Targeting Bait in the Northwest Region with Capt. Jeff Hagaman

In the lower part of my region we use a lot of scaled sardines (pilchards). They come in different sizes, from the larger five to seven inch baits that you find around the bridges to the three to four inch baits that are on the flats.

We catch our scaled sardines underneath the bridge lights, and are usually on the water in the dark catching our bait before the sun comes up. Once the sun breaks the horizon, those baits move into deeper water, spread out and will also push onto the flats, but they’re hard to catch around the bridges in the daylight.

When we target scaled sardines on the flats, we look for a flat that has good current movement, and then anchor the boat in place in two to four feet of water and chum using a mixture of jack mackerel or fish meal in combination with oatmeal and sand. You want to toss a little golf ball size of chum out, then start a steady stream of a little chum at a time. I like to get some on my hand and use my fingers to flick the chum out at a steady rate.

You’ll know when you have a good chum line going because you can see the oil slick on the surface. It may take 10 to 15 minutes, but once a school of scaled sardines encounters your chum line they will work their way towards the boat, eventually ending up right behind the boat. Scaled sardines make little dimples on the surface when they feed, so you want to watch for them.

When you get a good amount of baits dimpling behind the boat and within castnet distance, you’ll want to get the net ready. Then toss another golf ball size wad of chum close to the boat, load your castnet, and when you see the baits dimple, throw it over them. When I bring the net back to the boat, I’ll throw another golf ball size wad of chum to get them going again and keep them busy while I empty the net in my livewell.

I use three sizes of castnets when catching bait—all of which are 12 feet in diameter. I use a ¼ inch castnet for the flats and the summer months when there’s a lot of small bait along the beach. I use a 3/8 inch net on the beaches and around the shallow bridges for the larger baits, and a 5/8 inch net with a lot of lead so it sinks really fast around the bridges with deep water so the baits can’t outswim the net.

We’ll also get threadfin herring around the bridges and out off the beaches. If they’re shallow, you can throw the castnet on them, but if not, we’ll use a Sabiki rig to catch them. A Sabiki rig consists of six to eight small fish skin quills tied on dropper loops with a swivel at the top of the rig and a one to two ounce sinker on the bottom.

You toss the rig into a school of threadfins and let it sink, then jig it up and down slowly until a threadfin bites the quill. Once one bites and gets hooked, the rest of the school will eat as well, and there are times when you reel up a threadfin on every hook. There are a lot of different kinds of Sabiki rigs on the market, but I like to use a #6 R&R Sabiki rig which has eight hooks, four of which have green fish skin on them and four of which have red and white. Sometimes the fish like one color or the other, so you still get them to bite with this rig.  

For pinfish we set traps and bait them with half a box of squid or half a box of sardines per trap. You want to set the trap out overnight, and come back again in the morning. That sounds like a lot of bait, but it’ll work really well so that the trap will be loaded with pinfish come morning.

One thing you want to pay attention to is that the galvanized metal pinfish traps seem to work a lot better than the plastic pinfish traps, and vinyl-coated metal traps don’t work at all. I’ll set my traps in four to five feet of water in a good section of deep grass flat. Do that’ and you’ll catch enough bait to last the entire day.

We also use live crabs for bait a lot when targeting tarpon and permit in my region. We catch our crabs on the new moon and full moon using dip nets. You can catch them in the passes on the outgoing tide, particularly on the hill tides. You want to do that before the sun comes up, when they really stack up and move.

The pass crabs and juvenile blue crabs move on the outgoing tide and use the current as their means of locomotion and the grass as their vehicle, much like a fisherman will hitch his boat up to his Chevy truck. Look around in the moving current for the areas where the grass is consistently going out the passes, and that’s where the largest concentrations of crabs will be.

Use a long-handled dip net and a bucket, and dip up all you think you might use. I’ll dip up enough for several days at a time, and will bring them back and put them in bait buckets and feed them with the leftover bait from the end of the day.

It’s easier to use crabs for bait that have been declawed and can’t pinch you. I like to declaw my crabs by grabbing them in the elbow of the claw with a pair of pliers and squeezing until they let the claw go. Crabs have the ability to release their claw, and when they do, it doesn’t harm then, but if you just break the claw off, the crab will die.

No matter what you use for bait, you want to make sure you have a good livewell with a constant source of new water being pumped in. Watch for baits swimming on the surface or gasping for air. When you see that, you need to increase the amount of water or oxygen coming into the livewell or decrease the amount of bait in the well.  

Captain Tips