TAMPA - By Terry Tomalin
It doesn't matter if you are after trout, red drum, snook or king mackerel, live bait is the key to success. But you can't pull up to a drive-through and order a couple hundred scaled sardines. You have to catch them yourself.
Here's a quick primer on what to use in the Tampa Bay area:
Atlantic Thread Herring, Opisthonema oglinum
Commonly called greenbacks and sometimes horse minnows, these are a good inshore and offshore bait. Make sure your hands are wet when you handle them because the scales fall off easily.
Pigfish, Orthopristis chrysoptera
This member of the grunt family is found throughout the Gulf of Mexico and can grow to a foot in length. This baitfish is a good choice around grass flats and bay bridges, especially for snook, big trout and red drum.
Pinfish, Lagodon rhomboides
The favorite forage food of snook, this member of the porgy family is also the favorite target of young anglers learning to fish. Pinfish are commonly sold in bait shops. They are one of the most versatile baits available, making them a good choice for both inshore and offshore anglers.
Scaled Sardine, Harengula jaguana
Commonly called whitebait, the scaled sardine is the Tampa Bay area's most popular baitfish. A member of the herring family, its primary mode of defense is bunching up into schools, which makes them an easy target for cast-netters.
Spanish Sardine, Sardinella aurita
You won't catch this herring with a castnet. Spanish sardines are typically found in deep water near channel markers, wrecks and artificial reefs. Anglers catch this baitfish with weighted, gold-hook rigs (see sidebar). Spanish sardines are a good choice for everything from snapper to sailfish.
Gulf Menhaden, Brevoortia patronus
Also called pogies and shad, the menhaden has a particularly oily body, which makes it a popular bait for Gulf Coast crab fishermen. Menhaden are the target of large-scale commercial fishing operations. For recreational anglers, menhaden are an excellent tarpon bait.
Cast nets come in various lengths and mesh sizes. A general rule of thumb is that the net must have about 1 1/2 pounds of lead per radius foot. The smaller the mesh size, the slower the net will sink. Nets vary in cost and quality.
Quarter-inch mesh: No deeper than 8-feet of water. Small greenbacks, glass minnows, mud minnows and small pinfish.
Three-eighths-inch mesh: To 12-feet of water. Medium greenbacks, shad, pinfish, threadfins and small mullet.
Five-eighths-inch mesh: To 20-feet of water. Large greenbacks, shad, pinfish, threadfins, medium mullet and ladyfish.
One-inch mesh: Deep water or for large baits. Mullet, large shad and ladyfish.
Gold-hook or Sabiki (that is a brand name) rigs are a great alternative to cast nets. Use a No. 3 for small scaled sardines, glass minnows and small thread herring. Use a No. 4 for small pinfish and scaled sardines. Use No. 6 for medium-sized pinfish, scaled sardines and threadfin herring. Use No. 8 for Spanish sardines, pinfish, cigar minnows, pigfish and blue runners.
Use a heavy weight (1 to 2 ounces) because when you drop the rig into a school of bait, a fish will grab the lowest hook and try to swim up. But a heavy weight will keep the fish down and keep your rig from getting tangled.