Fall bait free-for-all

The law of Supply and Demand holds sway over every type of fishing imaginable. It's simple: Do the fish want what you have? Fortunately, for Gulf Coast anglers adept at catching indigenous baitfish, fall provides plenty of supply and lots of demand.


Fall Bait

Like clockwork, autumn's first cold front sends massive schools of scaled sardines ("whitebait"), threadfin herring ("greenbacks") and even the occasional mix of Spanish sardines onto coastal beaches just outside the passes. These annual gatherings signal the official start to the official end of summer's baitfish bounty. For several months, times have been good and hungry predators would pretty much have to swim backward with their eyes closed to not find a meal.

Now that fall's upon us, daylight hours will steadily decrease, air temperatures will decline, waters will cool and the big, fat buffet line will shrink considerably for most of the state's predators. Baitfish that survived the summer season will head south to warmer wintering abodes in South Florida. It's a time of transition and one of opportunity.

The baitfish plan: Head to the Gulf, turn left and swim as far south as possible.

The predator plan: Don't let that happen.

The angler's plan: Grab a cast net and head to the beach.

Load up on easy ammo

With winter just around the corner, every fish knows it had better pack on the weight now before lean times arrive. Although artificials will catch plenty of fall fish, this is THE time for live baiting. Whitebait and greenbacks appeal to a diverse mix including redfish, trout, cobia, tarpon, sharks, mackerel, jacks and ladyfish. Snook eat 'em too, but we're trying to lay off the linesiders for a while, due this species' severe loss during the past winter's extreme cold. (See "Snook permit refund options")

Capt. Tom Stephens Jr. recently showed me how easily anglers can tap into the natural forage supply line. Leaving New Pass Marina just before daybreak, he headed out from the namesake pass, made a short run south along Lido Key in search of the bait schools that often jog around from one day to the next. Idling about 100 yards off the beach, he looked for the telltale "dimples" of baitfish moving near the surface. On this day, we didn't have to spend much time looking for subtle hints -- someone else had already found the mother lode.

About midway down the key, Stephens spotted a breakfast convention of seagulls and pelicans, all focused on the same resource we sought. Setting up a little short of the birds prevented a mass exodus that could scatter the bait.

After breaking out his 10-foot castnet, Stephens filled a broad plastic tray with sea water and placed it in front of the console, right behind the forward deck from where he'd throw his net. The idea here is to keep baits as healthy as possible so they look more appealing to predators when it's time to go fishing. Dropping baits onto a hard boat deck can rub away slime and scales and that weakens them considerably. Releasing netted baits into a tray of water minimizes the stress.

"I'm really picky about my baits," Stephens said. "I try to get them out of the net and into that tray of water as quickly as possible."

As Stephens demonstrated, fall bait gathering can be a quick in-and-out deal. Two throws and he loaded his well. Securing ample ammo builds confidence for a day of fishing, but Stephens stresses the ongoing need to care for live baits.

"Even when I'm scooping baits out of the livewell, I only scoop a few at a time," he said. "The more you scoop those baits, the more slime you'll knock off of them."

Tools and tactics

At times, hordes of predators will round up big schools of baitfish and drive them up and down the beach, or even into a pass. You can't miss the action -- constant white water eruptions, fish leaping from the water, clouds of screeching birds hovering overhead. Find one of these deals and all you have to do is stay far enough away to avoid spooking the players and lob baits toward the frenzy.

Lacking such visuals, your best bet is to target natural gathering spots such as beach points, rocks and artificial reefs like the one in 19 feet of water north of New Pass just off Longboat Key. Here, Stephens put his live baits to good use and a bunch of Spanish mackerel kindly participated.

Anchoring uptide of your targeted spot lets you fish off the stern. This keeps you close to the bait well and facilitates catching and releasing fish closer to the water. Corks may be helpful for beginners unaccustomed to live baiting, but the added drag may overstress your line when speedy fish like mackerel and blues take the float for a diving run.

Because the fall beach scene may find a diversity of fish rising to check out your baits, you'll do best with a rig that'll handle most anything you encounter. Wire leaders are generally best for toothy mackerel, bluefish and sharks, but the metal may spook other species. (Macks occasionally shy away from wire, too.) A good middle-of-the-road rig is a 3-foot leader of 30-pound fluorocarbon tied to a No. 2 long shank hook. The low-visibility fluoro will typically yield more strikes, while the long shank hook avoids bite-offs.

Jump start the bite by hanging a frozen chum block from a stern cleat. Wave action will melt the block and create a trail of scent and ground fish bits behind your boat. This oily slick will stimulate nearby predators and call in others from afar. Flipping live chum baits behind the boat further entices hungry fish.

Here's a tip: Don't overdo it with the freebies. A steady slick from a chum bag will keep predators interested, but dumping too many live chum baits runs the risk of filling up the fish, or getting them too accustomed to looking for the big wad of food. Keep tossing single chummers every few minutes just to keep the fish close and they're more likely to hunt down your hooked baits.

With so much action on the coastal beaches, bay boats and small to mid-size center consoles offer the ideal blend of shallow water access for bait netting and safety/comfort when fall winds stir the Gulf. On this day, Stephens was guiding a crew from Mojito Boats aboard the company's new 22-foot center console. Based on the ultra-sturdy Panga design, the beamy Mojito 22 provided several of the fishing-friendly features such gunwale and t-top rod holders, a X30-gallon baitwell (set halfway into the transom) and a spacious back deck from which Stephens could toss live chum without crowding his two anglers. (For more on Mojito, see sidebar "High hopes in a down market.")

Later in the morning, before heading to another mackerel spot, Stephens returned to the beach to refresh his bait supply. As the boat idled in about three feet of water, he glanced down from the Mojito's upward sloping bow and exclaimed: "Look at that dark shadow. That's a solid line of baitfish all along this beach."

Such scenes will continue for several more weeks, so don't delay. Hit the beach, grab your bait and put some fall fish in the boat.