If Michael McMaster has things his way, trout fishermen won’t have to worry about catching pigfish in summer. They’ll be able to buy all they need at bait and tackle shops, thanks to innovative aquaculture.
McMaster is president of Mariculture Technologies International (MTI). One of his company’s projects concerns the spawning and raising of pigfish in small ponds for commercial use. Pigfish, members of the grunt family (Orthopristis chrysoptera), are one of the best baits for big seatrout in summer. That’s no secret—and yet it is. Because pigfish are so effective, anglers who are proficient with their use are, for the most part, reluctant to share where they get their baits, how they catch them, and in turn, the techniques they employ to catch big trout.
I called McMaster and was able to wrangle a tour of MTI’s 10-acre facility in Oak Hill, near the north end of the Indian River Lagoon in East Central Florida. This is one of the areas where gator trout thrive. It makes good business sense to raise pigfish near the waters where demand for them will be greatest.
McMaster showed me a large, round tank where he kept his “alpha spawners,” pigfish that had been culled and kept in a separate tank because they grew significantly faster and stronger than the others. The rest had been released into an on-site pond where an orange grove once stood. These genetically superior pigfish, in turn, had a greater likelihood of producing other “alpha spawners” and again, the best-of-the-best would be segregated into yet another tank He hopes these third-generation fish will produce offspring that can be distributed commercially.
Using a dip net, McMaster netted a few pigfish and showed them to me. They were large, about 7 inches long, and hyperactive compared to other species of fish upon which he was conducting research at his facility. My first thought was that they needed a good dose of Ritalin to calm them down. McMaster said that because pigfish were noticeably more active than pinfish, grunts and croakers, it probably served to draw the attention of spotted seatrout and other nearby predators. He surmises that their common name, “pigfish,” probably comes from the grunting noises they make. These sounds, he believes, are what draw trout and other predators from afar to grab an easy meal. He added that juveniles three to four inches long also have smoother fins than pinfish, croakers and other grunts, and that seatrout probably like that as well.
At present, McMaster is working toward spawning successive generations of pigfish, determining which months of the year will have the greatest demand, ascertaining how many pigfish need to be produced and estimating market demand. He’s confident these issues can be resolved in the near future, but until they are, livebait fishermen will have to continue paying premium prices for pigfish that have been captured in traps, or they will have to catch their own.
Richard Patten lives in East Central Florida and has fished in the Sebastian area using pigfish for almost 40 years. He catches his pigfish in traps. “I recall when they were a nickel apiece,” he began. “They were the best summer bait you could get your hands on back then and they still are.”
I inquired why he thought they were such good bait and he didn’t hesitate.
“Trout recognize the grunting sounds pigfish make and if they can hear it, they’ll try and find the pigfish. They will move long distances when they know a meal like that waits for them.”
With the passage of time, Patten found he was using more and more pigfish and as their price began to rise, he turned to trapping his own.
“You want to bait your trap with crushed crab and set it in a sandspot near grass. In early summer, I set my traps in two or three feet of water, but I eventually have them about five feet deep as the pigfish grow larger and move deeper by late summer.”
He cautioned, “Although the pigfish live in the grass, don’t put your traps there or the grass will block the holes and you won’t get as many.”
I asked Patten why he considered pigfish to be a summer bait and he explained, “Pigfish spawn in spring and by late May, most are still under two inches. By midsummer, however, they get to be about three inches, a perfect size for medium and larger trout. As they continue to grow on into late summer, they become more of a big trout bait.” With the hint of a knowing smile, he added, “And bull redfish and big snook will feed on them as the pigfish get even larger in September and October. After that, they move out to sea.”
When I asked about how he hooked his pigfish and where he fished them, he explained, “I use a 3/0 livebait hook and insert it into the pigfish just behind the anal fin. I have a bobber above it and cast the rigged bait over grass where I suspect there to be good trout.”
He went on.
“If the grass is in four feet of water, I’ll put the bobber three feet above the pigfish. I want him to struggle and grunt as he tries to get back down into the grass. If you don’t use a bobber, the pigfish will get down in the grass and hide. Then you will have to twitch your line to get him to grunt.”
“Do you use them in places other than on grassflats?” I asked.
The smile began to creep back on his face once again. “At night around the docks. Beats a shrimp, hands down.” He went on to explain that while a large trout or snook might take a shrimp floated close by, when they hear a pigfish grunting, they begin searching aggressively until they find it. This means that strikes could come a few feet away from the pilings and, as a result, more fish are likely to be brought boatside.
Captain Pat McGriff guides out of Keaton Beach in the Big Bend area on Florida’s west coast and has a different approach for obtaining and fishing his pigfish. McGriff has 35 years of trout fishing experience and starts a charter with about 100 assorted pigfish, pinfish, grunts, croakers and squirrelfish in his livewell. All these he takes from traps he sets. Nonetheless, he wants to have the freshest baits possible and he works hard to catch still more while his clients are fishing for trout.
I had the chance to fish with and observe how McGriff went about catching his baitfish late last summer. “I have two livewells on board, one for the baitfish we start with and one for the fresh ones I catch,” he began. “We’ll be fishing with those I catch which, hopefully, will be pigfish. The others are just backups in case we need them.”
I asked why he preferred pigfish to the other kinds of baitfish he had in his livewell and his answer was similar to what Richard Patten’s had been on the east coast.
“Trout recognize the grunting noises that pigfish make. They don’t have to search about looking for a meal. They can be 100 percent certain that if they move to the source of the sound, a desirable meal will be waiting for them. They just have to capture it.”
To catch his pigfish, he uses a small spinning rod and reel combo with 8- to 10-pound line. Onto this, he ties a “hairhook” like those used to catch golden shiners (size 16 Mustad No. 3191). A few inches above the hook, he adds a pinch of lead weight. He then puts a small piece of synthetic bait, about the size of a No. 7 swivel, onto the tiny hook. After baiting his hook, he flips the rig out on the opposite side of the boat from where his clients are fishing. When his baited hook hits bottom, he closes the bail and after making a couple of slight pops of his rod, he lifts his light rig off the bottom. A baitfish is usually attached, hopefully a pigfish.
McGriff’s approach to soaking pigfish is also different from Patten’s. Whereas Patten wants his pigfish to struggle about a foot above the bottom and adjusts his bobber to changing depths in order to achieve this, McGriff wants his pigfish to be suspended mid-depth in deeper water below a weighted surface attractor. The surface attractor, an oval float with plastic and brass beads that bang into each other when the rodtip is popped, sounds like a feeding fish. Trout come to investigate the possibility of an easy meal and hence it is referred to as an “attractor.”
“I use 10-pound-class spinning tackle and tie the surface attractor onto the end of my running line. On a 2 1⁄2-foot piece of 30-pound leader, I tie a 6/0 bronze hook. Combining the length of the leader and the attractor, I am fishing about 42 inches deep.” He went on, “I then look for grass in about seven to eight feet of water and select the freshest, most lively bait I have and hook it through the eye socket. I make the longest cast possible and after letting the rig sit for perhaps 30 seconds, I give it a couple of hard pops. The trout will come to check it out and if there is a grunting pigfish swimming at mid-depth in the water column, that float is going down.”
We fished until lunch and caught 30 or more trout using pigfish and other assorted baitfish. Piggies outfished the others better than two to one. I know the book says go early or late in the day and fish shallow if you want to catch trout in summer. I have seen the epilogue to that book, however, and know that you can reliably target trout well into the heat of the day by suspending a pigfish below a surface attractor.
Trout are opportunistic feeders, willing to consume a variety of the forage that might be readily available. Much like me at a smorgasbord or an all-you-can-eat buffet, trout still have their preferred foods and will choose to eat those foods when they are available. Within those preferred food sources, pigfish, especially when they get to be three to four inches long, are their summertime favorite. The grunting sounds made by pigfish in summer, like the ringing of a dinnerbell, call out to trout announcing, “Dinner is about to be served.” Seldom will that summons be ignored.