For the anglers that do a lot of fishing with live or dead bait, this is the time of year when it really starts to show up in good numbers, particularly the herring species. You’ll find threadfins, pilchards and sardines on the beach, on the Skyway Bridge, Potter’s Pier, Bailey Bridge, Howard Franklin and most of the other well-lighted bridges. They can be on either side of the bridge, but you’ll see them moving and flashing and flicking under the lights.
We typically cast net the bait, throwing a ¼ inch mesh 10-foot cast net this time of the year. If the baits are larger, you can move to a 3/8 inch mesh 12-foot net and a lot of weight to get down quickly enough to catch them. If there’s a lot of current, plan for the drift and toss to the up-current side of the bait school. The biggest tip I can give you is to be patient and wait for a good opportunity to get the net over the school. Every time you throw the net it spooks the school and they don’t come up as high in the water column or break up into smaller pods, so you want to make that first cast count.
We also catch a lot of baits on the flats, particularly in areas where there’s a lot of moving water with the tides. In those places, we’ll look for good grass with nearby sandy potholes and anchor up and chum with a mixture of jack mackerel and Purina Tropical Fish Food. You basically want to get a slick going and not overdo it, just kind of flicking flakes of the mixture into the water on a fairly steady basis. When you see the baitfish dimpling as they eat the chum close to the boat, toss a golf ball-sized chunk of chum, load your net and throw it. Then start it all over again, until you have enough bait to go fish.
You can also use a Sabiki rig around the channel markers and do well on hard tails (blue runners) and threadfins. Use the larger quills for the hard tails, and a #6 green Sabiki for the threadfins.
We’ll also use pinfish for bait for everything from snook to grouper, and we’ll get some of them in the cast net when chumming for white bait on the flats, but the best way to get them is to use a pinfish trap. Put it out in 3 feet of water over some good grass, and bait it with a half a box of squid and a half a box of sardines, and come back in the morning and you’ll enough more than enough bait for the day.
If you’re going tarpon, cobia or permit fishing, you’ll want to get some live crabs for bait, and you can do that by getting a long-handled net and riding up the tide line at the passes during the evening outgoing tides, particularly around the new and full moons. Pass crabs and blue crabs use the tides as a means of locomotion, often grabbing onto a piece of floating grass and riding along with it.
Once you scoop up enough crabs, you’ll want to declaw them to make it easy to grab one and put it on the hook. If you break the claws off the crab, they’ll die, so what you want to do is grab them in the elbow area of the claw with a pair of pliers and squeeze. Crabs have the ability to drop their claws in case a predator had a hold of it without it causing long-term damage. They’ll eventually grow that claw back. After the crab drops both claws, put it in the livewell, and it’s ready to be hooked in the corner of the shell.
On the windy days, when the water is murky and it’s hard to find any bait, you can always look for ladyfish, which make a great chunk bait. Use jigs in two to four feet of water on the grass flats and around holes, and work the jigs fast. Cut the ladyfish into three inch chunks and put them on a 4/0 circle hook and pitch them into the potholes or around the mouth of marinas and you’ll catch everything from snook and redfish to tarpon and grouper on them