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

Mackerel. Two species of fish are sold as “mackerel” in California bait shops although only one is a true mackerel. The most commonly seen is the Pacific mackerel (Scomber japonicus), the true mackerel. Most often it is simply called mackerel but sometimes it is given the appellation green mackerel or blue mackerel. The second type you will encounter is jack mackerel (Trachurus symmetricus) which is usually called Spanish mackerel; it is actually a member of the jack family. Both can be excellent baits but there are differences.

Pacific mackerel are a good bait for many species, especially other Pacific mackerel and bottom species such as bass, yellowfin croaker, white croaker, halibut, sole and turbots. The flesh is very oily and bloody and because of this it is one of the best baits for sharks and rays, including shovelnose guitarfish, bat rays and larger sharks. Most anglers simply cut out a chunk of the mackerel for the bait but it is better to cut it in a triangular pattern (like strip bait) and place the hook in the wider end of the bait. For smaller species, the piece may only be an inch or so in length while those seeking the larger sharks may cut a fillet off one side of a mackerel which is several inches in length. If you cut the mackerel into strip bait, and are using a fairly large mackerel, remember to trim off the excess flesh. Keep the bait somewhat thin. Spanish mackerel is used in a similar manner but it is less oily and not as good a bait.

An unusual but excellent bait is the “strawberry,” a bloody mass of sacs which are attached to the intestines of Pacific mackerel. At first glance this mass of flesh looks rather nasty but it is often the best piece of the mackerel. In fact, other mackerel really seem to be turned on by this bloody sac and will attack it in a frenzied manner.

A problem with Pacific mackerel (but not as much with jack mackerel) is that it softens up quickly when left out in the hot sun; it should always be kept cool. If allowed to heat, the flesh becomes soft and easily falls off the hook. Years ago one could buy sugar-cured mackerel. This was a superior bait but today it is almost impossible to find. You will occasionally see salted mackerel; it holds up better than frozen mackerel and is about as good a bait. Both of these species are excellent live bait when you can acquire the miniature 4-6 inch fish (a.k.a. babies). At times they are thick around piers and that is the time to break out the live bait snag outfits, i.e., Lucky Lura riggings. Halibut on the bottom, as well as sharks mid-depth, gobble up the small fish. During warm water years you might also latch onto a small yellowtail or a decent sized white seabass using these live baits.

Moss and Peas. Anglers who fish specifically for opaleye feel that moss is one of the best baits. Green moss, the kind that can be found in most bays, is what they are talking about. It is easily gathered and easily used. Zebraperch, one of the less common species of perch, but also one of the largest, also often prefer moss to other baits. Many opaleye specialists also use green peas, with the best being frozen peas from the market (and no, it doesn’t make any difference if it is “Del Monte” or “Uncle Zeke’s Just Like God Made ‘Em” brand). Let them thaw, and then simply string a few on your hook. Typically, small size 6-8 hooks are used with these baits.

Mussels. This is often the best bait for rock-frequenting species throughout the state. Most pilings on oceanfront piers are covered with mussels and piers located next to a rocky shoreline will often see mussels on and around those rocks. By far, the best mussels are fresh mussels. Some bait shops have fresh mussels but most do not. You can get your own mussels by visiting mussel-infested rocks and jetties (take along a claw hammer), or you can pry mussels off pilings with a treble-hook gaff and a strong rope. However, I have seen many pier pilings stripped virtually clean of mussels by these hooks. Remember that in such a condition the pier is far less of a fish attractant. Another place to get fresh mussels is at grocery stores; some of the larger stores (especially chain stores) carry mussels in their fresh fish sections.

In bait shops that do have fresh mussels, you will generally encounter one of two species, either the common California sea mussel or bay mussels. The sea mussels are generally larger, and their shell is much heavier. I think sea mussels are slightly better bait but the most important thing is to use fresh mussels.

When using fresh mussels you will need to open them yourself. Use a strong bait knife (not a long fillet knife) to open the mussel from the blunt end. Cut down through the fiber that holds the shell together and divide the mussel into two half shell sections. Next, cut a piece of the tough lip section loose but be sure to leave some of the soft and smelly orange meat attached. Attach this lip piece (that looks somewhat like a worm) onto your hook; and you can attach it in the same manner as you would a worm. If done properly, the tough piece of the mussel should stay on your hook, even if the softer section tears away on the cast.

A second, albeit less desirable bait is frozen mussels. These can be found at most bait shops. Unfortunately, there can be a tremendous variation in the quality of frozen bait. Find a shop that keeps its bait in good condition and then make sure you continue to use that shop.

No matter if it is a fresh or frozen mussel, be sure to string a piece of the mussel’s tough lip section onto your hook. If you simply attach a piece of the soft orange meat, it will almost inevitably come off during the cast. Some anglers do toughen mussels by mixing them with rock salt (or non-iodized salt) for a time before fishing, and some anglers like to tie the mussels on with thread (or they use a small piece of cheesecloth or hosiery to cover the mussel). Songslinger, one of the experts on the Pier Fishing in California web site suggests cutting the mussels on a thin piece of cloth before fishing. The cloth will absorb the juices of the freshly cut mussels and can then be used to tie the meat onto the hook, thus working as an additional attractant.

Some anglers even attach a whole half-shell section of a mussel onto their line by using a paper clip. They then insert a couple of dropper leaders with size 10-12 hooks into the meat and wait for perch to suck up the meat. I saw a similar approach used years ago by anglers at Newport trying to hook the hard-to-catch pileperch. They would attach a small mass of mussels to their line and run several dropper leaders around and into the mussels. Sometimes it was the only thing that worked. However, you don’t need to be so exotic in your approach; just learn to attach the mussels properly to your hook.

On piers, fish down around the pilings with mussel, the result will often be a variety of seaperch: pileperch, black seaperch, rubberlip seaperch, striped seaperch, or their near cousins—opaleye and halfmoon. Fishing in the depressions between the pilings will often yield the larger surfperch. In southern California, fishing the inshore area, just past the breakers, with mussel, will often yield barred surfperch, yellowfin croaker and an occasional spotfin croaker or California corbina. A note one day on the Pier Fishing in California Message Board reported a second name for mussels—Halloween clams—due to the orange color of their flesh. Isn’t that interesting!

Do be careful though during those months when there are warnings posted for mussels (when they are not safe to eat). I’ve been told that the juice can also affect a person if allowed to get into a cut on the hand.

Sand Crabs. Three species of mole crabs are found in California and one, the gray sand crab (Emerita analoga) serves as one of the best shoreline baits for surf fishermen and pier anglers trying out the surf area. Unfortunately, they aren’t found in too many bait and tackle shops any longer. Still, where available, they are one of, if not the premier bait for large barred surfperch. In southern California they are also the best bait for corbina. The good news is that they are easily caught if the angler has one of the small sand crab screens that are sold at some bait stores in southern California. With the proper equipment, an angler can often catch a full day’s bait in less than half an hour. Typically, a bubble or dimple in the wet sand near the water’s edge displays where the crabs are burrowing. If you can’t find a sand crab screen, don’t give up. A shovel or scoop will also work; they just aren’t as efficient.

When catching the crabs, you will sometimes find both soft-shell and hard-shell specimens. Many anglers swear by the soft-shell variety and they probably do catch more fish. However, many also swear by the hard-shell specimens and many feel they catch the bigger fish. Whichever type you have, the general way to hook them is up from the belly through the back with baitholder hooks or Kahle hooks. An easy way is to look for the two spots on their back and hook up through one of those spots.

The white sand crab (Lepidopa myops) and the spiny mole crab (Blepharipoda occidentalis) are both occasionally seen but are infrequently used as bait. The white sand crab is found in sheltered sand beaches at Newport Bay and points south while the larger spiny mole crab is found on sandy beaches as far north as Drakes Beach. One time I ran across one of these large spiny mole crabs while fishing on Crystal Pier in San Diego. Another angler gave me the crab along with a cup of smaller sand crabs when he was leaving the pier. He had caught the crabs and I’m not sure what he thought he would catch with the larger crab since it was over 3-inches in length.

Sardines. There was a time when Pacific sardines (Sardinops caerulea) were the most important fish taken by the commercial fisheries in California. It was also one of the main baits used by pier fishermen. Then the fish nearly disappeared—probably from a combination of over fishing and still as yet undefined changes in the environment. Luckily the fish are back, or are coming back, and once again they’re available as bait. Sardines as bait are tougher than mackerel and don’t soften as quickly when set out. However, I do not feel they are as good overall as mackerel in attracting fish since they’re less oily. Nevertheless, they are a top bait and should be used when anchovies and mackerel are unavailable, or when chasing some of the larger species like sharks and rays. Of note, at the first Pier Fishing in California Mud Marlin (bat ray) Derby held at the Berkeley Pier, a combination bait of sardine placed inside the body of a squid proved to be the best bait. A whole sardine can sometimes be used if you’re seeking out sharks, strip bait should be used when seeking the smaller species.

Shiner Perch. This small perch is one of the main fish caught on piers by youngsters in California. It makes a good “live bait” when other, more preferable, species like anchovies are unavailable. Although rarely considered the “best” bait, it is hardy and easily caught. Most commonly used are the smaller perch, and the shiners are normally fished near the bottom with a live bait sliding rigging. At times though, even high/low leaders baited with the small fish will produce a halibut, bass, shark or a ray.

Shrimp. Most bait and tackle shops carry frozen bait labeled shrimp. This is simply the smaller grade and therefore less expensive size of market shrimp. The wise angler will go to a market, buy a pound of medium-size shrimp, take it home, and then refreeze it in one-quarter pound packages using zip-lock bags. It is less expensive and often better quality than shrimp found in bait shops.

Small pieces of shrimp make very good perch bait and will catch a wide variety of bottom species. In the southland, shrimp is a very good bait for sheephead, sculpin (California scorpionfish), sand wrasse, senorita and, at times, halfmoon. On top, small pieces of shrimp make good bait for the multi-hook jacksmelt riggings.

Market shrimp are readily available throughout the year, will keep well in a freezer, and are a generally good bait. Therefore, shrimp are found in most bait shops. Small pieces of bait should be used, just enough to cover part of the hook.

Do not, I repeat do not, use a whole market shrimp unless you are seeking something truly big like a shark or ray. Perch and most of the other smallish species I mentioned (excepting sheephead) will hit best on a size 6 or 4 hook baited with a small piece of shrimp. Just enough to cover most of the hook

Smelt. Although not as good a bait as live anchovies, live smelt are increasingly being used. This is because more and more anglers are starting to net their own bait. Several different species are caught, but most common are the small 3-6-inch-long jacksmelt and topsmelt. In southern California the smelt will tempt bass, croakers (occasionally), halibut, and sharks and rays (especially guitarfish). An advantage of smelt is that they are fairly hardy, certainly more than anchovies, but live ‘chovies will generally still outfish them.

An excellent bait at times, although only quasi-legal, is California grunion. I say quasi-legal because grunion are supposed to be caught only by hand and most of the grunion used for bait on piers are caught with some type of a bait rig. However, the regulations were written to stop people from netting them on the beach, not to prohibit anglers from catching them on rod and reel. Since this is the case, I’ve never known a Fish and Game warden to give a ticket for using grunion as bait (of course many wardens can’t tell the difference between a grunion and a smelt). Often when the grunion make their strange inshore dash to the beach to spawn, larger fish will be right behind. Included are prizes like halibut and large shovelnose. So, during the times of the “grunion runs,” wise pier anglers will snag some of the small fish with their bait rigs and use them to catch these larger fish. Although most anglers use the smaller smelt as bait, regulars report that 7-10-inch-long grunion are great live bait for the halibut and other large species.

Squid. Inexpensive, readily available, and a good bait for several species—that describes squid. When I first began to fish squid was one of my regular baits. It was cheap, easily stored (frozen), and stayed on the hook well. Today, I rarely use squid unless I am fishing for mackerel, sharks or rays. It is simply not as good a bait for many of the more preferable species. However, a tremendous number of anglers do use squid and they do catch many fish.

I do have two recommendations! The first is for mackerel fishermen. Take the squid, cut off the head, remove the insides, then cut the squid into small strips about a half inch wide by two to three inches long. This makes excellent strip bait for mackerel. Most commonly, a hook, size 4-2, is tied directly to the end of the line and a split shot sinker is attached a couple of feet up the line. The stripbait is put on the hook and it is allowed to drift a few feet beneath the surface of the water. Obviously the distance of the pier’s surface from the water, the current, and the amount of wind can disrupt this type of fishing. Still, it is often the best method to catch mackerel when they’re acting finicky. Similarly, strip bait like this can be fished on the bottom with a heavier sinker and a wide variety of fish including white croakers, sculpin (scorpionfish), bass and halibut may be landed.

Squid is an excellent bait for sharks (especially the smaller smoothhound sharks) and is definitely the best bait for rays, especially large bat rays. The bait should be fished on the bottom and a whole squid can be used.

Two close cousins of squid, octopus and cuttlefish, have also gained a few recent followers. At times you will see small octopus for sale in fish markets but more common, and seen in more and more bait shops, are packages of vacuum packed baby octopus from the northwest. Typically these packages contain 8 octopus and cost $7-$10. They can be good bait for sharks and rays and are tough (rubbery), a good trait when fishing in crab infested waters.

Although rarely seen in bait shops, cuttlefish are available frozen in some markets (especially Asian markets) and I’ve had several reports on the Pier Fishing in California Message Board indicating good success when used as bait, especially for sharks and rays. If fairly large sized, cut them into strips much as you would squid; if smaller sized, use them whole.

You Try Ums. In addition to the above listed baits, there are always some “exotic” baits that are tried and occasionally found workable by anglers. One example is cheese which can be a great bait for trout but rarely works on saltwater fish. Still, every now and then a youngster will put a piece on a hook, catch a fish, and everyone wants to give it a try. Another unusual bait, but one that I’ve heard used several times, is the old garden variety snail. Some anglers swear that they are excellent bait when used still in their shell—and I guess some fish might mistake them for a saltwater whelk. I’ve had great success while using them to catch freshwater panfish but my results in saltwater have been mixed.

And most of us have heard stories of fish hitting on bologna, salami, hot dogs, hamburger, spam, marshmellows, french fries etc.—just about anything a bored angler is able to put on a hook. In fact I had a report that bacon made a top bait for some jackmelt fishermen. But that does not mean that you should try them for bait? No, stick to the list I have provided.

Fish Taco Chronicles

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