Catching Bait in the Florida Keys

Buying Bait in the Florida Keys

Probably the most common way to get bait in the keys for visitors is buying it at the local store. They sell some sort of bait at all sorts of stores in the Keys, you can buy bait in the grocery store if you want to. Generally you have your frozen baits which will include frozen shrimp, ballyhoo, mullet, squid and pilchards. Frozen bait is generally considered the worst of baits, except for squid which is pretty much always frozen. I would avoid most frozen baits except for squid, usually if you have squid you can catch small fish and then in turn use them to catch smaller fish to use for live bait or cut bait.

The live baits for sale in the tackle shops are usually finger mullet, shrimp, blue crabs and pinfish, sometimes pilchards, blue runners or goggle eyes. The last 3 are pretty rare though, although I am sure there are some shops that have them consistently, and if you read this and know of some email me and I will list them on here. Generally live baits are going to cost at least a buck a piece, and definitely have aerator or oxygen tablets to keep those puppies alive till you get the boat.

Fresh dead baits are good to buy also, fresh dead pilchards and ballyhoo make great baits, cut up or whole, and you can get a lot more weight for your buck

Catching Bait

Well probably one of the most important parts of fishing is catching bait. In the Florida Keys there are serveral main fish that are used for baits. Essentially bait can be broken down by size, there are baits that tend to be used for for big fish and baits for smaller fish.

The Larger baits would include Blue Runners, Ballyhoo, Speedos and Bonito. Live bonito are general used for catching Marlin and are bitch to keep alive, and frankly catching Marlin is out of my league, so I won’t be writing much about them.

Smaller Baits would consist of Pilchards, Sardines, Pinfish and Pigfish and glass minnows.

Pretty much catching bait consist of chumming them up to get them near the back of the boat and then either cast netting or hooking them with small hooks. Most larger baits will out run a net and really the only larger bait you will catch with a cast net is Ballyhoo. You will die of exhaustion before you catch blue runner or speedos in a cast net. For small hooks to use for Ballyhoo and Blue runners I have found Gamaktsu Size six hooks blow cheaper mustad or eagle claw hooks. I can’t even begin to say what a difference those little hooks have made.

For chum just plain commercial menhaden chum works fine, really trick is to find the spot where the bait is. Pretty much the best places to catch most baits will be on the bay side, around creeks and grass beds. Just look for healthy thick sea grass in 3-7 feet of water. As long as there is a little current, put you chum sack in and usually within 10 minutes there will be a bunch of something behind the boat. Usually pinfish but possibly pilchards and/or blue runners. If a mass of small pilchards show up you will need to cast net them, if they are bigger you can hair hook them or net them. Pinfish can be cast netted if they are really balled up behind the boat or with a net that fall really fast but usually people catch them with a small hook and split shot. And when I say small I mean really tiny like tiny 12 hooks they use to catch brook trout up north.

On the ocean side it is much more hit and miss, and to catch ballyhoo and speedos you will have to explore the reef and find a spot. depending on the time of year the ballyhoo can be really easy to find. Speedos are always more work.

Another way to catch bait is with a pinfish trap. This is really actually pretty fun, you just fill this trap with some sort of bait, like fish carcass or even the remnants of chum sack, throw it in the water and wait a few hours or over night and next thing you have trap filled with crabs and pinfish. Sounds great doesn’t it? Well it is pretty fun to pull the trap and see what you got , the only problem is that people steal the traps. It’s a great feeling when you load trap full of dolphin carcasses and throw it out on a grass flat, get there early the next day ready to pull the trap and head offshore to fish for dolphin , and low and behold the trap is gone.