May 10, 2020
Could it be that your vision of livebait fishing is too limited? You recoil at the idea of committing much time to the perimeter of an egg sinker or bobber. You'd rather whirl around the bay with a trolling motor and cast lures until your elbow says quit. But what if you simply let that live bait swim where it wants to go? Let your bait do the walking, so to speak.
Last spring, I watched Capt. Scott Crippen of Fort Pierce turn in the fastest inshore slam (snook, trout, redfish) maybe I've ever seen. He did something with his live baits that was perfectly suited to the environments he fishes—open grassflats, spoil island points—but I'm confident the technique would work in many other places.
What Crippen does is hook a sardine or thread herring through the meaty, top side of the tail—just below the adipose fin and above the spine. He casts the bait in the general direction of the area he wants to fish, and then he just lets it swim. And swim. And… swim… until it has a head-on collision with spotted death, which happens pretty often during the springtime in Crippen's neighborhood.
There are a few things at work here. One, the tail-hooked bait is quite aerodynamic. The head leads the way on the arc of the cast. Two, the bait is securely affixed to the hook, much more so than a bait that's passed through the nostrils or lips.
But the biggest advantage is that a bait hooked in the tail will tend to swim away from the pull of the line. That means the baitfish will embark on an odyssey of exploration. Essentially, that oily, smelly, reflective baitfish will do what you would've done with your plugs and jigs. It will cover the water and find the fish.
Crippen, who guides on a 24 Billfish bayboat, uses 7- to 7 ½-foot spinning rods hook for most of his livebait duties. The Fort Pierce-Vero corridor of the Indian River Lagoon, where Crippen fishes, is perhaps best-known for producing big seatrout; the all-tackle record, 17 pounds, 7 ounces, was caught here in May, 1995. If Crippen and his anglers are primarily chasing seatrout on open-water flats or channels, he'll use 15- or 20-pound braided line with a 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader or three or four feet, terminating with a loop knot affixed to a 3/0 or 4/0 Owner shortshank livebait hook. The time of year when seatrout are at their largest, the spring and early summer prespawn period, also coincides with clear water. This grants a bit of an advantage to the angler using light fluoro leader. However, there are other considerations to weigh.
If fishing around mangroves or other structure, Crippen bumps up to 30-pound leader to provide some protection against not only an abrasive environment, but the rough jaws and sharp gill plates of snook. If tarpon are in play, 40- or 50-pound leader is a good choice, he said.
“March through May are about the best months for the flats here,” said Crippen. “When the big snook are moving out of the bridges and inlets and up onto the flats and spoils islands, is also when the big trout are up there. And naturally, we always have redfish. This is a time of year when you can fish lighter stuff—4000-size reels—and hook 20-pound snook in a couple feet of water.”
Crippen described his technique:
“It's kind of the same type of fishing for all these species,” he explained. “The tail-hooked bait always swims away—you can jig the rodtip a little bit, and that fires up the bait and it takes off. A nose-hooked bait tends to stay where you throw it, maybe swimming in circles.”
This type of bait-fishing is far more active than what many anglers might expect. There's no resting a rod in a holder and waiting for something to happen. Less casting than with artificial lures, yes, but still, the angler has to stay engaged with the bait.
“Leaving the bail open, I'll keep my finger on the spool—if I get a bite, I'll let the line run a few seconds, then close the bail and reel up to set the hook.”
If the bait turns toward the boat and Crippen loses touch with it, he'll close the bail, reel up the slack, bump the rodtip and let the bait swim away again.
The first spot we fished with Crippen was a mangrove shoreline on a spoil island, one of many such spots that line the Intracoastal Waterway in the southern Indian River Lagoon. The tide was incoming, sweeping gently left to right across our bow. We had staked the boat from the stern using twin Power Poles, which enabled us to hold position perpendicular to the current.
The current was just strong enough to carry our tail-hooked pilchards down the shoreline. We'd cast toward shore on our left, and monitor the line for a strike as the baits drifting downtide, all the while pulling toward deep, dark cavities beneath the mangroves. Within minutes, Crippen, Ralph Allen and I each notched a couple of snook releases. The guide had a spot not far away that promised much larger snook.
The next “spot” was less of a spot and more of a football field of seagrass. The main area of the guide's interest was a strip of rocky shoreline on a spoil island. A school of mullet rippled the surface and flashed enticingly there. But off to the north stretched a wide expanse of good-looking grass, with vague light-colored potholes visible as far as I could see.
Here again, the tail-hooked baits worked out perfectly. On back-to-back casts, Crippen—who'd left the snook biting only moments ago--pulled in an upper-slot redfish and a seatrout. It was as if he'd been hired by the area's chamber of commerce to put on a display of the region's sportfish. (Actually, in a round-about way, he had… but that's another story.)
Anyway, Crippen uses these tail-hooked baits to catch not only the inshore slam species, but also tarpon. We didn't hook any on our trip with him, but I immediately saw the practicality of his method. The Indian River doesn't have much in the way of deep water, besides the ICW and some other dredged channels. Tarpon often spread out over the grassflats adjacent to such canals. In shallow water, tarpon are spooky—running even an electric motor near them can put them on guard. They probably won't hump up and flee like seatrout or snook, but they likely will clam up and refuse baits or lures.
Crippen locates a rolling school of tarpon, sets up his boat for a drift (or stake out) and then fires a long cast with the tail-hooked bait, letting it swim into range or paddle about until a hungry fish finds it.
One drawback to this free-swim method is that it doesn't work especially well around snaggy structure such as high-tide mangroves or docks. Here, it's better to contain your bait so that it doesn't hang you up. Still, there's a good argument for letting that bait swim on its own. Simply add a slotted foam popping cork to the line so that you can track the bait. The cork will burden and slow the bait a little, which is one reason to leave it off in open water.
A cork placed a few feet above a tail-hooked mullet, for instance, is a terrific rig for pursuing snook around seawalls and jetties. The fireworks of the fall mullet run are lodged at the forefront of many anglers' minds, especially in Southeast Florida, but there's another “run” in the spring that gets big fish wound up. Silver mullet (identifiable by the black trailing edge of the tail fin) of 7 to 10 inches are a welcome mouthful for snook fattening up for the summer spawn. These are hard-swimming baits, and if you want to keep one confined to a strike zone—tight up against a wall, for instance—it's best to tail-hook the bait. Much as Crippen handles the sardines and herrings on the trout flats, if you put a little tension on the line, you can redirect an errant mullet that may be swimming for open water.
First Published Florida Sportsman Shallow Water Angler Special May 2016