Live Bait Fishing
As the air and water temperatures cool off, and the daylight hours become shorter, there is a shift in the patterns of the gamefish we pursue here off the Keys. Most of these pelagic fish tend to move in shallow towards the reef top following the large schools of forage fish (bait fish) that are abundant during our winter months. Having a variety of lively, frisky baits in your well will not only increase your number of bites, but will also give you more options to target different species throughout your day.
We live bait fish here in the fall/winter catching sails, wahoos, mackerels, tunas, cobias, snappers, groupers and mahi. Typical baits we use include: cigar minnows, ballyhoos, pilchards, runners, goggle eyes, sardines, herrings, grunts, speedos and pin fish. While it’s true certain species prefer certain baits, you can catch any of these fish on any of these baits.
Our typical day usually starts with anchoring just inside the reef’s edge with a chum bag out to attract forage fish close to the boat. We use both cast nets and tiny sabiki hook rigs to catch the baits. The baits we catch with cast nets are kept in separate wells because they tend to die at the end of the day.
The baits that are netted are kept in separate wells from the hair hooked bait because, if you gently care for the hooked baits, they can be reused by placing them in bait cages and feeding them back at the dock. We try and entice the baits into net range by making sure there’s a flow of fresh chum coming from the bag; but not too much or the baits will stay too far back and feed, or the birds will get turned on keeping the baits deep and harder to net. We also let a block of chum thaw the night before a charter and mix the soft chum with sand. This clouds the water, disorienting the baits so they don’t see a huge net crashing on top of them. In addition, we make sand balls that sink the chum, making all the baits corral into a tight ball around the sand in order to catch more fish in the net.
There are several methods we use to catch the different kinds of baits. The best tournament fishermen here are usually the teams with the best bait. Countless hours and preparation go into catching, transporting, storing, feeding and handling of the variety of “live-ies” it takes to be competitive, matching the bait the fish are feeding on best.
We present our live bait offerings in a number of ways depending on the conditions. Slow trolling baits out of the outriggers and flat lines is a great way to cover a productive area, but make sure not to troll too fast or you’ll be drowning the bait. Kite fishing is very effective at getting the baits far from the boat rig, a tangle free method if done correctly. Anchoring or drifting over wrecks or structures, sending a “live-ie” down near the wreck while also fishing some surface rods, is a great way to mix it up and catch mackerels, snappers and groupers. Also, when the sun gets high and there’s good visibility, the Keys are a special place because we get to ride sandy bottom just inside the reef’s edge and sight fish for cobias, sailfish, wahoos and permits.
The cooler months here make the Keys a magical place in my opinion. Most all of the fishing is “close to the house” and the opportunities are unlimited. To up your game, make sure your live well systems all have good flow and are draining properly. Don’t forget an extra block of chum and a bait rod or two. Freshen up those live wells throughout the day so you’re ready when the opportunity presents itself. When that moose cobia or pack of wahoos or sailfish swim right up to the transom, you don’t want to be throwing a dead or artificial at them. Although you may get lucky, your chances of scoring are a million times higher if you cast a humming live bait a few feet in front of the fish, open the bail, watch ‘em eat it, close the bail and hold on. We’ll see you out there!
Capt. Ross Early
Fishing in Islamorada has given me the opportunity to fish among some of the best offshore fisherman and mates in the world. Allow me to share some of my knowledge of the local waters and a few tricks on catching fish aboard my charterboat, EarlyBird.
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