The Deal With Live Bait

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I spend my winters solving problems on my customers’ boats and a common discussion among all of them is the bait system.  It seems that when the fishing is good during peak season, just about everyone with a private boat has some sort of bait issues.  The misconception is that the bait tank or pump or a combination of the two is to blame.  Logically, if you pay attention to the timing of your bait problems and the coincidence that everyone else is having the same issue at the same time should tell you.  “Its not the bait system, its the bait itself.”

Even the best bait systems can't keep uncured bait alive.

Even the best bait systems can’t keep uncured bait alive.

So lets go through the basic cycles of the live bait that you purchase from one of the many bait receivers along our coast.

A bait boat (purse seiner) looks for bait sometimes miles from the receiver its delivering to for signs of a payload with sonar and surface activity.  When the operator finds a spot of bait, he sends a skiff off the back of the boat with a crew member and one end of a long, curtain like net.  The top is at the surface supported by floats, while the bottom is weighted down.  The skiff circles and so does the seiner until they meet after making a “set” around the bait.  At this point in time, a certain percentage of the bait is mortally wounded by the net, but still very alive.

With the bait contained in the “purse”, now comes the time when they transfer the bait into the bait boat and yet another percentage of the bait is mortally wounded, but still alive.

Now the bait boat retrieves its net for another set or is done and ready to head for the receiver to drop off its load.  The trip back might have dramatic changes in water clarity, temperature or it might be rough.  In each case, along with the ride in the bait boat, another certain percentage of the bait is mortally wounded, yet still alive.

The seiner arrives at the receiver and the bait is transferred, typically through a long tube like you’d see coming out of a trout stocking truck (only larger).  You get the idea now, more bait gets wounded and all that.  What is now in the receiver is the exact opposite of what we call “cured bait.”  Its dying, its going to die (not all of it), whether you let it go, put it in your bait tank, or leave it in the receiver.

The slime coat on bait (as well as most fish) protects it from infection.  The catching process has removed the slime coat and now these fish are on their way to fish heaven, slowly.  Squid is the exception, I’ll get to that later.

Like any retailer that sells a perishable commodity, the best business model here is to sell this bait as quickly as possible.  Like fruit, vegetables and fresh meats, this bait has a shelf life thats about to expire.  For the weekend guy out for a couple hours or the 1/2 day boat with 30 scoops bait capacity that most of which will be tossed overboard as chum, this bait is fine most of the time.  For the more serious overnight and multi-day guys, this bait will simply not do.  It’ll die before morning, nothing you can do about it.  Yea, maybe 1 in ten will survive, as they were the small percentage that wasn’t mortally wounded during the catching process.  They’re not happy being in a tank full of dead buddies that are giving off scales and slime as they lay on the bottom of the tank and die.  There are no refunds for a tank of dead bait, so shop wisely.

After a few days in the receiver, most of the bait that was going to die already has.  After a week whats left is pretty darn good bait.  Two weeks?  Good luck catching a bait with your net.  This one to 2 week old (or older) bait is what we refer to as “cured” bait.  No, it wasn’t soaked in some special curing solution or given antibiotics or something, its just what survived the process necessary to bring live bait to the masses.  Its a part of Southern California Sportfishing and what sets us apart from most of the rest of the world.  We’re very fortunate to have bait receivers up and down the coast, made evident by the despair created when a bait operation is out of bait, or suffers a break down of some sort.  Be cool to these guys, they work hard.

The bad news is…….. There is so much business for the receivers during the summer and periods of great weather and fishing, that they rarely can keep up with demand, yet alone be able to “cure” bait.  Your choices are:  Buy bait and take your chances, catch your own bait, or fish with jigs and artificials.  Frozen squid is a viable option for certain things we do around here too, but it should be of good quality.

Mackerel are hardy and easy to catch all year round.  Tips for keeping this easy are:  Fish mackerel at night and during periods of high tide or incoming tide.  Use the Sabiki style bait catchers with a lighter line and smaller hooks, it makes a huge difference.  Then add a torpedo sinker big enough to avoid tangles when multiple baits are hooked.  Keep a designated “bait rod” handy when offshore, as small mackerel can often be found under kelp paddies and they will readily climb the “Lucky Joe’s.”  Mackerel, squid and other baits caught are basically cured as long as they are carefully handled, and will live in a good bait system almost indefinitely (*see squid exception below).

Kelps are a great opportunity to "tank up" on bait.

Kelps are a great opportunity to “tank up” on bait.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lastly, I’ll discuss squid.  Hardy and hard to kill.  If squid dies in your bait tank, you either overloaded it, or you really do have an issue with your bait system.  Once squid spawn they rarely live longer than 3 days.  That red, mean, messy and inky squid either hasn’t spawned or just spawned that day.  The slower stuff, that doesn’t try to bite you as much but still stays on a hook is 2nd day stuff.  The mush, hard to make a long cast with, easy to catch and often plugs up the outlet screens on your bait tank are 3rd day after spawning garbage.  This rapid deterioration is why the high price tag, as live squid is often a bit more expensive per scoop than sardines or anchovy.

Hopefully, I just fixed your bait system and saved you a few bucks.  Use it to put some fuel in the rig and go catch something.  Don’t forget to ask around for what receiver has the best bait.  Trip planning is a key part of the puzzle for those who consistently catch more fish.

 

 

 

 

 

Breakwall Seabass

 

Every fall and early spring we get a fair amount of white seabass that move into the waters around the federal breakwall.  Fishing them can be fun and rewarding, especially when you hook a big boy.  The techniques are simple, but the shots are few.  Follow these simple tips to maximize your chances, and enjoy the thrill of catching an exotic within a few miles of the launch ramp.

Seabass and squid are two words that are used together almost as much as peanut butter and jelly, but for breakwall seabass, you need to fish the bigger sardines or medium mackerel for best results.  They will bite the live squid, but over the years I’ve caught way more on bigger finbaits that on the squish.  4/0-6/0 short shank live bait hooks work well, and 25-40# flourocarbon will get bit all day long.  Small baits and squid will get you a lot of bites from sand bass and sculpin, which will take your attention away from the prize.

Seabass bite good on the wall during an incoming tide, through the slack and sometimes a little after as the tide just begins go out.  Look at a tide calendar and find this tide scenario during and early morning or late afternoon, and your chances go way up.  Right at slack tide the seabass are off the wall a ways, typically just outside the line of lobster buoys.  Otherwise they are right about where the jetty rocks meet the sand, which is still not real close to the breakwall itself.

For fishing the wall proper, there are two basic methods that work well.  One is slow trolling a nose hooked bait as slow as your boat will go, parallel with the wall.  You’d think that a heavy torpedo sinker or even a bounce ball rig would be best, but these fish are in the middle to upper water column when they are in bite mode.  A 1-2oz egg sinker held 24″-36″ up from the bait with either a Carolina Keeper or swivel works great.  If two rigs are going to be slow trolled, try a straight flyline for the second outfit.  Hold the rod, and place your thumb on the spool of the reel (in freespool).  You’ll feel the bait get nervous just before a bite, especially with a graphite rod and spectra.  The second method is anchoring and chumming, just like you would at Catalina.

For the anchoring and chumming method, the decision to fish a specific spot needs to be made only when a certain set of conditions are found.  The real gold mine is a spot of birds working and diving right up against the wall.  You could run up next to the spot and cast out a flylined bait to hook one seabass, by why do that when you can quickly anchor and get them biting good and hook more than one.  A proper set of anchor gear is imperative for almost all of Southern California fishing, so you should have that already.  Fishing the gaps or end of the breakwall is also good for anchoring and chumming.  Seabass tend to congregate at the ends, again not right up tight to the rocks but off where the wall meets the sand.  A ground fish “shark chum” bucket works excellent for breakwall seabass, and most of your bites will come on flylined baits.

Spots really do matter when fishing seabass on the wall,  and there are only a few areas that produce regularly.  I already mentioned the east end of the breakwall, and the east end of the LB gap is another great spot.  Drifting the gaps (instead of anchoring) is commonsense because of the traffic in these areas, so chumming isn’t really an option.  The outside is almost always better that any of the inside, and finding structure along the wall can pay off big time.  There are spots along the outside of the wall (most kept very secret) that you can find while slow trolling.  Just keep a keen eye on the fishfinder and mark them when you see them.  The bend in the middle section is also productive, as is the middle of the eastern section.

During the slack tide period, the area outside the LB gap, and a little to the east (outside the lobster buoys) is a great place to drift for seabass.  This is an area where live squid does work often, and you’ll want to keep your baits on or near the bottom as you drift.  There are more seabass here at times, but there can be a lot of shorts, and rarely do you catch any tankers out here.  What is out here and big are the halibut, but thats for another article.

This is by no means an easy fishery, and you will have to practice patience and get dialed in before you start to see results.  The most important thing is not to get discouraged or distracted, and change your game plan before you have the chance to hook a tanker.  Refine your techniques and you’ll have a shot at a local seabass, they have been biting there for years and years.  Fish the tides, make sure you have good bait and put in the time, you’ll be surprised to see how good this fishery can be.