Other fishermen start their evening by cruising around dock lights and lit boat ramps, watching for the telltale "flitting" of small ballyhoo. Then they use fine-meshed dip nets or cast nets with 1/4-inch mesh to make bait.
"It's a lot of work, but those little 2- and 3-inch 'hoos are awesome bait," says Martinez. "I've seen some really big trout, real pigs, caught under the lights that way."
Martinez says that fishermen who are able to scoop up a few of these pint-size ballyhoo use them on traditional free-line rigs: a small hook (usually a #6 or #4 treble hook, although a #2 Flounder or Octopus-style hook won't damage deep-hooked fish as much), no leader, 10- to 12-pound mainline and a #2 split shot. If there are skipjack or redfish around the lights, then a short length of 20-pound fluorocarbon may be in order.
Savvy anglers don't cast directly at the trout they spot rolling in the light; rather, they use a trolling motor to maintain position on the perimeter of dock and pier lights and fish the shadows, where larger trout and snook lurk to ambush unsuspecting prey. (Besides, it's bad form to crowd pier and shore-bound fishermen.) The small split shot provides enough weight to get the bait below the surface but is still light enough to allow a natural presentation. When the line slowly comes tight, the angler lifts the rod tip and hooks up to an angry fish.
Larger ballyhoo, even the big horse ballyhoo (often colloquially referred to as "blackbacks") are staples among Texas flats fishermen. Hefty trout and redfish keep their figures by preferentially feeding on finfish such as pinfish, croaker, small grunts and ballyhoo. Vast schools of greenbacks collect over the long, lush grass flats of the Laguna Madre. These schools linger until they migrate out into the Gulf of Mexico after the first major cold front in November or December.
"I've seen trout chasing ballyhoo along grass lines early in the morning," says Capt. Mike Hart of Kingsville, Texas. "You can also see showers of them taking off in front of big herds of redfish. And the redfish are chasing them."
Fishing with ballyhoo doesn't involve much sophistication. A single-hook bottom rig with a 1-ounce bell sinker and a 3/0 Kahle-style or circle hook is perfect. Drift fishermen make long casts toward sand pockets as wind pushes the boat across the flat. As the boat moves closer to the bait, the angler reels in the slack line.
Longer rods and high-capacity reels fill the order for this sort of fishing. Seven to 7 1/2-foot rods such as the Castaway Rods XP3 7'6" Medium matched with a 4000-size spinning reel loaded with 10-pound mono or 8-pound-diameter braid is ideal. Large-capacity baitcasting reels such as the Ambassadeur 5600 C4 and the Shimano Curado 300 E series also work in this sort of application, although casting distance might not reach out as far as with spinning reels.
Skip to My 'Hoo
"Trout and redfish become very, very aggressive in late August and early September," says Martinez, "and that is when you can get them to hit a skipped ballyhoo."
Martinez takes a greenback, breaks off the bill and cuts off the rear third of the bait. He then pins the 'hoo onto the same 3/0 Khale hook that serves for drift fishing. He then works the bait as he would a topwater. The bait darts and skips like a fleeing ballyhoo, while the exposed meat leaves a scent trail that trout and redfish pick up and zero in on.
"I've seen big redfish come from a long way off to eat a skipped 'hoo," says Martinez. "When they take the bait, it sounds like a cherry bomb going off in the water."