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February 27, 2009

Guess 'Hoo's Coming to Dinner

Gator trout and bull reds show a taste for "offshore" bait

Ballyhoo will rarely make an angler's list of selected baits for inshore predators such as speckled trout and redfish. The slender, silver baitfish is an offshore staple the world over, but inshore fishermen rely on shrimp, mullet, pinfish or a handful of other proven baits to put fish in the boat.

"Ballyhoo is a good bait all the time," says Capt. Jimmy Martinez. "Sometimes, it's the only bait that will work."

The local legend in Port Isabel and South Padre Island recalls that back in the early 1980s, local guide Capt. Roman Stockton was cast-netting for bait one morning but caught only  ballyhoo. In a fit of pique, Stockton put one of them on a hook and pitched it out. A 28-inch trout nailed it. After another 'hoo produced  another big trout, Stockton realized he was on to something.

"I had never heard of using ballyhoo inshore until I moved here from Florida," says Texas Parks and Wildlife's Lower Laguna Madre Ecosystem leader Mark Lingo, "but I heard that Stockton was one of the first people to use them for an inshore bait. I can't verify the truth of the story, but I do know that ballyhoo is a very, very popular bait for predatory species like speckled trout and redfish down here."

There are other reports of ballyhoo use for inshore fish from other parts of the Texas coast.

"I was fishing one of the short rigs out of Sabine Pass when I saw a man throwing a cast net," says Capt. Bill Watkins. "I asked the old guy what he was doing, and he said, 'catching ballyhoo.' I asked him what for, and he said he was going to catch himself a big trout. He netted three or four ballyhoo and rigged one up and dropped it right around the well legs. After a minute, he hauled up about a 5-pound trout. He did that a couple of more times. I couldn't believe it."

A Natural Bait
Lingo explains that ballyhoo makes sense as an effective trout and redfish bait. Hemiramphus brasiliensis and other halfbeaks are plentiful in shallow, grassy bays and estuaries such as Upper and Lower Laguna Madre, especially from spring to early fall. Their oily flesh is high in calories and protein, and their slender profile makes even larger ballyhoo easier to swallow than other forage species of similar size.

The ballyhoo's beak (or rostrum) does not seem to trouble a hungry predator. Trout and redfish are used to swallowing forage species that have spines, horns, claws or any combination thereof. The beak doesn't deter game fish from preying on a 'hoo.