It’s not hard to understand why those who truly maximize their time on the water by recognizing the conditions and surroundings gain more knowledge and as a result catch more fish. This theory applies inshore and off. Whether you call them locals, pros or die-hards, consistently successful anglers are in tune with the environment and have a clear understanding of what happens below the surface. While there’s no easy way to acquire such knowledge, one common aspect among the most successful anglers is their ability to locate and catch live bait. The bottom line is that no matter how amazing of an angler you think you are, you’re only as good as the baits in your livewell.
While you may be expecting this article to take a heading offshore, shallow water anglers plying the state’s vast inshore waterways are also quite effective at finding and catching live bait. Sure, artificial lures do the trick, but there are many times when nothing beats a frisky baitfish flickering for its life. Few game fish can resist such a tantalizing temptation. If you want to be consistently successful when chasing Florida’s famous four (snook, trout, redfish & tarpon), you’ll need to catch bait everyday and sometimes even twice a day.
Commonly referred to as whitebait along the Gulf, scaled sardines inundate area waters from March through November.
Commonly referred to as whitebait along the Gulf, scaled sardines inundate area waters from March through November. With tarpon, snook, redfish, trout and Spanish mackerel in their sights, local guides and amateur anglers alike feel much better heading out with a livewell full of these tempting offerings. Highly in demand and worth their weight in silver, whitebait can be found along Gulf Coast beaches, bridges, piers, and healthy grass flats of most shallow water ecosystems. Although anglers catch their fare share with multiple-hook Sabiki rigs, if you really want to load your livewell in short order you need to be able to throw a cast net. But don’t start daydreaming of lunker linesiders and silver kings quite yet. Just because you can throw a perfect pancake doesn’t mean you’re heading out a hero. These superb offerings can indeed be found in huge numbers, but when the going gets tough Gulf Coast pros post up and break out chum to bring them within range of a cast net.
When scouting for whitebait along shallow grass flats be sure to keep your eyes peeled for diving birds. Brown pelicans in particular, whether diving or sitting on the surface, often reveal the presence of schooling sardines. Some days you will have to search on your own, and once again those who are on the water the most will have a better idea of where the bait concentrations will likely be located. If you found them today you’ll certainly have a head start tomorrow morning.
Once you’ve found a likely spot you’ll want to maintain your position with a traditional anchor or any type of shallow water anchoring device. Make sure you’ve got a firm grip, as there’s nothing worse than drifting away from an inviting chum slick. Cast net selection is important as well, and for small whitebait in the 3 to 4-inch range you’ll want to throw an 8 to 10-foot net with 3/8″ mesh.
When it comes to chum, inshore anglers have numerous options. Some resort to generic brand cat food and homemade concoctions, while others purchase pre-made mixtures of fishmeal and menhaden oil. Bionic Bait’s double ground chum from your favorite tackle shop’s bait freezer will also invite the attention you’re looking for. Whatever chum you choose, you’ll need to figure out the direction of the current before you start throwing. You want to place your chum in a manner that will bring baitfish close to the boat, but not too close. You’ll need to keep a bit of a buffer zone in order to make an effective toss with your net.
With a bit of experience chumming for whitebait, you will soon realize that the best results often come when the wind and tide are moving in the same direction. Bright, early mornings also offer the best opportunities, giving you the chance to load up on baits before boat traffic and hungry predators sketch them out.
Strong tidal movements will carry your chum away from the boat, however, you’ll have to keep in mind that if you chum too much the baitfish will follow the freebies and likely remain beyond cast net range. While many anglers have bait chumming down to a science, you’ll likely have to go through a learning curve to adjust the timing and velocity of your dispersal rate to the prevailing conditions.
You should notice pinfish and other small finfish showing up in your chum slick fairly quickly. If you’ve been chumming for over 15 minutes and you don’t have any visitors you are in the wrong spot. But don’t think you’ll have to move to another zip code. Sometimes you simply need to change depth or your position on the flat before moving to a new location altogether.
When you have a steady stream of whitebait in your slick it’s about time to toss the net. Throw out a few chum balls where you anticipate your net will land and give the chum a few seconds to disperse. When the baitfish are concentrated and dimpling on the surface let ‘er rip. Because cast nets are highly effective, you’ll need to know when enough is enough. Whitebait are rather frail and don’t do well with overcrowding. Warm, stagnant water will also lead to their premature demise.
Now that you are ready for a successful day on the water you really can’t go wrong. Whether you drop a succulent whitebait in a pothole, pitch one under low-lying mangroves or cast to cruising tarpon, scaled sardines lead the way during the coming months.