Most bait fishermen prefer to fish with the live stuff. That’s understandable when it’s abundant and easy to catch, but when it becomes scarce in the winter months, I seldom bother trying to net bait. Instead I simply pull it out of the freezer. I keep a winter’s worth of live bait in the freezer November through March, and I also like the variety you can pull out and use.
When threadfin herring are plentiful during the warmest months, I will take a day and concentrate on filling a five-gallon pail full of threadfins, which can sometimes be done with a single toss of a 10-foot, 1/2-inch mesh cast net. Once netted, it’s important to get the bait on ice and keep it cold. This requires a big cooler half full of ice. I empty the net into the cooler, and add water to cover it all. That’s the easy part.
Keep Bait Cold
Then I put a dozen baits into re-sealable bags, and return them to the ice because air temperature is your enemy. After I’ve got them all bagged, I transfer them to a freezer. I’ve tried filling the bags with water, but it takes up too much room, and really doesn’t seem to make a difference in bait quality. The real trick to keeping frozen bait firm and appetizing is to keep it cold.
By portioning the baits into small packages, you minimize waste and have a ready supply of it in convenient packages. It is equally important to keep the bait on ice as you fish with it, taking out only what you need for the hook and to chum with, then return the remainder to the cooler.
Ladyfish also make a prime cut bait. The oily, bony flesh is a favorite of redfish, snook, cobia, tarpon, and a host of other species. And the best thing about ladyfish is that they are fun to catch! Mine come exclusively on hook and line, so I always have a light spinning rod aboard rigged with a pompano jig in case I run into a school while fishing for something else. Again, the fish are released into a well-iced cooler as soon as they’re caught. You can then freeze them whole, or cut them into chunks. I do both, depending on how many I catch.
Jack crevalle perhaps makes the best frozen bait of all, and they are even more fun to catch than ladyfish! Pound-for-pound, I don’t think anything pulls harder than a jack. Perhaps the best thing about freezing jacks is how firm the flesh remains. I fillet the fish and leave the skin on. It’s so tough I sometimes have to cut it off the hook when I want to put on a fresh bait. In the winter months, I carry a heavy spinning rod rigged with a 1/2-ounce jig for rambunctious jacks that can run up to 25 pounds. Once again, you need a big cooler and the fish should be immersed in a slurry of ice water as soon as it is caught. When I get back to the dock, I fillet the jack and portion the filets (skin on) into plastic bags.
Try Circle Hooks
When fishing cut bait, I use circle hooks most of the time. The exception is when fishing the mangrove shoreline at high tide for redfish. There I use a 1/2-ounce jig head for better casting accuracy. This is also a good place for low stretch, highly-sensitive microfilament line.
Another useful accessory when fishing with cut bait is a hook-removing tool. It keeps your hands out of harms way when disgorging the hook, and is also easier on the fish. You will also catch a lot of catfish with cut bait, and the tool permits you to release them without even bringing them in the boat.
I don’t catch my own shrimp, but I do buy them sometimes. When I have some leftover, they too go into plastic bags and get frozen, unless they are jumbos. Those go in the frying pan! The same thing applies to frozen shrimp as it does to every other frozen bait; keep them cold until you put them on the hook.
As with any bait, you match the size of the hook to the size of the bait. For example, if I am fishing 2-inch chunks of ladyfish for big fish, I will use 5/0 to 8/0 circle hooks. Using smaller chunks for redfish, snapper and snook, I might use 2/0 or 3/0 sized hooks. And if I need a long, accurate cast to reach a hole deep in the shadowline, I will rig a bait on a 1/2-ounce jig head.
Cut bait is a great way to catch fish when live bait is too much trouble, or simply unavailable. Try freezing some for a future angling adventure!
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