Ballyhoo

FSF Staff June 11, 2010

Have you ever wondered what goes into producing the tackle, gear and accessories we use today? Anglers and boaters often take for granted the tremendous effort it requires to engineer, design and manufacturer the countless components that combine to enhance our on-the-water experiences. You name it, and somewhere in Florida a team of skilled craftsmen are dedicated to producing the finest equipment for our use. We wanted to learn more about these professionals and about the products they specialize in. We’re confident that you, too, will be fascinated with what we discover in our ongoing investigation.

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Photo: Steve Dougherty

If you’re a dedicated offshore angler with experience trolling for pelagic game fish, then there’s no need to convince you that ballyhoo are the most popular and effective blue water offerings of all-time. These go-to baits are highly desired by anglers around the world for one simple reason—they consistently produce quality catches! In fact, I can’t think of a single offshore species that won’t readily suck down a freshly rigged ‘hoo. While slow trolled Spanish mackerel and mullet do indeed trigger savage strikes, day in and day out ballyhoo offer the most consistent action. We thought it would be fitting to focus this editorial on ballyhoo and the journey involved in making your angling fantasies come true.

The government was thrilled at the thought of industry initiated self-regulation, and the previously unlimited quota was reduced to 10 boxes per day with the capacity of 17 cubic feet per box.

As one of the largest distributors of frozen baitfish in the marine industry, Bionic Bait (www.bionicbait.com) is renowned for producing high-quality products on a consistent basis. In addition to providing 75 different types of saltwater baits for all anglers’ needs, Bionic Bait also delivers top quality forage to a variety of zoos, aquariums and wildlife rehabilitation centers across the country. Armed with a fleet of trucks equipped with high-powered freezer units, Bionic Bait prides themselves on providing the best customer service with on-time deliveries of high-quality products.

Ballyhoo are prevalent around the entire state, but the heaviest concentrations can be found in South Florida during the fall and winter seasons. In years past, ballyhoo were heavily pursued as far north as the Palm Beaches, but with the net ban in effect this fishery is no longer an option. As a result, a majority of commercial efforts take place in the fertile Florida Keys where ballyhoo are often seen schooling in huge numbers. In order to stay ahead of their increasing demand and continue to keep a fresh supply, Bionic Bait takes it one step further than distribution. They have their very own commercial harvesting operation with seasoned captains and dedicated deckhands—an operation we were anxious to experience firsthand.

The process of acquiring bait depends on the particular species in demand. When ballyhoo are desired a surface skimming lampara net is utilized as it is the most harmless, efficient and effective way of procuring a solid catch (Image 1).

While you may view commercial ballyhoo fishing as indiscriminate raping of the seas, you couldn’t be any further from the truth. In fact, Bionic Bait’s Pat Lynch was the founder of the Florida Ballyhoo Producers Association. About five-years ago there were talks of introducing a large-scale ballyhoo processing ship to the Florida Keys, which would have absolutely devastated the ballyhoo population. With the future of Florida’s favorite baitfish swinging in the balance something had to happen. There was previously no limit to the amount of ballyhoo that could be harvested in a single day and the largest boats could haul upwards of 40 fishboxes of bait per day! Pat knew this was the beginning of the end and contacted Dr. Roy Crabtree of the National Marine Fisheries. The government was thrilled at the thought of industry initiated self-regulation, and the previously unlimited quota was reduced to 10 boxes per day with the capacity of 17 cubic feet per box. It was also determined that there still needed to be a 3% reduction in catch to keep stocks healthy. As a result, Florida’s commercial ballyhoo fleet was cut in half. There’s also limited entry and tough qualifications to partake in this fishery.

For this trip we were invited to fish with Pat out of Marathon, FL. It was a cold winter morning and Pat was convinced ballyhoo would be congregated by the thousands around the shallow patch reefs near Sombrero Key Light. Another bait boat was in the area and pointed out the location of a healthy school of ballyhoo. Before the net can be set, the captain must diligently watch the movement of the school and set up in the right location so the current can work in his favor. Pat circled the frenetic ballyhoo and as they balled up in a tight concentration, he authorized his crew to deploy the net (Image 2). A buoy is tossed out first and effectively anchors one end of the net, while also providing a solid visual when completing the circle. No matter what type of fishing you enjoy, having a network of friends on the water is essential and as Pat’s crew deployed the remainder of the net, the nearby harvesters helped to corral the ballyhoo by running parallel to the net (Image 3). The noise of the diesel engine helps drive the fish to the surface and in the direction of the net.

Once the captain completes his circle and reaches the buoy, it’s time for the real work to begin. With all of the ballyhoo encircled, the crew begins pulling in the net with a series of pulleys and a power-assist winch. Once the first float comes back to the boat, then it’s time to haul the gear by hand (Image 4) in an effort to make the circle smaller and smaller. The net won’t fully close until it’s close to the boat and it doesn’t reach anywhere near the bottom, so at any time the ballyhoo could swim away freely. To say it was a tense moment was a vast understatement. Similar to how the nearby boat helped concentrate the ballyhoo, there is another trick of the trade. While hauling gear a mate will simultaneously smack the line with a long PVC pipe. The reverberating sound effectively concentrates the ballistic halfbeaks. Since they still have the opportunity to swim away freely, the mate also projects the PVC pipe into the water column, sending the ballyhoo scattering towards the surface (Image 5).

Once the captain reaches the beginning of the net, a purse line is pulled to prevent the fish from sounding and escaping (Image 6). Depending on the size of the load, the mates may have to stop hauling the net and begin dipping bait. With a long-handled dip net the baits are scooped up and placed in fishboxes (Image 7). In order to keep the ballyhoo fresh and flawless, it is essential that the mates transport the bait with as little damage as possible. Once onboard the precious baits are immediately brined in a combination of crushed ice, salt, sodium bicarbonate and two proprietary ingredients (Image 8). The process repeats itself until all 10 fishboxes are filled. On this day we hit the mother lode and loaded the entire boat in one set! Normally a camera onboard means a slow day of fishing, but on this day we were greeted with the catch of a lifetime. To say Pat was excited was a bit of an understatement (Image 9).

On our way back to the dock Pat made a quick call. “We got ‘em,” he said. In no time a truck was en route to pick up the bounty, and as quickly as they were offloaded from the boat they were headed north to Pompano Beach. When the ballyhoo arrive at the warehouse in Pompano, the baits are separated by size. Depending on the desired finished product, the ballyhoo are either packaged unrigged (Image 10), or set aside to be hand-rigged by a skilled team of bait riggers. The packaged ballyhoo are then placed on a conveyor belt and vacuum sealed. The baits are then flash frozen and trucked to a bait shop near you.

This commercial fishery feeds the insatiable appetite of offshore anglers up the entire eastern seaboard and ballyhoo go from open ocean to retailer in less than three-days. The next time you deploy a spread of fresh ballyhoo, spend a moment and think about the extensive journey they took to finally end up in your prop wash.

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