There are many different ways to fish in Key West but perhaps one of the most popular and effective techniques is live baiting.
Just like fishing, catching bait requires skill and practice and a successful haul of bait can make or break the day.
Types of Live Bait
While any fish will sometimes eat anything it can fit in its mouth, certain baits are considered better for different fish. Actually, certain baits are just basically better.
Pin fish are like the peanut butter sandwich of baits. Everyone will eat them but they are not really their favorite. Pinfish are small oval fish that kind of look like a bream or a sunfish.
They are a kind of yellow/brown color and have rows of spines across their back.
The pros of pinfish are there are tough and they are easy to catch.
- You can catch them with small hooks on almost any grass bed in the Keys.
- They can survive with little oxygen so they live very well in a live well.
- They also will stay alive a long time on a hook.
They can be caught reliably in traps as well.
Like I said earlier, everything will eat them, but in general they are better baits for Gulf and inshore.
They are commonly used to fish for tarpon, cobia, mangrove snapper, and grouper.
Ballyhoo are slim silverfish with beaks that can be 1/3 the length of their body. They run in schools and are more common in the colder months.
They can be caught using small hooks or in a cast net. Catching them on small hooks tends to damage them less and they will survive longer in the livewell as well as on the hook.
Cast netting them can be a fast way to catch a lot of them.
Ballyhoo are shiny and have no spines. This makes them a lot more appetizing to fish then pinfish. However, they need a lot of water circulation and will die easily without it. You cannot keep them alive in a pen, so they need to be caught fresh right before the fishing trip.
Ballyhoo can be fished a variety of ways. One of the most common is to hook them through the nose and let them swim around on the surface for sailfish. They can be rigged with a wire leader and stinger hook in the tail for King Mackerel. They are often sent to the bottom when targeting grouper and mutton snapper.
Pichards are small silvery fish that congregate in huge schools around Key West. The move in and out of the shallows in the early hours of the day. You can often see boats targeting them in the early hours during the winter months.
Captains drive their boats up in the shallows and throw cast nets on the schools. This can be very easy or difficult depending on the day. You have to watch for birds diving, in order to see where the schools are located.
Pichards are like the Pringles of the ocean: many fish cannot resist them and once they start eating them they can’t stop. A 3 or 4 inch long pilchard is like the universal bait, so everything from a flag yellow-tail to a sailfish will readily eat them.
Speedos are bigger baits, found offshore on the reef or on wrecks. They are fat, vaguely bullet-shaped fish that come in schools.
They have to be caught with small hooks and are hard to keep alive.
Speedos are big fish baits: they will usually be 6-10 inches long.
They are put down on bottom rigs when targeting big grouper, they are also slow trolled with wire leader for big kingfish and wahoo. They are considered the best wahoo bait.