Tips for Catching Live Bait in Tampa Bay
Live bait can be the key to a great day of fishing…
It’s an age-old question among anglers: Where can I find live bait, and how can I catch it? The answer will vary by the time of year, but there are some things that remain constant and will help you have a great day on the water. There’s not one angler, captains included, that hasn’t struggled with bait at one time or another. It’s about the only thing that keeps me up at night certain times of the year. It can be tough to find and equally as tough to catch once you find it. Here are some tips:
Time of year
- Time of year makes a huge difference when looking for live bait. Sometimes, in the dead of “winter”, you may not find it anywhere. One of the most dependable places to find scaled sardines or threadfin is around the Sunshine Skyway fishing piers. It’s one of the first places you’ll find it in the spring. It really depends on water temperature, but it’s just about always there. Problem is, it’s not always easy to catch. The water is deep and the current is swift. It’ll take a big, heavy net and a skilled throw up close to the structure. Not easy, but rewarding if you can manage it. Chumming will help if the current is slack enough for it not to wash away. If water temps haven’t gotten too cold, it’s possible to find whitebait around the bay bridges as early as February. It’s also worth checking the range marker structures around the bay beginning in March. Deeper channels in the upper bay can also hold bait. It’s a real matter of trial and error until you find it. Having a close network of buddies that share intel data is also helpful. That said, nothing will remain “secret” for long. It will generally hold in these areas well into April when it will begin to migrate to the grass flats. Once it’s on the flats, it’s generally there throughout the summer and fall. The only variable will be size. If you don’t want to fight the grass in your net, continue checking the Skyway and the range markers. Chum can really be a difference maker if the tide is slack enough.
Net Size & Weight
- There are a ton of nets available and each will have pros and cons. This blog is not intended to advertise any brand of net, so let’s just talk about size. Nets are measured based on radius. For example, an 8-foot net has a open diameter of 16 feet. Mesh size is also critical. You should plan to have two nets – one for deep water and one for the flats. For deeper water, weight and mesh size is a major consideration. I use a 12-foot, 3/8 mesh net. You may also consider a 1/2-inch mesh which sinks faster. Weight is measured in pounds per foot of lead line. For deep water, I use a 1.6 lb/ft of lead line. My flats net is a 10-foot, 1.4lbs/ft net. The 12-footer is a beast, so I use it sparingly. You can do a Google search for throwing a cast net and get plenty of YouTube instruction videos. I may post one pretty soon. Calusa Cast Nets has a nice method – it’s the one I learned and still use.
- Using chum to attract bait fish can really make the job easier. In fact, I don’t know too many successful bait catchers that don’t employ some type of chum. The mix doesn’t have to be fancy. I started out with canned cat food and wheat bread. Kozy Kitten cat food was the best. These days, I’ve modernized just a bit and employ a powdered fish food and a can of jack mackerel. I usually throw in a little extra fish oil. Menhaden oil is best, but it’s gotten very expensive. Other fish oil blends are available a your local fishing store. The powdered fish food is pretty oily on its own. Often times you can use it straight, without adding anything else to it. I’ll normally use a blend of moist chum and straight powder on the surface. The goal is to create an oil slick and get the whitebait balled up. You want to make the most of each net cast.