Got Bait?

The best way to catch fish is to offer them natural baits. Here's your primer on finding that bait -- and keeping it alive while you're fishing!

A live shrimp on a float rig is certainly the most commonly used natural bait and undoubtedly the most effective.
Photo by Capt. Spud Woodward.

Twenty-first century saltwater anglers have a staggering array of manmade choices for tempting their favorite quarry, but natural live bait is still hard to beat. In some situations, live bait is absolutely necessary. That's why the most successful anglers are those with the knowledge and equipment they need to catch bait and keep it alive.

Sometimes it's as simple as knowing where to purchase your bait of choice. Many marinas and tackle dealers keep supplies on hand during peak fishing seasons. In some areas, entrepreneurs set up floating bait pens convenient to boat ramps and marinas.

Availability and price depends on the bait in question, the area and the season. Usually, all it takes is a phone call to find out if you can buy your preferred live bait, or will have to catch your own.

When live bait can't be purchased, you'll need to know how to locate it -- and have the means to catch it.

Not surprisingly, most of the bait species used for inshore fishing are found in the exact same areas where you'd find inshore game fish -- namely, tidal creeks, grass flats and among mangroves. Likewise, the baits preferred for offshore fishing are generally found in open ocean waters -- free-swimming in the water column, or around submerged structure.

The methods used to catch salt-water baits are as varied as the baits themselves, ranging from cast nets to multi-hook bait-catching rigs. Regardless of the method, always check the state and federal laws for your area, since many bait-catching methods are regulated.

Once you've caught the baitfish, your next challenge is keeping them the alive and ready for action.

An effective baitwell does three things: provides life-sustaining oxygen, prevents the accumulation of lethal waste products and offers an environment to keep the bait calm and stress-free.

Most high-end saltwater-fishing boats have large flow-through or re-circulating baitwells. Quick-disconnect pumps and other user-friendly features allow for on-the-water repairs during fishing trips. Gone are the days of using an improvised rig of a trashcan, garden hose and bilge pump to keep precious menhaden alive.

Shore-based anglers or those fishing from boats without built-in baitwells rely on bucket-type bait keepers. They're also handy for transferring live bait from the commercial holding tank to the boat. Several manufacturers offer bait keepers and aerators that you can use to transform a conventional ice chest or other suitable container into a functional baitwell.

Overloading your baitwell is a recipe for disaster, especially when water temperatures are warm. A good rule of thumb is only a pound of bait per gallon of water in flow-through baitwells. In aerated baitwells, reduce the amount of bait per volume of water by half.

To cool the water in a re-circulating baitwell without changing the salinity, you can add ice in a sealed plastic bag. Be careful not to change the temperature too dramatically, or this can stress the bait and cause it to die.

Chemical additives are available that enhance water quality and reduce stress in fish, but be aware that they work only in re-circulating wells.

Anglers wanting to boost the performance of baitwells can also upgrade them with after-market gear like the oxygen-infusion system manufactured by Keep Alive Systems.

An oxygen-infusion system may seem frivolous to the weekend warrior, but not to any angler who has two dozen $10-apiece blue runners and thousands of dollars of potential tournament winnings on the line.

SHRIMP, MULLET & MUMMICHOGS
Throughout the Southeastern U.S., live shrimp rule. But mummichogs and mullet claim their share of redfish, spotted seatrout and other inshore brawlers.

Most bait is harvested from wild populations, so availability is controlled by both the life cycle of the animal and environmental conditions.

From July to December, bait-size shrimp are usually abundant in protected areas of estuaries and bays. The other six months of the year, shrimp availability can be unpredictable.

Finger-size mullet and mummichogs are usually abundant, except during the winter months.

If you opt to catch inshore shrimp and baitfish, you'll need a 3/8-inch-mesh monofilament cast net. This mesh size frees those shrimp too small for bait while retaining those of optimal size. Deluxe bait shrimp nets cost more than $100, but I caution you not to spend too much: Eventually you'll snag the net on submerged structure.

Instead of buying a high-dollar cast net, purchase two good-quality nets for the same price. That way, you'll always have a spare in the event you severely damage your primary net.

To catch mummichogs, you also have the option of using a small wire trap baited with fish heads, cat food or other scent-producing material.

Live shrimp, finger mullet and mummichogs don't require a flow-through baitwell, though they'll do fine in one as long as the water flow is moderate. If possible, keep mummichogs and mullet in a separate container from shrimp.

You can make built-in baitwells more crustacean-friendly by installing some plastic-mesh material that the shrimp can cling to. This is the principle behind the Shrimp and Crab Saver bucket-type bait keeper manufactured by Marine Metal Products.

The plastic mesh also works great for small crabs if they're legal as bait. Reaching into the baitwell and lifting a shrimp that's clinging to mesh is much easier than chasing one around with a dip net. Remove the mesh insert, and your baitwell will have more room for mullet and mummichogs.

MENHADEN
Each year, anglers spend thousands of hours in the pursuit of menhaden, also known as pogies. As a reward for their efforts, anglers experience jaw-dropping catches of king mackerel, tarpon, bull redfish, barracuda, snapper, grouper and a host of other rod-benders.

This delicate member of the herring family doesn't adapt

well to long-term captivity, so it's rare to find live menhaden for sale. On the positive side, menhaden are typically abundant and advertise their presence by leaping from the water -- a behavior called "flipping" or "popping" in angling jargon. So for success in the menhaden game, the keys are sharp eyes, skillful boat handling, ability to open a heavily weighted cast net of large diameter -- and patience.

While you may want to be frugal with your shrimp net, it pays to spend some extra dollars to get a custom menhaden net. Choose a 5/8-inch-mesh, 8- to 10-foot fast-sinking mode. If you expect to be chasing scattered larger menhaden, you'll need a 12- to 14-foot net. Standard weight for a menhaden net is 1 1/2 pounds per foot of radius.

High-quality menhaden nets feature round vinyl-coated weights that help the net sink fast and won't mark a boat's deck the way traditional lead weights do.

Once in captivity, menhaden are highly vulnerable to stress of any kind, be it crowding, water of poor quality, too much current, baitwells with corners, excessive handling and so on.

A 30- to 50-gallon-capacity circular baitwell connected to a pump that supplies a constant flow of 800 gallons of seawater per hour is the optimum design for keeping menhaden healthy.

The well should be configured with the supply outlet on the side near the bottom, a primary drain near the top, and a secondary drain in the bottom.

The aim is to have seawater entering the baitwell to create a gentle but steady current that circulates up the container before exiting at the top drain. The bottom drains allows heavier-than-water waste products to exit the well.

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