Kingfish Pursuit: DIY Live Bait

Live bait is the fuel that runs the engine of big kingfish pursuits, but how you catch it depends on a few key factors.

First is depth. In marinas, on grass flats or around piers and bridges a castnet can quickly gather several hundred schooling baits like threadfin herring (“greenbacks”), scaled sardines (“whitebait”) or menhaden. Once you start looking in the channels and over coastal and offshore reefs, you’ll find it difficult to find a net that sinks fast enough to trap baitfish before they run out from underneath the descending mesh.

In such scenarios, you’ll do better with a sabiki rig—a string of small gold hooks, often dressed with quills, Mylar or other attractants. Anchored with an ounce or so of lead, the sabiki rig resembles the tiny crustaceans that baitfish eat and when they snap at the hooks, they’re snared long enough for you to haul them aboard.

Sabikis are the preferred tool for baits like blue runners, cigar minnows and other bottom huggers that rarely venture into net range. On the flipside, there’s no limit on how shallow you can work these rigs, so if you can submerge it, you can catch bait with a sabiki. Greenbacks, whitebait, even Spanish sardines are common catches. When you mark bait on sonar, but the Sabiki’s slow to produce, try tipping the bottom two hooks with cut shrimp or squid to sweeten the appeal.

A few bait catching tips:

  • Once you feel the first bait tugging on your sabiki, hold the rig steady and others in the school will often load the rig for a “full house.”
  • Tie your main line to the sabiki’s swivel before removing the rig from its plastic sleeve. Sabikis are packaged so they’ll pull from the sleeve one branch at a time. Removing all at once yields a tangled mess.
  • Around channel markers, drop sabiki rigs semi vertically next to the anchor chain or the legs of a fixed structure. Judge your tide direction and strength or you’ll lose every rig your drop.
  • When castnetting, dump captured baits into a bucket of water to prevent bruising on the hard boat deck and then transfer to the livewell.

Now, whether you’re a tournament competitor or strictly out for a day of fun fishing, spending those first couple of hours of daylight catching live bait robs you of what is often the day’s best bite. Once that sun breaks the horizon, kings start chewing. The big smokers will target big prey and often fill their bellies in the first hour. They’ll feed throughout the day when they feel the need, but missing that first-light bite can reduce your day to one of diminished expectations.

The other part here is the “what if” factor. Leaving your live bait-catching duties to the morning of a fishing trip can doom your day if weather, water quality or boat traffic stymies your collection efforts. In markets like South Florida where bait boats sell the preferred species at daybreak, the lines get long and the supplies frequently sell out during tournament weekends.

DIY Baiting

That’s why baiting up the day before your trip and storing live baitfish in a floating bait pen gives you the jumpstart you need to capitalize on that early period of opportunity. You can always catch more bait throughout the day as needs and opportunities dictate, but greeting the sunrise with a well full of frisky baitfish positions you well for fireworks.

Hardy baits such as blue runners, goggle eyes or mullet do well in bait pens. Menhaden, threadfin herring and pilchards can live in captivity, but these delicate baitfish typically end up bruised, scraped and relieved of their slime coats by bumping against the sides of a pen.

Most fishing tackle suppliers offer various bait pens for around $100. Body material is either nylon, hard plastic mesh or a PVC-coated, galvanized mesh. Floats keep the top end at the surface for easy access, while a weighted bottom ring holds the lower end down. Tether lines keep pens from drifting away. Better models include spring loaded latches, which prevent herons, egrets and the like from shoplifting your baits.

Homemade pens are easily assembled from flexible conduit, hard mesh rolls, pool noodles and a tie wraps. If you make your own, be sure to use mesh that’s small enough to keep baits in and predators out. Given the slightest opportunity, mangrove snapper, juvenile barracuda, eels and cormorants can reach through wide mesh and harass your baits. The more stress they endure, the weaker they’ll be on tournament morning.

Although mesh pens are most common, baits left in such confines occasionally fall victim to marauding otters, which can rip through and eat a bunch of baits, while liberating the rest. Solution: a 55-gallon plastic pickle barrels with holes drilled for water flow. Mesh is more forgiving than rigid barrels, but the sturdier baits don’t seem to mind.

For best results, keep bait pens or barrels clean by rinsing them of saltwater and bait residue after each use. This may seem like a lot of fussing about a bunch of little fish, but when one of those fish can translate into a big, fat smoker kingfish, so the end more than justifies the means.

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