Take the Bait
Secrets from the pros to get a handle on basic live-lining
I know the exact moment I first got hooked on live-bait fishing.
It was June 1970. I was 10 years old and having a blast catching bluegills from shore at
a pond not far from my home. As I reeled in a smallish ’gill I had hooked on a tiny bead of Wonder Bread, the shallow water in front of me suddenly exploded as a 16-inch largemouth bass ambushed my prize! Somehow, the puny #10 Eagle Claw trout hook stuck, and I wrestled that “beast” to shore.
That was the first bass I ever caught, and the adrenaline rush was so addicting, it spurred me over the rest of that season to try to bait any small fish, large insect, tadpole, frog, toad, or even salamander I could corral along the water’s edge. Within a few years, I was repeating the procedure at local bayside docks netting silversides, trapping killies, scooping up grass shrimp, and live-lining snappers (juvenile bluefish), cunners, and peanut bunker to a mix of weakfish, stripers, summer flounder, and ravenous blues.
There’s no doubt that live baits are a trigger to get fish biting and inspire novice anglers to dig deeper into the rabbit hole that is modern sportfishing. For many, it provides an easy starting point to connect with more and larger fish, and the primary reason is simple: When using live baits, anglers try to feed their quarry. Throwing artificials, by comparison, requires actually fooling fish into striking an inanimate object like a piece of wood, plastic, metal, or synthetic material in an effort that takes a little more refining.
Still, even basic live-lining has a learning curve, and the best at this game master the simple concepts before incorporating their own ideas. Add a few of the secrets that separate “sharpies” from the rest of the pack to your own repertoire once you begin to get a handle on things, and you’re well on your way to improved action and more lunkers, be they stripers, blues, weakfish, or fluke along the mid-Atlantic and Northeast coasts, or redfish, snook, sea trout, jacks, and grouper to the south.
All successful live-bait fishing has some common themes. For one, it’s generally best to match the hatch with baitfish that are readily available to your target species. Think pilchards, pinfish, mullet, or shrimp for flats and inshore action in southern and Gulf waters; bunker, eels, and snapper (juvenile blues) as you move north up the East Coast.
It’s also vital to keep live bait thriving before they’re used. For this, you’ll need an aerated livewell. Round wells are preferred over square or rectangular since they provide smoother circulation to keep the baits swimming freely. Be sure to change or refresh the well water consistently throughout the day and not to overcrowd your baits lest they use up oxygen supplies too quickly and roll belly-up.
Figuring out how to rig your baits is important, too, but you’ll need to do extra research on that topic as there are various effective methods, some target species or baitfish specific. Search online for “saltwater live-bait rigs” for a sufficient selection to review.
Lots to Learn
Once you’ve got the basics under control, the fun really begins as you gain confidence, start to experiment, and add your own bit of flair to the live-bait game. You can learn a lot when fishing with someone who is already proficient in live-bait theory and methodology. Consider the tips I quickly incorporated into my own live-bait fishing routine after a day on the water with Tampa Bay’s Capt. Jason Semeyn (@shallowwaterescape on Instagram) several years ago.
Approaching a small mangrove isle, Semeyn pulled up short of what looked to be the perfect trophy fish hangout. “With small baits and light spinning outfits, I like to shut down my engine a long cast from where I think the fish might be,” he explains. “That lets me quietly probe the area before slowly creeping closer. Often, when the fish are undisturbed, they’ll feed several yards outside the tangled roots, making it easier to get them into the boat once you’ve set the hook. If you start from outside the obvious pressure zone, you can always move closer. Come in too hot at the start and you’ll likely spook the big ones.”
We hammered stocky snook, big redfish, and some solid jacks on that trip while casting pilchards into knee-deep water. Not one fish that grabbed our baits managed to reach the mangrove tangles.
Another thing Semeyn advises when fishing with small live bait is to bring along extra for chumming. Rather than simply toss them over the side, however, this crafty skipper grabs a kid’s T-ball bat with the fat end sliced off on a 45-degree angle, loads it with a handful of baits, and launches them toward a suspected hot spot.
“I use that chumming method to pinpoint the fish, get them feeding, and keep them in range,” says Semeyn. “If they’re around, you’ll instantly see swirls. Get a freshly rigged live bait to a swirl within five seconds, and you’re guaranteed a strike.”
Out for a Troll
Capt. BJ Silvia, of Flippin Out Charters (flippinoutcharters.com) in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, specializes in the other end of the live-bait spectrum. He targets monster stripers that can weigh more than 50 pounds using live eels and adult bunker for baits. It’s with the bunker, however, that he really does something unique.
“We get some really big bass on our inshore mud flats during the spring and fall,” reveals Silvia. “The problem is our flats are huge, so you need to cover ground to find the fish. For that, I troll my bunker using circle hook harness rigs, my Humminbird side-scanning fishfinder, and Minn Kota Terrova 87 electric trolling motor. The side-scan capability lets me spot fish off port or starboard that I’d never see with down-cone electronics.”
Silvia points out that his trolling motor precisely controls his course at slow speeds so he can circle around and tow his bunker right over any fish he records.
“Trolling also keeps my bunker in line so they can’t swim away from the bass,” he adds. “It’s surprising how often those big baits put just enough distance between themselves and the stripers to stay safe when you drift.”
Silvia can even tell the difference between actively feeding bass and neutral fish holding near the bottom using this technique.
“Feeding bass will often be seen on the screen shooting up toward the surface,” he says. “Those fish are exceptionally catchable—and often quite big.”
Nick Meola, of Chunkz Customs, Inc. (facebook.com/chunkzcustoms.cm), a Long Island, New York-based company that builds custom fishing rods, notes that rod sensitivity plays a major role in live-bait success, too.
“The smaller the baitfish you use, the more sensitive a rod you’ll need,” he says. “You need to feel that bait swimming at the end of your line to assess if it’s active enough, dead on the hook, or getting nervous from an encroaching predator. In the latter case, get ready—a solid strike may be seconds away.”
Meola suggests live-bait fans opt for fast-action rods as they have more sensitivity in the tip. Plus, be sure to not overpower your live baits by using a rod that’s too big or sturdy. “You need to consider the size of your quarry, but the size of your bait should also factor into the rod selection equation,” he adds. “Don’t go too long on your rod, either. Six-and-a-half to seven-foot rods usually have the length and strength to get the job done, and they tend to load-up well for casting.”
There are other secrets to live-bait fishing, of course, but half the fun is in the learning. Hopefully, the few mentioned here will get you primed to try a bit of experimenting on your own. Who knows? You might come up with the next big secret. After all, as productive as live-bait fishing can be, real experts know the true secret is that it can always be tweaked a little more.
Editor’s Note: The use of live bait is subject to a wide variety of regulations that vary from place to place. Be sure to check the latest state and local fishing regulations before heading out.
-by Tom Schlichter