SALTWATER BAIT FISHING 101
Understanding Bait Types, Rigs And Techniques To Catch More Fish
LET’S DIVE IN…
If there’s one debate that’s been raging since humanity first figured out how to fish, it’s bait fishing versus lures. Everybody has an opinion on the matter one way or the other (I prefer something a little more active than just waiting for my rod tip to bend in half, for example), and if you were to ask every angler you knew about the topic, you’d get a different answer, explanation and reason from each person. It’s almost as personal a choice as the kind of underwear you prefer.
Regardless of where you stand on the matter, it’s pretty hard to deny that using something that either used to be alive or still is, is usually way more effective than using a piece of metal that flashes, spins, makes noises or has plastic wrapped on it, which is why you’ll sometimes see the diehard lure guys tipping their hooks with a chunk of something. The smell that gets put out there when using bait, combined with the right techniques go a long way to bringing those trophy fish close enough to your rig to get a bite out of them.
Like a lot of things, getting started in bait fishing can be a daunting task. For every species of fish there’s a different tactic or bait that works best and a hundred variations of how to fish them, depending on who you’re talking to. It’s not as bad as you’d think, though, and after reading through this simple Bait Fishing 101 guide, you can be out on the water successfully using ballyhoo to land mahi mahi before you can say the word chum.
UNDERSTANDING GENERAL BAIT TYPES
When it comes to bait fishing, there are two different kinds of bait you have at your disposal, not counting artificial power baits. Those options are either live bait or dead bait. Pretty straightforward, right? Well, the tricky part is figuring out when to use which or, more importantly, which is actually more effective.
When it comes to figuring out whether live bait or dead bait is more effective when you’re bait fishing, the answer, really, is that it depends on what kind of fish you’re targeting. As we’ll get into a bit later on, every fish has their own set of preferences. Some really like it when their target is flailing all over the place and causing a commotion, while other species are pretty content to just swim by and gobble up something hanging limp in the water. Of course, having said that, it’s also a matter of technique, like it always is when you’re fishing. Alive or dead, if your technique is off, it can have a negative effect on your catch rate.
The nice thing about using live bait when you’re bait fishing is that you get all that movement. Not only do you get movement, but you get the movement of wounded prey, something few predators can resist. We’ve all heard that it’s always the wounded or the sick that gets picked off first by animals when they’re targeting a herd (or school or flock) of animals – think wolves targeting deer – and when you rig up live bait, you’re essentially attaching a little wounded fish to your hook. Partially wounded by the fact that it’s been put on your hook, and partially wounded because of how you put it on there.
Fish come equipped with sensors along their lateral lines–the usually visible line that runs down the side of fish–that help them pick up vibration and movement in the water. Wounded fish move in a particular way that fish can sense with this lateral line and, when you’re bait fishing with live bait, the fish you’re using as bait also moves that way. This movement is usually anything from a panicky, quick thrashing to stopping a bit short on one side while moving its tail.
Whatever your bait is doing will draw in any hungry fish that might be nearby. Another advantage to using live bait is that you can usually catch it yourself. This is great because not only are you going to be saving money, but you’ll have a really solid understanding of what kind of fish are in the area you’re looking to fish and you may even be able to figure out what predators might be targeting those fish. You’ll end up with a great sense of what rigs or tactics are going to be the most productive.
Dead bait is always a good thing to have around when you’re bait fishing. It’s usually easy to find, you can mix and match the kind of bait you’re hoping to use, meaning you’re not limited to what you can find in the water around you, and you can even buy it pre-rigged, which saves a ton of time out on the water. There’s also the added advantage of decaying and thawing out as you’re using it. The bait will start leaking blood into the water and the smell of meat, which means as you’re trolling along you’re going to be leaving a long scented trail for hungry predators to hone in on.
One of the key things to pay attention to when you’re trolling dead bait is the movement of the fish through the water. Ideally, your bait is going to move similar to how it would if it were alive. You can test out this motion by dropping your rig into the water and keeping it close to the boat so you can get a visualization of how it will act. This will give you a good idea if you’re properly set up and ready to fish, as well as how fast you should be going.
Perhaps the biggest added bonus to using dead bait is being able to talk to the folks who run the bait shop. Fewer people are going to know what’s working best at any given time than the person who’s selling bait to all those successful anglers. Even if people are tight-lipped about what they’re catching, there’s a really good chance the hot selling bait is going to be the one that’s working best for bait fishing at the moment.
TECHNIQUES & TOOLS FOR FISHING WITH BAIT
Personally, one of the coolest parts about bait fishing in the ocean is some of the methods that you can use while you’re doing it. There isn’t much in freshwater that really comes close, which makes bait fishing in saltwater that much more exciting. As much as a lot of the tactics are going to be the same, really you’re just putting some bait on a hook and either letting it sit there in the water or you’re trolling it, the variations through some of these tools is where things get interesting.
Spreader Bars: Designed for imitating a small school of bait fish, spreader bars allow for seven or eight rows of fish to be rigged up single file. They’re mostly used as an attractor, as in most cases the fish are rigged up hookless, with the exception of the last fish in the middle row. This one is rigged slightly behind the rest of the school and would be the fish most predators strike first.
Teasers: Teasers are kind of like spreader bars, only instead of having one row to hang fish from, there’s up to 8 or 9 of them and the whole set up kind of resembles a star. Like spreader bars, these are designed to draw in hungry fish when bait fishing and are usually completely hookless.
Downriggers: You could be the world’s leading expert on bait fishing and still come home empty handed if all the fish are sitting in 180 feet of water and you’re skipping bait across the surface. This is where downriggers come in. Downriggers are a mechanism for getting your bait down to where the fish are hanging. You clip your baited line to a cable weighted with a heavy ball, so your line is almost at a 90 degree angle off of the boat. When a fish takes your bait, the clip releases and you fight the fish just like you normally would. They allow you to set the depth you want to fish, given you have enough cable to reach it, so if you’re marking fish at 250 feet you can accurately get your bait into the strike zone – and keep it there.
Kites: One of the most elaborate and engaging methods of bait fishing is the use of kites. It’s an inventive way of keeping your bait in a specific zone, and when something prefers to eat fish that are right on the surface, keeping your bait in the zone can be hard. Have you ever tried to make a fish sit still? In almost every way, kites are the exact opposite of downriggers. They fly in the air above your bait with a line attached to it and the tension from the kite keeps your bait flopping around right on the surface. Remember, some fish love it when there’s a lot of flailing going on. There are other things you could use to keep your bait close to the surface, but anything that sits on the water, like a jug, balloon, or indicator of any kind, is going to allow the bait some room to swim away from the surface, which can kill your presentation.
Chunking: Chunking is kind of like chumming the water, only it’s not quite so broad–and what I mean here is that you’re not just sending out scent and blood for miles and miles to attract in whatever you can. With chunking, you cut up your intended bait into chunks – something like mackerel works great here – and then you toss those chunks overboard with your hook baited with a chunk of the same fish, hidden among the masses. The idea here is that whatever shows up to eat these little chunks of fish is going to eventually swallow the one containing your hook, and it’s fish on!
Outriggers: Outriggers are very handy to have on your boat when bait fishing as they help you get different presentations in the water at once and, more importantly, they allow for those presentations to stay out of each other’s way. Outriggers are basically long poles that hang off the side of your boat that you can rig your line through in order to help keep it out of the way of other lines that are closer to the boat, say 15 feet off to the left or right, which leaves you plenty of room to have lines in the water off the stern of the boat. Outriggers allow you to cover as much water as possible, which is particularly helpful when you’re just getting started on the water for the day and aren’t quite sure where the fish are, what they’re biting or what species are out there.
Trolling vs Drifting: Trolling and drifting are almost the same thing, but there are some slight differences in terms of how you fish in the two techniques that are worth mentioning. Trolling, for those who have never done it before, is a powered way of covering water while dragging bait (or lures and other rigs) behind you. You pick the path you’re going to be traveling, you set the speed and you control pretty much all factors involved.
Drifting on the other hand, is a much slower, much less controlled way of bait fishing. You’re not running an engine, first of all, so you’re totally at the mercy of the winds and currents to determine where you go, how fast you get there and the path you take. Neither technique is better than the other. With trolling you cover a lot more water, which always helps when looking for fish, but with drifting, you’re being directed by the winds and currents, so there’s a really good chance you’re going to float right into the same area as everything else that’s following the current, including schools bait fish and those hungry, hungry fish that target them.
Mooching: As far as bait fishing techniques go, mooching is about as specific as it gets. This is a technique designed to target Pacific salmon in the Pacific Northwest, basically anywhere there are salmon from California straight up to Alaska. The idea here is slowly drift a bait up and down through the water in a way that salmon find irresistible. Your baited rig is slowly retrieved from the depths until it hits the surface and then you let it drift back down again. Ideally you’re doing this around a school of fish that salmon like to target, like herring, and you’re placing your bait down in the same zone as the schooled up bait fish.
This probably doesn’t sound like the most exciting way to fish, but it’s one of the only methods of fishing for salmon that doesn’t involve staring at a downrigger all day (at least when the salmon are still in the ocean) and it’s the only way to fish that I can think of where you’re actually waiting for your rod to straighten up, as salmon strike from underneath the bait and their follow through takes them up the water column, releasing some of the tension on your rod. This method of bait fishing can be applied to other species as well, and is a more hands on technique compared to the other’s mentioned in this section.
BAIT FISHING TACTICS BY SPECIES
If you’ve ever dropped a line in the water before, it should come as no surprise to you that every species of fish has a different set of preferences when it comes to both techniques and baits used to catch them when bait fishing. Each species isn’t totally unique in what they prefer, it’s possible to catch tuna while targeting mahi mahi and marlin while looking for wahoo, but as with anything, if you rig up your offering in a way that really appeals to a certain species of fish, chances are you’re going to have more luck with that species than any other.
Mahi mahi are pretty opportunistic fish that will go for pretty much anything you throw at them, but like all fish they have a few things that they prefer to munch on given the chance. The best way to find mahi mahi is to look for anything at all (literally anything from sargasso to a hunk of wood and everything in between) that is floating around on the water. Mahi mahi love to hang around stuff like this for both protection from bigger fish and for food.
You could troll a bare hook past something like this and you’d likely catch a mahi mahi. But, since we’re talking about bait fishing here, mahi mahi love to eat flying fish, so if you can position your bait so that it skips along the surface in a way that resembles the flight of a flying fish, you’re on the right track. Cue the kites! Popular bait fish to use include things like ballyhoo, peanut bunkers, sardines or squid. For an extra bit of fun, once you find a bit of structure that has mahi mahi around it, cut the engines and cast your bait to them. This can be great fun using a lighter action rod, if you’ve got one handy.
Tuna can be pretty easy to get into when you’re bait fishing, if all the circumstances are perfect–but, really, how often does something like that actually happen when you’re fishing? There isn’t much that tuna won’t make a meal of when they’re hungry and one of the best ways to get a tuna’s attention is to chum the water. Getting a nice slick of chum out there will help bring the fish in and call attention to your bait. You can either chum with a traditional chum or try chunking by tossing out smaller chunks of bait with a baited hook in the middle of the pieces. Everything from squid to sardines work for tuna, it’s just a matter of getting their attention.
Swordfish: Swordfish aren’t the pickiest fish out there and, as a result, can be a ton of fun to target. Sending out live fish – anything from yellowtail to mackerel will work – is always a great place to start if you can, but using strips of things like squid (one of their main food sources), bonito, mackerel, sardines or even mahi mahi can work just as well. Swords are often anxious feeders at night, so fisherman call extra attention to their baits by attaching a glow stick or a specifically designed light. In nighttime settings, drift fishing with squid, the fresher the better, is probably your best bet.
Marlin: Marlin are ideal fish to use teasers and spreaders for when targeting them while bait fishing. Both of these tools are a great way to bring these beasts in close to the boat, so they know there’s food available should they want it. Teasers rigged up with ballyhoo or squid draw the fish in and then, when you can see them either following or striking, tossing out a similar fish, or squid, with a hook in it will often lead to hook ups. Live bait, like smaller tuna or mackerel are excellent choices when targeting marlin.
Sailfish: Sailfish are best targeting by using a kite. Sailfish love to target fish that are flopping around right on the surface and there’s no better way to keep a fish on the surface than using a kite. Don’t rely exclusively on a kite, though, keep a variety of presentations out there and throw a few deep, since you never know when you’ll catch one hanging out lower in the water column. Bait fish like goggle eyes, runners, herring and cigar minnows are good baits to start with. Tougher fish, like goggle eyes tend to do better when hung from kites.
The real trick to catching these speedy creatures, even when you’re bait fishing, is to make sure you’re going fast enough. Wahoo are fast. It’s what they’re known for, so you have to be moving at a speed that is going to pique the curiosity of a wahoo, which can be anywhere from 6 to 14 knots, depending on the day (odds are you’re going to have to play with your speed a little to figure out what the magic number is that day). Beyond setting a decent pace, focus your efforts on areas that have lots of baitfish, like drop-offs and areas where two currents meet. Bait fish like ballyhoo, bonita, pinfish and goggle eyes are all excellent choices when targeting wahoo. Try to offer up a nice selection of baits at different depths, say from the 25 to 40 foot range right up to the surface, to really increase your chances at success.
A FEW PRO TIPS
When you’re on the ocean, there’s no bigger clue that there are fish around than a huge flock of birds congregated over one spot on the water. If you see something like that, head for it. Even if you’re not perfectly rigged up to catch whatever is down there, there is still a really, really good chance you’ll be able to catch a fish or two. This isn’t specific to bait fishing, per se, but it’s a good all around tip when you’re saltwater fishing. As an extra tip, if you do see a big flock of birds over an area, don’t drive your boat directly through it. Drag your bait around the edges, instead. This way you’re not spooking all the fish that are actively feeding down there with your big, loud boat and you’ll have a better shot at getting into some nice fish.
Pay attention to what’s going on in the water. You’re going to be spending your entire day on the water and chances are you’re going to notice at least one thing that is going to make you sit up and go, “Huh.” If you keep your eyes peeled for things like large schools of bait fish, surfacing fish or, as already mentioned, a lot of bird activity, then you’re going to be one step closer to figuring out what’s going on underneath the waves. Pay special attention to any bait fish you see.
If you keep seeing the same bait fish over and over and over again and you just happen to have some of that fish lying around the boat, throw it on your hook and toss it in the water. If there’s an abundance of food hanging around, there is very likely going to be something nearby that’s looking to make a meal of it. Sometimes the key to bait fishing is just noticing what’s actively happening on the water while you’re out there.
Rig up ahead of time. Unless you go through all your baited rigs, you don’t want to have to waste time getting something set up when you’re on the water. Remember, you can’t catch fish if your line isn’t in the water and it’s really easy to spend the whole day baiting hook when you’re bait fishing. Spending a bit of time the day before getting your rigs ready, getting your bait on the hooks and tying your knots can really save you a lot of hassle when you’re on the water. It’s not the end of the world if you have to do up a couple of rigs, but being prepared will greatly increase your chances of getting into fish.
Talk to other anglers. There’s no better resource out there than the guys who are actively fishing an area. Some guys are bit grumpy about sharing what’s working for them, especially if they’re doing it for a living, but most anglers are willing to at least throw a hint or two your way as to what the killer bait is that day. If there’s no one around, check out an online forum, like BD Outdoors and ask a few questions there. We put together this list of some of our favorite fishing forums to help you find the information you need to be successful on the water.
So you’ve read the guide, taken some notes and it feels like you’ve got a pretty solid understanding of saltwater bait fishing, now comes the fun part: it’s time to go fishing.
You could read all the articles in the world about this, but unless you put in your time on the water and put what you’ve read to the test, you’re never going to fully understand how to bait fish in the ocean. If you’re new to angling, you probably don’t have all the gear needed to target all the different species of fish we talked about or to try out the different techniques, which is where booking a charter comes in handy.
Heck, even if you did have the gear, spending a day or two on the water with a captain who’s been fishing with these techniques for years can give you more experience than fishing an entire season on your own. Nothing, absolutely nothing beats hands on learning when it comes to learning a new technique.
Article courtesy of Doug Paton