• Published:November 26, 2018
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The better your live baits look in the water, the more bites you'll get.

Like all fish, baitfish have a protective coat of slime over their scales. This slime makes them more hydrodynamic and protects them from harm. When catching bait, it is crucial to avoid touching the bait. You also want to keep the bait from dropping on the deck of the boat. Ideally, the bait should go directly from hook to livewell.
Always use a dehooker to remove the hook from the baitfish’s mouth. The best method to remove a live bait from a sabiki rig is to have the angler hold the weight at the bottom of the rig and keep the sabiki tight over the livewell. Have a mate or another angler pull a dehooking tool up the shank of the hook to turn the hook upside down and let the bait fall free into the livewell. This takes a little bit of practice but over time you’ll find it’s a quick way to drop the baits in the well. By making sure baits never touch anything except water, they keep their slime, which reduces die off. When catching baits for tournaments we only use baits that go directly into the livewell without any trauma.

However, some baitfish will fall off the hooks before they make it to the livewell. It’s unavoidable. Baits that hit the deck can be used the same day but will not survive long-term if you put them in a bait pen. If you have multiple livewells, put baits that hit the deck in a separate well for immediate use. Another thing to watch for is bleeding. If a baitfish is gut-hooked by a sabiki or is fouled in the gills, it will die. If you see any blood whatsoever, toss the bait immediately.

When scooping baits out of the well or bait pen, it is best to scoop them one at a time and avoid harming them. When you take “power scoops” with multiple baits at a time, the baits rub up on each other and lose scales and slime. By losing their protective coating, this increases the likelihood of die off. Try to scoop baits one at a time when possible.

When penning up baits we have a number of different approaches depending on the species. For threadfin herring, Spanish sardines, and goggle-eyes, we like to put a maximum of one bait per gallon in the livewell. For cigar minnows and pilchards, we’ll place two baits per gallon. One great innovation to bait nets is the Wet Net made by R&R Tackle. This net keeps the bait from ever leaving the water and reduces injury when moving baits around. It also allows you to scoop a few baits at a time. Miami charter captain Ray Rosher is one of the owners of R&R Tackle and his experience shows in their products.

When it comes to bait pens, cigar minnows, pilchards, goggle-eyes and blue runners will be just fine in smaller pens. Round pens that are 3 feet in diameter with a depth of 3 feet are adequate for these species. When you are looking to pen up threadfin herring, tinker mackerel, or large Spanish sardines, a 3-foot by 5-foot bait pen is the minimum size you should use. These species also do well in circular pens with a diameter of at least 4 feet. When penning up bait we limit it to no more than 100 baits in each pen. This is less bait per gallon than a livewell because of restricted water flow.

Baits in the pen should be fed every day or every other day. Cigar minnows, pilchards, and blue runners will usually eat after about three days. Threadfin herring and goggle-eyes eat better after a week. We feed krill to our tournament baits. Cigar minnows, blue runners and pilchards will do fine eating chum. We mix in dolphin or kingfish roe and bonito shavings when available. This protein is both nutritious and cost effective.

Unfortunately, you will have some die off no matter what you do. For goggle-eyes and threadfin herring, expect between 10 to 25 percent die off after catching your bait and putting them in bait pens. Cigar minnows, pilchards and blue runners do a bit better, but you can still expect a 10 percent die off.

If you keep your pens in a marina, it’s a good idea to lock them. There is a special place in hell reserved for bait thieves, but with the amount of work involved in catching baits, it’s not a bad idea to protect them from crooks.


When you fish with live bait, there are a few rules that will help keep your baits frisky, long-lasting, and improve your hook-up ratio. First, never leave the dip net in the livewell. This creates an obstacle that baits will swim into and beat themselves up on. Dip one or two baits at a time and remove the net and store it nearby where it can be easily accessed. If you are careful with your scoops, your bait will live longer and get less “red nose” (caused by running into objects).

Bridling live baits will increase longevity and improve your hook-up ratio. When bridling baits for kite-fishing or live-lining, use a small rubber band and attach the attach to your hook. Then insert the other end of the rubber band through the bait with a needle. Use the needle to loop the other side of the rubber band onto the hook. Twist the hook to tighten the band and insert the point of the hook through the small opening in the the band under the twists to secure the hook. By threading a needle through the bait, you create a smaller hole than you would by putting the hook directly through the bait. In addition, your hook point is fully exposed which will help you hook more fish, especially billfish. The rubber band will also absorb some shock as the bait swims and pulls on the line.

Simply put, bridled baits last longer, have better hook-up ratios, and stay on the hook after more abuse.

About the Author: Capt. Nick Gonzalez owns and operates Double Threat Charters out of Miami, Florida. For more information follow them @DoubleThreatCharters or visit fishmiamicharters.com.