Methods for rigging live baits.
“Where do I hook this bait?”
It’s a good question, and from an expert livebait captain you might get 10 different answers on 10 different days. The biggest factor to consider is the conditions.
If you’re bottom fishing, for example, hook placement should be different on anchor than if you’re drifting in heavy current. It will also vary depending on what you are trying to catch. A Miami mutton snapper that sees a hundred chicken rigs a day probably won’t be fooled by a chicken rig with a live sardine or cigar minnow hooked through the lips on a 3-foot leader.
For catching the wariest bottom fish, a “knocker rig” where the sinker slides all the way to the hook is often your best bet. The knocker rig only performs well if the hook is placed near the tail of the baitfish. Think about it. The bait is going to naturally pull away from the pressure of being hooked. If you can drop any species of baitfish with your sinker sliding all the way to the hook, you may indeed be using the most natural presentation of all. It will, however, only be successful if your live bait is frisky enough to pull the leader through the water while the sinker lies motionless on the bottom. Hook that same bait through the lips and he’ll stay jammed up against the sinker in a very unnatural way.
The knocker rig is ineffective while drifting or anchored in a heavy current. When dealing with a drift, or a heavy current, you’re far better to work with your sinker a few feet away from your bait, and having your bait hooked through the lips or eyes makes him lay the most natural in the current.
Bring your game up in the water column and there are other considerations. Is your bait the kind that generally belongs on the bottom, like a grunt or pinfish, or is it a surface dweller like a mullet or sardine? Are you hovering over a piece of structure you want the bait to draw predators off of, or are you slow-trolling a general area? Anytime you’re either moving the bait through the water, or the current is stronger than the bait, you’ll have to decide between hooking your bait through the lips, the nostrils, or through the shoulder just behind the head.
Hooking a bait through the shoulder while on the slow troll gets it deeper, but it puts a lot of stress on the bait if you go any faster than a bump troll (idle speed, in and out of gear). Blue runners and threadfins do better with a shoulder hook than menhaden or sardines. Live mullet are fantastic baits, but their heads may be so fat that a 3/0 to 5/0 livebait style hook will not go through the nostrils or eye sockets. A larger hook (5/0 or 6/0) pinned through the upper or lower lip will keep a mullet alive for a few miles.
Bridling the baitfish is another option. This is especially popular among sailfish tournament crews. One easy bridle method is to pull a small rubber band through the bait with a rigging needle and then twist the hook into the two loops protruding from the bait. This is very effective for rigging baits through the middle of the bait’s back, just below the dorsal, for kite fishing. Some of the stress of being held at the surface and occasionally flying through the air is absorbed by the rigging band.
If you’re anchored over a wreck or natural bottom structure you’ve got a few choices depending on your quarry. For kings or mahi, chances are you’ll want your bait to lay naturally in the current. That can be accomplished best by rigging a cigar minnow or sardine through the lips or nostrils, just as you were trolling him. If you’re bottom fishing on the drift, it can be deadly effective to hook your bait just behind the anal fin. As long as he’s drifting at the same rate you are he can really scoot side-to-side hooked that way.
If you’re anchored and trying to get a bait to swim down to bring up the cobia or amberjack, a grunt or pinfish hooked ahead of the dorsal should get the job done. If you feel him swim halfway down and screech to a halt, get ready! FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine August 2017