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.