Serve ‘em a Cold Sardine

Ocean fish of all sorts love these versatile baits.

All-purpose dead sardine, from top, for bottom fish, drift bait, stinger-rigged for kings.

Spanish sardines are among the best live baits when they’re available, but don’t discount the frozen ones. Partyboats, charter skippers and private anglers have been using them for a long time. There are good reasons some seem to do better with them than others.

One detail is the bait’s condition. Sardines become oily and mushy after just minutes left thawed in the heat. It’s better to thaw baits as needed. Thawed sardines can be snipped and frozen for future chum, but not for whole baits.

You want the sardine to look natural but you also want it to stay on the hook. I always pin one hook through the hard plate on top of the head. This way, if we need to reel up a sardine to check it, it suddenly looks alive. Many sailfish are caught on the retrieve, along with dolphin, kingfish and wahoo.

It’s important to keep in touch with the bait. So I prefer to use as little weight as possible, beginning with a ½-ounce in 100 feet of water. Put out the bait a little bit and then stop to let the sinking sardine catch up with the sinker. Otherwise, the leader will rise and wrap around the lead, far less productive.
I like about 20-pound-test for this and if you like braid, this is a good place for it but isn’t mandatory.

Hooks and Rigs

A single hook pinned downward through the head and back out through the lower jaw is ideal for a flatline drift-fishing bait for dolphin, tuna and kingfish. In a pinch, you can also use a head-hooked sardine on a fishing kite when your live goggle-eyes run out. Even large snapper and grouper will come off the bottom for a sardine.

For targeting bottom fish specifically, most guys agree it’s better to fish with two hooks. While that second hook helps your odds, it’s no substitute for checking the bait at least every five minutes.

Commercial anglers targeting kings often use three hooks. The rig eliminates cutoffs even when very light mono leaders are used. No wire to see, no access to it to cut it off.

When fishing kings with triple hooks or even with just two, one great way to fish a sardine is with a lead directly above the top hook right on the leader. This adds a bit more protection against cutoffs, and it’s especially helpful in getting the bait down to where the fish are marking on the screen. A jig with a couple of hooks added makes a great alternative.

Finally, when using multiple hooks, always size up the bait. With the trailing hook going in toward the back, the front hook must end up perfectly between the eyes as it passes through the skull. For most sardines, you’ll want a 6/0 to 8/0 longshank J-hook, about the same size if not slightly larger for the circle hooks. Fifty-pound-test monofilament or No. 4 or 5 singlestrand wire is ideal for leader. FS