It may be livebait season, but don’t leave the dock without some other options.

A crowd of boats outside the inlet is no guarantee there’s bait in the area. Always be prepared with a plan B.

In Florida we are usually blessed with an abundance of live bait during the very times our fish are biting the best. For Northeast Florida fishermen, spring, summer and fall are all about a cast net and a quick trip along the beach to catch a livewell full of pogies. Whereas that may be the easiest way to fill a well with bait, let me add a word of caution here. Pogies don’t stay frisky all day, and overcrowding speeds up their demise. If you’re not going to use live chum, I highly recommend you limit your well to 1 pogy per gallon of water. High pressure circulation and an oval well are necessary.

As many fish as I’ve caught on pogies, if I’m fishing more than a couple miles offshore, I believe sabikiing up a pile of cigar minnows, sardines and blue runners is superior.

Don’t we all wish planning our fishing trips was just that easy? Take it from the hard lessons I’ve learned. There’s no such thing as always being able to catch bait. Ironically, you can count on the pogies disappearing from the beach at the same time cigar minnows and sardines either vanish completely or all shrink to sizes too small to troll.

On my boat, The Seven, most of our trolling trips involve either Fishing for Warriors or Sportsmen Against Childhood Cancer guests. I’m committed to putting folks on fish, and therefore I need a really good backup plan. For me, good catches always start with planning your attack. Lay out your day with the question, “What if there’s no bait?” I will always devote at least a couple hours trying to catch live bait in the morning, but I’m always aware I’m not going to catch fish without baits of some kind in the water.

Following a well full of fat sardines or other seasonal baits, my second choice for favorite trolled baits is a dozen well-rigged ballyhoo, with a second dozen still frozen in my bait cooler. I laugh every time I hear fishermen complain about the cost of ballyhoo, and the extra trouble it takes to rig a dozen the night before a trip. Can we be real for a minute? Considering the cost of a dozen ballyhoo against the cost of spending your only day off looking for bait all day, is just a little silly. I will always have a dozen ready to go, because I want my crew to be busy watching our baits instead of rigging baits while we’re on the troll.

I often get asked about refreezing rigged ballyhoo. Yes, you can refreeze them, but they are shinier and troll in good shape longer if they are fresh out of the vacuum-packed bag. Once again, look at the cost of fresh bait in the context of what the trip really costs. By the way, I always keep one lipped diver such as a Rapala CD18 or Yo-Zuri Hydro Mag in the back of my natural bait spread. It will pay off with kings and wahoo.

Frozen cigar minnow with a quick and easy stinger rig, suitable for trolling or drifting.

An even easier backup plan is a box of frozen cigar minnows. Take the time at the tackle shop to open a few boxes and buy the box with the biggest minnows and the least freezer burn. That way you’re covered if you need to troll natural baits or if bottom fishing becomes your back up plan. Rigging cigar minnows takes seconds, and can be done on the fly. A short piece of No. 5 wire should be haywire twisted to a ½-ounce or ¾-ounce jig head. A short piece of No. 5 wire is then haywired from the eye of the jig back to a small 3/0 trailer hook that is buried in the minnow’s back. A small Sea Witch or mylar skirt can slide over the jig head, and you’re ready to go.

If you have one of today’s high-tech coolers, you can place your frozen ballyhoo or cigar minnows in a black trash bag, and they will stay frozen trip after trip. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine June 2017

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