The summertime high water temperatures are finally falling away, keying bait to move back onto the Lower Keys reef en masse. Worldwide, I don’t think there’s a more popular bait for offshore species than ballyhoo. Surprisingly, to me, I have had customers on my boat that have used ballyhoo for years, and never seen one alive. It made me think how lucky we are to have them so readily available.
Generally, most folks think of ballyhoo as a bait for offshore species, like dolphin or sailfish, trolled dead-rigged behind their favorite lure. In reality, however, they are primo for grouper and snapper.
Collecting a couple dozen live ballys is pretty simple this time of year; simply look for them as you head to the reef. You will see them skip away from your boat as you run south, or see them “spraying” away from mackerel.
Once you’ve located them, anchor up (preferably on a sandy spot), toss out a chum bag with a block of double ground chum, and stand by.
As they start to show up, patience is key. Give them time to get used to the boat, and they will move in closer and closer until they will hold close to the chum bag.
Whether you throw a cast net or catch them on a small bit of bait on a hook, do your best not to touch them with your hands. If cast-netted, move quickly to dump the net straight into your running livewell, and, if hook-caught, use a small de-hooker right into the well.
I can rarely set up to catch ballys and resist tossing one out into the chum slick, with a small treble on wire, to catch a few cero mackerels for dinner.
Once ballys are on board, there is no end to the possibilities of what we can use them to catch. One of my favorites is using them alive as mutton baits on a fairly straightforward bottom rig, with enough lead to hold bottom in water from 90 ft. or deeper.
On the patch reefs, drop them straight down on a large jighead or knocker-rig (which grouper love) or cut these fresh baits into chunks, pin them on a bare, short shank, live bait hook and catch oversized yellowtails and mangroves.
If you have any ballyhoo left over at the end of the day, don’t forget to sprinkle them with brine and bag them up for your next trip.
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