Bait Wars: Natural Ballyhoo vs. Soft Plastic Ballyhoo

With countless natural and artificial offerings available to Florida anglers, and different baits and approaches effective for various species across a wide array of venues, we wanted to take a closer look at the options and share the benefits of each in a one-on-one competition. As Bait Wars progresses, readers may be surprised to learn there are scenarios when an artificial lure is favored over natural bait for its versatility and availability, while on other occasions nothing seals the deal like the real thing.


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Photo: Steve Dougherty


Average Size: 8 to 12 in.
AKA: Hoos, Ballies, Balao
Overall Rating: 8 / 10

Best Rigging Method: There are as many ways to rig ballyhoo as there are species of game fish that eat them. Popular methods include the use of a single J-hook exiting the baitfish’s belly or anal cavity. This is the preferred rigging method when trolling a ballyhoo/lure combo. An excellent alternative when pulling naked ‘hoo is fastening a fully exposed circle-hook to the top of the baitfish’s head. With this rig, a quick drop back to a hungry sail or aggressive white marlin is usually enough to seal the deal. Breaking the baitfish’s back prior to rigging provides enhanced swimming action and also ensures the bait tracks properly.

Immense numbers of ballyhoo occupy the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf of Mexico. For South Florida anglers looking to procure fresh offerings, these slender baitfish are common across shallow reefs and shoals, especially along the Florida Keys coastline. Anglers can expect to encounter the heaviest concentrations during the coolest months of the year.

Fresh caught ballyhoo should be brined overnight in a mixture of crushed ice, seawater and kosher salt prior to vacuum sealing and freezing for future use. Frozen ballyhoo intended for trolling purposes should be kept on ice and allowed to thaw naturally prior to use. Afterwards, washed out baits should not be refrozen and reused as trolling baits. At this stage, the mushy offerings are best suited for alternative baits.

Ballyhoo are by far the most popular rigged trolling bait when targeting billfish, tuna, dolphin and wahoo. They can be trolled naked, in conjunction with skirted trolling lures, and also incorporated into natural dredge teasers. Additionally, ballyhoo plugs (head and tail removed) make for inviting offerings when targeting snapper, grouper and other prized bottom dwellers.

Fresh ballyhoo can be captured utilizing a cast net, or caught on rod and reel with a tiny gold hook tipped with a small chunk of shrimp or squid tentacle. A steady flowing chum slick over a shallow patch reef is the ticket to success, while an ultra light outfit with 4 lb. test leader and small float will keep you connected. Alternatively, frozen ballyhoo can be purchased at nearly every coastal bait shop unrigged by the dozen, or pre-rigged in packs of three with single hook mono or double hook wire rigs. Frozen ballyhoo can also be shipped worldwide by specialty retailers such as Bionic Bait, Baitmasters of South Florida and Just Rite Bait Co.Soft Plastic Ballyhoo

Soft Plastic Ballyhoo

Average Size: 8 to 10.5 in.
AKA: Live Series Ballyhoo, Chewy Hoos, Tuff Hoo
Overall Rating: 7.5 / 10

Best Rigging Method: Like the real deal, soft plastic ballyhoo can be rigged with either a J-hook or circle-hook, but realize that not all imitations are created equal. Look for fakes with a natural appearance and ample wiggle factor. The faux fish can be trolled naked and have also proven extremely effective coupled with favorite trolling lures. Soft plastic ballyhoo are also ideal for dredge and spreader bar applications.

Soft plastic ballyhoo are currently used by blue water anglers fishing every corner of the globe. Even professional billfish crews who live and die by the real deal will tell you that carrying a selection of imitation ballyhoo is good practice.

Imitation ballyhoo require no brining, no special packaging, no freezing and have zero risk of washing out. Like all soft plastic baits, they are best stored out of direct sunlight. A major advantage to these fakes is that multiple game fish can be caught on the same bait. If a toothy wahoo or smoker king destroys the lure, it is certainly a worthy sacrifice.

Unlike natural ballyhoo, soft plastics do not need to be monitored or replaced during a day of fishing, except to clear weeds or experiment with color variations, thus eliminating the great deal of wasted time and hassle associated with procuring and tendng natural baits. Truthfully, the biggest downfall to these effective fakes is that they cannot be used for anything other than trolling purposes. We haven’t tried, but we’re skeptical a trophy mutton snapper would suck down a soft plastic ballyhoo.

Sold at major retailers and tackle shops statewide and beyond, imitation ballyhoo from Williamson Lures, Berkley, Wannabe Outdoors and Mold Craft provide incredibly realistic mimicry and swimming action. These synthetic baits are also available through online tackle stores and familiar tackle catalogs. Fish fakes for real results!

The Winner: Natural Ballyhoo
While the imitation variety provides undeniable benefits including availability, versatility and ease of use, natural ballyhoo offer the scent factor and can be utilized for many exploits beyond trolling. Although they are more challenging to procure than purchasing a pack of lures off a shelf, it is for these reasons natural ballyhoo edge out the competition.