow tourists who don’t know the first thing about fishing to have a Florida fishing experience. And it works — but mostly on young, stupid fish. Look at what the whitebait guides catch: Lots and lots of snook from 16 to 24 inches long, with an occasional bigger one tossed in. Redfish and trout are bycatch every now and then.
Those tourists never see the real work of locating and netting bait. They don’t have the headaches of trying to keep it alive. For them, it’s nothing but the fun part. But if you want to imitate what these guides do, you get the whole experience. Plan to start at 4 a.m. — sometimes you find bait fast, but don’t expect to.
And then there’s the massive waste of bait, which has been hard to find in most recent years. If you want to use whitebait, that’s fine. But catch what you need, and forget blacking out the well.
You should also skip the chummers, or at least keep them to a bare minimum. The weakest ones out of the well and your worn-out baits as you switch them should be plenty. Treat them like they’re shrimp and cost 35 cents apiece. You don’t see anyone tossing out handfuls of live shrimp as chum, do you?
By the way, shrimp are still fine bait in summer. Whitebait move in when it gets warm and leave when it gets chilly, but shrimp are here and feeding fish 365 days a year. Fish get burned out on whitebait sometimes and will often pounce greedily on a shrimp. Fried chicken is great, but if that was all you’d had for three weeks straight, you’d probably be about ready for a steak.
You can also use artificial lures. There are many good whitebait imitations. Live Target and MirrOlure make lures that look a lot like whitebait. Before we had those, soft plastic shad in the appropriate size range worked well. Before we had those, small silver spoons and white bucktails did a great job of faking out the fish. For the fly crowd (many of whom would kick their own grandmothers before using live bait), there are numerous whitebait-specific patterns, or a plain white streamer will do.
Whitebait is great for catching fish, but using it doesn’t make you a great fisherman. It can easily become a crutch. Witness the whitebait fiends in November, interrogating each other about their recent bait finds as they scratch themselves like crackheads: “You got any more of that whitebait?”
If you want to use whitebait, that’s fine. It’s a pain to get and a hassle to keep alive, but it does get fish to hit. Moderation is the key here. Don’t become reliant on it. Don’t use it as a shortcut. Keep using other methods as well, because when you can’t get whitebait, you’re going to still want to fish. A one-trick pony doesn’t have other options. You do.
As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just looking to refine your techniques, he can help you get past the frustration and start catching more fish. Lessons can be held on your boat, on local piers or even in your backyard. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.