Our local fish have exotic tastes but live on a squid and baitfish budget. Substitute champagne taste and a beer budget, and many of us can feel a little empathy with these fish. We can come to their rescue with some exotic baits that I’ve seen fish respond to with surprising zeal. Let’s talk baits…
Most of the time we all blast out of the harbor with a tank of live bait and a few pounds of thawing squid, figuring we’re quite well-armed. We certainly do catch a lot of fish with this standard fare and I won’t argue with success, but I will list some uncommon baits I’ve used aboard my charterboat, the WaveWalker, to post some great catches of coastal and island fish all throughout the year.
Crawdads: Fished in a rocky area with plenty of surge – such as just outside of boiler rock areas – crawdads will draw a quick response from the biggest sheephead in the vicinity. These little critters look just like a baby lobster, and that fact isn’t lost on a hungry sheephead which will usually hit it hard and fast because they know how fast a little lobster can scoot. I recommend fishing a fairly stout rod and 20+ pound line on a reel with the drag buttoned down. A 3/4oz to 1oz sliding sinker will put it on the bottom, where the sinker doesn’t bother the fish because it looks like a naturally occurring stone.
Crabs: Buy or gather (or pay some kids to gather) some rock and sand crabs. These baits work well in shallow water right up tight to a shoreline because that’s where they’re most natural. I’ve seen thousands of calico bass spit up small rock crabs after they were caught, so I’m convinced that crabs are a dietary staple that we’re not taking much advantage of. Sheephead and shallow water rockfish such as sugar bass and johnny bass also love munching crabs.
CLAMS/mussels: Smash the shell of a small clam or mussel and pin it on the hook. Cast it near some rocks and it becomes as natural a bait as a fish could ask for. There seems to be something about the smell of freshly smashed crustaceans that the fish swarm to. Some of my urchin diver friends say that when they smash an urchin, nearby fish lose their inhibitions and just barge right in to feed on the scraps.
Worms: Some worms are natural in salt water environments and some aren’t, but they all seem to catch fish. Surf and pier fisherfolk use bloodworms frequently, yet it is rare to see a package of them aboard a boat. Nightcrawlers are effective too. They don’t live long in saltwater, but are limber and shaped like food so they get bit well even after they’re dead. One nice thing about worms is that they become lethal baits at mid depth and deeper structure spots. I fish these on rocky structure over 100 feet deep, and even as baits for deepwater rockfish. Nearly every fish down there grew up feeding on worm-like creatures.
Weird stuff: Well, you knew I was going to get weird on you in a column about exotic baits, and here it is… waterdogs, lizards, rats, pork rinds, and chicken skins. Hey, don’t laugh until you’ve tried them all! I’ve seen every one of these baits aboard the WaveWalker.
Waterdogs and lizards both have a very appealing motion in the water and draw strikes quickly – which is good because they don’t live long. Small rats don’t live long either but display frantic action (I admit that I do feel a twinge of regret watching someone hook up a rat and cast it into its worst nightmare).
Pork rinds make sense. They have a scent and even undulate a little when pulled through the water. Yes, I’m aware that pork rinds aren’t exactly natural in the ocean, but then I don’t believe that freshwater bass are in the habit of eating pigs either. My point is simple – you can catch saltwater fish with them. Since they are a sturdy bait that stays on the hook well, I like to use them for rockfishing.
Chicken skins seem a bit weird, but so many people bring along some chicken to eat during a break from the action, that the more experimental souls among us anglers are sure to pin a piece on the hook to see if it works. And work it does, for bass and rockfish.
Fishing is a fun pastime, and having watched folks have fun experimenting with non-standard baits, I can assure you that bringing along some weird stuff for the hook can make your day on the water just that much more enjoyable. It also gives those fish a taste of something exotic. They may appreciate you so much that they join you for dinner at your place!