Pinfish have got to be one of the top live baits for use in Charlotte Harbor. Part of this is the fact that they’re everywhere: On the grassflats, under the piers, on the reefs — anywhere there’s a bit of cover. Every single tarpon, redfish, snook and grouper out there has eaten pinfish. Snapper and trout eat the smaller ones. Even pelagic open-water fish like cobia, blackfin tuna, kingfish and Spanish mackerel seem fond of them. I would go so far as to call them the other whitebait.
If pinfish got to be 5 pounds, nobody would ever go swimming in the Gulf again. Pinfish are like piranhas — when they’re in a feeding mode, they’re very aggressive. And they’re always hungry. Anyone who use shrimp for bait is well aware of their nipping and pecking attacks, which can leave you with a bare hook in a matter of moments. Many anglers using lures have been surprised to reel in hyper-aggressive pins, which will sometimes attack an artificial bait considerably larger than themselves. They’re just nasty little guys. Maybe it’s a Napoleon complex.
Fortunately for us, pinfish stay small. That’s another reason they make such good bait: The average pinfish, at about 3 to 5 inches, is just about bite-size for a good snook or red. Inshore, it’s rare to find pinfish longer than 8 inches, though they can top a pound in deeper water (on some of the Tampa Bay headboats, they call the big ones “rainbow porgies”).
Pinfish can be used live, dead or as cutbait. As live baits, they’re hardy both in the livewell and on the hook, and they’re fairly tolerant of fresh water. As dead baits, they have high appeal to all the same fish that eat them alive. Cut, they still seem to have plenty of charm to gamefish, despite not being particularly oily or bloody. Flounder are especially fond of pinfish chunks, and the heads seem particularly intriguing to snook for some reason.
To rig a live pinfish, you can use the “redfish candy” method: Using a jighead, skewer the baitfish through one side of the body and out the other. This works really well on smaller pins, especially if you pitch the bait up under the edge of the mangroves. Alternatively, you can put the hook sideways through the snout or just ahead of the dorsal fin. Through the nose is usually best, because pinfish are highly active baits and you’ll probably need to reel it in and recast it at least once.
Live pinfish can be tricky baits. Remember that these fish like cover, and that’s just what they’ll try to find. A pinfish that’s hiding in the grass or rubble isn’t a very good bait, because the target fish can’t find it. To keep your bait where it can be seen (and eaten), use a float or popping cork set shallow enough that the pinfish can’t reach the bottom.
One really nice thing about pinfish is that they’re not very hard to get. They can be easily chummed and castnetted on the flats, but even if you don’t throw a net they’re usually very willing to hit a small baited hook. They like shrimp, but cut squid is much tougher and stays on the hook a lot better. Even a bare sabiki rig will work sometimes (though you’ll fill the livewell faster if you put a bit of squid or Fish Bites on each hook). And since pinfish are found in lots of places, there are lots of places where you can go get bait.
If you find yourself using a lot of pinfish, you can invest in a pinfish trap. By law, a pinfish trap must not exceed 2 feet in any dimension, with a throat or entrance not exceeding 3 inches in height by 3/4 inch in width. The Key West type traps have a more convoluted entrance, which seems to keep pinfish in better, but they’re a bit more expensive that the standard plastic-coated wire traps that have a simple funnel entry.
Almost any bigger fish will eat a pinfish, but they’re not the only ones — you can eat pinfish, too. Though they may not be as tasty as a snapper, pinfish are certainly edible. Cleaning them is a lot like cleaning bluegill — lots of work for a little meat. The texture and flavor are a bit like grunts, only not as good.
Pinfish are closely related to sheepshead, which are one of the finest eating fish that swims, so it’s actually kind of a shame they don’t taste better. Then again, if you add enough Old Bay, who’s gonna notice? If you’re ever in need of easily caught protein, pinfish will get the job done.
Pinfish, like shrimp and greenbacks, are one of the standard baits used for many types of fishing in Southwest Florida. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have to have your favorite one in order to catch fish. Predators eat what swims by, so you don’t need to be any pickier than they are.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.