When All ElseFails (and even when it doesn’t)
Live bait is the most effective means of catching speckled trout. This is not true in every scenario, but if a person were starving and had to catch specks to survive, live bait would be the way to go.
It is hard to outdo nature, even with modern technology. Some purists mistakenly believe there is not much to fishing with bait. “Any dummy can hook a shrimp” and “croaker soaking takes no talent” are a couple of the comments I have heard over the years. In my experience and observations, this is nonsense.
There are numerous ways to utilize live bait and there are many, many good live baits out there. Live bait is not a magic bullet, but sometimes, it is pretty close.
Most people don’t believe in magic, but after witnessing anglers yanking one big trout after another from the Texas side of the Sabine jetties, East Galveston Bay, Lake Calcasieu, and Laguna Madre over the years, I do.
Live shrimp is magical for speckled trout in many situations. Those that have had access to this precious commodity tend to bring home truly impressive catches while others are struggling. A prime example is a trip to the Sabine jetties where my cousin, Frank Moore, and I caught lots of big redfish, but struggled to catch trout while some gentlemen down the rocks caught one after another. Many of them were huge. The difference was live shrimp.
We arranged for our friend, David Kinser, to bring live shrimp from Galveston Bay two days later, but we were not able to match their magic. The water was milk chocolate when Kinser came down and we struggled to catch trout, although the ones we did catch were big ones.
Yes, live shrimp can catch lots of trout, but, like any mystical potion, it takes other ingredients to make the brew. One crucial ingredient in the Sabine jetty cauldron is clear water.
The words “clear water” doesn’t mean it has to look like tap water. It is rare to get water that clear in the Sabine area, but being able to see your bait a few feet down is a good indication conditions are right. At the beginning of this chapter, I mentioned that live bait isn’t necessarily a cinch, and this is exactly the point. An angler must learn what water conditions work with a particular live bait in the chosen destination. This may take a few failed trips to learn, but such is the nature of fishing.
My favorite ways to rig shrimp are under a weighted popping cork and on a free line rig with a 1/8-ounce split shot weight six inches above a Kahle hook. I prefer the free-line rig, but using a cork has its advantages in many situations, including helping avoid hang-ups on jetty rocks and oyster reefs.
Croaker may be the single best bait for catching large speckled trout. Shrimp is responsible for catching more trout than any other live bait, but croaker catches more big fish than other live bait. My first experience with croakers was nearly a decade ago while fishing with Mike Daleo of Sour Lake, Texas. He was and is an avid trout fisherman, and kept telling me we would hammer the trout on croakers.
We fished croakers and live shrimp and, to put it mildly, we hammered ‘em. Ironically, we caught more fish on shrimp, including the largest fish of the day, a 28-incher. Nonetheless, the croakers proved their worth. We didn’t catch a single tiny trout on them, nor any sheepshead or hardheads. The shrimp drew strikes from all kinds of fish.
To be honest, I haven’t done much croaker fishing since then, but have no ill will toward those who do. In fact, I jump at the chance to fish with croakers when the opportunity is presented. I like catching fish, and croakes can definitely aid in that department. That’s the biggest advantage of croakers. It allows anglers to catch fish, which gets often overlooked in an age when a blowup on a topwater plug (glorious thing that it is) is considered the climax of trout fishing. Anglers not adept at throwing big trout-specific lures can have an excellent shot at catching the fish of a lifetime by simply soaking croakers on the bottom in the Galveston Ship Channel, Baffin Bay, or any other location trout visit.
Capt. David Dillman taught me about the advantages of using piggy perch for trout. Shrimp and croakers are better all-around baits, but for fishing at jetties and nearshore oil platforms, these little fish are hard to beat. They can be purchased at some bait camps, but most dedicated piggy users catch their own in traps. Something worth noting about piggies is that some old timers like to clip their sharp dorsal fins before using them for bait. They say it makes it easier for a trout to swallow.
Mud minnows, also known as Gulf killifish or Cocahoe minnows) are without a doubt the most popular and probably the all-around best flounder bait. These small marsh-dwellers are abundant in flounder territory year-round and are a regular part of their natural diet. Mud minnows are also excellent for trout.
Several years ago, while flounder fishing, I decided to use some leftover mud minnows for trout—and it worked. In fact, the results were tremendous. While drifting a large oyster reef, my father and I used live mud minnows under popping corks. We caught trout weighing from two to five pounds and limited on redfish. That reef is about 12 feet deep, so we fished our mud minnows halfway down the water column at six feet. On that first mud minnow fishing trip, my father lost one of the biggest trout that ever graced these eyes.
Mud minnows are a very hardy fish that can be hooked several ways: through both lips, behind the dorsal (top) fin, or through the body near the tail. Possibly the biggest advantage to using mud minnows is that they are available year-round at most bait shops when shrimp and croakers can be hard to come by. Mud minnows are also readily caught in traps.
Mullet make up a large proportion of a large speckled trout’s diet, but relatively few anglers use them for bait. I have seen anglers fishing with eight-inch mullet catch mammoth trout over in Southwest Louisiana, where it is a very popular bait. The big debate among trout fishermen is what size mullet to use: finger mullet (little ones) or big ones (six- to eight-inchers). It comes down to what size fish you want to catch. Obviously, large baits deter small fish and entice big ones. If dead set on catching a huge trout, use a huge mullet. If numbers are your game, finger mullet fit the bill. You usually have to catch your own with a cast net. Mullet can be hooked the same way as mud minnows.
Menhaden, also known as pogies or shad, are another good trout bait. The drawbacks are they are very difficult to keep alive in a livewell or on the hook, and live ones are virtually impossible to find at a bait camp. A cast net is a necessity for securing an allotment of this small baitfish. During summer and fall, menhaden are great for catching trout.
Keeping these delicate fish alive is a difficult task I have only been able to do by using pure oxygen or an expensive recycling aeration system. Shad die quickly in hot weather.
According to Captain Skip James, live shad is not necessary. Over the last few years, he has been catching lots of trout on dead shad: “I’ve been catching my shad in a cast net early in the morning and putting them on a layer, then covering them up with another layer of ice. I then make sure to drain as much of the water as possible. This keeps shad very fresh.” James fishes the cold bait on a rig consisting of a simple, weighted popping cork several feet above a Kahle hook. We fish together frequently, and I have never seen him fish with live bait.
Keeping bait alive
The trick to using live bait is keeping it alive. A dead baitfish is not nearly as enticing as something that wiggles. For land-bound anglers, a large Styrofoam ice chest does a good job keeping most baitfish kicking. Styrofoam breathes and, if the water is changed periodically, most bait will do well.
For anglers in boats, a circulating livewell is the ideal setup. By exchanging water frequently, anglers can achieve fairly low bait mortality in most situations. Something that can help is the products produced by Sure-Life Laboratories. They have chemicals called Pogy-Saver, Croaker-Saver, and Shrimp-Saver, as well as stuff designed especially for mullet and many other baitfish. A couple of spoonfuls of this stuff helps eliminate ammonia in the water, which kills many baitfish.
My father used barely dampened sawdust to keep shrimp alive. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, some camps sold live shrimp in sawdust. Some, particularly in Florida, still carry on this tradition. Sawdust holds in moisture and actually keeps the shrimp alive longer than just sitting in a regular bait bucket. The strange thing is, it is very important not to dampen the sawdust too much or it kills the shrimp.