Southwest Florida anglers have a love-hate relationship with pinfish. On the one hand, when they’re pecking apart the shrimp that we’re soaking under the bushes, we tend to cuss them. And yet, they’re also one of our favorite baits — especially at certain times of the year, like right now.
Pinfish (and, for the purposes of this column, I’m lumping together similar species such as sea bream, pigfish and spottail pinfish) are a year-round food source for predators in our estuary and on the reefs. They’re abundant in a wide variety of habitats from the canals to offshore.
Their ubiquity makes them one of the most important forage species we have, which in turn makes them one of the most important bait species. We use them to catch everything from trout to tarpon inshore and from grouper to kingfish out in the Gulf. They work because everything eats them, despite their sharp and spiny dorsal fins.
In the fall, everything eats them even more. The whitebait (or pilchards, or greenbacks, or scaled sardines, or whatever else you want to call them) are leaving for the winter — which is fine, because our fish need to pack on a little fat to survive the hungry season or for migration energy, and pinfish have denser meat and denser bone – better for building up fat reserves. Whitebait are good for quick energy, but pinfish are what you want for bulking up.
Conveniently for famished predators, this is also the time of year when the little pinfish that were around all summer have gotten to the size to be worth hunting down. A pinner about the size of your palm (minus the fingers) makes a reasonably substantial meal for a 5- to 10-pound fish.
So anglers targeting redfish and snook are often better off switching to pinfish when October rolls around. Many trout fishermen will stick with shrimp, which will still catch fish — but those who want to focus on bigger trout will be better served with pinfish. As trout grow, their diet includes a higher percentage of fish, so bigger ones are less commonly caught on shrimp.
Offshore fishermen find the same thing about mangrove snapper. When you’re on a reef and catching 10- and 12-inch snapper on shrimp or squid, small but lively pinfish can be the key to getting those 14- and 16-inch mangs to bite. Yes, you might have to sort through more undersize grouper. Cry me a river, bud.
Now, the big question: How are you going to acquire these pinfish? You can buy them, or you can catch them yourself. Buying them is the easy way out, but it doesn’t always work. Pinfish are a little more challenging than shrimp for the bait dealers to catch, so they’re not always available. There are many days we order pinfish at the shop but get none delivered, or only part of the order.
Pinfish are also harder to keep than shrimp. They are aggressive with each other and tend to bite fins and scales off. They have to be fed, so they make the water dirty. They produce huge amounts of waste compared to shrimp, so they can’t be crowded as densely. For all these reasons, pinfish are not as reliably available at your local bait and tackle shop.
Fortunately, catching your own is usually not too hard. As those who have been bait-pecked already know, they like shrimp a lot. They’ll also readily eat squid, Gulp baits (when Gulp was being developed, they actually used pinfish as their finny pigs), and various other things such as hot dogs, raw bacon and Fish Bites.
Since these guys are small, they have small mouths. Therefore, you’ll need small hooks. Long-shanked models make it a bit easier to unhook your baits quickly, which is key to keeping them frisky. Pinfish prefer to eat at or near the bottom, so add a splitshot weight to keep your baits down.
In inshore areas, such as canal docks, shallow bridge pilings and seawalls, single hooks are best so you don’t get tangled on oysters or barnacles. In the Gulf, sabiki rigs can be used to catch multiple baits at once. Just be careful — it’s shockingly easy to get those hooks buried in your clothing or skin.
For those living on the water, pinfish traps are a good solution. Just be sure to keep it legal (see http://bit.ly/2C2VjQv for requirements), and check it often so you can release any unwanted fish. Sometimes you’ll catch things like baby redfish or Goliath grouper, and there’s no need to hold them trapped too long.
However you get them, keep them alive in a large, well-aerated container for best results. If any die, get them on ice. They make good cutbait fresh and are even OK frozen.
As with most baitfish, there are lots of ways to rig them. If I want the bait to live longer, I usually hook them through the snout (in one side and out the other; don’t pin the mouth shut). Alternatively, you can hook the bait in the body near the base of the anal fin, which will make it tend to swim up. If the pinfish wants to hide in the grass or rocks, use a float to keep it higher in the water column.
For fishing along mangroves, I sometimes use the “redfish candy” rig. Skewer your bait on a jighead right through the middle of the body. Its lifespan is greatly reduced, but that often doesn’t matter because it makes such a ruckus it gets eaten quickly.
No matter how you fish them or what you’re trying to catch, pinfish are an excellent bait that every Southwest Florida angler ought to know how to use. And always be careful handling them — those fin spines are sharp, and they earned their name.
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.