Around the state, countless backcountry anglers invest a great deal of time and money procuring their own live bait, yet I can’t tell you how many times I continue to see guys fishing small baitfish no longer than my index finger on tackle better suited for live-lining large blue runners. Throughout our shallow water inshore arenas, juvenile whitebait, finger mullet and small silver-dollar size pinfish and pigfish make up the bulk of our natural offerings. These fragile temptations barely weigh an ounce, thus to achieve the most natural and attractive presentation in our ongoing efforts to achieve maximum success, it’s imperative that we scale down our gear for minimal resistance. Otherwise, live bait that is greatly restricted in its movements might as well be dead bait!
Lets start with a typical inshore rod. Consider what you’re trying to achieve when pursuing shallow water predators with live bait. I know when I’m trying to tempt my quarry with a small pilchard over a grass bed or a finger mullet along a mangrove encrusted shoreline, my intention is for the offering to swim freely as it naturally darts to and from in search of safety. While doing so, my focus is on feeling the baitfish’s every movement. I know that to achieve consistent success in the shallows, I need to keep close tabs on the bait’s exact position in relation to the nearby structure. A medium/heavy action rod with a relatively stiff tip would prevent me from doing so. Rather, a graphite 7 or 7-½ foot rod – spinning or casting – with a light to medium-action and fast taper keeps me in constant touch with my offering.
Consider what you're trying to achieve when pursuing shallow water predators with live bait.
Too heavy of a line is the next major culprit in restricting a fragile baitfish’s enticing appeal. Assuming you are fishing the correct rod and reel combo, line that is too heavy will restrict the bait’s freedom and prevent you from detecting subtle strikes. Don’t forget that there may be 100-feet of line between you and your tethered friend. As the small pinfish makes its way through lush grass beds, it is dragging all of that line behind it. Think “ball and chain.”
With today’s technology, unless I am specifically targeting tarpon or monster snook, I spool with nothing but ultra-thin, and ultra-sensitive 10lb. PowerPro. This line features the diameter of 2lb. test monofilament and with its lack of stretch, allows me to keep tabs on my offerings every move.
Of course, maximizing your baitfish’s natural presentation doesn’t end there. For starters, lose those bulky barrel swivels. When fishing the shallows with finger-long livies, swivels are completely unnecessary and cause more harm than good. If you need to add a little more weight to combat the conditions, you can always pinch on a split-shot. As a rule; go stealthy and go light! Tie your braid directly to three to four-feet of fluorocarbon leader. When targeting trout or slot-size redfish over grass with few unforgiving obstructions, 20lb. test is fine. When fishing near heavy cover such as sharp oyster bars, jagged docks and concrete bridge abutments, and when big linesiders and ‘poons are a real possibility, 50lb. test leader may be better suited for the task.
Hooks are the final component to the ballistic baitfish puzzle. While your rod may be right on par and your line thin and sensitive, too large or too heavy a hook will not only potentially inflict a fatal wound, but may just anchor your baitfish to the bottom. Today, inshore circle-hooks from leading manufacturers such as Gamakatsu, Daiichi and Owner, are thinner, smaller and stronger than ever before, thus allowing for a much more natural presentation without the risk of straightened hooks. I am not sorry to say that the days of heavy, thick gauge hooks are a thing of the past.
It makes no sense to invest all of that time and/or money catching or purchasing bait only to fish it ineffectively. Snook…redfish…seatrout…tarpon…Florida’s notorious inshore game fish are far from dumb and definitely don’t get big by being naive. Thriving in a harsh fish-eat-fish world, brilliant game fish can quickly detect when something doesn’t appear right, doesn’t smell right, or doesn’t move right. Take my advice; lighten’ up and quickly watch your shallow water success ratio soar.