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January 30, 2013

Pilchard Power

How a Pro Uses Livies for Mixed-Bag Action at its Best Off Key West

Pilchard Pointers

A great tip for finding them: Watch pelicans’ behavior after diving. “If pelicans leave their heads in the water after they hit the surface, they’re usually after glass minnows,“ Trosset says. “But if they pull their heads right out after diving, they’re eating pilchards. Saves a lot of time idling over the flats.”

Trosset often will utilize a bit of current to anchor and chum them in with frozen block chum or cat food mixed with whole-wheat bread. “Wait until the pilchards get thick,” he says. “You won’t have to throw as many times to fill your well.”

With No. 6 or No. 8 sabikis, you can catch pilchards around markers or underwater structure (in a few feet of water or as deep as 120 feet).

Trosset points out that a good baitwell will have plenty of circular, uninterrupted water flow: “Mine run 1,600 gallons per hour. My 65-gallon well holds 50 pounds of small pilchards; my 50-gallon well will hold 40 pounds of small pilchards — a little more than a five-gallon bucketful.” With large pilchards, he doesn’t pack his well nearly as full because bigger baits are more prone to overcrowding.

At the end of a fishing day, if many pilchards remain in the well, Trosset will close things out with a flurry of live-bait ­chumming (usually producing a flurry of activity), because leftover well baits don’t hold up reliably overnight, even in a bait pen.

Skyrocketing Grouper


Think you’re good? Try catching a big red grouper on a Zebco push-button reel! Bob Bagby, with Fin-Nor and Quantum, proved his prowess.

Other live baits, such as ­threadfins, certainly will do a good job too. And whenever ballyhoo offer the opportunity (notably October into February; watch for frigate birds over the reef), Trosset is delighted to cast-net or sabiki as many as he can.

In fact, for Trosset, ballyhoo don’t take a back seat to any other live bait. All sorts of large predators come in to the shallow reef top to prey on them. “In the 1970s and ’80s,” he recalls, “you could see 40- and 50-pound black grouper skyrocketing under schools of ballyhoo!”

One of Trosset’s favorite techniques calls for throwing plugs deep into schools of ballyhoo as they crowd the surface. He favors floating minnow plugs with the lips removed. “If the ’hoos are showering, and you can throw a plug into the shower, something will smash those plugs every time,” he says.

Trosset also points out that you can usually get a pretty good idea of the predator du jour by watching the ballyhoos’ frightened reaction. “If they blow up and disperse randomly [in all directions], it’s likely that grouper, snapper and jacks are after ’em. But if they all streak out in one direction, you can figure it’s a pelagic, such as a sailfish.”

Of course, speaking of pelagics, if they’re your target, you can’t do better than a live speedo (as redtail scads are commonly known). Unlike pilchards, however, speedos are not particularly hardy, and they often don’t endure very long in livewells.

Rigs and Strategies

The top of the reef tends to get traffic from both sides; that’s one of the reasons it offers up so much variety. Accordingly, Trosset likes to take advantage of all the opportunities by fishing the entire water column — the upper part, he says, for mackerel, bar (and yellow) jacks, blackfin tuna and sailfish. Even wahoo and dolphin sometimes show up in 20 or 30 feet of water atop the reef edge.


This time, Bagby tested the drag of Quantum’s new Smoke baitcasters with a whopping kingfish that couldn’t pass up a flylined pilchard.

Trosset is a fan of free-drifting livies. For this, he favors nose-hooking pilchards (from the side) unless he wants the baits to swim down, in which case hooking through the belly is best. Trosset’s hooks of choice for this are 1/0 to 2/0 Wizard circles or 1/0 to 3/0 9175 Mustad circles.

pilchard rigHe recommends no drop-back for pilchards struck near the surface. “Leave the reel in gear, but don’t set the hook. Hold the rod tip toward the fish, and let the line come tight slowly,” as with any circle hook, he says.

To target grouper, snapper and other species typically inhabiting the lower part of the water column, Trosset favors a knocker rig — a half-ounce to 1½-ounce egg sinker rigged to slide on the leader with a 1/0 to 4/0 Wizard circle hook.

When non-toothy fish are the target, Trosset prefers 30- or 40-pound fluorocarbon leader. For kingfish or other mackerel, he’ll go with a 12- to 18-inch single-strand wire leader of 27- to 61-pound-test.

And keep a wire-straightener handy because single‑strand leaders tend to get a bit corkscrewed in use. “But,” the skipper advises, “don’t straighten a wire leader too many times, or it will get weak.” Before reaching that point, the leader should be replaced.

Trosset notes that there are plenty of times he leaves wire traces on; it isn’t always necessary to switch to fluorocarbon in hopes of catching blackfin or even sailfish. That is, if the fish are fired-up, a thin wire leader will not deter strikes. Trosset also prefers treble hooks when targeting mackerel, specifically No. 4 or No. 6 4X-strong VMCs.