There's a visceral intrigue approaching giddiness each time an offshore angler drops a live baitfish to the bottom. Vulnerable forage restricted by a lead weight - this is gonna ring someone's dinner bell. True, livies will no doubt lead to a big rod doubled over.
But so will dead baits.
OK, tossing those flats of frozen sardines, Boston mackerel, menhaden or squid into the cooler isn't nearly as titillating as pursing a castnet full of baitfish into a livewell or shaking a set of baits off a gold hook "sabiki" rig. However, those deceased baits are much more than back-ups. In most cases, this should be your first choice.
For clarity, no one's suggesting we nix the live bait option. A frisky pinfish, pilchard or grunt can deliver the home run on that big grouper or sow snapper that's waiting for the right moment to feed.
Just consider these possible maritime maladies: You throw the castnet near your favorite piling and one of those phantom snags reaches up for a non-negotiable grasp. Turning to Plan B, you rig up a couple of Sabikis and on each load, marauding mackerel cut you off at the swivels.
Rough morning, huh? Well, say you run the gauntlet of fate and secure a day's supply of livies. Baitwells can fail, you know.
And even if you avoid such live bait frustrations, there are times when a breathing bait just isn't necessary - at least not initially. Take night fishing, for example. With the exception of full moon trips, visibility on offshore structures is minimal, so the flash and flutter of a live bait goes mostly unnoticed. Predators can detect the bait's frantic vibrations, but when you can't see very well, it's a lot harder to locate and catch a moving target than it is to find a smelly one that won't run from you.
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Experienced captains will vary their offerings with half of the crew fishing livies and the others dropping dead bait. The fish will usually let you know which they prefer on that particular day, and adjusting to the signals means more bent rods. That being said, the instant activity that dead baits generate among all the "reef rats" typically attracts the attention of larger fish.
Live baiters use longer leaders (four feet or more) to give baits room to dance. Dead baits need no such latitude. In fact, the more space you leave between hook and weight, the longer it takes for you to feel the often-subtle tugs. For optimal performance, keep dead bait leaders to three feet max.
Now, using an entire sardine or squid will certainly garner plenty of attention, but it's usually wasteful overkill. Better to cut dead baits into 3-inch chunks - this makes the bait last longer, plus it releases more scent into the water. With large offerings like Spanish sardines, at least rip off the tail so the bait doesn't "helicopter" on its descent and twist your line. For the hefty Boston mackerel (the ones with the tiger stripes), try fishing a flank of meat filleted from the backbone.
When prepping dead baits, it's best to cut them while they're at least partially frozen, as it's easier to slice a firm object, rather than a soft, mushy one. Also, a squid's top section is the toughest and therefore better to fish with. You can use the soft tentacles, but it's difficult to get them all arranged on the hook. Left to flutter in the current, tentacles give bait stealers too much easy leverage.
Of course, if you caught live baits and some or all have expired, don't hesitate to grant them posthumous duty. It's best to cut recently deceased baits to release more scent. With larger baits, you might even butterfly one or filet it and use a single flank. It's more about scent than sight, so the bloodier the better.
Again, no one's eschewing live baits or the attempt to capture it. However, dead baits can make your day more pleasant by reducing offshore stress when livies just don't happen. So on your next bottom-fishing excursion remember, dead heads are the life of the party.