Summer Bait

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My approach to fishing with live bait takes the path of least resistance. So instead of beating my 17-foot boat to death in search of scaled sardines in the summer months when they are scarce, I opt for the easiest bait – threadfin herring. They look a lot like sardines, but any avid Florida angler can tell the difference at a glance. Threadfins are so named for the long filament that trails behind the dorsal fin and the pupil of the eye is smaller than that of the sardine. They are bigger than the average sardine in the summer months, and they literally carpet the surface of most inshore Florida waters during summertime.

The big difference between pilchards and threadfin herring is that pilchards are hardy. They can live all day tightly packed in a livewell, and you can get three or four casts out of each bait before it dies. Threadfins don’t like the confinement, and if you put more than three dozen in the average sized livewell, they will soon be belly up. They don’t survive well on the hook, either. For guides who like to chum live baits, this is a problem. But for recreational angler who is out to catch a few fish, this can work. Dead or alive, threadfins catch fish.

Threadfin herring are worth as much dead as they are alive, as long as they are fresh. These are oily, smelly, scaly baitfish that every saltwater predator likes to eat. The trick to catching fish with chunks of threadfins is to keep the bait firm. Just like Spanish mackerel or seatrout, threadfins will quickly turn to mush once dead unless you get them on ice immediately after their demise, or better yet, prior to it. A firm bait is easier to cut and stays on the hook better.

The problem that many recreational anglers have with catching threadfins is that they throw nets designed for sardines. You seldom find threadfins in two feet of water. Where a ¼ or 3/8 inch net might work for sardines in shallow water on the flats, it won’t catch threadfins in water more than six feet deep. The size of the mesh is what controls the sink rate of the cast net. Weight on the net has nothing to do with how fast the net goes down. For summer threadfins on open water I throw a 10 foot half inch net. With somebody else driving the boat, I can get on the bow and pop the net over baits dimpling the surface. I seldom have to throw the net more than twice, and often dump two thirds of them back.

Three dozen threadfins is a lot of bait for an all day fishing trip when you are going to cut each bait into four or five pieces. You even have enough to chum some chunks. I like to put a few baits out for chum, but two or three baits is all you need to use in each hole.
My primary target with cut threadfin is redfish. I rig the steaks on jig heads for casting accuracy. I like to pitch the bait into the deep shadows of the mangroves on high tide – a technique I learned from Capt. Nick Winger of Apollo Beach. The big fish seem to like the cool environment of the shadows on a mid day high tide, and a chunk of threadfin sitting on the bottom is practically irresistible to redfish and snook.

The jig head was my innovation, and it has caught many a redfish. I use half-ounce RipTide heads because they cast well and have great hook strength. Another embellishment is two feet of 60 pound monofilament leader attached to 30 pound microfilament – Tuffline, Power Pro or any of the zero stretch, highly sensitive lines. The bait is lying on the bottom in dim light. I don’t worry about fish seeing the leader. My concern is getting cut off before I can drag the fish free of the shadow line.

When a redfish picks up a bait on superline, it feels like somebody hit the jig head with a hammer. The leader and the line are both abrasion resistant, and I have been able to drag more than a few oversized fish out of the roots with this combination. For this type of fishing I like a very stiff spinning rod and an appropriately sized reel. I am happy with Daiwa’s 7’6” heavy action Coastal Rods and their Black Gold 20’s and 30’s. This is not finesse equipment, but it will drag some fish away from the structure.

There are times when I like to throw out a live bait, and again, the trick to keeping threadfins alive and well is to limit the number you put in the well. If you have the right net, you can always go get more – between May and October, threadfins are easy to find, even in the middle of the day. If I see a snook busting baits in a pass for example, I would rig a rod to freeline a live threadfin.
Snook will also eat a chunk of threadfin as fast as any redfish. Often I catch both species on cut bait in the same hole casting to the same spots. It’s another good case for the heavy leader. I haven’t had a fish chafe through a 60-pound leader yet – not even Spanish mackerel.

And speaking of Spanish mackerel, there’s another fish that can be chummed in and caught with chunks of threadfin. So too mangrove snapper, bluefish, and cobia. Just about every finned predator in Florida will readily eat a threadfin, dead or alive. I’ve caught a variety of species on range markers by chumming chunks of threadfin herring.

So it pays to keep an open mind as to what bait you put on your hook. It’s also a good idea to have a large mesh net that will catch threadfins, and plenty of ice to keep the dead baits firm. In the summer months when the big threads are everywhere, why not take advantage. Every other finned predator does.