Stuffing Your Face at Sea:
Episode 1, Take 2: Catching Bait Fish from your Boat
by Jaedin Always
2nd edition: Getting bait
Why yes, I do in fact realize that this is actually the first edition that I am publishing, but this is my article so I can label it as I please. To start off, aside from catching a single catfish in West Palm with a piece of canned corn, the pole from a deck brush, and a hook and fishing line from the handle of a survival knife, the sum total of my fishing at sea experience has been from us being trapped in Elizabeth Harbor for the past 8 months fishing largely out of boredom and desperation for protein, so I am likely not the foremost expert in this field. This is, however, my article, so I will say what I want and you will just need to take it with a grain or three of salt, or lemon pepper if you prefer.
Starting off you may have realized that throwing the empty end of your fishing line in the water is not yielding many trophy catches. After the first month or two I realized that this problem is greatly helped by attaching bait to the end of it, preferably with some form of hook like device.
While at anchor, you are essentially limited to three types of bait, bait that you chase down and catch by hand (clams, mantis shrimp, crabs, etc), bait that swims that you need a net or hook and line to catch (squid, baitfish, swimming shrimp, etc), and the ultimate cheat of bait that you went through the incredibly laborious task of going and buying it from the store (generally some frozen items from the last two categories, but can include people food of some sort).
The first type of bait, which we will collectively call bottom baits, consists of basically anything that you can reliably catch by hand or with a small hand net or container from the ocean floor under or near your boat, such as crabs, worms, clams and oysters, mantis or other bottom dwelling shrimp, and the occasional octopus, among others. The advantages to these types of bait are that it is almost always available, even on blank sand bottom, it can be simpler to acquire in a situation where baitfish are scarce or picky, it is generally much easier to keep alive than fish or squid, it requires little to no special gear, and it is the optimal bait type for a number of desired fish species such as some snapper and hogfish, while undesired fish species largely ignore these baits. The down sides to this type of bait is that it is nearly impossible to get without getting wet (wicked witch beware), it is almost exclusively composed of still fishing bait (can be an advantage if you prefer hands off fishing), and bait in this category usually targets a few specific species.
The simplest way to get bottom baits is to go where they live, the bottom. This can be as simple as wading in the shallows (wear some form of foot protection, you only need step on a cone shell once to know this), or it can involve a certain amount of diving experience to dive on a flat bottom or reef to get some of the less tidal shellfish species. When wading for bait, the easiest way to find a lot of bait is generally turning over rocks (do NOT use your hands) and snatching the creatures that come skittering out, the best rocks are the ones that would be submerged even at the lowest tide. Make sure to stand back to avoid the denizens of the rock attempting to seek shelter under your feet, and only tip the rock half way over, both to avoid killing the creatures living attached to the top and bottom of the rock, and to prevent the bait from simply hiding under the rock again while the sediment clears. It is advisable to use a small hand net such as an aquarium net to capture bigger crabs, worms, mantis shrimp (do NOT underestimate these, put one in a bucket with a few crabs for an hour and you will see why), and small octopi as they may sting or bite you.
Diving for bottom bait is a bit more difficult. I have found the key to being successful in this is to go in the evening or morning, between one and two hours before sunset or after sunrise, and to find a place plentiful in sea grass. You may be surprised how alive even a blank sand bottom gets at this time. You can generally get as much bait as you need at this time by simply hunting down creatures that wander the open sand and scooping them up, but for a more assured catch, and to get some of the more shy bait, you may need to scoop up or turn over rocks, clumps of loose grass, or other habitable bottom junk.
If you will be anchored in the same spot for a long period of time, I recommend creating a habitat of your own to accumulate bait for you over the course of a couple of days. My personal favorite is 10-20 palm fronds threaded together and tied to a diving weight using some light monofilament. To harvest these, simply dive down and scoop them up in a large mesh laundry bag in order to avoid the bait running away when you haul it to the surface. Once you have hauled your catch to your boat and finished picking the fronds over for your desired bait, either put the whole assembly back in the water to catch more bait, or detach the fronds from the line and throw them in the water to avoid killing the organisms that were too small to use as bait.
The second type of bait, which we will broadly label swimming baits, consists of anything that swims well over the bottom that is generally caught from the deck of a boat, a dock, or a dinghy. The advantages of these are that you can generally stay pretty dry and out of the water when catching it, it can cover a much broader range of target species, and it is usually far more viable for active fishing techniques such as trolling or casting. The downsides are that it can be difficult or impossible to catch at times, it is generally more capital intensive, with many species requiring a cast net or similar device for efficient capture, and in places it can tend to attract less desirable species (here in Elizabeth Harbor for instance, a live baitfish or squid fished from anchor almost always catches either a shark, barracuda, or horse eye jack before any more desirable fish species can happen upon it).
My personal favorite method of catching swimming baits, largely due to the minimal amount of active time required, is night lighting. This method is fairly self-explanatory, wait until it gets dark, and then shine a light in the water. This will attract microscopic plankton, which will in turn cause a chain reaction leading to an often violent example of the oceanic food chain including everything from tiny shrimp and glass minnows, to larger food fish such as jacks and snapper. Smaller shrimp and minnows can be dip netted or simply scooped up with a bucket, while larger fish and squid generally require use of a small bait quill, sabiki rig, or cast net to capture. If using a cast net, the trick is to shut off all lights just before casting, this eliminates the shadow cast by the net and the chance that the fish will see and run away from the sinking lead line. If using small bait jigs or flies, cast the jig outside of the range of the light and retrieve slowly, wiggling the rod tip as you reel. If you can catch a small shrimp, worm, or sometimes a small fish that comes to the light, put it on a small un-weighted live bait or circle hook and free-line it into the middle of the melee. Set the hook quickly once you see something engulf it because most baitfish that appear at night light displays have a habit of swallowing the hook, making de-hooking without killing the fish difficult or impossible. I have noticed that, while in a harbor or anchorage, bigger fish and squid tend to approach night lights early in the night, while smaller fish and shrimp tend to be the majority later in the night.
Another technique for finding mid to large sized baitfish is to look for “bait showers”, large schools of baitfish either feeding at the surface or chased to the surface by larger predators. These surface schools, usually seen in the mornings or evenings, are best fished by chasing them down in your dinghy and either throwing a cast net in the middle of the fray, or casting a small fly, baited hook, or sabiki rig in or near the school and retrieving quickly with short jerking twitches of the rod tip for the artificial lures.
Some more techniques for catching baitfish include the standard baited hook as for larger fish, small fish traps, use of a homemade or commercially produced multi-hook sabiki rig, or use of a cast net. The last two of which will be individually detailed in future posts. An additional type of bait that can be used to catch some smaller fish if you are desperate, are small land based animals such as grasshoppers, crickets, worms, caterpillars, etc. These are best used by putting them on a small un-weighted live bait or circle hook and letting them float on the surface. I have found that, surprisingly, a small live grasshopper is among the best baits that I have tried for inshore majoras or blue runners. Additionally the viscera, heads, and other discarded portions of food fish, lobster, shellfish, and squid can be put on a hook and used as bait. A good chunk of a fillet or steak works equally as well. Keep in mind, however, that large pieces of raw fish are particularly likely to draw sharks over other species.
Lastly, there is the kind of bait that you go to the store and buy. The most obvious item in this category is either live or frozen baits generally bought at the local bait shop or variety store. Try to find a local to consult on where to buy and what types to get. I have found that, at least here in the tropics, popular often available staples are frozen squid and live or frozen ballyhoo or mullet. Another option that I have found some success in has been getting a can of small octopus, shrimp, or squid (be sure to get the kind either in its own juices or brine) and using this as bait to get small to medium baitfish, canned corn also works well for this.
In my experience, at any given time, at least one of these techniques will yield some form of usable bait to aid in your fishing success. Also, this is by no means a comprehensive, detailed guide to every single bait catching method, this is just methods that I have found to be successful. Whatever means of acquisition or type of bait you choose, live bait will almost always enhance your success in any fishing venture. Go fourth and fish.