Seasonal baitfish

Published February 17, 2007

It's the law of supply and demand. Soon, Nature Coast waters will bulge with a great supply of seasonal baitfish, and you can expect a high demand among the predators that feed on these tasty morsels.

Local waters see pinfish just about year-round. Hardy and durable, pins work wonders on grouper, cobia, redfish and most other gamefish. Matching bait size to target species is the key.

But each spring, warming water temperatures usher a flood of scaled sardines into the area. Known also as pilchards or "white bait", these meaty forage fish are simply irresistible to just about anything with an appetite.

Another common inshore baitfish, the threadfin herring, resembles the pilchard. Both have white bellies and silvery sides blending into olive green backs.

But the pilchard has a steeper profile and larger eyes, while the thinner greenback has more pronounced spots along its sides and a distinctive dorsal fin trailer.

Both of these baitfish exist to feed predators, so either will give you a good shot at bending a rod. However, threadfins lose their scales easily and tend to wear down more quickly in a live well.

Pilchards last longer in the well and on a hook.

CATCHING LIVE BAITS: Learn to throw an 8- to 10-foot cast net, and you'll rarely lack for live baitfish. Nets with three-quarter-inch mesh (measured corner-to-corner) and about a pound of lead per foot of diameter do the trick for most inshore duties.

Look for baitfish along the edges of grass flats. Chumming with oily catfood or a mixture of jack mackerel, wheat bread and sea water helps concentrate the baits for easier netting. Just dribble a little chum downtide every few seconds until you see a consistent smattering of little silver flashes within net range.

Tip: When you set up a chum slick, you'll also attract predators that ambush the distracted baitfish. Rig a fresh bait and deploy it away from your netting area and you might get a jump on the day's action.

Even if it's just ladyfish and jacks, the warm-up action will keep your boatmates occupied during the bait capture. This is a helpful strategy during trips with children, especially if attention spans and patience wear thin when the castnetting deal requires more than a couple of throws.

When spring baitfish first arrive, the schools are often so thick and cooperative that anglers can nab a bundle with a spontaneous tactic known as a "rodeo" cast. Idling or drifting, the castnetter simply watches the shallows for a passing bait pod and slings the mesh.

PRESENTATION OPTIONS: Experienced anglers who are accustomed to strike detection and response usually like free-lining their baits (fishing with no weight or float), as this allows a bait the optimal range of movement.

If you're hindered by slow response or anticipation anxiety, add a slip cork above your bait. When the cork disappears, just reel until you come tight on the fish, raise the rod tip and maintain steady pressure.

Floating baits also helps in areas with dense sea grass where baitfish like to hide. Adjust your cork to keep the bait about halfway between the surface and the top of the grass.

The common hooking points for pilchards and threadfin herring are through the cartilage between the eyes and snout, or through the soft fleshy pocket behind the pectoral (side) fins.

Nose hooking works best for slow-trolling or actively retrieving baits, as it keeps them swimming in natural fashion. Hooking through the pectoral region hides the hook under the baitfish. That's better for stationary fishing, because predators have more time to inspect their meals.

SERVE UP THE SAMPLES: Complementing their bait value, forage fish also provide the best chum available. Nothing looks and smells more like a baitfish than a baitfish.

For reds and snook, tossing handfuls of live baitfish into a likely area does a couple of things: Ideally, it stimulates feeding by dropping a dietary staple in front of the predators.

Moreover, chumming can serve as a target acquisition tool. When live chummers hit the water and quickly start leaping and flipping at the surface, it's a safe bet that someone's hot on their trail.

Surface boils also tell of hungry predators swirling under the appetizers, but nothing says "cast here" like the violent smack of a motivated snook or redfish nailing one of the freebies.

For mackerel and - later in the year - sharks, chopping baitfish into thumbnail-size chunks makes an effective chum source.