The larger the net you can throw, the more effective you become at gathering bait. Net dimensions are usually expressed in terms of the radius or the distance from the horn, at the top, to the lead line at the bottom. A 6-foot net has a diameter of 12 feet and covers a surface area of 113 square feet. For each 2 feet a net gains in radius, the surface area it covers increases by nearly 50 percent. I like to think of it another way: Open a 14-foot net, and you'll catch everything from where you're standing to about 28 feet away from your boat.
That's not to say big nets loom as the be-all, end-all answer to your bait-catching needs. If you're targeting menhaden along the mid-Atlantic coast and you throw a 12-foot net, you might not be able to lift it into the boat when full. More diminutive nets also get the nod for throwing around barnacle-encrusted mangrove roots for finger mullet. In these situations, an accurately thrown, smaller net that opens to the maximum can be more effective than a larger one. If you can only afford one net, an 8-footer makes a good compromise. But if you're the Imelda Marcos of cast nets (like me), carry four or five different nets in the boat to cover any situation you could conceivably encounter.
Skirt Nets vs. Panel Nets
Manufacturers employ two types of construction patterns - skirt and panel - when making modern cast nets. Seen from above, an opened skirt net looks like it's made from a series of hoops, or skirts, sewn together. This type of construction is usually found in less-expensive nets. They feel bulkier in the hand when loaded to throw, and they also tend to bunch up when thrown, failing to open entirely flat.
Panel construction, on the other hand, is generally associated with higher-end production and custom-made cast nets. Viewed from above, the net resembles a pie constructed of five or six wedges or triangular panels. Such nets are less bulky, open easier and lay out on the water completely flat. Though more expensive, they are worth the extra money. There's no substitute for good tools in the hands of a professional, so don't scrimp on nets.
The hand line connects you to your investment, attached with a swivel to the brails, or purse strings. Hand lines are made from either braided polyrope (often bright yellow or green) or 1/8-inch twisted nylon. The latter seems to last longer, sheds water better and is easier on the hands during repeated pulling. Regardless of the material, hand lines usually have a small, braided loop in the end that allows the thrower to secure the rope around his wrist - not a very good idea.
A number of years ago, one of my father's friends lost a teenage son in Florida's Sebastian Inlet. He was throwing a cast net from the bow of their boat when it got hung on a rock. The tide dragged the boat out, and the young angler, unable to release the hand line, got pulled over the side. It took several tides before authorities could recover his body. Over the years, I've heard other stories of unsuspecting anglers ending up in the drink because their nets inadvertently landed on manatees (they aren't so slow-moving after all), porpoises or large sharks.
In the days before rampant product-liability lawsuits, my father devised a solution. A surfer, he came up with the idea to use a Velcro tether similar to the kind on the end of a surfboard leash. Thrown the net over something large and powerful that's bent on leaving the scene rapidly? No worries. Rip open the Velcro cuff, and you're free. Today, several manufacturers offer such cuffs on the ends of their hand lines; if your net doesn't have one, it's a good investment.
The horn, the plastic ring through which the brails and hand line run, acts as the main controlling point for the net when loading it to throw, pursing and releasing it to empty baits into the livewell. Generally, the larger the horn, the better. A large horn helps you work the net more effectively, avoiding tangles in the brail lines when loading, pursing and unloading.