During the winter and spring, shrimp are the most popular bait for Southwest Florida saltwater anglers. Shrimp are plentiful and large at that time, and it makes good sense for fishermen to utilize them because there are lots of fish focused on eating them.
By early summer, things have changed dramatically. By June, most of the adult shrimp have moved offshore into the deeper waters of the Gulf. When they’re in deep water, shrimp can still be caught for food, but keeping them alive for bait is next to impossible (they get the bends when brought up from deep water, just like human divers do, and it causes them to die).
Here’s something a lot of fishermen never even think about: Even if those big shrimp could be collected live, they wouldn’t the best summer bait. The fish are focused on eating other things this time of year.
There are still some shrimp in shallow water, but very few are big. Instead, we see last year’s babies, which are about 2 inches long. Fish don’t mind eating tiny shrimp, though if you want to use them for bait you’ll need to choose smaller hooks.
The main challenge with little shrimp isn’t getting big fish to eat them — after all, a 200-pound guy will eat a Skittle, won’t he? The hard part is casting them, because they weight just about nothing. A weighted float is the best solution, and you can add splitshot sinkers if you need even more weight.
But even small shrimp are often hard to come by. Here at Fishin’ Frank’s, it’s common for us to get only half the shrimp we order in summer — and sometimes a lot less than that. At some point, there’s a very good chance you’re going to walk into the bait shop and hear these dreaded words: “Sorry, we don’t have any shrimp.”
When this happens, it’s important that you not panic. It’s also good to remember it’s not the poor shrimp dipper’s fault that there aren’t any, so taking it out on her is not only mean but also pointless. Trust me, yelling at the staff is not going to get them to say, “Well, OK, since you’re upset, we’ll break into the secret stash and get you a couple dozen.” There is no secret stash — not for you, not for the charter captains, not for our own mothers. When we’re out of shrimp, we’re out.
If there are no live shrimp, frozen shrimp are probably available, and they actually work. Snook are the only fish that seem to show a real preference for live over frozen shrimp, and even they often eat frozen shrimp on hot days when they feel lazy. Really, the only problem with fresh frozen shrimp is their poor swimming ability).
Notice I said fresh. Shrimp that have been freezer-burned or thawed and refrozen make lousy bait. Refuse shrimp that are very dark or fluorescent orange in color — they’ve been compromised. A little pink is no problem.
Another thing with frozen shrimp: If you expect them to stay fresh, keep them cold. The water’s warm, and a frozen-solid shrimp will thaw in less than a minute. Store your bag of shrimp in the cooler, not in your pocket or on the deck.
Once they’re fully thawed and starting to rot, shrimp that have been frozen have a tendency to fall apart. Hooking them through the tail instead of the head is a good plan — if the tail flies off when you cast, there’s not much reason for the fish to bite your hook.
Of course, semi-rotted shrimp have their use. Redfish will often pounce on disgusting-smelling shrimp, so leaving them out in the sun for an hour or 10 can actually help when you’re targeting reds.
What if — horror of horrors! — there are no frozen shrimp? Panic? Nah. Frozen baitfish are almost always available and work well for most inshore and offshore gamefish. As with frozen shrimp, keeping the baits cold is a good idea. Frozen sardines and ladyfish tend to fall off the hook because they’re oily. Of course, that tendency to fall apart in the water also works to your benefit — you’re chumming while your fishing.
You can easily toughen up your baits with rock salt. Put a layer of ice in the bottom of a cooler and lay your baits on top, then add a liberal coating of rock salt. Let the baits soak up the salt for at least four hours (overnight is even better). Not only will your baits be much tougher, they’ll also have a delightfully salty taste that certain fish (especially grouper) seem to dig.
We’ll expect to see our baby shrimp growing over the summer. By late August or September, they should be noticeably larger, and come October, you should be able to walk into your favorite bait emporium and order a couple dozen handpicks with a reasonable expectation that they’ll have some for you.
But in the meantime, a lack of shrimp doesn’t mean you have to give up fishing. It just means you’ll have to expand your horizons, and that’s far from a bad thing.
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.