It’s summertime, as if you hadn’t noticed, and in the summer many anglers like to use whitebait (aka greenbacks) as bait for redfish and snook. Summer also brings tarpon into Charlotte Harbor, and threadfin herring are a favorite bait for silver kings.
Although threadies can be caught using a sabiki rig, it’s tough to get small greenies on any hook, and sometimes threadfins will ignore a sabiki in tannin-stained water. To consistently catch these baits, you need to become familiar with throwing a castnet.
If you’ve been reading my column for a while, you’re probably aware that I’m a proponent of bait conservation. Some people have assumed that means I’m against using live bait or castnets. That’s absolutely not true.
What it means is that I’m against wasteful practices or killing more baitfish than necessary. It’s bait to you, but it’s food for everything else. Take what you need, and that’s all.
A castnet, if you’re not familiar with it, is a circular net made from monofilament or nylon and designed to be used by one person. The net is thrown from the shoulder over the fish to be caught. If done correctly, the net will open into a circle shape and then hit the water’s surface.
The outer rim of the net is weighted with lead and sinks faster than the center portion, forming a bell shape and trapping (hopefully) the fish within. The net is allowed to sink, usually to the bottom, before being retrieved to prevent the fish from escaping.
When the net hits the bottom, pull the net closed with short tugs. A lot of guys like to close the net with long, sharp jerks, but that allows more bait to escape because you’ll lift the open net right off the bottom. Short tugs close the net without pulling it off the sand.
There’s a lot of discussion about castnet brands and which one is best. Joyfish, Black Pearl, Betts and Calusa are all good nets that are popular in this area. I don’t believe there’s really much difference, so it comes down mostly to personal preference. If you’ve got fishing buddies who will let you throw their nets, do that. Experimentation is the best way to find out which net is right for you.
I can tell you that if you’re first learning to throw a net, get a cheap one. You need to build muscle memory to throw a net well, and you also need to learn to troubleshoot the inevitable tangles that are going to happen when you make your first attempts to toss a castnet. Pilings or rocks will eat an expensive net up just as quickly as they will a cheap one. Get a cheap net and ruin it, then graduate to a good one.
Most inexpensive nets are of the cone type, made of a single piece of material sewn into a cone shape. No matter how well you toss a cone net, it’s never going to open up fully. Costlier nets are generally of the panel type, which will open up pretty flat when correctly thrown. Panel nets are made of multiple pizza-slice-shaped pieces of material that are sewn together. Panel nets not only open up better but also tend to sink more evenly through the water, surrounding the baitfish better and capturing more in a single throw.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t catch bait in a cone net, at least most of the time. However, in a deep-water situation, cone nets close too quickly and are almost useless. If you want to catch bait in deeper water, you’ll need to invest in a panel net.
Because panel nets are made from multiple pieces of material that must be assembled, there is more labor involved in their production. There also more waste, since more material must be cut. That’s the main reason there’s such a gap in castnet prices, with no choices in the middle. You either get a cheap one or an expensive one.
Usually costlier nets also have more lead — 1 to 1.5 pounds of lead per foot of net diameter, versus a half-pound per foot on some cheaper models. But sometimes too much lead can be a problem, especially when throwing a small-mesh net in deeper water, because the net can close too fast.
Nets come in a variety of sizes. They’re labeled by radius size, which is one half of the diameter when the net is fully open. Nets from 3 to 12 feet are readily available, and some old-timers used to make nets even larger (14 feet is the maximum legal size now).
Small nets are intended for shallow water only, but big nets can be used in deep or shallow areas. A good general-purpose size would be 8 or 10 feet. If you’ll be throwing the net in water deeper than 6 feet, you want the biggest net you can handle.
Castnets also come in multiple mesh sizes. Larger mesh sinks faster, but small fish will swim through. Small mesh could catch anything, but sinks slower and bigger fish just swim out from underneath. A bait net normally has a 3/8-inch mesh, but most serious anglers will also have a 1/4-inch mesh net to avoid gilling the bait when they’re running a little small (as they are now). Gilled baits are difficult to remove from the net, and almost impossible to remove alive. A net full of gilled baits is called a Christmas tree. It’s not very festive.
Nets for big baitfish, like the threadfins that tarpon love, have a 1/2- or 5/8-inch mesh. Fast sinking is vital when you’re trying to catch these fast-swimming baits, especially in deep water. Nets are available with mesh as large as 1.25 inches, which is basically for mullet, tilapia and other larger fish.
As far as actually throwing a castnet, there are multiple different techniques. Basically, if the net fully expands when you throw it, you’re doing it right. Bigger nets are more challenging to throw. The best way to learn to throw a net is to watch someone else do it — preferably in person, although there are good how-to’s on DVD or on YouTube. Those can be challenging, though, unless you can set up a TV or computer in your backyard so you can practice.
Throwing on dry ground is no problem for the net, but don’t toss it onto rough surfaces like shell driveways or pavement. Also, be careful not to toss it onto sandspurs or a fire ant mound. Getting ready for another throw is tough when the ants are eating you alive.
To last as long as possible, a net must be maintained. Rinse your castnet off well with fresh water after each use. To avoid dry rot, keep the net in a bucket with a lid during periods of regular use. After the bait-catching season is over, dry the net well and store it in the lidded bucket at room temperature (not in the garage).
Because they’re made on nylon monofilament, castnets have memory which can cause the net to become distorted. To relax the mono, you can soak a dry net in a Palmolive or fabric softener solution (a few tablespoons in a 5-gallon bucket should be enough). Left overnight, the net will absorb enough juice to become more supple and lie better. This isn’t something you want to do every time you use the net, because it will weaken the material over time. Once or twice a year should be OK.
You can also try hanging the net from the horn and letting the lead stretch the net out. Be careful to remove any dead baits when you do this, or the fire ants will find them. Sometimes other creatures such as lizards or small snakes may also become entangled in a hanging net, so don’t leave it dangling for too long.
Although a castnet can be a real pain, it’s also a very useful tool for anglers who want to use live bait in the summer. Learning how to use one is another important step in becoming a well-rounded Southwest Florida angler.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing tips, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.