If you’ve ever used live croaker for bait, then you are well aware of their unfair advantage. As a matter of fact, in years past the state of Texas was trying to ban the use of live croaker for trout fishing! A member of the drum family, Atlantic croaker can be found throughout the entire state although they’re more commonly encountered in the northern stretches where extensive salt marshes prevail. Depending on where you reside along the coast, you’ll also likely encounter pigfish, pinfish and mud minnows on your quest for croaker. While they are more difficult to come by than finger mullet and pinfish, croaker in your livewell often results in trophy trout and redfish action.
Aptly named due to the croaking sound produced by vibrating their inflated swim bladder, croaker are a hot topic among inshore aficionados. Simply stated—you’re either a croaker soaker or not. Experienced inshore anglers who prefer live bait over artificials are fond of these grunting finfish because of their ability to entice stud trout and slob reds. Not to say that a live shrimp isn’t a great option when scouting the flats, but smaller nuisance fish that are keen on these crustaceans won’t mess with larger croaker.
Serious croaker soakers often give the line a subtle twitch to get their baits to croak and attract nearby predators.
If you live in the vicinity of a bait shop that sells these irresistible enticements you are in luck. The alternatives aren’t as simple, and you’re never going to load your livewell with bite-size croaker. While these glorified grunters can grow to 4 pounds and are targeted by recreational harvesters for their food qualities, the croaker you are after are in the 3 to 5 inch range. While you can chum the shallows and toss a cast net, you won’t be able to specifically target croaker. A better option is to fish Sabiki rigs or single gold hooks tipped with Gulp!, Fishbites, or tiny shrimp or squid chunks. Try your luck in depths of 6 to 10 feet of water where there is a distinct drop-off and the seagrass starts to disappear. If you have a fish finder you should use it to your advantage.
When it’s time to start fishing your rigging technique will depend on your approach. Along the Gulf Coast, fishing with live croaker for gator trout is best accomplished by free-lining. You can hook them through the nose or above the lateral line near the tail. While the above will get you in the game, you should adjust your hook position with what you experience on the water. If predatory game fish are aggressive and going in for the kill on the first strike you should hook your croaker through the nose. Croaker are relatively large live baits for inshore assailants and enraged game fish often kill their prey head first. This hook position will put your point directly in the line of fire.
If you notice the fish are striking less aggressively, a tail hook placement will enable the bait to swim more naturally and hopefully entice lazy fish. If you’re scouting deeper water near an inlet or jetty, break out your fish finder rig and hook your croaker near the tail. This will force your bait to swim up and away from the weight. If you prefer to fish with a popping cork a nose hook placement will be your best bet. This will entice the bait to swim down and away from the cork. No matter what hooking technique you use you’ll want to give your aggressor a chance to swallow the bait. When you detect a strike, lower the rod tip and let the fish run with the bait before driving the hook home. With a wide gap, kahle hooks are perfectly suited for live croaker fishing.
Serious croaker soakers often give the line a subtle twitch to get their baits to croak and attract nearby predators. One of the most important and often overlooked aspects of live bait fishing is understanding when to say enough is enough. Croaker aren’t the hardiest of baitfish and you need to be able to read their condition. They are quite sensitive to water temperature and salinity changes and you may find them difficult to keep alive.
Casting a croaker more than three or four times and fishing it until it’s dead on your hook should be avoided. When you make a cast try and make a slow-arching cast so the bait doesn’t slap the surface too hard. The rod you select will also play a crucial role. American Rodsmiths has a specialized Croaker Smoker model that was designed with a slow action for tossing croakers long distances without damaging the bait. The soft action doesn’t whip the baits as much when you wind up and let it rip. While they are definitely more difficult to get your hands on than pinfish or mud minnows, these noisy baitfish deserve careful consideration. Give them a shot and you’ll be a believer.