Unless you’re willing to hand over a couple C-notes for a well’s worth of live goggle-eyes, bait options are somewhat limited in the colder winter months. There are several fallback options, however, that are readily available either from bait shops, seafood markets or self-collected. Here are the top baits that will catch a variety of fish when the temperatures dip:
Available for most of the year, live shrimp are inexpensive, versatile for rigging and on the menu for most inshore game fish. Shrimp can be kept in a live well, 5-gallon bucket with aerator, a bait bucket hung over the gunwale or in a plastic bag on ice in the cooler. Fished plain on a jig head or Carolina rig, or suspended under a popping cork, shrimp are one of the most popular briny baits. And if it’s a slow day, take the remainder home and boil for a few minutes for fresh shrimp cocktails.
Blue crabs can be harvested by trap or bought at bait shops and seafood markets. Quartered and impaled on a circle hook, blue crab chunks are effective for black drum, redfish and tarpon. Live crabs can be kept in the live well or bucket. Fresh dead will keep on ice for a couple days.
Another universal bait that is readily available is mullet, which can be cast-netted or bought. Chunks of fresh mullet will entice a variety of species with its oily scent. Small live “finger” mullet can netted in backwater canals, creeks and shorelines. They make a perfect meal for redfish, trout and flounder.
Menhaden or pogies can be netted, depending on the water temperatures, but frozen pogies are often available at bait shops and marinas. Another oily forage species, chunks of menhaden soaked on the bottom will tempt reds, snook, stripers, tarpon and grouper.
Ballyhoo are common in South Florida and the Keys year-round. The most common way to collect them near the patch reefs is by drawing them in close with a frozen chum block and throwing a large cast net. Ballyhoo are fairly hardy if not over-crowded in the live well. Slow troll them for sailfish and dolphin. Cut sections are a good offering for grouper and snapper, too.
6. Other Possibilities
Fiddler crabs are candy for the hordes of sheepshead that congregate inshore around structure during the winter months. Fiddlers are hardy and can be netted or picked up by hand around moist shorelines or under rocks and stranded debris. Killifish or mud minnows are another cold-tolerant bait. Use a small cast-net to collect them in marina or boat basin shallows, tidal creeks and along shorelines. Mud minnows will last for hours in a live well or simple 5-gallon bucket.