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October 26, 2001

Net Results

Good cast nets don't come cheap. Here's how to pick the right one.

Bait catchers know that successful cast netting means catching the most live bait in the least amount of time, which in turn means more time fishing.
Capt. Larry Blue has been chartering boats on Tampa Bay waters for 15 years. Livies account for nearly all of his snook and grouper catches, and angler Ken Krohel notched a world-record 24.4-pound kingfish on 2-pound test aboard Blue's boat. "The primary reason we caught that fish is because of all the fresh, live chum we had netted," says Blue. "The additional oils and scent of the chum caused us to out-fish the many surrounding boats."
According to Capt. Lee Winton-Burnette of Sarasota, Florida, netting fresh bait is of the utmost importance, because even if you find bait stores that sell whitebait (scaled sardines), such fragile bait fish often die before you can fish with them. Instead, it's best to use the flats as your bait shop.
Another advantage of being handy with a cast net is its cost-effectiveness -- an investment that keeps on saving bait costs for years. With expertise in casting and the proper net under your belt, you will join the experts in catching fish when others without live bait fail.

Shopping for the Right Net
Talk to experts with years of cast-net experience to help determine if the net you're considering possesses all the correct specifications. "A net is certainly an investment," Blue says. "Even a cheap net is not cheap. Talk with some custom net builders and those at local tackle shops -- most are fishermen, and they know what works best."
For those on a tight budget or who fish mostly with artificials, a large investment for a net probably isn't cost-effective. But if you go too cheap, expect rot, tears and other problems over time.
A cheap net costs $30 to $75 and usually lacks quality materials and craftsmanship. Cheaper nets are usually single-knotted for each square, compromising the strength found in double-knotted nets. Single knots can shift and distort the shape of the square. A major criterion for deciding how much to spend on a net requires you to ask yourself how often you intend to use it. If a net is just something to keep on the boat for emergency live-bait uses, a moderately priced net will suffice.
"It's important to have a net that performs well -- full-spread when thrown, fast-sinking, and allowing a quick, smooth retrieve," says Roy Macdermott of Calusa Trading Company in Fort Myers, Florida. "If it's a high-performance net, you don't have to throw it as much because it performs better." Macdermott, a marine engineer by trade, says he started Calusa because he couldn't find a good net. His mission: to make a high-quality net that would throw flat and endure years of heavy use.
"Our net uses a copolymer nylon," says Macdermott. Copolymer line has a diameter slightly smaller than the industry standard 9-pound test, which in turn provides less mass, memory and resistance in the air and water.
Beyond material and shape, solid construction also means good knots. Anyone who's attended the major boat shows in Florida and elsewhere has probably seen Al Fernandez of West Coast Nets in Cape Coral, Florida, giving casting demonstrations. He says double knots protect the net and keep the holes consistent.
Fernandez makes his nets with monofilament of the highest grade and weight a net can handle without becoming too stiff. Standard mono line for all his nets is 9-pound test. "That's the largest test a net can be before getting too stiff to throw," says Fernandez. "Strength and flexibility are important factors in cast-net quality and durability. Multifilament (nylon) soaks up water so it weighs more and therefore sinks slower."
Because water gets trapped between the filaments, multifilament nets are also difficult to dry thoroughly, and some rot in a short time after frequent saltwater use. Also, these nets are more expensive to make and sell. Some 6-foot models can cost $180.
However, multifilament does have an advantage when targeting the tiniest baits like anchovies or glass minnows. Their flexibility and lack of memory helps these baits live longer -- most are used for live chumming -- because the nets don't injure the baits like mono tends to do.
Although West Coast and Calusa sit at the high end of the custom cast-net scene, other manufacturers make quality custom nets at more affordable prices. Wheeler Enterprises of Hilliard, Florida, began marketing a video over four years ago on how to throw a cast net. Owner Warren Wheeler eventually decided to sell nets along with the video and now carries all sorts of nets, from those designed to catch inshore baitfish like mullet and pilchards to a special class of heavier deep-water nets.
Wheeler says that when choosing a net, lay it flat on the ground and make sure it looks more like a pancake (flat) than a parachute (with a ballooned center), or hang a net in a tree from the horn and see if it will hang slender (no bulging). It should also be easy to wrap your fingers around the middle; otherwise, the net will never spread correctly when cast and you won't utilize the entire surface area.

Size and Weight Matter
In addition to cost and shape, net and mesh size represent important factors. Many people think that the bigger the net, the better. But you should keep the size of the net as small as you can, depending on where you target the bait. Fernandez says most shallow, inshore applications require nets that are 6 to 8 feet in diameter. In deeper water near outer reefs or deep sandbars, or in scattered-bait situations, he recommends 10- to 12-foot nets.
Nets usually top out at 12 to 14 feet, but be aware of state and even local laws. In Florida, for example, recent laws limit net size to 12 feet in diameter. In Texas, nets can stretch to only 7 feet, while North Carolina is the most lenient, allowing up to 16-foot nets.
Blue owns several custom nets. He says the difference between a bad net and a good one lies in the lead weights. "Any net will catch bait," he says. "A good net will have a great sink rate. Most production nets don't have enough lead to sink fast enough to get all the bait you want."
Optimum sink rates depend on the lead size and shape. Lead weights on cast nets come in a couple sizes and shapes. Most custom net makers use round (instead of egg-shaped) weights. Round weights offer the advantage of less water resistance, which in turn means faster sinking; the main disadvantage of round weights is that their spherical shape leaves more space between each lead -- not ideal for mullet, which like to burrow under the net. In this case, longer egg-shaped leads disperse weight better.
The standard weight for a net to be functional is a minimum of 1 pound per foot of radius, according to Fernandez. This works to depths of up to about 10 feet. In deeper water, increase the weight to a maximum of 1 1/2 pounds per foot; any heavier will cause a "mushroom effect," which keeps the net from staying spread throughout the water column. In deeper water, mushrooming caused by the heavier weights helps close the net just under the surface, but you must retrieve the net immediately after it hits the water.
Mesh size should be determined by the average size of the targeted bait. The most common mesh is 3/8-inch square and 3/4-inch stretch. Square mesh, the measurement of one side of a square, is an international term referred to as the "bar" mesh. Fernandez uses a baseball-diamond analogy and says one side would be like the distance between home and first base. Stretch mesh is the diagonal measurement from home to second base, which is measured in a completely closed (stretched) position. The smaller the mesh, the smaller the targeted bait. But remember the flip side: It also slows the sink rate. Larger mesh sizes help the net descend faster in deeper water due to less water resistance. The right cast net can be a great investment and will markedly improve your fishing success, especially in areas where live bait is abundant. Once you've picked a net, the easy part is over. The fun part is figuring out how to throw it.