Whether you target king mackerel in a tournament series, catch snook or striped bass nearshore, or hunt tuna, bottomfish or billfish, live baits can give you a decided edge. Here are six dominant species from the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific with tips on finding, catching, keeping, rigging and deploying them.
1. Mullet (Southeast, Gulf)
Mullet stage a near-legendary migration along the southeast Florida coast every fall. As the big schools swim down the beach in September and October, they present a moving buffet line for tarpon, snook, jacks, bluefish, sharks and other predators. But mullet can be fished in other locations for a variety of species from sailfish, kingfish and amberjack to redfish and trout.
Find: Mullet can be found through-out coastal waters almost year-round; watch for mullet to launch themselves or for their telltale head wakes. During Florida's run, mullet are simply omnipresent along the beaches and common in the Intracoastal. Black (striped) mullet push through first, followed by silver (fantail) mullet, usually moving much faster.
Catch: Most anglers capture mullet with cast nets. Laws mandate maximum cast-net lengths in some areas, but a 6- to 8-foot net is all that's really needed. Use a 3/8-inch mesh net for finger mullet and a 1/2-inch or larger mesh for bigger bait, says Tom Greene, owner of Custom Rod & Reel in Lighthouse Point, Florida (www.antiquereels.com), and a local fishing legend.
Keep: Mullet are fairly easy to keep in a well with even minimal circulation, but the fresher the bait, the better, Greene says. In the '60s and '70s, anglers - most of whom fished off the beaches, piers and jetties - would snag mullet with a weighted treble hook then re-rig it to a single hook and cast it back to the schools.
Rig/Deploy: Depending on the size of the bait, Greene ties a 40- to 100-pound mono leader to his 30- to 80-pound braid main line after doubling the braid with a Bimini twist (see illustration).
He connects the doubled line to the leader using his own version of a no-name or Bristol knot. He runs the end of the mono into the loop in the doubled line and then wraps it four or five times over the doubled braid toward the Bimini. He then makes two or three wraps back toward the leader and passes the tag end through the loop in the doubled line so that it lies parallel to the incoming line.
Greene snells the leader to a 3/0 to 8/0 J hook, preferably one with a down-turned eye. Hook the bait toward the tail so that it swims away from the boat.
While many scenarios exist for fishing the run, if you fish from a boat, Greene suggests positioning the vessel ahead of the mullet. Cast a bait to the outside edge of the school to target tarpon, and free-swim a mullet beneath the school to attract snook, jacks and bluefish.