First, we have the Brown Shrimp:
Every year, fish and fishermen wait for these tasty little “bugs” to make their way down the Lagoon system from their marsh-like nursery. While most of them move at night, during the day they can be found moving from open water into the muddy and grassy banks of the Lagoons. They will dig themselves down into the mud or sand to hide, because let’s face it, everything likes to eat shrimp. It's no wonder they are one of the top selling live bait and soft plastic patterns in the Southeast. Everything from sheephead to tarpon love to eat shrimp. As the water warms up, the shrimp you will find at your local bait and tackle shop will get smaller. This doesn't have to stop you from buying the few dozen you would pick up on your way to the water - just don't expect to have a big choice of sizes when you get there.
Rigging these smaller shrimp poses a whole new set of issues. For example, when trying to "free line" your bait or rig your shrimp with no weight - just a hook - to cast at tailing fish, or fish in a natural way (like in a light current or around rock piles or mangroves), the smaller shrimp don't have enough body weight to allow for the long casts that are sometimes needed to get a bait to a spooky fish. Sometimes a split shot or small egg sinker (1/8 oz. or lighter) can be added to the rig to make up for the lack of shrimp weight. Another way to rig a small shrimp is to use a popping cork. If used correctly, popping corks work great for locating fish, so rather than just casting out a popping cork and watching it do nothing, cast it out and give it a good pull every few seconds. Repeat until you are able to locate a school or an area holding a single fish.
The species you target will determine the way you rig your shrimp. If I know I am targeting flounder, I want the shrimp to stay as close to the bottom as possible. I may use a jig head or an egg sinker to keep the shrimp down. For redfish or trout, the rig depends on where I am fishing. For example, if I am looking for tailing fish or fish in shallow water (less than a few feet deep), a split shot may be added to the line to allow me to cast the shrimp a bit further than I could freelining it. I would use a popping cork if I am in water deeper than that and sight fishing isn't an option.
Hook size is up to you - I like to use thin wire hooks like those from Owner in a size #2 up to a 3/0 depending on the size of the shrimp. This doesn’t weigh the shrimp down any more than I have to, allowing the shrimp to move along the bottom or swim under your cork in a natural way.
Here on the Space Coast, we have a great mangrove snapper fishery – and they taste great in fish tacos!. The small spring shrimp are perfect for mangrove snappers because they are “bite sized”. This allows you to fish a whole shrimp on light line and give the shrimp the most natural look. Snapper have great eyesight, and mangrove snappers are known to be one of the hardest of the snapper species to fool into eating during the day.
Let’s talk about "baitfish" - finger mullet, pigfish, pinfish, threadfins, pogies, and greenies. These baitfish make up the bulk of the spring/summer diet for all the gamefish that live here on Florida’s East Coast. You can buy some of these at your local bait & tackle shops, but there are a few things you should look at before buying live baitfish.
1. Ask the shop worker how long they have had the bait in stock? You want to use baitfish that haven't been in a tank for much more than a few days.
2. Look at the bait for signs of stress. like red noses, or eye popping, or even signs of fins being eaten by their tank mates.
One of the best tools you can have in your kayak is a small 4’-6’ cast net. With that said, I use a 6’ 12+ lb. net that sinks very fast. Your net’s mesh size is just as important as the quality of the net. You want to use a net that has a mesh size that will not "gill" your bait - this will kill most of what you catch in the net, and leave you with the dreaded “Christmas Tree”. This will leave you picking bait out of the mesh for an hour. If you don't know how to use a cast net, ask the person at the bait shop to help you learn, or you can check out “how to” videos on YouTube.com. Another very important tip is to not over fill your bait bucket with more fish than can swim around comfortably. Most baitfish have to continue to swim to keep water passing through their gills to stay alive. If you find a good area with lots of bait, you can just fish till you are low and then go net some more rather than overstuffing the bucket. This does two things:
1. It keeps your bait alive and frisky, and that will result in more fish!
2. It keeps you from wasting bait at the end of the day and killing baitfish that you never got to use.
A good rule of thumb is to only put about 12-18 baitfish in a Frabill “Flow Troll style bucket, or 24-30 in a five-gallon bucket. If you find your bait in deeper water, take the water temperature into consideration. As the sun comes up, the flats will heat up first and then the deeper water later in the day. If you use a five-gallon bucket to keep your bait alive, here is a trick to keep your bucket water cool all day and your bait alive much longer: fill a water bottle a little more than half way and freeze it. Once you have gone through your first bucket of bait early in the day, dump the old water out and refill it with new clean water, and place the bottle of frozen water in the bucket. Make sure you have the cap very tight on the bottle (or just glue it on) because if the cap comes off then the salinity will fall in the bucket, killing your bait before you know it.
As with shrimp, the way you rig your baitfish depends on a few different things:
1. What species of fish you are targeting and how or where they feed.
2. The conditions you are fishing in. An example would be tides, current, structure and depth.
3. Size and type of baitfish you are using.
If I am targeting fish in shallow water, I almost always freeline my baitfish and hook the bait in the nose. This will normally keep the baitfish from swimming down into the grass. The key to not weighting the bait down is to use a thin wire hook that will match the size of the bait. If I am fishing in open water or deep water, I tend to hook the bait back near the tail on the bottom side of the bait. Hook size is very important. For example if your bait of choice is 3”-4” inch finger mullet I like to use a 1/0 - 3/0 size livebait style hook.
If pilchards or threadfins are on the menu for the day, a size #4 - #1 would be my. Not all manufacturers’ sizes are the same. Owner has the “SSW with Cutting Point” line of hooks that I really like for just about every fish I target here on the Space Coast. Gamakatsu also offers a great selection of hooks - the octopus hook is my favorite out of their lineup.
Mustad has a huge selection of hooks for just about every kind of fishing. Their live bait hook I like is the “Octopus Beak Fine Wire”.
Leader is the link between your hook and main line. I tend to use more monofilament then fluorocarbon when bait fishing for two reasons:
1. Monofilament doesn't sink like fluorocarbon.
2. Monofilament has a bit more stretch than fluorocarbon.
I use braid on all my reels, A monofilament leader makes up for the zero stretch of braid, allowing the fish to have some give when head shaking, or at that moment when the bait is hit and the line comes tight and the fish is making its first strong run. Yes, fluorocarbon will work for this as well, but I really like knowing I have that little bit of "safety" stretch. Try and select a leader that again will not weigh the bait down. I keep rolls of 12-15-20-25 lb. mono and fluoro leaders in my tackle bag in case I feel the need to bump up the poundage.