Live bait - Part 1, getting them
by Chris Tan S.G.
Using live bait is an effective way of catching gamefish large and small. Live bait is found to be generally more effective than dead bait. With dead bait, there is only the scent and texture of the dead flesh to entice the predator to bite and swallow. Often the predator has the time to carefully inspect the dead bait.
Advantages of live bait
However, with live bait, in addition to the smell and texture of the flesh, there is the very fresh and alive scent of food! The vibrations of the panic stricken and injured live bait give it more attraction than dead flesh! These vibrations do attract predatory fish from quite a distance, further than the fish are capable of visually detecting prey underwater. Unlike the scent of bait which will only drift downstream with the current, vibrations emitted by the struggling live bait travel 360 degrees, in all directions! Therefore, as you can see, live bait can easily attract predators from all directions and from quite a distance.
When using live bait, the instinctive character of the predator will often prevail. Hit the live bait as soon as possible to prevent it from getting away and before some other predatory fish comes along to snack on it! On the other hand, dead bait is easier to obtain and keep than live bait. Obtaining the live bait and keeping them alive can pose some difficulties, but these minor difficulties are not insurmountable.
Defining live bait
Live bait, what is it? Well..... it is any living creature that a fish would make it part of its diet. Any small fish (small is relative to the size of the quarry sought), squid, octopus or live prawns are within the category of live bait. Live bait like small fish and prawns can be collected by casting a "jala" (cast net) around the estuary shores, sea beaches or mangrove edges prior to commencing fishing.
When one is offshore the easiest live bait to obtain are the small fishes like selar, kembung, tamban, cincaru or kerisi. If these are not available, any small fish can be used, often with successful results too. Sometimes when there are schools of small fish like "ikan bilis" frolicking on the surface around a kelong it is possible to catch them using a cast net even though the water may be deep. They get trapped in the net when the weighted edges fall and close. These little fish make excellent bait, dead or alive. Small bait fish can also be collected at night with a scoop net when they swim around the boat attracted by the boat lights.
Multi-hook jigs for bait fish
The quickest and easiest way of collecting quantities of these bait fish offshore is by using the multi-hook jig that has fish skin, glittering strands and beads tied on! (Commonly known here as the "apollo"). Some fishermen do tie/make their own jigs with only small pieces of raffia string and they can be very effective, sometimes more effective than the commercially made jigs. Or one can purchase the necessary bits and pieces to tie/make your own jigs.
The commercial multi-hook jigs are made in Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines, but from my experience the best ones are the Japanese ones. In Japan you can find these multi-hook jigs taking up display space as much as twenty feet long from floor to ceiling! There are so many varieties. Each different jig pattern is to catch a certain species of fish. This, I have found to be very true. We regularly find someone on the boat pulling more bait fish than others, and even though we are all using different types of jigs, the fish somehow just go for that specific pattern.
Quality of materials
I find that the materials used by the Japanese jig makers are stronger and better quality. They can take the hits of these larger fish, unless the razor gang strikes! These multi-hook jig sets generally come with 6 to 10 hooks per set. If one has trouble handling so many hooks on one line, the jig set can be cut in half, saving the remaining half for another time. Many anglers throw away the jig sets after use as they are very troublesome to store, but as usual the Japanese anglers have solved the problem. They use plastic "ladder" type things to store the multi-hooks. They have these "ladders" in different sizes to store different multi-hook jigs as they come in different lengths. Recently I have seen quite a few shops in Malaysia stocking these plastic "ladders". They are really quite a simple and efficient storage system.
These multi-hook jigs are not only good for catching bait fish but also quality "table fish" like tau foo yee, lai-mang or even snapper and grouper. Large jig sets are made to catch the bigger fish, although these are not so easily found here (I am referring to the jigs, not the big fish). Even the smaller jigs often get hits from predators like queenfish, trevally or rainbow runners. When this happens the cheap quality jigs break apart. Many an angler has retrieved an inferior quality jig set through a shoal of fish, and suddenly feel the hooks snap off the main jig line one by one, leaving only the main jig line with strands of mono dangling off it, minus the hooks!
A lesson learnt, not forgotten
Once I lost a thousand ringgit when a strong fish hit my jig! I was jigging for "tau foo yee" and "lai-mang" (rabbit fish), but as I had not had a bite for some time I put the rod in the rod holder to take a break. The chap next to me caught a fish, so I moved away to make room for him while watching him, not my rod. Suddenly I heard a loud "CRACK" and saw my rod being pulled into the water! Instinctively I dived in after it. Despite my fast response it had disappeared. When I resurfaced, I realised I had now lost my spectacles too!
What had happened was that the butt of the rod was a wooden butt, attached to the main blank, and it broke there. It took a hefty pull to do that. So the loss of my rod, reel and spectacles amounted to a thousand ringgit. Three things I learnt that day: do not under estimate the small quality jigs as they can catch big ones too, always attach a safety line to an unattended rod and take off spectacles before diving into the water!
Other fine live bait
Another excellent live bait is the squid. It can be collected by shining a bright light over the water to attract squid and then using a long handled fine-mesh net to scoop them up. Squid can also be caught by using squid jigs. Catching squid on squid jigs can be as fun as catching fish, quite often distracting one from the fishing in mind.
If you collect more than enough squid for bait, keep some of the fresh squid on ice to take home for some tasty dishes. Octopus can sometimes be collected this way too, as they drift past the boat, but this normally happens by chance. Octopus can also be collected from the muddy shorelines, but this is a very messy business. Most anglers just buy them from the chaps that do this. Very expensive live bait!
Ways of keeping live bait alive
Catching the live bait is the first hurdle; the next is to keep them alive! Ideally if the boat has a live bait well built into the boat, it would make keeping the live bait alive very simple! When the boat is moving, fresh salt water is forced into the well by the movement of the boat, and when the boat is at rest, fresh salt water is pumped in electrically, or by flowing in naturally, provided it sits low enough in the water.
Since most of our boats do not have this feature, the simplest way to keep the live bait alive is in a bucket, and keep changing water, as often as required. If there are a large number of live bait, it can be rather tedious to change the water every few minutes. Using a battery powered aerator will help to reduce frequency of the water changes.
Portable live bait tanks
My preferred method for keeping live bait is to use a "plano" bait bucket to keep the bait alive. It has ventilation slots that allow fresh water to circulate in and out of the bucket. When the boat is at rest, the "bucket" is thrown over board into the water, still tied to the boat, of course! Whenever a live bait is needed, pull it in and take what is needed. The same is done for filling it up with bait. While the boat is moving the bait bucket is pulled in and the water from the engine driven pump used to cool the engine is used to recirculate fresh salt water in the live bait bucket. Only a trickle or small stream is required. The disadvantage of this bucket is the number of live bait it can accommodate is only sufficient for one or two anglers.
A big live bait tank similar to the plano bait buckets can be made from a square plastic twenty four litre jerry can or "bottle". Holes are drilled on the upper half of the container so that when it is standing up on board, half the water remains in it to keep the fish alive. A hatch that can be easily opened and locked closed is cut on the upper half. Some weight can be added to the side opposite the hatch to ensure the container floats with the hatch side up. This is a rather simple homemade design that I am sure can easily be improved upon.
I stopped using this homemade tank for two reasons. It was big and heavy, difficult to lift into the boat every time bait was put in or removed. Second, I found I was working hard to get all the live bait, all by myself! But all the other slackers were very quick to "borrow" my work! So a personal live bait bucket suits me best. Go get your own live bait guys!