Conditions were not what you’d call fisherman-friendly. The wind was blowing straight south at a steady 25 knots with gusts pushing 35. Foam lines streaked the water of Lower Laguna Madre, which looked like a cup of coffee with a generous dollop of cream in it. The fish were biting however, and my two stalwart partners—Anibal Gorena and Dave Rutledge—were going to make a serious try for them.
“I guess topwaters are out,” Dave quipped. “You could probably throw a Super Spook 150 yards with that tailwind.”
We all rigged our trout rods the same way: bottom rigs with 1 ounce bell sinkers and a 3/0 Kahle hook hanging off a staging 15 inches above the lead. I reached into the red soft-sided cooler I had stowed under my Bay Quests center console and pulled out a packet of 15-18 inch ballyhoo.
“Time for a little magic,” I declared, and cut one of the “blackbacks” into four large sections. I tossed a chunk each to Anibal and Dave and kept the head for my own use. We pinned the silver pieces of fish on our hooks and cast them out in the direction of our very fast drift.
It took maybe 10 minutes before Anibal hooked the first fish of the trip, a chunky 25 inch redfish. I followed with another red a couple of minutes later with a similar-sized red. Dave, ever the rebel, broke the streak by hooking and landing a fat 19-inch speckled trout. Three baits, three fish. 20 minutes.
When we got back to the dock later that morning, we had 7 redfish and 9 trout for the morning. It wasn’t too bad for gale-type conditions. We probably would’ve caught more had we decided that no sensible person would stay out in that wind. Even so, we were the only anglers who brought fish to the cleaning table that day.
Maligned but Effective
Whatever you call them, ‘hoo, blackbacks, halfbeaks or pajaritos, ballyhoo are versatile baitfish. Over the years they have developed the exotic reputation of being the offshore-anglers staple trolling bait for marlin, sailfish, tuna, and other pelagic game fish, but the slender with the over-exaggerated overbite is a piscatorial Everyman. Inshore species such as trout, redfish, flounder, and snook feed on ballyhoo whenever possible. Many a night fisherman has used the fine-meshed pier nets to scoop up a 3-inch ‘hoo that is darting around in the glow of a pier’s lights to hook it on a small hook and send it back. Usually, the biggest trout roaming around the pilings will fall victim to the offering, even though it ignored every live shrimp and speck rig that has passed by its nose. Snook strafe the schools of juvenile ballyhoo that cling to the tree lines in South Bay, and the bigger linesiders that lurk in deeper passes, the Brownsville Ship Channel, and the surf will inhale a larger ballyhoo with abandon. Redfish are so hooked on the gray, oily flesh of ballyhoo so much that most longtime ‘hoo chunkers call it “redfish crack.”
Many of the more puritanical saltwater anglers turn their noses up at the idea of using ballyhoo as bait for inshore species. For crying out loud, it’s cut bait! Where is the challenge in that? Why not fool the fish instead of feeding it?
“The name of the game is ‘fishing,’” said longtime ballyhoo adherent Captain Jimmy Martinez. “My clients are more interested in catching fish and having fun. If a piece of ballyhoo is going to get redfish to bite, they’re happy.”
Martinez added that fresh ballyhoo has produced for him on days when nothing else worked, even live shrimp. When conditions make fishing tough, whether it is a gusty March day when murky water precludes the effective of lures, or the steamy, windless dog days of August when the stillness prevents a good drift, ballyhoo can salvage a trip.
Not So Limited Options
It may appear that there isn’t much to using ballyhoo. Keeping ballyhoo alive for any length of time is problematic because of their space requirements. Ballyhoo must be kept in small numbers in cylindrical tanks with excellent fresh water flow. The limited number more so than the storage requirements make it impractical for bait shops to sell live hoos. Rather, most bait shops sell fresh-frozen ballyhoo in vacuum-sealed plastic bags, or they offer the commercially-sold bags of the bait. The fact that ballyhoo are mostly available as dead bait doesn’t mean that the only way to use it is as cut bait on a bottom rig.
Admittedly, cutting ballyhoo into chunks and fishing them as cut bait on dropper rigs can be effective, as seen in the feature’s opening vignette. It is also a very easy way for novices to find success on their maiden trips in saltwater. It isn’t, however, the only way to fish with ballyhoo.
Skip to My ‘Hoo
Fred Rodriguez, host of The Texas Sportsman television show loves using a 6=inch ballyhoo as a sort of topwater. He breaks the beak off the baitfish, cuts the tail and cuts off the tail and part of the tail section. What’s left is streamline and casts well. He pins the bait on a 3/0 Croaker hook by coming up through the chin and out the nose. Casting the ‘hoo out, Rodriguez works it back with a Walk=the=Dog style retrieve. The bait skips along just under the surface and leaves a scent trail behind it. Rodriguez, and other practitioners call it ‘skipping a hoo’. It is a very effective technique when redfish and trout are very active, or when snook are busting bait around the mangroves.
I have found that “crunching” the backbone from behind the head down to the tail and squeezing out the air and fluid from the intestines (and any roe they may have during spring) makes ballyhoo pliable and enhances the skipping action with a little extra wiggle.
Strips from the sides and belly of large ballyhoo make excellent trailers on jigs and spoons. The strips of skin and meat leave a scent trail behind any retrieved lure which serve as a bright line for fish to follow up to the lure, and the flutter, color, and texture of the strips help fool fish into striking and hanging on. Strips are especially effective when used with hair and feather jigs such as Bugz or pro bucktails.
Flounder are especially susceptible to a ballyhoo trailer. Gain, the scent, taste, and texture move flounder to hang onto the jig longer, which buys time for an angler to set the hook as hard as he can. The biggest flounder I’ve caught in several years, a broad 5 pounder out of the East Cut, clobbered a black Bugz jig with a long strip of ballyhoo belly on it.
Some purists might sniff at the idea of matching a lure with meat, but flounder aren’t so discriminating.
You just have to decide hoo do you love.