Gathering Live Bait
on the Gulf Coast of Florida
Along the west coast of Florida, we have a lot of different bait species that are available most of the year. When one bait leaves the area to spawn, there is generally another that is still available to use in fair numbers. The most popular live bait is the scaled sardine that everyone in the Tampa Bay are calls "whitebait". Probably the second most popular is threadfin herring that we call "greenbacks". For many months of the year, we can collect good numbers of either whitebait or greenbacks with a cast net. You can see by the picture that it is a very efficient means of gathering bait in a short time. (Normally the bait is dumped directly into the live well, these were netted to use for chum during a tournament and were to be cut up anyway) There are a few months of the year, however, that the whitebait disappears from the shallow water and the greenbacks are either full grown at 7"-8" which is too large for most inshore gamefish and off shore snapper or tiny fry that is too small to be effective bait. The best baits at this time of the year are generally found in waters that are too deep to cast net in. For many years commercial fishermen made their own bait rigs out of monofilament line with several tiny gold hooks tied on dropper loops. This is quite effective and catches just about any fish that swims. Tip the hooks with a tiny bit of squid and you can pull up several baits at a time. It works well on pinfish and is still used by the professionals that supply our local bait houses with pinfish.
Of course, there was someone that came up with "a better mousetrap" or in this case a better bait catching rig. I really don't know what company began selling the rigs ready-made first, but we began seeing them on the market in the late 80's. Then someone imported the "Sabiki Rigs" and the bait fishing finally became easy and very effective.
I've learned over the years that you can catch a lot more with them than just bait, but that is for another story. One of the most important factors, to me, is that with them, my anglers can catch a well full of fresh live baits in a short period of time. If there are four anglers fishing for bait and they are pulling up 4 to 6 baits at a time, you can see how the well will fill pretty quickly.
As for rigging them, it couldn't be simpler. The package is even marked to tell you which end to connect to the weight and which end to the line on your rod. Tie the black swivel to your fishing line and clip on an 8 to 16 oz. weight. Carefully remove the hooks from the package and lower the rig to the depth where the bait is holding. When you feel the twitches of fish on the hooks, do not jerk. Simply begin reeling very fast and swing the baits over the side of the boat to the baitwell. There are de-hookers on the market that make it easy to remove them from the hooks without touching them, and I would certainly suggest you use one instead of handling your baits(click here to get the ones I use). Every time you grab a fish, you remove his slime and he becomes more stressed.
There are hundreds of sizes, styles, colors and hook arrangements in the Sabiki line, but generally I've found that one or two styles will work for you depending on the type of bait you are after. In our area, I use the fish skin with a green bead style in a # 8 size with either 6 or 8 droppers. Many people like the #6 size, but it has smaller hooks and lighter lines than the #8. You will notice that the hook sizes are the opposite of what you are used to. Sabiki hooks are measured in millimeters and as the hook number goes up the hook gets larger. Along the upper Gulf coast in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana most of the anglers prefer the size #18 or #20 Sabiki rigs with only two droppers. They are rigged on 40 and 60 pound line for the large blue runners and bonito and generally fished around structure where there are a lot of toothy gamefish that will take your bait if you don't get him in the boat quickly.
I hope this has given you some ideas about catching your own live baits when they are too deep to net or when you just don't feel like throwing the cast net.