Quivering Quills

Although you can certainly blackout your livewell with a cast net, multiple hook quill rigs—often called sabiki rigs—acquire live bait in a more delicate manner and provide much more energetic offerings. And even though much has been written about these innovative devices, selecting the appropriate quill rig requires careful consideration. If you think all sabiki rigs are created equal you haven’t wasted enough time fishing for bait.


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Invest an early morning or late afternoon scouting out schooling baitfish and you’ll soon realize the amount of effort this unavoidable task requires. At times, for reasons unbeknownst to even the most seasoned salts, catching finger-long baitfish can be more difficult than enticing predators like sailfish and dolphin. On many occasions your overall success will be determined by the captain’s ability to score big with tiny baits. Because of this necessity, there’s a science that’s involved in live bait fishing and only after many hours spent with a sabiki rod in hand will you fully comprehend the complexities and begin to piece together the puzzle.

Natural fish skin, feather, plastic squid and imitation shrimp are some of the available options, with natural fish skin varieties the most effective in Florida waters.

While goggle eye, sardines, threadfin herring, pilchard and blue runners can be purchased from local bait boats, they can be absurdly expensive. If you wish to fish live bait on a regular basis, there’s simply no way you can afford to purchase an ample supply of bait every time you hit the water. You need to be able to consistently catch bait on your own terms or you’ll be destined for long days dragging plastic fakes and frozen enticements.

Regardless of what you call them, a sabiki is a modified dropper rig with multiple branches outfitted with tiny hooks. While they seem rather trivial, sabiki rigs can vary greatly in regards to number of hooks and hook size, branch and mainline strength, and type of adornment. All of these factors play a roll when it comes to successful baitfishing. Ray Rosher of R&R Tackle understands the bait game as well as anyone and manufactures over 40 varieties of sabiki rigs, further reinforcing the complexities of catching something as small as a 4-inch sardine.

We all know that game fish can be wary, and when it comes to popular baitfish there is no difference. This has been proven so much so that manufacturers have developed bait rigs constructed with barely visible fluorocarbon leader material. Baitfish schools become skittish when multiple vessels key in on one location, so many anglers rely on the nearly invisible line for an added advantage. These rigs are no doubt more expensive, but well worth it when baits are turning their noses up at traditional rigs.

Contrary to popular belief, size does matter and the branch test and mainline strength should coordinate with your hook size and target baitfish species. Larger profile baits like blue runner, goggle eye, speedo and tinker mackerel require stronger branch lines and larger quills. Many South Florida pros targeting goggle eye often use eight #15 hooks, with rigs made from 30 lb. mainline and nothing less than 15 lb. test branches. SKA professionals targeting big blue runner often utilize specialized rigs with four #15 hooks, 40 lb. mainline and 20 lb. branches. These rigs are fished off 10-foot rods with heavy bank sinkers to reach the strike zone and help avoid tangles.

Smaller baits like herring, pilchard and sardines won’t touch such a large rig. Instead, they are much more receptive to sabiki rigs constructed with #8 or #6 hooks and 10 lb. fluorocarbon mainline with ultra-thin 6 lb. branch lines. Here, a light to medium action spinner with a soft tip is the ideal outfit.

After you’ve made proper considerations in regards to the type of baitfish you are going after you need to choose the appropriate adornment for your quill rig. Natural fish skin, feather, plastic squid and imitation shrimp are some of the available options, with natural fish skin varieties the most effective in Florida waters.

When it comes time to toss your rig in the water the baitfish you seek will determine your retrieve. Pilchard are the easiest to entice, since they often school in large masses and are competitive in nature. Once you are on them there’s not much work involved in catching pilchard, but goggle eye require a much more tactical approach. Unlike some species that respond to sharp jigging, goggle eye prefer stationary or gently fluttering quills. Most experienced gog fishermen place their rods in rod holders and often drift or bump troll while keeping a close eye on the sonar.

Herring and sardines respond well to chum and at times will come all the way to your transom to steal a free meal. When this is the case you’ll want to hang your quills just behind your chum bag and simply lift when you feel tension.

Unless you’re really unlucky you probably won’t be baitfishing by yourself, so start by fishing two or more different quill rigs and make note of which is most effective. Some rigs feature multi-colored quills with the addition of tiny beads and you might notice baits routinely striking a particular color or style. Don’t hesitate to experiment with various sabiki rigs and sinkers until you find the perfect combination.

No matter what species you’ve enticed, most baitfish rise to the surface once hooked. To avoid a mess of small hooks and flopping baitfish be sure to keep slack out of the mainline. Additionally, you don’t want to reel too fast since wiggling baits often attract others in the area. Keep constant pressure on the line while fishing a light drag to maximize your catch.

After all the time and effort spent finding and capturing baitfish don’t ruin your efforts by touching the baits with your bare hands or letting them flop around the deck. Rather, use a de-hooker and gently drop the baits into your livewell. Good fishing!