The way to score more fish off
Southern California is to pick the liveliest bait
you can find and teach it a few tricks.
By Tom Waters
It's difficult to argue the point that the best way to catch fish is to feed them a live bait. This is especially true in Southern California, where, since the late 1920s, an entire coastal sport fishery has developed around the concept of fishing with live bait, most notably northern anchovies.
During the past 60 years, millions of dollars have been invested in building a fleet of big Southland sport fishers, specially outfitted with large tanks of circulating sea water for keeping baitfish transferred from holding pens (also called bait receivers) located inside the harbors, so that when the boats arrive at the fishing grounds the anglers can quickly grab a fresh, lively bait, rig it. and serve it to an unsuspecting game fish. Of course, private-boaters also use live bait, and many have spent considerable time and expense installing their own bait-tank systems. With all that goes into keeping live baits healthy, it's a shame that many anglers end up inhibiting their bait's effectiveness through mishandling or improper rigging. While fishing a strong, healthy bait isn't always critical, most of the time only the liveliest baits get bit.
Consider that a rigged bait has to carry the weight of a hook and drag a lot of line against the resistance of the water. It's no wonder that with smaller baits like anchovies, even the strongest ones will tire within a matter of minutes. Therefore, it pays to treat your baits with care in order to optimize their performance.
The general rule to follow when rigging live baits is to use the smallest, lightest hook and the least amount of weight you can get away with. However, before you do this, you have to evaluate such criteria as the size of the bait, the type and size of the target species, casting distance. water depth, wind, and current. Even more important, though, is choosing the strongest, liveliest bait you can find.
Handle with Care
Southern California anglers have grown accustomed to fishing with a variety of live baits, including sardines, Pacific mackerel, jack mackerel, squid, smelt, and "brown baits" (white croaker and queenfish). But the most widely available, versatile — and most delicate — is the anchovy. When selecting any bait from the tank, be sure to choose a healthy one. The larger baits figure to be the strongest, and the liveliest ones will be the most difficult to catch.
The large bait tanks on most Southland party boats are surrounded by shallow hand wells, which hold small numbers of baits in tight quarters where they are easier for anglers to capture and observe. Avoid baitfish that have bruised (red) noses and missing scales. With anchovies, the green-backed individuals swimming among the more prevalent blue-backed specimens will typically be the liveliest baits in the group.
Some anglers carry aquarium dip nets to scoop smaller baits from a hand well, but most fishermen use their hands. If you're more comfortable rigging hooks with your right hand, learn to use your left to scoop baitfish, or vice versa. Avoid squeezing the bait; instead, try to cradle it, gently steadying its head between your thumb and forefinger as you penetrate with the point of the hook. Keep handling to a minimum by learning to be quick and efficient when rigging.
Swim 'Em on the Surface
The type of bait and the conditions mentioned above will determine your choice of rigging, from the amount of weight to be used to the placement of the hook. Let's begin with the rigging methods most appropriate for presenting live baits near the surface, then work down the water column.
Most Southland skippers will tell you that the best way to hook an anchovy when "fly-lining" (using no weight, so the bait will swim naturally and just below the surface) is to "collar-hook" them just behind the gill plate. This is better than nose-hooking because you're placing the hook behind the head, allowing the bait to swim forward much easier than if the resistance from the line were pulling against the point of its nose. You'll notice the same effect if you accidentally snag a game fish somewhere behind the head: they will be much more difficult to bring in than if they'd been hooked in the mouth.
With soft-fleshed baitfish like anchovies and sardines, the "collarbone" is the best spot behind the head to secure a hook, but with the larger and more firm-fleshed mackerels and brown baits, experienced anglers hook them just in front of or just below the dorsal fin, taking care not to hit the backbone.
Slow 'Em Down
Interestingly, nose-hooking is often appropriate when surface-baiting with big, fast baits such as large sardines and mackerel, because it helps slow them down. That's because most game fish are accustomed to first surrounding a school of baitfish and then either crashing the "bait balls" and circling back to pick off the stunned and injured baits, or simply circling the bait school and eating any stragglers that stray from the main group. For this reason, some anglers will nose-hook a "hot" bait or even clip off one lobe of its tail to slow it down, making it easier for a predator to catch.
Using light-wire hooks and no sinker can spell trouble when you need to cast long distances with featherweight baits like anchovies. However, when surface fishing you can remedy the problem by using a hollow, sliding casting bubble. You can fill the bubble partially full of water to enhance your casting distance, and because the bubble slides on your line, a game fish will feel little or no resistance when it grabs your bait. As long as it's not completely filled with water, the bubble will float, assuring that your bait doesn't stray below surface.
The Need to Get Down
The most obvious way to get a live bait down to game fish feeding well below the surface is to add some weight to your rig. Most Southland party boat skippers will advise pinching on split-shots or rubbercore sinkers about two feet above the hook. The amount of weight depends on factors like wind and current, which can keep your bait from reaching the desired depth. And, of course, there are those times when added weight is needed to sneak your anchovies past a school of mackerel that are eating everything in sight.
The mid-depths are often the most productive zones for swimming a live bait, hut keep in mind that this is where open-water game fish are used to picking off struggling baitfish that they've stunned or injured after crashing a bait hall on the surface. Of course, visibility also diminishes in this deeper water, so the vibrations and reflective flashes given off by an injured, wriggling bait make it easier to spot than a healthy baitfish speeding through the same zone. That's why some experienced anglers choose to rig live anchovies with the sinker positioned no more than four inches above the hook. This way, the rigged bait has to struggle mightily against the weight, and all that commotion and flashing improves the odds of attracting a strike.
When presented this way, a collar-hooked anchovy that's struggling vigorously can tear loose, so it's better to hook it through the upper jaw or snout, underside first, taking care not to damage the eyes or pierce the brain. When rigging sardines and mackerel, most Southland skippers advise their customers to hook them sideways through the nostrils or through the membrane just in front of the eyeballs. That's tine for most situations, but placing the hook near the anal vent often gets them to swim deeper. Other veterans use long-nosed pliers to insert an egg sinker down the bait's throat and into its stomach, which forces the bait to swim deep — whether it wants to or not.
Baits on the Bottom
Fishing live baits on the bottom requires additional weight and slightly more sophisticated rigging. When using added weight with anchovies, whether to speed them past the mackerel or take them all the way to the bottom, keep the following in mind: A collar-hooked anchovy can easily tear off the hook on a fast descent, while traditional snout-hooking often causes the lower jaw of the bait to bend back and break on a quick trip to the bottom. The best approach, then, is to first pin the hook through the lower jaw of the bait, then through the snout to hold the mouth shut. Mackerels, sardines, and brown baits are hardier, and can usually be rigged through the nose in any fashion for a drop to the bottom.
There are two basic rigs that work for fishing live baits on or near the bottom. The first is a dropper-loop rig, which involves a couple of dropper loops (six to 12 inches long) tied into the main line two to three feet apart. The lower loop is positioned a foot or so above a sinker attached to the end of the line. A hook is attached to the end of each loop, and pinned to the hooks are live baits, each swimming at a slightly different depth. Normally, this rig works well when swimming anchovies or sardines on the bottom for halibut, sand bass, and rockfish but also popular is a single-dropper-loop version fished in the mid-depths over structure for suspended yellowtail.
The second rig simply involves a sliding sinker positioned on the main line just above a swivel, which in turn connects to a length of leader (usually no more than two feet) with the hook tied to the end. The advantage to this setup is that the game fish doesn't feel any resistance after grabbing the bait and making off with it. The line simply slides through the sinker, which means the fish will be more likely to swallow the bail. This is an excellent rig to use with larger baits such as mackerel and brown baits. Some anglers prefer to anal-rig their baits in this situation so they'll swim more naturally.
Don't Skimp on Freshness
To increase your chances of a hook-up, particularly when you're fishing up off the bottom, keep a fresh bait in the water at all times. With smaller baitfish like anchovies, that means changing baits every five minutes if they haven't been bit. If you feel the bait get picked up and dropped, or if you miss the fish on a strike, give the bait another minute, then crank it in and replace it.
If your 'chovy wriggles from your hand and hits the deck while you're trying to rig it, let it go and grab another. If your rigged bait hits the water and swims under the boat, retrieve it and cast again. If it swims under the boat a second time, discard the bait and grab another. In most cases, plenty of healthy baitfish will be circling in the bait tank, so there should be no excuse for not having a "hot one" swimming at the end of your line at all times.
Reprinted with permission of
Salt Water Sportsman and Tom Waters