by Jerry LaBella
This prompts you to wonder whether you spooked the fish, or was that the last of them? Those questions are soon squelched as you noticed the boat next to you pulling in trout as fast as their lines hit the water. Upon careful observation your crew finds they're using live bait. With all eyes fixed on the steady action, and realizing mutiny could break out at any moment, you decide it's best to leave the antagonizing scene.
Although it's an arguable matter whether live bait catches more fish than artificials, it's something to consider when the most successful guides won't leave the dock without it. This is because they realize that live bait attracts more, and bigger, fish, which in turn draws more customers.
As is generally known, specks have an assortment of marine life in their diet. But the age of the fish can dictate its preference, such as younger specks choosing shrimp, and the larger ones choosing bait fish. This, of course is a general rule. An example to the contrary is during spring when large trout infiltrate the coastal waters to waylay shrimp.
Adroit surf and bay anglers have often resorted to live minnows or shrimp to catch trout under three pounds. While on the other hand, live baitfish like croaker, mullet, pinfish and pogies are used to catch the larger, yellow-mouth trout up to 9 pounds in offshore waters.
Among the factors that discourage some anglers from using live bait are the lack
of availability, too time consuming to catch and the necessity for an aeration system. While these reasons may seem legitimate, benefits far out weigh the obstacles once you know the facts.
Basically there are four methods to obtain live bait, but obviously purchasing it from a bait shop is the simplest. Most find cocahoe minnows to be more readily available through vendors than live shrimp, at least in southeast Louisiana. And, mostly only where competition for patrons is high are you likely to find live shrimp offered at all.
Out of all baitfish, the cocahoe is most highly prized due to its stamina and effectiveness in catching fish. They can be easily caught with a minnow trap placed in a pond or marsh ditch. To lure the minnows into the trap many baits work well, but crushed crab or a can of dog food with holes punched into it is hard to beat. These minnows can also be caught at night with a long-handled bait net used along roadside ditches or launch areas.
Trawl nets are also used to catch various baits like croaker, pinfish, mullet, pogies and shrimp, but one must limit the trawling time to no more than 10-15 minutes or the bait may drown or become too damaged to keep alive. Often two 10-15 minute drags can yield enough bait for a whole day's trip, if the drags are made around the mouths of canals leading into main bodies of water.
A more convenient an hassle-free method to catch bait is with the use of a cast net. True it does take some practice to master, but once accomplished it can be very productive.
After learning to cast the net, the next thing to learn is where to cast. Along the Louisiana Gulf coast many dams, ditches and weirs leading from estuaries into salt and brackish water abound throughout. These are the places to focus in on for bait, especially during falling tides. Care must be exercised so as not to get snagged on any part of the dam structure or on any debris that might lie below. Casting in unsure areas has been the cause of many a damaged or lost net.
Much bait can also be caught during the night and early morning darkness where lights illuminate the water around camp sites, piers and launches. Sometimes one or two casts is all it takes in these areas to fill the well with a variety of baits.
One thing you want to be sure of is to catch or purchase enough bait for all aboard. Not having enough live bait can be almost as frustrating as not having it at all. It's good to figure about 30-40 baits per angler, per day when going after trout and reds.
After you have obtained the bait by whatever method, you will have to make sure they stay alive and frisky. This is where properly aerated bait well comes to play. Best suited for this are containers constructed without corners so the bait can swim smoothly along without crowding. Likewise, choose an aeration system that employs water circulation from outside and pumps that are not contained in the tank.
These factors are critical in that it will make the difference in how long the bait will survive. The importance of water temperature and freshly circulated outside water can't be overly emphasized. Tanks with built-in pumps naturally generate too much heat which rob the water of its retention to oxygenate, a factor detrimental to the bait. Also, live bait produces waste matter which is discharged into the water. If this is not alleviated through outside circulation the bait will be short lived as well.
Different baits are more susceptible to the variables than others. Pogies, for example, are great for catching all sorts of fish, but they are very delicate and difficult to keep alive. This is where the live bait system previously mentioned is best; and logically with anything that's "best", it's more expensive.
A less expensive alternative is the 12 volt air pump system with aeration ring. It too works very well on delicate baits. This type of system has an air pump that mounts outside the tank with a flexible air hose running to a large aeration ring located at the bottom of the bait well. The only thing you have to periodically do with this system is manually drain off water and add outside water with a bucket to clean out waste matter. This system works on the same principle used for indoor aquariums and is the simplest and best system for the frugal.
Some other factors to keep in mind to preserve the life of your bait are don't mix live shrimp with baitfish unless a separator is installed, don't dump ice in to the tank and always use a dip net.
Mixing live shrimp with bait fish is like putting a cat and dog in the same box, they are natural enemies. What happens is the shrimp will continuously stick the bait fish with their horn in this inescapable confinement as often as they make contact, eventually killing them.
To dump ice into a bait well and or retrieve the bait with your hand can also be an expensive mistake. Many forget that chlorine, human oils and salt, and sun lotions are chemicals that can be very poisonous to aquatic life. If you find a need to cool the water, add sealed containers of ice or frozen gel-packs.
Basically, there are two methods most often used when fishing for specks and reds or any panfish with live bait. The first method is in shallow water along reefs where various type corks are used to suspend the bait below the water. Corks such as weighted or non-weighted popping, clicking or sliding work well depending on what effect you want to achieve.
Clicking corks are particularly useful to simulate the fish-attracting sound of a jumping shrimp. One such cork is the Mansfield Mauler, constructed of a narrow floater with a metal rod with plastic beads on each end.
It was developed in Texas and has become popular throughout the Gulf coast due to its effectiveness. Other cork designs that work well are the plastic versions with internal metal beads for rattling. All are excellent when fishing live bait.
The other two corks, popping and sliding, have two different functions. The popping cork mimics a deep gulping sound of a fish hitting bait on the surface, simultaneously producing a water spray. This water spray gives the effect of fleeing baitfish on the surface.
The sliding cork is probably less popular than all the other corks, yet it is unique in that it allows baits to be suspended in unlimited depths while allowing ease of cast. This cork is designed with a hole through the center and is more of a bulky type floater than the others.
Rigging the sliding cork takes a little more effort than snapping a popping cork to the line. With the sliding cork, in sequence assembly is a must. First slide the plastic bead that comes with the cork up the fishing line followed by the cork. Next slide an egg sinker of appropriate weight (no less than 1 oz.) up the line and tie a no. 5 barrel swivel to the end of the line. After that, make a mono leader of 2 feet and tie one end to the swivel and the other to a hook. To set the depth you want to fish, simply tie a small piece of rubber band around the fishing line at any place above the bead and trim excess ends. After the cast is completed, it will be necessary to feed extra line out from the reel. This will allow the line to pass through the cork only until the rubber band and bead contact the cork, stopping the line at the preset depth.
When fishing larger live bait fish, use a Kahl Horizontal hook in the 2/0 -4/0 size, keeping in mind you want the bait to swim with less weight as possible while not sacrificing hooking efficiency. On smaller baitfish and live shrimp, use a no. 4 treble hook. Line in the 12-20 lb. test is sufficient with the hook tied directly to the line without any other hardware.
Placement of the hook in both shrimp and baitfish is important if you want them to stay alive and swim naturally. On bait fish, place the hook through the upper lip, passing it ahead of its eyes. Don't place the hook behind the eyes or through the eyes as this will kill the bait. In some cases if the baitfish is large, place the hook through its back, below the dorsal fin. On shrimp, place the hook behind the base of its horn.
When fishing offshore waters in deeper ranges, like around oil platforms, a second method is used to get the bait down to the bottom. This method is especially productive when fishing for large trout.
To make this rig tie a hook to an 18 inch piece of 20 lb. mono and on the opposite end tie a no. 5 barrel swivel. Slide an egg sinker up the fishing line, and tie the line to the swivel. Use only enough weight to get the line down. Too much weight or other unnecessary hardware along the line must be avoided or this will hinder the baits movement.
After making the cast, allow enough line to carry the bait down to the bottom. Once contact is made there, reel in line just enough to feel the weight. If after a few minutes no strike occurs, feed a little more line out from the reel so the bait has more room to swim. This will allow the bait more range to move off the bottom, possibly placing it in a more conspicuous area.
Like many professional guides, you too can increase your catch with the use of live bait - don't go fishing without it!