- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
There is no question that fooling fish with artificial lures is challenging and fun. But when catching fish is the primary objective, there is no more dependable way than fishing with the real thing. The real thing is natural bait.
This may include shrimp, baitfish, crabs, oysters, or any number of organisms that fish might eat. However, the best baits are usually those that are normally part of a game fish’s diet. If Spanish mackerel are feeding on 3-inch glass minnows, it’s obvious what the best bait will be, but mackerel also eat live shrimp and any number of small baitfish. They usually won’t, however, eat a large crab or oyster fished on the bottom. The best way to figure out which bait to use for any game fish is to find out both what it eats and how it eats.
There are three basics to consider, no matter what fish is targeted or what kind of bait is used.
Matching Bait to Tackle
First, match the hook size to the size of the bait, the tackle that’s used (line weight, rod action, etc.), as well as the fish that are sought. A small shrimp or baitfish impaled on a large heavy hook makes the bait look unnatural, and it won’t fool many fish. If light tackle is used, a heavy hook will be difficult, if not impossible, to set past the barb. A light wire hook (1/0, #1, or #2), for example, is a good match for 6- to 12-pound line. The line will usually break long before the hook will fail. So, the lighter the line, the lighter the hook and vise versa.
Keep It Simple
Second, the less terminal tackle the better. Use only enough weight to get the job done. That means use the shortest and thinnest leader possible and the smallest hooks and swivels necessary. We have all seen tourists at the beach with a heavy rod, casting a virtual carpenter’s belt of rigging festooned with heavy weights, spreaders, leaders, and with big chunks of cut bait impaled on the multiple hooks. This rig is destined to sit on the bottom until a hapless catfish or shark happens by. A lighter rig is easier to fish with and usually more effective. Most game fish eat a variety of things, but they can still be discriminating in terms of size, motion, and presentation. And the more swivels, weights and line weight, the less natural a bait will appear.
Let It Slide
Third, nothing should interfere with the angler feeling the fish take the bait. In other words, terminal tackle should be rigged so that anytime a fish touches the bait, the angler feels it through the line. Some bottom fishing bait rigs consist of a heavy weight between the fish and the angler. If the weight is pinched onto or tied directly to the main line, when the fish pulls, it pulls against the weight instead of the rod tip. This usually results in stolen bait, especially when fishing for something like sheepshead. The best way to solve this problem is to use a weight that allows line to pass through with little or no resistance. When such a weight is used, the line will slide freely through it, which telegraphs the slightest movement of the bait to the angler. A small swivel is usually tied between the weight and the bait to prevent the weight from sliding too far up the line.
Choosing The Right Weight
The weights that are used can be of several different designs depending on the purpose. For most presentations, either a pyramid or barrel sinker will do the trick. Pyramid sinkers are designed to stay in one place where current or wave action is strong such as in the surf. Round or barrel sinkers are best used where the current is call or when bait movement is actually desirable. This includes spots such as in a pass or along a bank where the current carries the bait along in a natural motion. Another way to rig a weight is to attach it at the bottom of the rig. A short leader can be attached approximately 12 to 18 eighteen inches above the weight so that any motion of the bait pulls directly against the line. This is a good rig to use for flounder or whenever you want to keep the bait just off the bottom.
Tried and True Baits
Shrimp – Almost all saltwater game fish feed on shrimp at one time or another, and shrimp are a staple in the diet of many of them. Shrimp can be thought of as the “bread and butter” bait and can be rigged in a number of ways. They can be fished under a cork near the surface, with a weight on the bottom, or anywhere in between – even threaded onto a jighead. One important thing to remember about using live shrimp is to avoid hooking them through the small black spot in their head. This will instantly convert them to fresh dead shrimp, which is okay when you’re bottom fishing and the smell of fresh shrimp is more important than a natural appearance. But if you’re fishing a shrimp under a float or freelining without a float or weight, a natural movement is preferable. It is desirable to have the shrimp right side up with its legs moving rather than upside down and motionless.
Not all shrimp have to be alive to be good bait, but the fresher the better. Some dedicated surf anglers who fish with pieces of shrimp actually buy them live and cut them into pieces or purchase food shrimp from the grocery store to ensure they’re as fresh as possible. Small pieces of shrimp can be very effective for pompano, redfish and speckled trout, especially when used in the surf with multiple hooks. Cut shrimp can also be effective around oyster bars, creek mouths, and passes, especially when ground bits of shrimp are used as chum to put scent into the water.
Rigging Techniques. Shrimp can be hooked in any number of ways depending on how they are fished. Hooking through the head allows a secure attachment but bait stealers can easily eat the body and leave the head on the hook. Threading the hook from the tail toward the head, following the body contour, keeps the shrimp more secure and presents a natural appearance when fished on the bottom. Many flats anglers pinch off the flat portion of the tail before threading the shrimp, which keeps it from spinning and allows it to be cast better. A shrimp can also be rigged the same way on a jighead, which makes it even easier to cast. This technique is often used for sight casting to bonefish, permit, redfish and other inshore game fish.
Baitfish – The many baitfish species comprise the second most popular bait for saltwater fishing. Small baitfish are everywhere and, given the opportunity, almost every game fish will eat one. Some game fish are partial to particular baits at certain times of the year. For instance, redfish like to ambush finger mullet as they migrate out of the tidal creeks and rivers. Spanish mackerel slash through the schools of glass minnows that migrate along the coast. Tarpon, kingfish and lots of other game fish attack large schools of menhaden that gather in the spring and summer. Given the sheer number of baitfish in salt water, the best choice will be those that are available and prevalent in the area being fished. If it can be bought or caught nearby, it’s a good bet that game fish will eat it.
Live bait is always preferable over dead, but sometimes chumming can make the difference if live bait isn’t available. Some baits, such as glass minnows and threadfin herring, are difficult to keep alive for long. But as long as they are fresh, they can be cut or ground up into small pieces and tossed into the water. The scent will often create a feeding frenzy where the game fish will readily take a whole dead baitfish.
Rigging Techniques. The same basics apply to fishing with baitfish as shrimp or any other bait. Most live minnows are fished in one of three ways. They are fished under a float, freelined or fished on the bottom with a weight. In all cases, the hook size and weight is important to the natural appearance of the bait. When using delicate fish like glass minnows, herring, or sardines, lightweight hooks allow the fish to swim naturally. When fishing them under a float, they can be hooked through the back just in front of or behind the dorsal fin. This balances the fish and supports it, making it a good choice for still or slowly moving water. They can also be hooked underneath and just in front of the tail, which causes some baitfish to swim toward the bottom. Hooking through the nose or eyes is a better choice for areas where the bait is pulled through stronger current.
For short striking fish, such as kingfish, a second hook is attached to the first hook with a swivel and a short leader. This second hook is inserted near the anal vent. This covers the whole fish and helps ensure a hookup no matter where the bait is bitten. These same hooking techniques can also be used when freelining. Since no float is used and there is little or no weight, the bait should swim as naturally as possible. Fishing a baitfish on the bottom with a weight usually means hooking them through the lips or eye sockets. This allows the fish to face into any current and keeps them alive longer.
Two good ways to rig for fishing on the bottom are the same as for shrimp and other bait. One involves a barrel or pyramid sinker that slides above a swivel to which a leader is tied with a hook at the end. The other has the weight at the bottom and the hook and leader rides 12-to-18 inches above the weight. This works well to keep the baitfish from getting tangled in grass, rocks or debris on the bottom.
Other Baitfish – Of all the baitfish available to anglers, two of the hardiest are the common pinfish and the gulf killifish or “bull minnow.” While other minnows require elaborate livewells and constantly changed water, pinfish and bull minnows can live a surprisingly long time in a 5-gallon bucket of salt water. Both of these fish are easy to catch and can be used effectively for cobia, kingfish, Spanish mackerel, speckled trout, redfish, jack crevalle, flounder, grouper, snapper and lots of others.
Rigging Techniques. Most other baits that are used in saltwater can be rigged and fished the same way as shrimp. Cut bait, oysters, squid, and similar baits are offered up the same way. Their appeal is provided by scent not sight. A blob of bait looks pretty much like another except for the scent, which fish are quick to distinguish. Other baits such as fiddler and blue crabs are hooked through one corner of their shells. Sometimes the claws are removed, but this is usually more for the comfort of the angler than the fish. Crabs can be effectively fished under floats or freelined through passes and inlets for tarpon and redfish that readily slurp them up as if feeding from a conveyor belt in a cafeteria.
The only down side to fishing with natural bait is that it has to be caught or purchased before each outing, and it must always be maintained. This is time that anglers using artificial lures don’t have to spend and can use for fishing instead. But bait fishermen don’t have to spend endless amounts of time wondering if the color, size, shape, and action of their lure look like something a fish would eat. There is no doubt, bait is the real deal, and bait fishermen can spend more time looking for fish.