Baitfish are the Middleman for Florida Keys Anglers
Baitfish are really just small fish that stay together in large numbers in a densely packed school. They travel and live their lives in this manner for protection from other fish. They move as one. Different species migrate through the Florida Keys during fall and summer each year. This migration revs up the bite.
Ballyhoo are probably the most popular of all the baitfish. They're usually available at least in the frozen package
at any of these bait and tackle stores throughout the Florida Keys.
Ballyhoo are excellent trolling bait for all species of fish. I've caught Dolphin , Sailfish, White and Blue Marlin, Wahoo and Kingfish using this fish as bait. There are many different ways and devices to rig them. I have used at least three different methods throughout the years. When your solely fishing for Billfish rig the ballyhoo with one hook only. For all other gamefish it’s all right to use two hooks. Many times when I’m fishing for yellowtail snapper, ballyhoo will show up in the chum line. I’ll use a 1/0 hook to catch them. You can also use a cast net if enough of them are together.
Goggle eyes are the premo baitfish. They’re very expensive and very difficult to come by. They’re available on the mainland, but in the Keys you hardly ever see them used. I’ve been told that they can be caught offshore, but I don’t know anyone personally that catches them for bait. I’ve never used them. I would think you would rig them the same as any other live bait. A neighbor of mine has a son that is in the bait business in Boynton Beach. They leave the dock to catch goggle eyes at 3 am. They only bite before the sun comes up. They have Charter Boat Captains waiting at the dock willing to pay more than $100.00 for a dozen of these fish. At tournament time they are even more costly than that.
Blue runners are great baitfish especially for large fish like Blue Marlin and Swordfish . They’re larger than ballyhoo. Blue runners are in the jack family. They show up in my chum line when I’m fishing yellowtail. I use a little bit larger hook to catch them. I use a 4/0 hook. To rig a live blue runner for trolling I run a circle hook up thru his nose and I like to use a “stinger” as well. I hook the stinger just under the skin close to his tail. These are hardy fish and swim fast so you’ll need to keep an eye on your bait when trolling them. They tend to get crossed with each other. When they start swimming toward each other you’ll need to speed up on the engines and pull them straight. If you’re anchored and have more than one line down you’ll be working him to keep him from tangling with the other lines.
Glass minnows are mostly used as chum. You can catch them with a cast net but I just buy them frozen in the bag at the local bait shop. I use them when I’m yellowtailing. As the chum drifts back and down I’ll occasionally throw a few glass minnows into the mix. I’ll put one on the hook as bait when I do this and let it drift back with the others. You don’t want to use too many and feed the fish because when they’re full they stop biting. When I’m trolling and run into a school of Dolphin I like to keep glass minnows handy to toss out by the handful. It keeps the dolphin feeding near the boat so you can catch your limit. Here’s something you may not know about glass minnows. They’re Anchovies, and yes they’re the same little hairy fish that some people eat on their pizza.
Ladyfish are great bait. It looks somewhat like a large mullet. You can catch them on hook and line. You’ll need to chum them up first. They’re a killer baitfish for Kingfish. I’ve also dropped them on the deeper wrecks out front and caught Amberjacks with them.
Pinfish is a great hardy baitfish for anything you want to fish for. They can be found in any shallow water in the grass and sand areas. I can go out in the bay here at Summerland Key and catch all the pinfish I need. I chum them up then I use a 2/0 or 3/0 hook with a piece of shrimp or squid as bait. The squid stays on the hook better. When I rig them, I use a 7/0 circle hook and hook them in the back just under the fin. If your using them in shallow water you won’t need to use a weight. Be really careful when handling them you may get stuck. The spines of the dorsal fin are very sharp and pointy and that’s why they’re called pinfish. I use gloves.
Sand perch are a great baitfish for Mutton Snapper and Grouper
on the reef and patch reefs. You can find them on the sandy bottom near grass areas. I know several spots in Hawk Channel where I can get them any time. I’ve even caught them on deep diving plugs while trolling for Grouper. As a live baitfish I use a circle hook and hook them thru the back just in front of the dorsal fin. This is a beautifully colored fish. It has iridescent aqua stripes on its face and the body is a peachy orange and blue. They have a nice white meat and are great to eat. The filets are small so you’ll need lots of them.
Sardines are a great baitfish for any fish you’re after. I buy these guys frozen. I cut them into several pieces and fish them on the bottom using circle hooks. Of course I have the chum going. Any fish that cruises by will grab onto this bait. All fish love sardines.
Mullet are great baitfish for any gamefish you’re after. There’s black also known as striped, white also known as silver and fintail mullet. Schools of mullet migrate en masse thru the bridges of the Florida Keys, triggering a Tarpon feeding orgie. They can be caught with a cast net or on hook and line. To catch them on hook and line you’ll need to actually snag them. When you find them packed in schools use a 3/0 treble hook with a slip sinker just in front of it. Mullet mouth the bait then reject it because they’re vegetarians. They do this really quick so soon as you feel them on the bait, set the hook! To rig them as live bait you can hook them thru the back just behind the dorsal fin or up thru the nose. Of course I rig with circle hooks. If they’re dead, the head can be used as chunk bait for shark or bottom fishing. Mullet strips can be cut off and used to spice up your artificial lures and jigs.
Mullet have been enjoyed by Floridians for decades as a food fish. They can be fried, broiled or the best is to smoke them. Here’s how to smoke them. First cut the head off, save it to use as bait. Slice the fish down the back and butterfly it with the belly intact along with the skin and scales. Now remove everything in the belly area and clean it thoroughly with fresh water. Pat the fish dry and season with salt, pepper and dill weed. If you like it spicier like I do I’ve also used garlic powder, McCormick’s Salad Supreme and for a little more kick try using some Creole Seasoning. Place it skin side down on the rack of the smoker and let it smoke. I use buttonwood for all the fish I smoke. It gives it a great flavor.
Thread herring is great cut bait for bottom fishing. I don’t even need to tell you to rig them with circle hooks and to always use chum when bottom fishing.
Another bait but not a baitfish used here in the Florida Keys is the blue crab. They’re really popular with the flats fishermen. Permit and Tarpon love them. Just about any fish will eat crab . Most bait stores in the Florida Keys carry live crab. To hook them and keep them alive, run the hook up thru the shell at the point of the shell on either side. You can also run the hook thru the back leg opening and up thru the top of the shell. When you’re using crab as bait on the bottom, you’ll need to move him around often. He’s going to try and hide under anything he can to keep from being eaten by the predator fish.
Live shrimp is another popular bait for bridge fishing , reef fishing or fishing off your dock. Frozen shrimp and squid also work well as bait to fish the dozens of species of fish that are found in the waters of the Florida Keys.
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