"A large shrimp's rostrum is harder and sharper than a ballyhoo's," says Lingo. "Trout, reds and snook eat them all the time. A ballyhoo's bill is no trouble for a hungry trout."
Lingo does not believe that only game fish of the south Texas Gulf coast consistently feed on ballyhoo. It's reasonable to assume that ballyhoo are an important forage species wherever they are plentiful. "With the amount of overlap among the species' natural ranges, I'm sure these predators feed on them elsewhere."
Ballyhoo are most plentiful beginning in early spring, with young-of-the-year 'hoos recruiting into the biomass. These fry grow quickly and are fully recruited when they reach four to six inches long. These medium-sized halfbeaks inhabit grass flats, where they remain until they attain full size at 12 to 14 inches, when they move out passes and inlets and into the open Gulf.
Local anglers commonly refer to medium-sized ballyhoo as "greenbacks" or "trout candy." They rival live shrimp as the most popular natural bait along the south Texas coast. During peak season (April to September), bait shops such as White Sands Marina sell 60 to 80 bags of five ballyhoo each every week.
The young-of-the-year ballyhoo school around the lights of piers and docks, where predators attack them with abandon. Trout get so involved in tearing into these juvenile halfbeaks that they will eschew every other bait. I've fished pier lights on more than one early spring night and seen solid 2- to 4-pound trout rolling and chasing 'hoos under the lights, only to have them completely ignore traditional baits such as live shrimp and finger mullet. Even the ever- popular "Speck Rig," tandem jigs with night-glow plastic tails that have accounted for literally millions of speckled trout over the years, didn't warrant a second glance. It can create the sort of situation that leaves anglers talking to themselves.
"When that happens, the only thing you can do is try to catch some of those ballyhoo," says Martinez. "Some fishermen take fine-meshed nets and try to scoop a few for bait."