Updated: Jun 20
When it comes to catching your personal best fish, sometimes you just can't beat live bait! You'll need to know where is the best place for the bait to be, have the right "sabiki" rigs, and also have some other little tools that can really help. Here are my top tips:
Tip # 1 Get some GPS marks from other people
Bait can be found around structure on many reef and rock locations, however sometimes as a beginner, you may not know where to start. Asking more experienced people is the best place to start your search.
Unlike a favourite "honey hole" or reef that harbors good catches, most fishos are not as reluctant to give you their bait spots! So, search websites, and ask politely on forums/user groups/Facebook and other fishing groups for some GPS marks before you head out!
You'll most likely get GPS coordinates, so you'll need to understand how to enter these numbers into your own Sounder unit before heading out. Bait won't necessarily be sitting just at one mark, so scout around any marks you get and see if there are better spots! Then save your new marks for the next trip.
Tip # 2 Know what bait looks like!
Speaking of sounders, do a little research online of what bait may look like on a sounder so that you are not looking for a needle in a haystack! There are images online that give you the general idea of what to look for. Sometimes what looks like bait may actually be other things, like prawns (shrimp), weed, or even a large school of much larger fish!
After a few successful bait gathering sessions, you'll soon be seeing bait everywhere. Sometimes the bait is not on the bottom and is up in the water column, so drop your line to the approximate depth and try there. Or drop to the bottom and wind slowly up to where they seem to be located.
Tip # 3 Go early and go hard!
We have found that there is a sweet spot between sunrise and early morning where the bait seems to come alive and bite their heads off! Other times may still be ok depending on the depth, but generally the lower light is going to help. Bait fish live a short -and very stressful life- and may only feel safe to feed at certain tide and times.
Tip # 4 Use good quality -and strong- sabiki rigs
There is a chance that you will hook a fish much larger than baitfish on any collection session. Nothing sucks more than hooking a bigger fish and having it snap your entire rig off the line! Re-rigging on the water takes time up and eats into your fishing time.
I use a fold-up sabiki rod so that I can deploy and stow quickly, and have minimal chance of getting the hooks embedded in my clothes or my fingers! My specialist sabiki rod stores the rig inside a hollow tube, so nothing is worse than having to re-rig that setup on the water! The thin lines just won't go down the tubes once wet!
I also use stronger sabiki rigs, generally with around 40lb main line and at least 30lb branch lines. I have landed a 45cm cod on one good bait session! I have also landed a couple of similar sized bonito, one of which I turned into a 90cm Amberjack shortly after!
My "go to" sabiki rigs have been a obscure brand called Seaguar, model 4265, and the size of hooks is 8 or 9. The 9 is the maximum size which fits inside the hollow Sabiki rod tube. If you are using a normal rod, you may wish to use slightly bigger hooks. This brand is also not the only one that has the specs I like, however when I can source them, they are my favourite rigs.
Tip # 5 Catching the Bait
This should be the easiest part -but sometimes can be frustrating if you get no bites!
The basic technique is to drop the hooks down to the bottom and jig slowly up and down a metre (3 feet) or less. Generally the bait will jump on as soon as the rig hits the bottom, and you'll feel the tugs. So keep the line tight at all times..
You may leave the rigs there for a few more seconds to try to get a "full string" whereby you get a bait fish on every one of your hooks. However you need to ensure that you have a reasonably heavy sinker to avoid the fish swimming up and creating a huge tangled mess of the sabiki lines! The tiny hooks are also like magnets to clothing and fingers, so be careful.
So after the first hook ups, wind up very slowly to encourage a few last minute stragglers to have a crack. If you start to feel more weight it is probably time to wind it all the way up a litter faster. Keep the weight on the line at all times...don't let it go slack. Also, don't wind too fast, as it is possible to tear the hooks out of the mouths of the baitfish.
I use an small overhead reel so I can thumb the spool on the drop down and avoid getting any slack line which could result in a tangle when the bait hit the rig.
If you see what looks like bait but are struggling to get any bites, some days it is necessary to use small amount of dead bait or attractive scents on the hooks. A friend swears by using small strips of squid to get the bait to bite! I don't generally do this as it is quite cumbersome to cut and thread the bait in these tiny hooks on a jetski! But that idea might work for you!
Tip # 6 Get a de-hooker!
There are small de-hooker tools made that cost a few dollars. These can save you an enormous amount of time -as well as saving the chance of getting these tiny hooks embedded in your fingers!
Another great advantage of the de-hooker is that you do not have to handle the fish, which for some baitfish could be the difference between survival and death. Some species shed their scales very easily on touch and will die in your bait tank in minutes. Use wet gloves, or better yet, use a small toy fish or butterfly net (about 15cm diameter or less) to pick up any bait when you store or retrieve them from the watercraft floor or the bait tank.
Tip # 7 Keep your water fresh in the bait tank.
Bait can die very quickly if the water quality is poor. Also, overcrowding can cause less time overall unless your bait tank has very good water circulation.
My ski has a live bait tank that is fed by a water scoop positioned near the waverunner's jet unit. It gets water circulation even when the ski is moving forward very slowly as long as the motor is running, even in neutral. I tend to leave then engine running a lot when fishing in current, but if I'm drifting I need to keep an eye on the water and refresh it by scooping up several small bucketfuls on each drift. You can install a electric pump to guarantee water circulation, however I hear these units won't generally last long on a jetski.
Tip # 8 Understand the different live bait rigs for different species
Some species of fish eat the bait tail-first, and some always eat head first! Therefore you will definitely need to consider where the hooks are placed on the live bait. That is the topic for another session!
Tip # 9 "Find the bait, find the fish", and "match the hatch"
These are two slogans to always remember. Where the bait hangs out is often where you'll find the larger predator fish! Plus the bait species and size you catch is more likely to be what the predators are feeding on!
If you see larger fish on your sounder, or are seeing bust-ups in the area, dropping a live bait back down on your fishing rod can often yield results. If you intend to stay in the area, you could even drop a live bait to the bottom, set the drag and put the rod in a rod holder, and continue to catch more bait on your sabiki rig!