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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.

How important is live bait in the Gulf of Mexico? "It is the key to success," says top tournament angler John Thomas Dusek. "If you want variety and quality in the fish box when you hit the dock, you'd better have a livewell full of good baits in theappropriate sizes for what you are after."

That could not have been more evident than it was two Novembers ago when Dusek, my friend Brandon Smith and I left Freeport, Texas, with one thing on our minds: grouper. Actually, there were two things on our minds, and the first was catching the bait we needed in order to get on with the grouper.

Because we were all too busy to catch pinfish the night before, we departed with an empty livewell. Without the right baits, we were likely to waste a whole lot of gas. Dusek reminded us: "It can be tough to catch the smaller blue runners that we need for the scamps this time of year. That is why I like to have the piggies [pinfish] before we leave the dock."

Fortune smiled on us that day, for at our first stop, at a rig about 60 miles out and in about 80 feet of water, the sounder lit up on several large schools of baitfish. "Use the small sabikis," Dusek instructed. "We want only the little 'crackers.'" An hour later, we had all of the bait we could use in a day and were off to a rig known only as "Sticky" to a close circle of friends.

Upon arrival, Dusek rigged with leaders that consisted of a swivel, a circle hook and a weight that could be described only as "man, that's heavy." Moments later, we were sending 5-inch blue runners to the bottom so fast that the amberjack and barracuda could not keep up.

"This one is getting licked good," I informed all as the tip of my rod thumped up and down and I reeled in the first of what would be a perfect three-man limit: 15 scamp grouper between 18 and 22 pounds. It's a feat not often repeated in the Gulf of Mexico, and the secret to our success was the perfect live bait.

Catching Bait
Often, the best offshore anglers are not the ones in the biggest boats with the priciest gear but those who are most competent at catching the right bait for the species they seek. I cannot tell you how many times I have been on a boat with Dusek and another friend, Casey Cundiff, and watched them catch bait when nobody else could. We might be at a rig with three other boats, filling our livewells with blue runners while other boats struggled to put a half-dozen in their wells. It is all about knowing what bait you need and how to catch it.

For example, if you are heading out to box a 50-pound king, a 5-inch blue runner or frozen ribbonfish will rarely do the job. To catch a big fish, you have to have a big, lively bait. A perfect example is the day we traveled over a hundred miles into the Gulf to tackle big warsaw grouper. We had only three big blue runners left, and all three were sacrificed to the fish gods when giant warsaws took the baits and headed into structure below. Our heads were low when Pat Varga, another one of Dusek's regular crew, had an unusual idea: "Why don't we try to catch one of these chubs and drop it down?"