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The bait masters

While running a family-owned fish and bait shop, Bobby Aylesworth tries to get fishermen hooked on natural bait.

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 13, 2001


While running a family-owned fish and bait shop, Bobby Aylesworth tries to get fishermen hooked on natural bait.

FORT DE SOTO -- Fishermen are a stubborn lot.

"Catching anything?" Bobby Aylesworth asked the man bent over rail of the fishing pier.

"No thanks," the angler said.

"Want some shrimp to tip your jig?" Aylesworth said.

"Nope," the fishermen said.

"It's free," Aylesworth said. "We are just giving it away."

The man stopped for a minute, looked at the bag of shrimp, then continued not catching without saying a word.

"How about squid?" Aylesworth said. "It is a great pier bait."

The fisherman thought for a moment, then uttered a carefully crafted reply: "Not interested."

Aylesworth just shook his head and kept walking. "Some people are just set in their ways," he said.

The angler had been fishing in the same spot for hours without the benefit of natural bait. But Aylesworth, whose family has run a local fish and bait company, Aylesworth's Fish and Baits, since 1944, felt he had to give it a try.

"It is something relatively simple that you can do to increase your chances of catching fish," Aylesworth said.

Take chum for example. This ground fish product is cheap and easy to use.

"Just hang a bag of chum off the pier and it will attract fish," Aylesworth said. "It is just like driving down the road and smelling barbecue. You just have to pull over and get something to eat."

Aylesworth's, a.k.a. Baitmasters, chum probably is one of the most popular natural baits sold in the Tampa Bay area. A $6.50 bag will attract everything from king mackerel to sheepshead.

"It is nothing but baitfish and menhaden oil," Aylesworth said. "We call it meatloaf, because it is made in the same kind of pan."

The frozen blocks of bait melt slowly, sending tiny pieces of fish drifting with the current. A chum block, combined with another natural bait, often can mean the difference between failure and success.

"The two most popular baits are frozen shrimp and squid," Aylesworth said. "They both have specific uses."

Most frozen shrimp sold locally is caught off Hernando County or in Biscayne Bay by small inshore shrimp trawlers that have remained virtually unchanged for decades. Frozen shrimp, fished whole or in pieces, will catch a variety of inshore species of gamefish.

"Virtually any carnivorous fish will feed on shrimp," Aylesworth said. "It is a very versatile bait."

Squid is another standard. "It is a very durable, tough bait," Aylesworth said. "You can use it for just about anything."

The frozen squid used locally comes from the Monterey area of California or the waters off Cape May, N.J. "When the harvest is good in California it is usually bad in New Jersey and vice versa," he said.

Spanish sardines, once prolific in Tampa Bay, but now imported fromVenezuela, are the most common cut bait, unless you are fishing offshore for bottom dwellers. Then they are usually hooked whole.

Aylesworth takes great pride in the quality of the bait his business distributes. He said he gets calls from seafood houses that want to pass on damaged or spoiled seafood.

He always has the same response: "No thanks."

That's because fishermen might be stubborn, but they are not stupid.

"People will eat substandard food, but fishermen will not use substandard bait," he said. "Today's bait is tomorrow's plate."

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