We’ve been getting a lot of questions in the shop lately from anglers who are new to fishing in this area. That’s pretty normal for this time of year, when a lot of folks are flocking here from the great Arctic wastelands north of the state line. So I thought it would be a good time to review some of our favorite natural baits and when to use them.
Since we don’t have unlimited space, I’ll focus on what you can find in our freezers. Most of the time, these baits are readily available – but since they are commercial fishing products, there are times when they might be out of stock for a week (or months).
WHY: This is the surefire bait – the nightcrawler of the Gulf of Mexico. Just about every fish out there will eat a shrimp.
WHERE: Since this is a catchall bait, you can use it anytime and anyplace. Use them inshore, offshore, on the beach, at the pier, whatever. Live shrimp are usually available, but frozen are more convenient because you don’t have to keep them alive. The only reason we use other baits at all is that shrimp are often stolen by smaller fish or because we get too much unintended bycatch in the form of catfish, stingrays, pinfish, etc.
HOW: A thawed shrimp’s head is probably going to fall off, so just break the shrimp apart and thread the meaty tail onto a hook or jighead.
WHY: Not as universal as shrimp, but crabs are a top food choice for black drum and redfish. They also will be eaten by grouper and snapper offshore.
WHERE: In the canals, around docks and bridge pilings or other structure black drum like. For redfish, pitch them under overhanging mangrove trees or around oyster bars and grassflat potholes. Offshore, just drop them down on a reef.
HOW: Since blue crabs are bottom species, fish them on a weighted rig to keep them on the sand. Larger crabs are best cut in half to make two baits.
WHY: Renowned for its natural rubbery toughness, squid is a top choice for fishermen who are tired of having their bait pilfered.
WHERE: More productive offshore, because that’s where the squid are most of the time. On the reefs, it catches grouper, snapper, porgies and grunts. We see some squid in the Harbor in winter, but mostly it’s a catfish and stingray bait inside.
HOW: For larger fish, whole small squid are fine. Just put the hook through the body (not the head) and drop it down. For smaller fish, cut rings (calimari-style) or chunks are excellent.
WHY: Smelly, oily and tougher than most other fish. Also a staple food for most local predatory fish.
WHERE: Primarily an inshore bait, since mullet are mostly found in the estuary. They can be used successfully in most circumstances and catch everything from mangrove snapper to sharks.
HOW: Mullet of any size can be fished whole, usually hooked through the lips like you would a live baitfish. Chop off the tail or partially fillet one side to get more fish smell into the water. A weighted rig is usually better, but a float or balloon can be used for tarpon or sharks. Cut chunks of mullet can also be used for redfish and other bottom feeders.
WHY: Like mullet, sardines are smelly fish and the scent is very attractive to fish-eating predators.
WHERE: Sardines are mainly offshore baitfish, so we mostly use them in the Gulf. However, scent-feeding inshore species like redfish also like them.
HOW: Whole or in chunks and usually on a weighted rig on or near the bottom. Around the reefs, they can also be free-lined or drifted under a float for cobia, kingfish and other pelagic hunters. Hook a whole sardine through the head. Using the body of a squid as a wrapper will help keep it on the hook better.
WHY: One of the main forage species in our inshore and nearshore waters.
WHERE: Since they might be found anywhere, they can be used anywhere.
HOW: Frozen whitebait are very soft and can be hard to keep on a hook. Brining (soaking overnight in ice and salt) toughens them up. If you don’t have the patience, double-hook whole baits (through the eyes and then back in the body) or cut into chunks and put two or three pieces on the hook.
WHY: It’s not a bait per se, but chum can be used to improve the bite for about any species.
WHERE: Any place you have current and water.
HOW: Frozen chum blocks are placed in a bag (some are pre-bagged), tied to a line and dropped in the water to thaw. Remember that the chum will flow with the current, so fish will be swimming upstream to follow the scent trail.
A lot of anglers get funny about frozen bait and will avoid using it. While it’s not the solution for every situation, frozen baits can be an amazing part of your fishing toolbox. Even when I plan to use live bait, I usually have frozen with me. Keep them on ice in the cooler and most can be refrozen once or twice if unused.
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.