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Taking the time to locate live bait can be the difference between just a day on the water and an epic day of fishing.
Finding and Storing Live Bait
By Eric Tebbets
On the Central Coast of California we target a wide range of fish, all of which can be caught successfully on artificial baits. But, there are days when artificial baits just are not getting it done or you are targeting a species that responds better to live bait. In those cases, taking the time to locate live bait can be the difference between just a day on the water and an epic day of fishing.
Before filling the tank though, you have to find the bait. If you are lucky enough to live in or fish in an area that has live bait available for sale, it is as simple as paddling up and getting a scoop of your favorite bait. Many medium to large harbors have this service available and it is a quick and convenient way to fill your tank without having to search it out on your own. If this isn’t an option, then you will need to put in a bit more effort and hunt down those elusive bait fish. If I am fishing my local waters I know certain spots that generally hold bait so I will hit those areas first. Making bait can be a time consuming process if you do not know where to look. Having local knowledge or at least some insider info can help shorten that time and allow you to focus more on catching your target species as opposed to spending your day making bait. In addition to knowing where to look, is knowing what to look for. Having a fish finder and knowing how to read it is key to finding those elusive clouds of bait.
(Bait ball on a Raymarine Dragonfly)
On your fishfinder, a bait ball will show up on the screen like a cloud. These clouds can be located anywhere in the water column from just under the surface all the way to the bottom. But, generally I find that mackerel and sardines are located from mid-column up towards the water's surface, while squid can sometimes be found lower down. When you come across these clouds of bait, stop and drop your line down. Small bait balls can be more skittish than large ones, and the baits can get spooked easier. But, it is still worth a look and you might get lucky and land a couple of nice macks. If you do not have a fishfinder, there are some other ways to locate bait balls. The most obvious sign of bait, is diving birds. If you see birds swarming an area and diving into or hitting the surface of the water there is a good chance they are following a bait ball and you should be too. If the birds are close enough to get to quickly then head over and cast into the malay. I like to cast past the bait ball and then retrieve my line through it. This will usually load up a sabiki rig pretty fast and get me fishing quicker. If that doesn’t work, I’ll cast right into the middle and see if I can provoke some hits that way. A word of warning, remember that bait balls are essentially living, moving things and they can move over large distances pretty quickly especially when they are being attacked from above and below. It is easy to get tunnel vision and end up chasing bait or following birds only to find the bait ball has dispersed by the time you reach it or you are never actually able to catch up to it. If the action is far in the distance or moving away from you it may be wiser to keep looking closer than to waste time chasing birds. Another way to locate bait without a fishfinder is to pay attention to the water’s surface as you move along. If there is bait in the area, chances are there are fish trying to eat that bait and driving them up to the surface. Look for ripples on the surface or even bait fish jumping out of the water. Often times, when bait fish are hitting the surface it will sound like running water or rain hitting the water, as they try to escape the bigger predators below them. If I come across bait hitting the surface I usually stop and grab my sabiki to see if I can take advantage. Searching out bait can be a long, slow process but if you are successful the reward is often worth the effort.
(birds working a large baitball off shore)
Once I have located bait, I grab my sabiki rod and drop the line down. What is a sabiki? A sabiki is a bait fish rig. You can buy them pre-made and they come with a series of small hooks attached to dropper lines. The short dropper lines are attached in series to the leader. The top of the leader is attached to your main line while the bottom has a snap swivel to attach your weight. With a sabiki, you can catch multiple bait fish at once, filling up your tank quickly. A sabiki rig can be attached to any rod and reel setup but I prefer to use a special rod called a sabiki rod. Unlike a traditional rod where the line runs externally through a series of eyes, a sabiki rod is hollow and allows the line to run internally from the reel up to the tip. Because sabiki rigs have so many hooks, usually 8-10, they are notorious for getting snagged on everything. By everything I mean your net, your PFD, your seat, or your ears, and of course this all happens just as you have finally located the bait ball you’ve been looking for. A sabiki rod virtually eliminates this. When the line is reeled all the way in on a sabiki rod, the hooks are stored safely inside. When you are ready to use it, simply open the reel and cast or drop down and start filling your tank. I prefer using a small baitcaster reel for my sabiki but any reel will work and I like to use the lightest weight possible that will still keep my line relatively vertical if I am jigging for bait.
After all the time and energy spent searching for and making bait you will want to take care of your baits the best possible way you can. For me, that means bringing along my Wilderness Systems Thrive Baitwell. The Thrive Baitwell is a great piece of equipment in my arsenal. It doubles as a fishing crate, with its included rod holders, so that even if I can’t find bait it isn’t just taking up precious space. It is self contained with a built in battery and pump, and fits nicely in the rear tankwell of many Wilderness Systems kayaks along with many other kayak brands. To use, simply drop the hose down a scupper hole and turn on the pump to fill the tank. I do this after I have launched and then as I am pedaling out to find bait I run the pump to fill the tank. By the time I have located the bait balls the tank is filled and ready for those lively baits to hit the water. The ability to catch and store fresh bait and keep it healthy and active for hours is a real advantage when fishing with live bait, especially on those days when making bait is a challenge and every mackerel is treated like gold. Other options for bait storage include bait cages, like those many freshwater anglers use for minnows, and bait tubes. Both of these options can be used with success and are certainly viable options for tighter budgets or those folks that enjoy a good DIY project. When first starting out I used a homemade bait tube with great success. While these options can be successful, they do come with some inherent drawbacks. The two that immediately come to mind are space and drag. Cages and tubes are usually smaller than most baitwells which means you can only keep a smaller number of baits. This may not be a big deal if bait is readily available but on days where it’s more of a struggle, only being able to keep a few fish over keeping a dozen can be a big deal. Along with limited quantity is limited space for the fish to move. If you pack too many fish in your storage container they will not stay as healthy and active as they would under roomier conditions. The second concern is the drag that a cage or tube creates as it is pulled through the water. It may not seem like much but even dragging a bait tube through the water will create a ton of drag and cause you to have to work harder. Sure, you can pull it out of the water if you are traveling longer distances but this too stresses the fish and shortens their viability. For me, a baitwell like the Wilderness Systems Thrive Baitwell makes good sense if you are going to take the time to fish with live bait.