A cool wind blew out of the northeast at about 15 knots, making it a fairly typical midwinter, post-cold-front day in the Florida Keys. Air temperatures dropped about 15 degrees, sending the pilchards scurrying off the flats surrounding Key West. As I motored the 28-foot Whitewater away from the forklift and toward my bait pen, I chuckled thinking about the other captains leaving the dock that morning. Although the radical change in weather wouldn't affect the offshore action, it would make procuring enough live bait to entice the blackfin tuna, sailfish and other pelagics nearly impossible.
Not so for me and a small group of guides. In the days leading up to the cold front, when the pilchards were plentiful and easy to net, we'd stockpiled and fed them in a large PVC-and-plastic-hardware-cloth pen, saving them for just such an occasion. At 8 feet wide and 4 feet deep, the cage held enough bait for several boats to work until the weather settled and we could restock.
You don't have to be a commercial charter captain or a professional tournament angler, though, to benefit from
penning and keeping bait. Even weekend fisherman can reap the rewards. Going sailfishing? Why not put up some threadfin herring and goggle-eyes during the week? Want to go bottomfishing? Put out a couple of pinfish traps and bring 'em back to the pen for an early getaway on Saturday morning. With some of these pointers, you can stockpile baits like a pro for as long as several months at a time, whether for tournaments or for casual weekend outings.
For our purposes, we'll focus on some of the heartiest baitfish of the Atlantic and Gulf suitable for long-term storage: pilchards (scaled sardines), herring, blue runners, goggle-eyes, cigar minnows and pinfish. With a selection like that, there are very few inshore or offshore species you can't tackle.
Capt. Rusty Albury (305-664-1296) guides on the flats and offshore, out of
Islamorada, Florida. When not live-baiting the channels of the upper Keys for tarpon or poling the flats for permit and bonefish, he and the members of Team Crew From Hell may be found aboard the 40-foot Gamefisher Circe, fishing the tournament circuit throughout the Keys and the Bahamas.
"Depending on our target species, we'll keep the whole gamut of baitfish," says Albury. "But the most important thing you need to know is this: Don't mix baits. If you're going to keep two or more species, you'd better have two or more cages."
Albury says that in a pinch, similar baits - say, threadfin herring and large pilchards - will do well together in captivity. Start mixing them with pinfish or blue runners, though, and you're looking for trouble. "The more aggressive baitfish, like these, will run more docile baits all over the place, bouncing them off the sides of the cage and causing them to injure themselves, often leading to damage or infection," Albury says. "Pinfish are generally the worst, as they will pick at just about anything and can ravage a large supply of baits in a relatively short time."
The Numbers Game
Once you've determined the type of baitfish you want to target, consider the methods of capture en masse. The most efficient way to take pilchards, sardines and other members of the herring family is cast-netting. But nets can take a toll on many of the baits collected, knocking off scales and protective slime.
The difference can easily be seen when comparing net baits with hook-and-line-caught baits. It is possible, however, to overcome netting's negative effects, according to Capt. Robert Trosset III (305-797-5693), the eldest son of famed Key West captain R.T. Trosset. Robert bought two boats and paid for a portion of his college education by providing baitfish for tournament and weekend anglers throughout the lower Keys. That business depends on stockpiling different species of bait.
"When cast-netting baits for long-term storage, it's important to go catch baits specifically for that purpose," says the younger Trosset. "In other words, go out, catch them and bring them right back to the pen. Don't keep them in the well all day, bouncing around while you're fishing offshore. Reducing the amount of time the baits are in the livewell, getting them into the pen as quickly as possible, reduces the amount of stress on them. The sooner you get them acclimated to the pen, the sooner they'll begin recovering and start the healing process. If you keep them in the well and fish all day long, few if any will survive."
Sabiki rigs often prove the best method of capture for long-term penning of threadfin herring, cigar minnows, goggle-eyes and blue runners. Although these rigs often feature six or more hooks, Trosset cuts them down to a maximum of three per rig.
"Decreasing the number of hooks allows you to stretch the sabikis further when making bait," he says. "It may take a little longer to gather bait, but it's much more organized and manageable."
Cage Design and Location
According to south Florida captain Rob Hammer (305-321-1473), it's the little things that matter when designing or purchasing a bait pen. Hammer, one of the original partners with Capt. Ray Rosher (305-992-4130) in R&R Tackle, helped design the company's popular line of bait cages for tournament anglers.
First consider size. "Herring andblue runners obviously require more space than pinfish," Hammer says, "so you have to decide what you are keeping and select the pen accordingly. The most important feature is rounded corners. A totally round cage is probably the best design, but we designed ours in an oval shape so that it would lay up against the seawall or boat hull in a current. Round cages tend to grab the current too much, while the oval shape is a little more streamlined."
Next, determine how you want the cage to float. Hammer prefers a lower float position, because it puts some space between the top of the cage and the water. This prevents small herons or gulls from trying to catch the baits, which can result in injuries and eventually dead baits. "Most people put their floats flush with the top of the cage, either on the inside or outside," Hammer says. "But there are a couple of problems with that. I like to put the floats on the outside so they can act as a buffer between the cage and the boat hull when adding or removing baits. I also like to place them several inches below the top of the cage."
Another consideration is the mesh size of the wall material. "Ideally, it's best to go with the largest mesh size possible while not allowing the bait to escape," says Hammer. He prefers 3¼4-inch-square mesh, which is large enough to deter the growth of algae. "When people get lazy and don't clean the cages and the algae begins to span the mesh gaps, it can start to cause some serious problems for the baitfish," he says. "It restricts the water flow and oxygen level and also concentrates heat, resulting in more stress for the baits."
Pick a location for your cage that offers a high volume of water flow with low pressure. Usually the ends of finger piers around docks provide a good starting point. The water must flow but not so much that it will tire the baits and cause fatigue, which leads to lowered resistance and possible infection.
You've got the cage, you've picked a spot for it and you've gingerly transferred your baits into it. What's next? Feeding time.
Most baitfish have a fairly high metabolism and require a lot of food to keep moving and regenerating scales and protective slime damaged during capture.
Let the baits acclimate to the cage for about four or five hours, then gradually introduce food to them. Once they start to eat, there's no looking back.
"When we first experimented with pilchards, we started feeding them and couldn't believe the results," says Albury. "Once you get them to feed, they begin to redevelop their slime, and they turn black. They get stronger and stronger to the point that you have a hard time catching them with the dip net."
The same is true for most other baits. Albury prefers high-protein foods for pilchards and herring, including seafood flavors of cat food and canned jack mackerel. He'll splat one or two spoonfuls on the top of the cage, allowing it to drip down into the water and disperse. Frozen block chum works as well, and small chunks can be placed atop the cage and allowed to melt.
Trosset does the same for runners, goggle-eyes, cigar minnows and pinfish, offering them small bits of squid or shrimp after allowing them to acclimate for several hours. "I like to base the size of chunks on the size of their mouths," Trosset says. "Use about the size that you would tip a sabiki with while catching whatever type of baitfish it is. Take the time to make sure they're eating. If they don't start right away, give them more time to acclimate and try again in a couple of hours."
Properly acclimated and fed, pilchards can last as long as a month, while blue runners, goggle-eyes and cigar minnows can last for two months or more. Pinfish, according to Trosset, are on automatic pilot and will last as long as you provide food for them. You can tell you're not feeding the pinfish enough when they start nipping at each other's fins, which results in ulcerations and infections.
If you leave a cage in the water for an extended period of time, you must maintain it. Baits will die, and while it's nice to be able to remove them immediately, that's sometimes impossible. "Depending on the size of the pen, I like to keep a couple of legal-sized lane snapper or porkfish in the cage," Trosset says. "They're timid enough in nature that they're not going to mess with the other baits, but they've got a big enough appetite to dispose of dead baits when you can't get to them."
Whether competing for $100,000 in The World Sailfish Championship or heading out to the wrecks or reefs for a day of bottomfishing for snapper and grouper, these tips will help you catch and keep your bait so you can be prepared.
Trust me: If you take care of your baits, they'll take care of everything else