The wide-ranging game fish that hunt Sunshine State shallows feed on a huge variety of forage species, with baitfish making up a great deal of their diets. However, while predators display unique preferences as they pertain to shimmering baits from pilchard and herring to pinfish and pogy, few shallow-water targets will ever pass up a properly presented shrimp. Perhaps the most versatile inshore offering in the entire state, shrimp are often widely accessible, easy to keep alive and offer simple rigging. From snook to snapper and beyond, there’s almost nothing you can’t catch on these staple crustaceans.
Although the availability of shrimp, too, varies throughout the year, these crunchy crustaceans are generally effective whenever they are used. Whether you’re drifting jumbo live shrimp back to finicky tarpon in the dead of winter or letting your offering flicker under a popping cork during the warmest months of the year, predatory game fish roaming statewide shallows rarely forego such an easy meal. However, despite the wide-ranging appeal shrimp present to many of our favorite target species, proper rigging and presentation of live, dead and artificial shrimp is crucial to success.
When it comes to harvesting shrimp for bait and food, pink shrimp (Farfantepenaeus duorarum) is the most common, inhabiting clear waters from central west Florida to southeast Florida. The other two less common species, brown shrimp (Farfantepenaeus aztecus) and white shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus), are predominantly found in muddier water than the pink shrimp, with brown shrimp more abundant in deeper water and white shrimp more abundant in shallow water. Additionally, brown and white shrimp are caught principally in the waters of northeast and northwest Florida.
Though many lifelike imitations are available to anglers that result in a great deal of success, usually the best way to fish a shrimp is live. However, the way you hook and deploy your shrimp matters, and doing so correctly depends on target species and venue. Whether targeting sheepshead, snapper or bonefish, one of the stealthiest ways to fish a live shrimp is by threading the hook through the tail. To make this easier, many anglers simply pinch the tail of the shrimp off, insert the point of the hook and push the body of the bait up the shank of the hook. With this method, the majority of the hook remains hidden at all times, with the barb exposed at the middle of the bait’s underside. While this approach effectively hides the hook, it also inhibits the bait’s ability to move naturally in the water, which may deter keen predators like tarpon and snook. Furthermore, this method does not work with circle hooks.
When using circle hooks, the most popular rigging method involves hooking the shrimp through the head, making sure to avoid killing the bait. Fortunately, shrimp are translucent, allowing anglers to identify the safe area in the carapace that will cause minimal damage to the shrimp when hooked. Hook selection is also an important factor to consider. While tarpon fishermen rely on 7/0 inline circle hooks or larger when using bigger baitfish, even the largest shrimp is too small a bait to justify a hook that size. Therefore, it’s important to scale down your hook size. The hook you use should match the size of the bait, not the size of the target species. With larger shrimp, 4/0 or 5/0 circle hooks will allow the bait to maintain a natural presentation. However, smaller offerings warrant a downsize to 2/0 or 3/0.
It can be argued that nothing beats the live version as it pertains to any bait, but there are still several effective uses for dead shrimp. One of the most popular applications is on the shallow reef systems of Florida and The Bahamas, where trophy yellowtail snapper are perhaps the most wary targets that fall for only the most natural presentations. While live shrimp is certainly effective in these venues as well, fresh, peeled shrimp bodies are even more enticing to these scrappy fighters. By carefully removing the head, tail and shell of a shrimp, anglers can easily thread the bait onto their ti ny J-hooks, leaving them hidden. Additionally, the fresh dead shrimp provides an added scent appeal that drives flag yellowtail snapper crazy.
Whether live or dead, natural offerings often out-fish artificial imitations. However, today’s lifelike lures can mimic nearly any forage species that swims, and the innovation has led to a huge variety of shrimp fakes. Hard baits or soft baits, weighted or not, these baits can be credited with numerous trophy catches across the state. The venerable D.O.A. Shrimp is still a favorite among the inshore elite, but brands like Berkley, Monster 3X, Chasebaits, Egret, Livetarget, Z-Man and Hyperplastics, along with many others, have developed shrimp replicas that have proven irresistible to snook, redfish, trout and much more. But, although these lures are undoubtedly effective, they will only produce if they are fished correctly. As is the case with any other fishery, anglers must assess the conditions they are presented with to determine how they should rig their lures. Lots of lush grass means a weedless presentation is your best bet, while deeper water warrants the use of a jighead or weighted worm hook.
Among the many baits that inshore anglers trust to tempt their target species, shrimp are perhaps the most widely preyed upon among shallow-water predators. Live, dead or fake, some sort of shrimp should always be involved in your inshore arsenal. Even offshore anglers in the know keep a few shrimp lures on board to entice dolphin and tripletail feeding beneath fields of sargassum, where shrimp are staples. Never underestimate the catch-’em-all crustacean!