The best baits to use when fishing depend on the fish you are targeting, the time of the year, and
the mood of the fish. I'll explain here what baits I use, but it doesn't hurt to experiment. If the trout are hitting on
SPAM, then SPAM is the best bait to use that day; if you can't get any other bait besides SPAM, it's a good idea to go
fishing with SPAM that day too.
Handle your baits the same way you'd handle a fish that you were going to eat; keep it cool (on ice),
and out of the sun. You wouldn't eat a stinky fish and most fish would prefer a bait that wasn't stinky either.
Shrimp is the "toss it out and see what happens" kind of bait, and there aren't many
times I go fishing without it. Since shrimp is abundant in the waters around Amelia Island, it's probably the most
common thing that fish here eat, and you'll can catch almost anything with shrimp. It's also a good bait to catch
small fish which in turn you can use as bait to catch bigger fish.
I catch ninety five percent of the whiting I catch on shrimp, but occasionally do catch one on cut mullet.
I also use shrimp to catch pin fish and spot for bait. It's not the easiest bait to keep on the hook, but if you leave the
shells on the shrimp they'll hang onto the hooks a bit longer. I buy shrimp with the heads removed, and the average size shrimp I cut
in half and make two baits from each one. For spot or pin fish, remove the shells and cut the shrimp into tiny pieces and use very small hooks.
Live shrimp are also a great bait for trout and other fish. Hook the shrimp through the shell at the
top of it's head (back of the horn) so you don't kill it when you hook it. Rig live shrimp with a float and adjust the
float so the live shrimp is near the bottom. Here's a tip on how to get the best shrimp for bait.
Mullet are a mainstay in my bait cooler, and also in the live bucket when I can get
them live on the day I'm fishing. You can buy frozen (and sometimes live) mullet at most tackle shops, but if you're here at
the right time of the year, you can easily catch them yourself. If you intend to catch some extra finger mullet for the freezer,
keep them in the cooler and as fresh as possible before freezing; mullet that are handled correctly before freezing will be
an excellent bait even if you leave them frozen for a year.
The annual run of mullet at Amelia Island starts around the end of August and lasts into November. Add a
cast net to your tackle, and you'll always have a fresh bag, some live ones, and some in the freezer. Mullet can be netted
from bridges and piers, in creeks and inlets, and even in the surf at times when they're close to the beach. Sometimes the
schools are so large you can see them coming a half mile down the beach, and so thick it seems like you could walk on them.
When fishing with cut mullet, I usually cut the mullet into three or four pieces, depending on how big
it is. For the last couple years, I've been paying attention to what piece I put on which rod, and what type of fish I catch
on which piece. Believe it or not, it seems to me that the piece of cut mullet you select may increase your chances of
catching a certain kind of fish. Most of the reds I catch on cut mullet are on the head, and the bigger the mullet head,
the better. Most of the trout I catch on cut mullet are on a "chunk" or center piece, and blue fish seem to prefer the
tail section of the cut mullet. Sharks aren't picky, they'll grab any piece you toss it seems like. Whiting prefer chunks
too, but I think Whiting would really rather have shrimp.
Live mullet are also a great bait to try. Keep them in a five gallon bucket, with some type of air pump,
and don't overcrowd the bucket; a dozen or so will stay alive all day, but in an overcrowded bucket, they'll all expire very
quickly. Change the water in the bucket every hour or so, if you can, and keep it out of the sun. If you start pulling out
baits that have a red nose, you've either got too many in the bucket or it's time for new water. Floating bait buckets will
also keep them alive, but on days when the water is rough at the pier or you are fishing in the surf, the pounding of the
waves on the bucket will take a toll on your bait.
There are two "standard" ways to hook a mullet used as a live bait; in through the bottom of the lower lip
and out through the top of the head, or in the back near the rear dorsal fin. I prefer to hook my live mullet in the back as
they seem to stay alive longer, and swim much better. Live mullet can be fished on the bottom, on a float, or just "live
lined" over the side of the pier with nothing other than a hook. I've caught some nice reds and some fat trout with live mullet
fished on the bottom. If the blue fish are around, you're probably better off to save the live mullet for later. Blues will
chop them up, but you'll rarely hook one irregardless of how you have the live mullet rigged. Small live mullet on the bottom
are also a good bait for flounder, and some days it seems that trout won't eat anything but live mullet.
Sand fleas are little crunchy critters that live on the beach. When the water is calm,
you can sometimes see them scooting around in the waves. They are found at the surf line, digging like crazy to
disappear before the wave recedes and leaves them high and dry. You have to watch for them at the
edge of the surf, and when they bury themselves in the wet sand, make a quick dig to grab them.They're not big, the size of
a quarter maybe. I think they are officially named "Mole Crabs".
They're great bait for Pompano, and also work for Whiting and other fish. Rakes for digging them are also
available, or you can make one. Some days they are easy to catch; but other days they become a job. Keep them in a bucket of
damp sand, not too wet, and keep them in the shade. Hook them through the shell on the back. They won't last long after being
hooked, but still work as bait.
An experienced Pompano fisherman I met at the pier was nice enough to give me a lesson in the proper technique for
catching and storing sand fleas. He used a clam rake to dig for them, and showed me how to find them near rivulets on the beach
at low tide. He stores his fleas in a small plastic container with holes drilled in the bottom and sides; seems like when you
put sand fleas in a container, they get so excited about going fishing the next day that they have a tendency to go potty and
make a mess, which is in turn toxic and keeps them from making it to the next day's surf fishing alive and happy. A second
container under the first catches the mess, and he dumps that out and flushes his fleas with salt water once a day to keep
them happy. He recommends keeping the containers in the bait cooler to keep the fleas cool and kicking.
Fiddlers are tiny crabs that live in tidal areas, in the sand. When they're around,
you'll see them running in every direction. They range in size from the size of a penny to a quarter or a bit bigger. Look for
them at low tide in any area that is sandy and/or grassy and is normally wet at high tide.
The best bait for Sheepshead. They're easily kept for long periods of time; put them in a bucket of damp
sand (not too wet) and occasionally mist the sand with a spray bottle to keep it damp. Feed them corn meal.
Blue crabs are prevelent in number around Amelia Island. They can be found in tidal creeks, the rivers,
and also under and around the boat ramps and piers. They are a favorite bait for fishing for black drum in the spring, and I've
also heard rumors that big reds like them too. I occasionally use them for bait when fishing for reds, but I'll have to admit
that I haven't been successful with them so far. But when I have one, I keep trying.
To use a blue crab for bait, remove the claws and legs, the separate the body from the shell, the same way
you would if you were eating the crab. Cut the body into two pieces, and hook each piece through a leg hole in the shell.
Here's an article at Florida Sportsman about
using crabs for bait when fishing for red drum.
Live minnows are the bait of choice for flounder. You can buy them at local tackle
stores, or catch them with a cast net or minnow trap in creeks. They're much heartier in the bait bucket than live mullet;
keep an air pump running and change the water once a day and they'll last for weeks. While not the favorite bait for reds
or trout, you'll catch them occasionally with a large mud minnow too.