Two Great Questions—Many Great Answers By: TJ Shea

What did you use to catch that monster, and will it work for me? These are the two most frequently asked questions posed by clients and dock bystanders alike, and neither get the same answer twice based on my experience. Someone fishing on the port side boats a hefty 25-pound grouper and the starboard fisherman wants to know what’s on the hook. Sometimes it’s about the bait, other times it’s about the presentation.  Either way, one thing I have learned is that there is no magic formula, and nothing beats being prepared when your go-to bait is not working as planned. 

Fish are finicky creatures, they feed no differently than us. Some days you want a big juicy steak and others all you want is a salad. We have caught some of the biggest grouper on just a tiny piece of shrimp or squid, standing next to a person fishing with a choice, hand size live bait.  By expecting the unexpected, having different options will always give you the best shot at a productive day.  When we first drop lines on a spot, we give a variety of baits from which to choose. We typically bottom fish with five or six people on our trips, so we will have at least two or three different baits going down. If one seems to be working better than the others, you can switch them all over.  If the bite is slow, drop the pound test of your leader.  Water clarity comes into play and it’s hard to know what it looks like on the bottom.  Before you leave a spot that you know normally holds quality fish, change some things up to see if you can get them chewing.  If the fish are there and hungry, you will likely know in the first 10 minutes.  Remember, small fish often lead to big fish.  It’s great to box a few quality keepers right away, but big fish aren’t big because they are dumb.  Sometimes they need a little motivation before joining in on the action.  If 20 minutes or so passes and we have a good bite but no quality fish show, we will up the size of the baits.  If that doesn’t work, then it’s time to move on to the next spot.

Surprisingly, live bait is not always the key to keepers. When visibility is poor, we rarely even get bites on even the liveliest of live baits, so we save our money. Cut bait takes center stage–the oilier the better.  Sardines are our go to and, if the price is right, cigar minnows or mackerel also work very well.  We always leave the dock with two staple–sardines and shrimp.  A bonus bait is cut squid wing which is a nice bonus to have in our bait freezer.  Sardines are very oily and stay on the hook long enough for a few good bites. And shrimp, well, everything eats shrimp. If I’m lucky enough to be reincarnated, I most definitely do not want to come back as a shrimp!

In my humble opinion, when asked what is the best bait to land a prize catch, here’s my answer. When fish are hungry, you can catch them on pretty much any bait. It’s on the days when you have to work for it that variety and preparation make all the difference.