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Florida Keys fishing in Islamorada. Offshore and backcountry sportfishing at it's finest in the heart of the Florida Keys. Aptly named: "The Sport Fishing Capital Of The World!"

Getting Bait on Your Boat

By Waldo "Double Treble"  Tejera Jr.
Islamorada Sport Fishing Online Contributor 

Part 1  |  Part 2

Blue runners are common around markers, inlets, bridges etc.  They are also common in shallow reefs in the keys.  Try trolling a white feather jig or a “Gotcha Plug” in these areas.  Troll them a bit quicker (1500 to 2000 RPM) than you would normally.  Small spoons also work well for these fish.  Put out a couple of lead head jigs when you’re heading out and you’ll catch them.  Blue runners are favorites for Sailfish, big Kingfish, AJ’s (amberjack) and other bigger fish.  They should preferably be less than 12” unless you are going after bigger fish.  Hook them through the nose if slow trolling, behind the dorsal fin for drifting or kite fishing, and behind the anal cavity for deep wreck fishing for AJ’s or other fish.

            Goggle-eyes are the Captain’s choice for Sails.  Many captains purchase this bait from bait boats in their area.  I don’t usually buy bait but if I’m in Miami and don’t want to wake up at 3:00A.M.  I have the cell numbers of a couple of bait boats that work the Gov. Cut area.  Capt. Dave’s Live Bait (cell 305-968-9603) can usually be found working the Cut for runners and pilchards early mornings.  Goggle-eyes are a bit pricey ($40-$100/dozen) so some die-hard anglers (not me) will wake up extra early and catch their own.  I’ve had luck at the big freighter ships anchored just offshore waiting their turn to come into port.  Many of them have bright lights that flood the surface of the ocean; these are especially productive.  Drop a chum bag and free line a 1/0 hook tipped with a fresh piece of shrimp and sooner or later you catch a goggle-eye.  You’ll see plenty of pilchards and other bait as well. 

            Pinfish and Sand Perch (Mojarra) are bottom dwellers.  Pinfish are common on grass flats, markers, sand flats, bridges, docks and just about anywhere in shallow water.  Mojarra’s are common around bridges, sandy bottoms, beach areas, piers, and docks.  Fish for them with small 1/0 hooks tipped with a small piece of squid or fish skin.  Shrimp works well also but will get stolen from your hook a lot easier than squid or fish.  Often you’ll see big schools of pinfish around larger markers such as Fowey, Alligator, and Pacific Reef lights. Chum will get them close enough for you to catch them and if you put one of them on a hook with a wire you’ll probably won’t have to wait long for a barracuda to chomp it down.  Pinfish are also available in many bait shops especially in the keys.  They are great bait for AJ’s, snapper, grouper, kings, sailfish and many other game fish.  They are not as good as pilchards and other baitfish because they have tougher scales and more spines.  Fish know this so they’ll be more hesitant to bite down on one of these guys.  Sometimes cutting off their dorsal fins will entice fish to bite.  Still pinfish and mojarra’s are good bait if nothing else is available.  They are readily available and are fun for kids to catch. 

            One of my favorite baits is mullet, finger mullet to be exact.  Mullet are usually not caught by hook and line.  They are much more difficult to catch and require more expertise.  If on a boat one person must be driving and the other on the lookout for mullet schools.  It helps to be on a fly bridge or as high as possible so you can spot them.  They often jump around docks and canals as they try avoiding predators.  They hang around piers, inland canals, docks, bridges and beaches.  They usually school in small groups of 5 to 25 fish or more and are constantly on the move.  As all fish they are temperature sensitive and will travel up and down the coast as temperatures rise in the summer and drop in the winter.  Once you spot a school one person should be ready with the cast net.  The driver must position the boat ahead of the school so they swim just past the bow while not casting a shadow.  Ease up on the school and cast the net just ahead of the school.  Using a larger cast net (10-12’) will help with fast swimming mullet.  I will often stop at roadside canals on US1 just before entering Key Largo and try locating finger mullet.  I’ve also had luck at the small enclosed beach at Bayfront Park.  During high tide they are an easy target early in the morning while they swim around the shore.  I’ll catch a dozen or so and do my best to keep them alive in a bucket or cooler with a small portable aerator until I get them on the boat.  It seems like a lot of trouble for a dozen bait but I know how deadly they are.  There isn’t a fish in the ocean that will turn down a finger mullet.  They are great baits for Tarpon this time of year around Channel 2 and other main bridges in the Keys.

            Last but certainly not least is Ballyhoo.  Ballyhoo are very popular for Sailfish in the Keys.  They are one of the best baits for Kings and Wahoo’s as well.  Mutton Snapper and Grouper love ballyhoo and will not pass one up, even a dead one if it’s freshly caught.  They’re found around shallow patch reefs offshore.  The best way to locate them is to run in your boat through the reefs until you see them skip on the surface.  They resemble flying fish whey they take to the air. They will “surf” the waves and skip on their chins for a short distance.  If you see them skipping while running stop and drop anchor.  Put out your chum bag and scatter some oatmeal flakes every so often to force them to the surface.  Wait at least 15 minutes and if they’re around you’ll see them behind your boat getting closer and closer.  Wait until they are in a feeding frenzy and are confident with your presence.  Don’t get anxious and cast your net until they are very close and up on top.  Once you’ve cast netted them handle them carefully as they are can die easily.  They need a large round bait well to survive.  If you can’t get them within casting range or they’re too fast for your cast netting abilities (as is my case) then try catching them on hook and line.  Use a small Sabiki size long shanked hook with 4-6# test line.  Bait it with a very small piece of fresh shrimp and free line it to the school.  I would recommend filing off the barb on the hook to make it easier to unhook them.  This is a sight fishing technique and you have to keep an eye on the bait at all times.  A good pair of polarized glasses will really help you out here.  Get as high on your stern as you can and when you see a ballyhoo take the bait pull up and bring it in quickly.  They will often take the bait and spit it out if they feel the hook.  Once you’ve brought the fish onto the boat put it in your well right away.  Ballyhoo are very sensitive fish and will die if handled much.  Hook and line caught ‘hoos last longer than netted ones.  I will often put out a live one on a 2X Treble Hook with a short piece of wire as I’m catching bait in these shallow reefs.  Cero Mackerel are very common in the Keys in these patch reef areas and Cero’s love ballyhoo.  You’ll often see them lurking under your boat when ballyhoo are feeding on your chum.  Hook ballyhoo through the bottom lip or behind the dorsal fin. 

            Learn to catch your bait and you’ll enjoy this process as much as catching other fish.  Ask around bait shops and they will usually be glad to give you advice on where to catch live bait.  Be observant of the signs of baitfish such as birds and even other boats catching them.  Stop at markers on your way out and drop your chum bag and a Sabiki rig to see if it holds bait.  Learn to look at your depth finder for signs of pods of bait down deep.  Do not hesitate to spend even half of your day searching for and catching bait.  It’ll pay off when you hit your fishing grounds if you have the right ammo.  Best of all, if you get good at it you’ll save money.   Learn to get bait on your boat and you will get fish on your boat as well!!!

Tightlines from Waldo “DoubleTreble” Tejera Jr.


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