To Bait Or Not To Bait: Bait For The Piers — Part One

Although there is an unending debate between those who prefer to use baits and those who prefer artificial lures, bait is still the preferred method of fishing on most crowded fishing piers. This is true even though lures are almost a necessity when the bonito show up and many anglers prefer to use the small multi-hook bait rigs for fish such as small perch, croakers and sme

The ability to select the proper bait and to rig it in such a manner that the fish accepts it sounds simple but actually involves a plethora of skills and insights. Unfortunately these skills are often overlooked. They’re especially overlooked on piers where the vast majority of anglers use bait, but often in a haphazard manner. It’s unfortunate because when baits are presented correctly they will usually outperform artificials.

There are certain keys to using baits: (1) Live bait is almost always best. (2) Always use the freshest bait possible. (3) Keep the bait in a chilled bait cooler. (4) Match the bait to the fish you are seeking. (5) Match the bait to the locale. (6) Match the size of the bait to the fish and the size of the hook. (7) Know how to properly put the bait on a hook. (8) Better to undersize bait than to oversize the bait. (9) A moving bait is better than stationary bait for most species. (10) Check your baits constantly.

The main Southern California pier baits:

Anchovies. When I was a teenager fishing at Newport Pier live anchovies were the bait used by the vast majority of anglers. Out at the end of the pier there was a bait and tackle shop and at one end there was an open window where you got your anchovies. Anchovies were a little cheaper then, about $.50 a dozen (although they were a nickel apiece if you got them separately), and you used ticket stubs to get them. You stood in line—there was almost always a line—then you presented your tickets for a few anchovies. You always got just a few at a time. That way the anchovies wouldn’t die from the lack of oxygen in the small bait buckets. As a resident pier rat, I made out pretty good. Many times anglers would buy tickets and then have some left over when they were ready to leave. They would give them to the kids—myself included.

Live anchovies are still the top bait for many species including many of the most prized pier fish such as halibut, bonito and barracuda. However, most anglers today have to catch the anchovies themselves.

Of course once our sturdy anglers catch their bait, they must know how to use it correctly. Most anglers use either a live bait sliding leader (with or without a small sinker) or cast out with a cast-a-bubble. When fishing the upper levels of the water, anchovies will produce the pelagic species; when fishing on or near the bottom, anchovies will catch halibut, bass, sharks and rays. They are not as productive in the surf or down around the pilings, although the depression between the pilings can be deadly for halibut.

If casting out the anchovy with a cast-a-bubble, hook the fish upward through the lower and upper jaws; this will prevent the fish from drowning. If using a sliding bait leader, you can hook the anchovy in several different manners. One way is through the nose or through the upper and lower lips; both ways will make it go toward the bottom. Or, if you are seeking halibut, hook it behind the anal fin, which will also usually make it go toward the bottom. This works well for halibut since they seem to like to grab bait from behind. The final way, if using a sliding leader is to hook the anchovy in the “collar” area just behind the gills; this is the most common way to hook live anchovies, although it is less effective on a pier than on a boat. Collar-hooked anchovies will tend to stay near the surface of the water (which is better for bonito and barracuda) until they begin to tire and move toward the bottom. At that point you should put fresh bait on your hook.

To keep your anchovies lively, and they must be frisky if they’re going to be good bait, buy an aerator. Many tackle shops carry small battery operated aerators, which clip onto the side of bait buckets. They usually cost under $10 and are well worth the expense.

More commonly seen and used are frozen anchovies. These are sold border to border, usually in one-pound bags, and are one of the main baits throughout the state. Most commonly a whole anchovy is put on a hook and it is tossed out. A far better method is to use frozen anchovies as cut bait. Cut the fish into two or three pieces using diagonal cuts then put these on your hooks. An exception is when fishing for sharks and rays, a whole anchovy (sometimes used in conjunction with squid) is ideal.

Less common today but still seen at times, primarily in the Los Angeles area, are salted anchovies. They work the same as frozen anchovies but are tougher and will not fall off the hook as easily. Many anglers swear they are better than the frozen varieties.

Bloodworms. Once found primarily in southern California bait shops, but increasingly found today north to Cayucos, bloodworms are good but expensive bait. Expensive because most bloodworms are flown in from the East Coast.

I have found bloodworms to be excellent bait for croakers, surfperch, bass and several flatfish including turbot in bays and halibut both in bays and oceanfront waters. Be careful of the pincers and realize that when you cut a bloodworm it will generally spurt blood, sometimes quite a distance. Because of the cost, and the fact that most bloodworms are sold in plastic bags (which quickly warm up in the sun), it is best to bring a small bait cooler with you when using this bait. If you are going to pay a top price for bait, keep it in top condition. The best method for using these worms is to cut a piece just a little longer than the hook and then cover the hook with the worm leaving a little at the end.

An idea courtesy of Snookie, a regular on the Pier Fishing In California Message Board: if you have bloodworms left over at the end of the day put them in a bag with rock salt and freeze them. They will remain in amazingly good condition.

Clams. A variety of clams are sold as bait in California with the two most common being Pismo clams and jackknife clams. Live clams are the far superior bait, are generally sold by the pound, and will stay alive much of the day when kept cool and moist. However, much of the time all you will find are frozen clams and these are normally sold in small 8-ounce cups (and may or may not be labeled as to the kind of clam inside the cup).

Pismo Clams have a thick, heavy triangular shaped shell and come in a variety of colors. They are common to sandy shore beaches and are somewhat common from Monterey south (although in far fewer numbers than in years past). Since they live in the surf environment, they are best for the inshore surf species like barred surfperch, corbina and croakers.

The jackknife clam (also known as razorback clam) has a long, thin, flat pair of shells and is common to sand flats and mud flats. It ranges throughout California while a smaller cousin, the pencil clam (a narrower type of jackknife clam), is perhaps the best clam of all as far as bait. The jackknife-type clams are excellent bait for many bay species and many old-timers swear that the pencil clam will sometimes take spotfin croakers when nothing else seems to work.

As mentioned, the number of clams has decreased in many locales. The best example of this is the Pismo clam that once yielded hundreds of thousands of pounds of clams to locals and invading tourists in the Pismo Beach area. Today, it is rare to find an adult clam. Where clams are still common, they make excellent bait, where numbers have decreased their effectiveness as bait has decreased.

Make sure that when using clams, you use a piece of bait just large enough to cover the hook, with the barbs of the hook exposed to hook the fish.

You can of course gather the clams yourself if you have time; special clam guns, forks, shovels and your bare hands will work once you get the knack of it.

Crabs. Small shore crabs, the kind you often see around pilings, rocks and jetties, make excellent bait for perch and cabezon. You will need to catch them yourself, but if you are in a good area, it won’t take you long to catch enough to go fishing (especially if you go out at night with a flashlight). In southern California, most common are Pachygrapsus crassipes, a greenish-purple colored crab. They are very common around jetty rocks and mussel beds. When you see reference to sidewinder crabs as baits, it will be one of these species or a similar type.

To fish with these small crabs (and thumbnail-size specimens are the very best), hook them through the shell at the back, trying to keep them alive. Fish them right around the pilings, a few feet under the surface of the water. If possible, and it requires a pier built close to the water, you can try to float a small crab into a school of pileperch (which are generally right up next to pilings). Usually it requires a light line (4-6 pound test) and a small hook (size 8-10) but the results can make the effort worthwhile. Large rubberlip perch also find these crabs to be tasty morsels and many times crabs are almost the only bait that will catch these two larger species of perch. Crabs also make excellent bait for cabezon. In fact, almost 100% of the cabezon I have caught off of piers in California had crabs in their stomachs.

Ghost Shrimp. Three species of ghost shrimp are found in California and collectively they represent what may be the best inshore bait in California. The most common is the red ghost shrimp, the pink-and-white, soft-bodied Callianassa californiensis that is found in the sandy mud of marine sloughs and bays throughout the state. In similar habitat, but reaching a larger size, is the long-handed ghost shrimp Callianassa gigas. It is white or cream-colored. Southern California is the sole residence of the pinkish-colored, crayfish-like ghost shrimp, Callianassa affinis. It is found only on open beaches that have a rocky boulder covered shore.

All three are simply called ghost shrimp in bait shops and all three make excellent bait. In fact, when used live, they are often the best bait, especially in bays. In southern California bays, ghost shrimp will entice bass, croakers, flatfish and sharks. On southern California beaches, ghosties yield barred surfperch, California corbina, yellowfin croaker and spotfin croaker.

Although there may be nothing like true juju bait, ghost shrimp will sometimes yield fish when nothing else will work. Several times I have been the only fisherman catching fish simply because I was using ghost shrimp—and it happened in as diverse locations as San Diego, Ventura, Pismo Beach, Bodega Bay and Point Arena. I also was on the opposite end of the spectrum once when I went nearly fishless on the Shelter Island Pier in San Diego Bay while a nearby angler (the only angler with ghost shrimp) pulled in what seemed like an unending string of sand bass and yellowfin croakers, one right after another.

Unfortunately, ghost shrimp can sometimes be difficult to find. They are generally sold in bait shops around San Diego Bay and in some shops in beach areas of Los Angeles (where they are sometimes called saltwater crawfish).

However, pumping for these ghost shrimp is an interesting way of getting bait. All you need is a shrimp pumper, which simply looks like a long tube with a handle. This is inserted in the sand near the water’s edge in ghost shrimp areas and, hopefully, ghost shrimp are sucked/pumped out. Once you learn the areas and proper technique it is not uncommon to pump 50 shrimp in less than half an hour. Pumpers are sold at many bait and tackle stores.

Innkeeper Worm. Occasionally when my dad was making bait in Mission Bay —digging for clams, or pumping for ghost shrimp—he would run across a large worm which he, and every other angler he knew, called the innkeeper worm. It was a bait especially prized by many of the croaker specialists, the solitary anglers who went out week after week in pursuit of the large spotfins. Only problem is that I’m not sure they were really innkeeper worms. There really is a cigar-shaped little creature given the name fat innkeeper (Urechis caupo) by scientists although it’s actually a worm-like echiuroid. The interesting creature reaches 19 inches in length (although most are 6-8 inches long), and it is noted for constructing a burrow which is usually co-inhabited by three other animals: a reddish scale worm, a pea crab and a small goby. However, it seems to be most common in central and northern California sloughs and bays.

Unfortunately, the pictures I took of my dad’s innkeepers look more like those of another interesting worm, Sipunculus nudus, reportedly common to Mission Bay and Ensenada. It has a whitish colored skin that is shining and iridescent and most that I’ve seen were around six inches in length.

Whichever creature my dad and fellow anglers were catching, it proved to be excellent bait for a number of species—not just spotfin croakers, but also yellowfin croaker, diamond turbot and an occasional bass. That’s not counting the sharks, rays and shovelnose guitarfish that grabbed onto the bait. In fact, one book I read said the fat innkeeper is one of the favorite foods of bat rays.

So, if you’re gathering your own bait (I’ve never seen them in bait shops) and stumble across one of these large, whitish-colored, worm-like creatures, give them a try for bait. You may be pleasantly surprised. By the way, I’ve also heard of anglers using them to catch starry flounder in the Santa Cruz area.

By the way, Neptune, a Pier Rat that lives in the Bodega Bay area reports “I have caught all sorts of stuff on these guys. Any minus tide you can pump them 3 or 4 at a time in one of my special spots. I freeze them two to a bag. Cut into strips they’re hot for the above species. Whole, with a few little slices, they’re hot for bat rays and especially leopard sharks. Hook up a lot faster than on squid. Just about every shark and ray I’ve caught in Bodega had a few of these guys in their tummies.”

Lizardfish. These are one of the more abused fish in our waters. Most of the time they’re schooling so they are easy to catch and they generally don’t offer much in the way of fighting ability. Most people feel they are worthless so they’re left to dry out on the deck of the pier or they are killed and tossed back into the water. However, they make good bait for some species—including halibut and bass. A few years ago an angler won a big-time halibut derby in Santa Monica Bay and imagine the surprise when he admitted that the prize-winning fish was caught with a live lizardfish as bait. Most of the pier fish are, however, too small to catch on live lizardfish. Use the lizardfish for cut bait (triangular pieces) or cut it into strip bait and use it with plastics.

Lugworms. A fairly recent addition to the southern California bait scene is the group of worms known as lugworms. Superficially resembling pile worms, they are fished the same way as pile worms and bloodworms. As with the other worms, lugworms should be kept cool in an ice chest to keep them fresh. The main southern California species you’ll catch with lugworms are bottom species such as perch, croakers, bass and a few flatfish.

Fish Taco Chronicles, Summer 2006

2 Responses to To Bait Or Not To Bait: Bait For The Piers — Part One

  1. Andrew Horner says:

    Where can I find live bait near Santa Monica???

    • kenjones says:

      To be honest it’s very hard to find live bait in the area any longer. Big Fish Bait and Tackle (562-431-0723) on PCH in Seal Beach probably has the best selection (blood worms, lug worms, mussels and occasionally live ghost shrimp). But, do not make the mistake of buying the “cured” ghost shrimp. Best Fishing Tackle on Rosecrans in Hawthorne (310-679-1122) usually has live lug worms. Bob Sands Fishing Tackle on Sepulveda in Van Nuys (818-994-1822) also usually has live lug worms (and perhaps some other live bait). Ginny at Wylie’s on PCH in Malibu also usually has live lug worms. There may be others but I would start a search with these.

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