Now’s time to break out the foul weather bibs, check your live well pumps and dust off the cast nets. The Northeasterly winds will be up and the ballyhoo are showing in huge schools, from the mangrove shore lines to beyond the reef. These frisky baits can be the key to an epic fishing trip. Ballyhoo can be one of the easiest live bait to acquire and since the beginning of October, they have been showing up everywhere I’ve dropped a chum bag over the side.
The priority is to get a handful in the boat. The first thing to think about is how you plan on using them. If your plans are to use them on a jig/bottom rig for snapper, or to drop them in an iced brine to rig them dead for trolling I would normally use a cast net. I bring this up because a cast net will beat them up pretty good to the point they will normally only last 4 or 5 hours in your live well. Even though they are alive, they won’t be too frisky. If you plan to use them to toss at sails, tuna, or to fish them on flat lines, it is a good idea to catch a dozen or so with hair hooks tipped with small chips of squid or shrimp. Either way, you will want to attract the ballyhoo close to your boat, so of course you’ll need a quality frozen block of chum seasoned with a couple squirts of menhaden oil enclosed in a mesh bag. A few tricks can be used when deciding where to deploy your anchor and start your chum slick. Start in an area you see ballys skipping or a tried and true spot. Knowing you’ll be anchored, why not catch a few snapper and grouper while waiting for the chum to do its job. With that said, I try to find rocks or patch reefs with sand down-current from said structure. The longer your chum slick is running out, and you aren’t fishing on the surface, the more comfortable the school of ballyhoo will get and begin closing in on your boat. While you are awaiting the ballys to show, drop a jig tipped with squid or cut bait to get the day started with some tasty snapper to cool off in your fish box. Always have a couple of rods rigged and ready, normally spinners rigged with 20 or 30 pound braid. Ideally, one will have a 1 oz buck tail jig on 50 pound leader for cobia, they love to show up early; the other with a 40 pound fluorocarbon leader with a 6/0 light wire circle in case a sail decides to check you out. (It happens!) Be prepared for anything to show up as soon as the anchor gets tight and chum bag goes in the water.
Remember that sand down current? Well, after you see plenty of ballys collecting in the chum slick, throw off enough anchor line to get the stern of your boat on the top of the sand. The ballys who were reluctant to swim over the rocks with all the toothy snapper under your chum slick will now charge right into the chum bag. Normally with one throw of the cast net you will have enough to make a day of it. If you choose to catch them one at a time on a hair hook with a small cork, be sure to use a dehooker to keep from handling baits anymore than necessary.
Once you’ve secured enough ballys, don’t pull anchor just yet. Place one of your fresh lively ballys on a rig consisting of 30 pound fluorocarbon leader about 6 feet long tied to a troll right style jig that’s heavy enough to hold bottom. Toss it out on the sand down current where your chum slick has been working. Place your rod in the rod holder and give it about ten minutes. Muttons more often than not will have moved in. Above the muttons you may see the cero mackerel slashing through the ballyhoo in your slick. A short piece of 40 pound wire with a treble pinned down through the bend in a ballys upper beak will normally not last long swimming a couple boat lengths behind your boat. You may decide to save fuel and stay right where you started. I can’t tell you how many times at the end of the day I wish I had done just that.
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