“What are we using today, captain?” is the most commonly asked question when the boat makes its first stop of the morning and the rods come out of the holders. The answer can vary greatly and depends on a number of factors. The following is a set of guidelines to help you understand why we use the bait we use when we use it.
As a rule, the bait fishing season can be defined in five primary parts, with a few extras thrown in to confuse everyone, guides included. First is brown shrimp season, it begins in March when the spring tides bring warm water into the bays after a cold winter. Brown shrimp, and another shrimp called a “hopper” come into the bays to spawn, and the shrimpers await them with open nets. As a rule, these shrimp vary in color from brown to orange and even red, and are smaller than typical table shrimp with a much harder shell. This makes them great bait because they are hearty and stay on the hook better. They are commonly fished under a popping cork, and catch all of our gamefish species. They are usually available until late May or early June, when they head back into the Gulf.
Croakers begin showing up at the bait stands at the end of April, also courtesy of our local shrimp trawlers. At first they are very small and fragile. The transition from brown shrimp to croakers happens by the second week of May, depending on the weather. Croakers are a great trout bait, and are good for redfish and flounder as well. While shrimp may still work, the warm waters also bring undesirable fish species such as gafftops, ladyfish, and hardheads to feed on the shrimp. This makes it more difficult to target reds and trout. Croakers last until the beginning of September, when they have simply grown too big to use for bait. They are usually freelined or used with beads or small split shot in heavier currents.
The departure of the croaker signals the start of piggy perch season, and there is an overlap between the two. Some small piggies start showing up in June and by late August they are just the right size. Throughout much of the summer, guides will carry croakers and piggies to have both options to offer the fish. While piggy perch are a good trout bait, they excel at catching redfish, and do so until late October. Like croakers, they are usually freelined or used with beads. Some piggies are caught in shrimp nets, but most are trapped in wire perch traps baited with crab pieces.
In October and early November, blue crabs become the most important bait in the boat. The croakers and piggy perch are gone for the year, and the water is still too warm and full of undesirables to fish with white shrimp. Redfish begin to school up and feed the grassy shorelines for these shrimp, and they eat crab with enthusiasm. Crabs are caught in traps in the bay, and are usually cut into bite-size pieces and freelined on grass or in sand holes. They are fantastic bait for reds and black drum. Crab season may last from one to six weeks, depending on when the first strong cold front of fall arrives. This event cools the water and moves all of the ladyfish, gafftop, hardheads, and pin perch out of the bays making shrimp a viable bait once more.
By late September, white shrimp begin showing up in the bays. They are larger than their brown relatives, and are more familiar table fare in homes and restaurants. Some, however, make it to the bait stand and subsequently onto the hooks of coastal anglers. Once the water cools in late October to early November, this becomes the best bait for trout, reds, drum, and flounder as well as an occasional sheepshead thrown in for good measure. White shrimp are caught in shrimp trawlers, and represent the last feeding frenzy the fish will have before the hard times of winter set in. This is why the migration shrimp schools are often chased by trout and redfish for long distances. Their feeding activity is often given away by “working birds” over these schools of shrimp, a common sight in late fall. These shrimp are often fished under a cork, or freelined if they are large enough to cast.
These are the basic guidelines to the bait season, and may vary slightly depending on changes in the weather or water temperature. There are fill-in baits that can be used in areas or times when the fish are feeding single-mindedly on one food source. The most common of these events is the menhaden migration which happens in May and/or June. Millions of these small silver fish flood in through the jetties with the tide and become an important player in the bait game. They may range in size from that of a dime to as long as six inches, and become the only thing on the minds of trout and reds for days at a time. They can be caught in a cast net or shrimp trawl, and must be iced immediately to maintain freshness because they will not survive in a livewell. They can be freelined whole or cut in half depending on the size, and their strong smelling oil is irresistible to gamefish.
Another part-timer is the mullet, a staple in the diet of trout, reds, and flounder. They are available all year and can be caught in a cast net. Small ones are fished with small weights or freelined, and larger ones can be cut into chunks. They work best in times and areas where the predators are feeding primarily on mullet, and it is necessary to “match the hatch”. Mud minnows are another readily available bait, popular among flounder fishermen and great in the cold of winter due to their heartiness and availability. They catch reds and trout as well, and can last days and even weeks in a livewell or trap in which they are caught.
As you can see, “what are we using today, captain?” is a question whose answer is based on season, science, migration, and even a little voodoo. One thing you can be sure of, the right bait catches the most fish!