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July 26, 2010

The Best Gulf of Mexico Live Baits

How important is live bait in the Gulf? It is the key to success.

Hordes of Bermuda chubs had been swimming around the hull of the boat all morning. At one point, we witnessed the chubs go into a panic as a giant blue marlin crashed through them only feet from the boat. The deduction: If they are tasty enough for a marlin, why would a grouper turn its nose up at one? So we threaded a cheese-flavored puff on a hook (chubs will eat anything) and dropped it over the side. Moments later, a 16-inch chub was on its way from the surface down to 400 feet, to be devoured by a 90-pound warsaw.

The chub was, of course, a good example of "big bait equals big fish," but the standard fare will always be blue runners, or hardtails, as they are commonly known. And the key to catching them is to find structure, whether it be a rig, buoy or weed line, in 80 to 120 feet of water. The same theory applies to catching bait. If you are looking for foot-long blue runners for a big wahoo, amberjack or warsaw, break out the jigging spoons and get after them. However, if you want 5-inchers, just big enough that the bonito steal them from the blackfin tuna beneath shrimp boats, tie on a sabiki rig and bring them in four or five at a time. It's important to have a variety of sizes and colors of jigging spoons and sabiki rigs, because baitfish can be picky too.

Another favorite food for many fish that swim in the Gulf is the cigar minnow. Unfortunately, it's rarely available in any months other than September, October and November, and even then it can be difficult to locate. Look near structure in 70 to 90 feet, and use the smallest sabiki rigs. Cigar minnows, at 8 or 9 inches, are good for smaller fish. If you have bigger fish in mind, add a few big hardtails to the livewell.

There is only one other bait worth consideration, and that is pinfish, or as Dusek calls them, piggies. Pinfish can be caught inshore in one of two ways. The first is with perch traps baited with a couple of handfuls of shrimp heads and tossed into a channel. For a trip to the grouper grounds or for a blackfin trip, I suggest having at least three large traps or six smaller ones. Set them two days before heading out so you have time to move them if you need to. The second way to catch piggies is with a light rod, small perch hooks and dead shrimp on the jetties or near a fish-cleaning station. Carry a bucket and a battery-operated aerator to keep the baits in top shape.