4. Pilchard (Southeast, Gulf)
Florida's west coast anglers consider these reliable, abundant baits as standard livewell fillers.
Find/Catch: "We find them along the beaches; they get right up on the beach and move onto the [inshore] grass flats in four feet of water," says Captiva-based tarpon-tournament and charter captain Ozzie Fischer (Bayfischer Charters; 239-872-8515). During the winter, Fischer anchors and chums the grass flats with a mix of menhaden oil and fish meal. Once he sees baits, he throws a 10-foot net with 1/2-inch stretched mesh.
As the weather warms, anglers find pilchards dimpling the surface, so they won't need to chum. These baits will be smaller, though, he says. "By summer all the bigger shiners move out, and we go to a 1/4-inch mesh net. By fall we're back to the 1/2-inch mesh again."
Keep: Pilchards will remain frisky with clean water, plenty of room and careful handling. A 750 to 1,100 gph pump creates the critical water exchange. "I run a 24-foot Century with a 30-gallon round livewell that's designed for carrying pilchards," says Fischer. "It has to be round, or they don't do as well."
Fischer shies away from aeration or oxygenation systems, saying, "Too many bubbles take the slime off the baits. And oxygen makes them dry and stiff."
The biggest mistake anglers make is overcrowding the livewell. "You're better off with fewer baits that are in better shape," he says.
Rig/Deploy: Fischer likes pilchards at tournament time for redfish, snook and trout. Rigging is straightforward: He uses a Mustad Ultra Point live-bait hook run through the cartilage in the bait's nose. What is critical, he says, is to match the hook size - usually 4/0 or 5/0 - to the size of the bait. Anglers commonly opt for a larger hook because they have the quarry in mind, and that's a mistake.
Fischer sticks to spinning gear because it gives him better casting ability with the generally lightweight pilchards. To his 20-pound braid main line he attaches a 30- or 40-pound Yo-Zuri Hybrid fluorocarbon leader as a basic rig for redfish and snook. When tarpon fishing with larger baits over the grass flats, he kicks the main line up to 65-pound braid and the leader goes to 80-pound, tied to a 6/0 hook.
Against conventional practice, Fischer hesitates to chum heavily with live pilchards. "Birds have learned to follow the boats," he says, "and they spook the fish. I try not to chum too much. It can be a mistake."