Beacons of Bait

Aids to Navigation Also Guide Anglers to Their Quarry

Capt. Steve Dougherty August 22, 2018

Bait fishing is just that. Even for the most experienced anglers, climbing the food chain can be challenging. It seems absurd, but it is truthfully harder to pattern sardines than it is to catch sailfish. Fortunately, making bait can be simplified by understanding how various forage species relate to their surroundings.

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Photography: Doughertyphotos.com

Though many U.S. Aids to Navigation exist throughout our local waterways, beacons differ from buoys in the fact they are permanently attached to the seafloor. Single-piling channel markers are the most commonly encountered beacons, helping boaters navigate coastal waters while also providing solitude and security for a host of prized baitfish species. Amid open water, the seductive shimmer of fresh scales would quickly elicit a fatal strike.

Depending on your region, you may encounter threadfin herring, pilchard, goggle eye, Spanish sardine, blue runner, cigar minnow or speedo congregating along these barnacle encrusted structures during various stages of the tide.

Though the debate will never end, in Florida’s saltwater realm the answer is clear—live bait is king! The latest advancements in lure design have certainly resulted in the most appealing artificials anglers have ever seen, but the fact of the matter is that even the most biologically perfect fake bait can’t duplicate the cadence, vibration and fish attracting abilities of a wounded baitfish.

I’m not the only advocate, and this is why many of the most successful anglers are also excellent bait fishermen. While catching bait can be mundane, it’s a vital part to any angler’s overall success. Along the way you’ll also learn about migration routes, seasonal patterns and localized conditions that produce bait and game fish year after year.

Whether you fish in Madeira Beach, Miami or Destin, you’ll likely observe boats and birds fishing for bait along the most popularized beacons. The absolute truth is that no matter where you call home, there’s no shortage of bait-holding structures and anglers need not search far to find the fish.

Now that you know where to begin your search, you must time your bait-catching efforts correctly. Incoming or outgoing doesn’t always matter, but water must be moving. You’ll typically find the last two hours of incoming and first two hours of the outgoing tide to be the most productive, but with a bit of experience and keen observation you’ll soon find a combination of depth, current and structure that is the most effective.

Another key factor to reaching a level of consistent success lies in your ability to tune and understand the returns on your sonar. When calm conditions prevail, baitfish might dimple on the surface, but when wind disturbs the surface or the water clarity is poor one must rely on their electronics. Baitfish can be identified as a yellow or light-colored fuzz and depending on their size and concentration, the returns may be darker or lighter in color. With time spent chasing schooling baitfish you’ll soon start to notice distinguishable patterns with particular species. Unlike threadfin herring that often return as a red blob near the bottom, cigar minnows often school in a vertical pattern instead of holding tight to a particular depth. When searching for forage fish it’s important you operate a split screen display providing bottom lock and full display of the entire water column.

In the shadow of South Beach lies what is perhaps the state’s most famed beacon of bait. While many routinely visit East Range Marker, locally known as Bent Range, there’s no shortage of navigational beacons in the area. Along Florida’s Panhandle, cigar minnow and threadfin herring make their presence known in the summer and take residence until early fall when water temperatures start to drop. Tampa Bay is home to massive congregations of forage fish, with threadfin herring, locally called greenies, the most common species encountered along interior channel markers. Moving to Egmont Key and the open Gulf, blue runner enter the mix and it’s not uncommon to see hundreds of baitfish holding on the down-current side of channel markers and daybeacons.

No matter where you’re attempting to capture forage, sabiki rigs provide the most delicate means of harvest. Hooked with #6 and #8 quill rigs, small scale baits like herring and sardine often rise to the surface. To avoid a tangled mess, keep constant pressure on the line while fishing a light drag to maximize your catch.

When you see baits dimpling on the surface or mark schooling fish below the boat a cast net can also be used, but you can expect these baits to be slightly weakened from the trauma of the net. It’s also a good idea to get a positive ID before bombing your net because capturing hundreds of baitfish is pointless and a waste of resources if they are all gilled from selecting a net with the incorrect mesh size.

If you’re serious about fishing with live bait, then you are eventually going to be forced to fish for live bait. Fortunately, there’s a certain level of gratification that comes along with enticing trophy game fish on bait you invested your own time and energy to catch.

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