FLORIDA Bait Fish Identification

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Names of Florida bait fish and photos are below:
Atlantic Croaker, Ballyhoo, Blue Runner, Glass Minnow,
Menhaden, Pigfish, Pinfish,
Sand Perch, Scaled Sardine, Silver Perch, Silver Trout , pot Tail Pinfish, potfish,
Spanish Sardine, Striped Mullet, Striped Mojarra, Threadfin Herring, Tomtate, Mud Minnow, Fiddler Crab

Atlantic Croaker
The Atlantic croaker (Micropogonias undulatus) is very similar in appearance to a small black drum. The easiest way to tell them apart is that the barbels (whiskers) on the drum's chin are pronounced, while on the croaker's they are very tiny. They are also called chut, grunter, corvina, crocus and rocodina. They are great bait for grouper and many other fish when they are fished from a still boat - they don't troll well at all. You will find that most baits that live primarily on the bottom will not be suitable for trolling, but will be good for bottom fishing or even mid-water fishing if the boat is at anchor or drifting slowly. Croakers usually reach about a pound in size, but we generally see them from three to eight inches in our area of the state. We catch them in cast nets at certain times of the year, most frequently fall and winter. I have read that they are an important commercial species, with high quality flesh, and mostly exported out of the country (of course) - but in my book they are only high quality grouper bait.

 

Ballyhoo
Ballyhoo or balao, can you tell the difference?  Some mistakenly call them needlefish, but you can easily tell these two apart: the ballyhoo has a shorter upper jaw and the tip of its lower jaw is orange-red. You can buy them frozen in most tackle stores and they are excellent bait for trolling. There are several ways to rig them for trolling, but probably the easiest is a plastic attachment that you can buy called a "hoo nose". There may be other brands available so call or write if you have a better one (and send me a sample of it, please.) They are an excellent bait for all species of fish that we troll for in this area, and if handled and rigged properly can be trolled faster than a live bait. This trait allows you to cover a larger area and maximize your fishing time.

 

Blue Runner
Blue runner, hard tail jack, yellow jack, yellow mackerel and runner are all Caranx crysos. Whatever name you attach, they're great bait for larger fish. They are very hardy in the baitwell and can swim surprisingly fast for long distances on the hook. They commonly grow to 12-14 inches but are said to reach 20 inches. The only way to catch them is with hook and line. The most common rig used to catch them is the multiple gold hook set-up offered by several manufacturers that are attached to your line with a weight at the bottom. Slowly jig these around a wreck, on the edge of hard bottom, or around marker buoys. Blue runners are also frequently found over sand bottom and in the surf line along the beaches. For the best results, use the rigs in a #8 to a #6 size(these are the larger hooks, and sometimes hard to find). The smaller #10s and #12s will work, but I find them easier to land using the larger sizes. For trolling, hook the blue runner through the cartilage in the nose. If you're using a larger `runner, add a "stinger" hook back towards the tail just pinned under the skin. These are very fast swimming fish, so be sure and watch your lines carefully. If you are trolling too slowly, you may find them crossing each other. If you are drifting or fishing from an anchored position, you will have to be working on them constantly to keep them from tangling each other. However you fish the blue runner, hang on tight, because they are a great "big fish" bait.

 

Glass Minnow
Glass minnows and silversides are anchovies. Yes, the same anchovy that you eat on pizza or in Caesar dressing. The bay anchovy is Anchoa mitchilli for those of you that hope to catch me in my identification mistakes. They are easily recognized by the fact that they are transparent with a broad silver stripe down the side and are seldom over three inches long. There are a half dozen species according to Dr. Bob Shipp and he says no one but a fishery scientist would care to describe the differences in them. When you are looking for bait and suddenly your fish finder shows a giant school under the boat, you throw the net perfectly, it sinks quickly, and comes back empty, you throw again and again as the fish finder tells you to, and continue this game until you are exhausted - then you are throwing on glass minnows. Some of us play this game for many years, even though we know better. Eventually you will get older and either find a younger person to throw the net, or after one or two empty throws, move on to another area to hunt bait.
There are ways to acquire glass minnows, because they are great chum material. The simplest is to buy them in frozen blocks at the tackle store, but you can buy a small mesh cast net and catch them yourself if you are a purist, (or bored silly). The net will be nylon usually and has a mesh size no bigger than 1/4 inch. They really aren't that expensive to buy and you will be using them dead anyway. I have never seen a baitwell that would function properly to keep a batch of bait that small alive without clogging up constantly. The best way to use them is as chum. Cut them into small pieces with a pair of stainless scissors and drop a steady stream of the pieces overboard into the current. You can do this while you are slow trolling but I think it is more effective to chum from an anchored position into the current behind the boat.
You can use the same pieces for bottom chum simply by dropping them overboard in your chum basket and letting it sink to the bottom to disperse it where you are fishing. You can also just place the frozen block of glass minnows in a mesh bag hanging over the side of the boat and let them thaw and drift in the current. This is effective, but you use a lot more minnows than you do by cutting them. Don't forget, you want to attract the fish, not feed them. When they are full, it's hard to get them to take a bait with a hook in it.

 

Menhaden
Shad, bunker, shiner, pogey, and no telling how many other names, are all describing the menhaden (Brevoortia patronus). They grow to approximately one foot and are very similar in appearance to the freshwater shad, but are not the same fish. Menhaden are extremely oily, which is why they have been commercially netted for so many years for the oil and meal that can be produced from them. They are many people's "secret" bait for almost all species, using them alive, dead, or cut. They should be hooked just like all the other baits that I have written about so far -- For trolling, hook them through the nose; for bottom fishing, through the nose or over the anal fin; and as cut bait, they should be cut diagonally and hooked over the top of the cut surface.
Menhaden are plankton filter feeders and can only be caught with a cast net since they won't bite a hook. Sometimes when you see bait "striking" or rolling on the surface, it is a school of menhaden making surface slurps of minute surface food items. We used to be able to spot menhaden inside Tampa Bay in the summer time by the oil slick that will form over a large school. They also have a very distinctive smell if you are downwind of them. They are a very fast moving fish, and usually by the time you see them on your fish finder, they have moved far enough away from the boat so that you cannot net them. We try blind throws of the cast net in the area where we can see them flipping on the surface; this usually will produce bait. Menhaden are also very intolerant of low dissolved oxygen and will die quickly in a poorly aerated live well. Still, they are five star on my list of baits.
Just as a note, if you have never seen live menhaden, many of them have a small critter that comes crawling out of their mouths when they die. This is quite a surprise the first time you see it. It appears to be some sort of shrimp or crab that looks like a mantis shrimp and must live inside the mouth or gill area without hurting the menhaden. I don't remember seeing this written about in any of the fish books, but surely some biologist somewhere has seen this.

 

Pigfish
Pigfish (Orthopristis chrysoptera) are in the grunt family and are another good bait for most bottom fish. Tarpon are also particularly fond of them. I have read that they are a fair-flavored panfish, but I think it's time to tell you that I am not in the habit of eating my bait - and pigfish are bait on my boat. I have a credo that I share with "Ziggy" in the funny papers; "I consider it a successful fishing day if my catch outweighs the bait." So don't forget: pigfish are bait. They do grow to about a foot in length and are best used from a still or very slowly drifting boat. They will not troll well, but most fish do like to eat them. Usually we catch pigfish when we are gold-hooking for other baits so we don't expect to get a well full, just a few at a time. Those of you who don't own boats, please remember: when I write about a still or slowly drifting boat, the same can be applied to pier or bridge fishing.

 

Pinfish
Pinfish are great bait for a wide variety of species; they are easy to catch and are found all over the shallow waters of the Suncoast. Put a little bit of bait (squid works very well) on about a #2 or #4 hook and toss it over some grassy bottom - it won't be long before the well is full of `pins. You can also chum them up with catfood and bread and throw a cast net over the whole lot - `pins are fast though, and often can run faster than the net can sink.
Pinfish are very hardy as baitfish go, often outliving everything else in your baitwell. When handling them, watch out for the very sharp dorsal spines - they can really stick you good (that's how they get their name). Hook them just under this fin and fish them with little or no weight inshore. Offshore, a live pinfish will often get grouper to bite when nothing else will. This is a great baitfish that will also give beginning fishermen a very nice tussle on super-light tackle (nice way to entertain the kids on a windy day).

 

Sand Perch
Sand perch or squirrelfish (Diplectrum formosum), are excellent grouper bait. They also taste good, but their small size makes cleaning them too much trouble for me. They are a very pretty fish, with electric blue cheek lines and orange and blue sides. They also have a large mouth and very sharp gill plates - so be careful when handling them. They can be caught on almost any sandy bottom and frequently on rocky bottom as well. You can usually just stop your boat and drop baits overboard and be into squirrelfish - but if you haven't caught one in the first few minutes, move on to another spot. When bottom fishing squirrelfish for grouper, just hook them through the back in front of the dorsal fin and lower them to the bottom. Then hold on tight, because grouper love to eat them. Sand perch are also good bait when filleted and used as chunks.

 

Scaled Sardine
One of my favorite baits is the Scaled Sardine (Harengula Jaguana). On the west coast of Florida, we call them whitebait. In other areas there could be many other names. They are distinguished by their sharply pointed, keeled belly. Scaled sardines grow to an average of six inches and are great baits no matter what size you catch for almost all species of fish. You have to catch them yourself since they are not available in bait stores and the simplest way is with a cast net. You need a very good live well with a great turnover of fresh sea water in order to keep them alive, particularly in the summertime when the water warms up. I usually anchor up in an area where my fish finder is showing bait and begin to chum behind the boat with a mixture of canned sardines and whole wheat bread. When I can see the whitebait in the chum, I simply cover them with my net and put them in the live well. Sounds easy, huh? Sometimes it is, and sometimes not. If you cannot find them in water that is shallow enough for the cast net, then gold hook (Sabiki) rigs are called for. Simply drop your bait rigs to the depth that your fish finder indicates and gently jig it until you feel them hooked. Many times you can fill your well just as fast in this manner as with a cast net when the bait is hard to find.
Whitebait is great for almost every fishing method. When trolling, hook them through the nose. Do not go through the eye socket, they will come off the hook. If you look closely, you will see a small "V" shaped area in front of the eyes - the hook should go through this area. If it is hard to insert the hook, then you know this is the right spot. Whitebait will stay alive for a long time when trolling and even longer if you are fishing at anchor on the surface. Be sure when trolling any bait that you go as slowly as you can make your boat run. On many inboards and larger outboards, you will have to actually bump in and out of gear to troll slowly enough. If your bait is spinning on the surface, you are going too fast. The bait should be able to swim on his own and will keep up with the boat for quite a long time if you troll slowly enough. If you check your bait and find he has a red eye, red nose or any thing else that is out of the ordinary, change to a fresh bait. If there is a lot of grass on the surface, you will have to reel in and check for grass on the hook frequently and you should check your bait at the same time.
When bottom fishing, you can hook the bait through the nose in the same place as trolling, particularly if there is a strong current running. If there is no current or it is light you can hook the white bait through the area where the pelvic fin is attached to the body. This makes the bait spin like mad on the bottom and will frequently trigger a feeding frenzy when dropped into lethargic fish that are not feeding well. Scaled sardines make fair frozen bait when cut diagonally and dropped to the bottom and they are great chum when cut into very small pieces and dropped overboard into the current or dropped to the bottom in a chum basket.

 

Silver Perch
The silver perch (Bairdiella chrysura) is a member of the drum family, croaker clan. It is a very silvery fish with a darker back. It only grows to about eight inches and favors mud bottoms. There are differing opinions about the popularity of it as a panfish, but it is a good bait fish. One author I read said " they are the joy of midwestern visitors to Florida, who catch them by the bucketful. Most often referred to as butterfish." Another author and biologist said they fail to have much of a following and are uncommon in large numbers. Well, If you happen to catch any, put them in the bait well because a big grouper or snapper will follow them right to the fish box.
Cigar minnows, cigarfish, or hard tails are all "Round Scad", Decapterus punctatus. They grow commonly to 6 inches but can be as large as 12 inches. As the name belies, they are cigar shaped and have a line of enlarged scaled running the length of the body on the sides and a tiny finlet behind the dorsal fin and behind the anal fin. You can catch them in a cast net or with gold hook rigs in the same areas that you find sardines or threadfin. They are also sold frozen and are an excellent cut or whole bait for almost everything. For live bait fishing, hook them in the cartilage in the nose and troll away. They are a hardy fish in the well and on the hook, and like the blue runner, can out swim the boat if you are not careful.

 

Silver Trout
The silver trout (Cynoscion nothus) is a wonderful bait for most species of gamefish. I love to use them primarily for king mackerel and barracuda, but they are great bottom fish bait as well. Like most of the fish in this series, silver trout are at the lower end of the food chain and so make good bait for nearly anything. Silvers are easy to catch on hook and line close to shore and are a popular food fish during winter. They are also caught frequently in the cast net - usually when you think you are casting on pinfish. They live in sandy or muddy bottom, but I frequently catch them close to rocky bottom. According to the biologists, silvers are a very close relative to the sand sea trout. They are apparently easy to tell apart if you look at the tongue or count the rays in the anal fin, but it doesn't matter to me - either one is great bait.

 

pot Tail Pinfish
Spot tail pinfish (Diplodus holbrooki) - I wonder if Diplodus is any relation to Hal? - is also known as porgy, spot, spot-tail porgy, and sailor's choice. They are similar in appearance to the pinfish, but they have a large black spot in front of the base of the tail. According to the biologists, they hang around in shallow coastal waters and in lower areas of coastal bays and sounds. My experience is that they are most frequently caught in offshore waters around hard bottom and reefs, and they are good baits, cut or alive. I have read that they are a fair pan-fish (maybe that's how they got the name "sailor's choice"?) I have not tried to eat one, even though we have caught some very large specimens. They are easily caught with gold hook rigs and even can be caught on larger hooks that you are fishing for snapper with. They grow to around ten inches and should definitely be kept for bait if you catch them.

 

potfish lafayette or flat croaker
The spot (Leiostomus xanthrus) is similar to the croaker but with a spot just behind the gills. They're also called lafayette or flat croaker and are good bait for bottom fish. I frequently see them, be sure and keep them if you do catch a few in your cast net because they are definitely grouper, red fish and other fish getters.

I often cast net these often and they make good bait..
 

Spanish Sardine
Here's my all-time favorite bait for just about everything Spanish sardines (Sardinella aurita) are members of the herring family and have a slender body, bluish or greenish back, white belly and very silver sides. They grow to about ten inches - and will fill your bait well with loose scales very quickly. You must have a good water flow to keep them healthy - especially during summer when water temperatures are high. Everything loves to eat sardines and they are great bait either alive or cut, trolled or fished on the bottom. They can be caught on gold hook rigs or with a cast net (3/8 inch mesh) in shallow waters. They are frequently found around piers and reefs. When you do catch them you should immediately hook one or two on your rods and begin fishing right where you caught them - at least for a little while - because generally there are some predators around feeding on them. Those predator species are generally the fish you're looking to catch. Note: Sardines can be fished out by the commercial netters, and have been in the past in California and the Tampa Bay area as well as other parts of the world. Watch your coastal area if you have lots of Spanish sardines around. If you see the purse seiners or trawlers starting to catch them, you had best get immediately involved with a strong conservation group if you want to see these valuable baitfish saved.

 

Striped Mullet
Striped mullet (Mugil cephalus), black mullet, and fatback: We love it fried or broiled and even the gizzards are delicious when cleaned properly and fried. Oops, I guess I got carried away. Alive or as cut bait, mullet are great for kings, barracuda, amberjack, you name it, everything (including me) - loves to eat mullet. It is a vegetarian, if you didn't notice my reference to the gizzard, and won't bite a hook. I have heard of people catching them with green peas or bread balls and that they're great sport, but I haven't tried it myself. They are fairly easily caught in a castnet if you know where to look. They used to be among the most populous species in Florida's waters, but their eggs have been sold to the Orient for so long and in such great numbers that it will be a few years before the massive schools are seen everywhere you look again. Don't forget that black mullet are great bait in any size, even the biggest ones at 14 to 20 inches. There is also a cousin, the white mullet, that is a little smaller and also makes great bait. It is very popular among billfish anglers, probably because of the size. We also use a lot of what we call "silver mullet"- juvenile fish that are, of course, also great bait.

 

Striped Mojarra
Striped mojarra, sand perch, goat, sand brim make very good bait for almost everything. Diapterus plumiere does have soft flesh and will not take too much abuse in the baitwell or on the hook but grouper, snook, tarpon and snapper, to name a few - all love them. They have a cousin, the silver jenny, that is more populous in our area and is also great bait. They can be caught in a cast net, usually over sand bottom frequently in the surf line or just offshore. I can't tell you how to consistently find them, but if you look regularly, then you will see a pattern in the areas that they frequent. This is true of almost all bait fish. They seem to have areas that they favor over others, for whatever the reason.

 

Threadfin Herring
Another of my favorite baits is the Threadfin Herring(Opisthonema oglinum) or commonly known on my coast as the greenback. It has a very long thread-like fin at the back of its dorsal that accounts for its name. Again, like most baits, it has many regional names depending on where you live. It grows to 12" according to the books, but I have never seen them over 8". The greenback is usually found only when the water is fairly warm and is easily seen when on the surface. It has been my experience that they do not come to chum like whitebait, but you can occasionally net them in the same cast as whitebait and even on gold hook rigs. Usually to net greenbacks, you need a netter and a boat driver. The driver should maneuver the boat over the school and the netter should throw when the bait is seen on the fish finder. It takes a large, heavy net with a mesh size of 1 1/2 inches to 1 3/4 inches stretch mesh to catch greenbacks. My net radius is12' and I would not suggest one smaller than 10'. As with whitebait, you need a great turnover of fresh sea water in your well as greenbacks are very tender and will die quickly in and overcrowded well. You can hook them through the nose in the same place as whitebait and they make a very good cut bait when bottom fishing with dead bait.

Greenbacks (Threadfins) are herbivores, so that is why they do not respond as well, if at all to chum. I have found this to be true in practice, and actually use chum (i.e. canned cat food) to separate out the threadfins from the white bait when cast netting near a structure where both species habitat. I find that the white bait is much more tolerant to being crowded into the live well and seems to last a bit longer that the greenbacks - so I use the chum to isolate the whitebait. It works for the most part - you will still get some curious greenbacks - but this technique will yield a 80-20 split.

 

Tomtate
Tomtate, Grunt, Spot tail, pain in the a--. The last name is usually what you call Haemulon aurolineatum when you start catching them. They look very similar to the white grunt that we all call "grey snapper" (it sounds better for the tourists than grunt), but they have a spot on the tail. Tomtates must line the bottom by the millions and when you do start catching them instead of the larger triggerfish or white grunts, you may as well move on. Any small piece of bait that you put down will probably be inhaled. Tomtates don't usually get larger than 8 inches and so they do make good bait. Usually I fillet them for cut bait, but they also work as live bait when hooked through the back and fished on the bottom for grouper or even mid-water for amberjack or barracuda. I don't recommend going after them for bait on purpose unless there is nothing else available, but if you need fresh bait then they can be caught on almost any bottom with small hooks baited with squid.

Mud Minnow
Mud minnows are similar to finger mullet in several ways, such as in size, often color, and even the fish species that eat them. Ranging from salt water coastal areas on farther into the estuarial system where the water becomes mildly brackish, mud minnows are generally easier to spot during lower tides. Mud minnows sometimes call bull minnows; spend most of their time in shallow water, often ten inches or less. In much the same manner as finger mullet, mud minnows will disturb the surface of the water as they move about giving their location away, thus like finger mullet, mud minnows can be caught using a cast net.

These minnows are however, different from finger mullet in several key ways. First, mud minnows are not migrate, they stay in local waters year round making them available as bait at anytime. As water temperatures drop, they become the most accessible bait on hand. This fact alone makes mud minnows a prime enticement for hungry fish in the colder months

Secondly, these minnows can be caught using a baited minnow trap. This is very handy if there is time to set the traps and let them do their job. Bait a couple of minnow traps with bacon, locate a spot where the minnows are hanging out and place the trap there. Remember that mud minnows like shallower water so don’t place the trap in deep water. The traps may also be baited with hot dogs, shrimp, or a piece of fish.

Mud minnows are more robust then finger mullet. This is one more difference between the two species. The minnows can survive easily in a 10-Quart Minnow Bucket with only an occasional refreshing of the water. In fact many fisherman who have forgotten to empty their live wells, often find the next day that the only surviving occupants are the mud minnows. In addition, because they are such survivors, selling of these minnows by bait and tackle stores become feasible.

The mud minnow can be fished using any of the standard methods. Most often a 2/0 circle hook is adequate, but more importantly choose a hook size that will allow the minnow to be hooked through the lips or eyes and remain alive. Expect to catch redfish, flounder, spotted trout, or even large mouth bass.

In the spring as flounder prepare for their migration into local inlets, they will hold up on near shore reefs. Mud minnows are particularly effective when used to catch these schooled bottom feeding flounders and in this case, the flounders don’t care if the minnows are alive, dead, or even frozen.
 

 
Fiddler Crab
Fiddler crabs are great bait to use when fishing for sheepshead, black drum, and tautog and will also catch the occasional redfish and flounder. A lot of tasty inshore saltwater fish eat fiddler crabs. The best thing about using fiddler crabs as bait is that you can gather them for free. Fiddler crabs are found in many coastal states. Florida has three different species and there are 97 throughout the world. There are fiddlers along the entire Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, and the Pacific states have their own species. Everywhere they occur fiddler crabs are great bait for certain local fish.Fiddlers live in salt marshes where they have holes burrowed near the grasses. They come out of their holes as the tide lowers and feed on small organisms that were washed in with the tide. You can catch fiddlers at the coast during months when it is not too cold. You have to locate a marsh area where they are plentiful and chase them down.

To prepare a hook fiddler crab as bait, hook the crab thorough the back. Make sure the hook point comes out of the other side. Fish don't usually hammer a fiddler crab bait like they might a piece of bloody cut mullet. Instead they often take the bait in their mouths and peck at the shell to spit it out. Sheepshead fishermen have long said the time to set the hook is just before they bite! While that is likely impossible, keep a finger on your line and set the hook if you feel anything strange.

 
Live Bait Wrap-up: A Few Thoughts
There are many other small fish that can be used as live bait in salt water -- several varieties of pinfish, killifish, mutton minnows, chubs and any other fish that fits the size of the bait that you want. Also, remember this: if you try a new bait alive and nothing seems to want to eat it, you can be very successful by filleting it and using it as a cut chunk or strip bait.
Baitfish are seasonal; therefore I'll often cast net baits like mullet and menhaden when they're abundant, then freeze them for use during the winter. Most of the baitfish are gone then, and your fresh-frozen bait will be of better quality than most of the frozen stuff you buy in the tackle stores. To maintain the quality of your soon-to-be frozen bait, do it like this: Soak it overnight in a brine solution of two pounds of salt to a five gallon bucket of sea water, well iced down. Freeze it the next day in Ziplock bags (2-3 pounds of bait per bag), to make it easy to use on future trips. If you don't care to go to this much trouble, then freeze the bait immediately - it will still be superior to most store-bought frozen bait. Most of the pre-rigged frozen baits are very costly for what you're getting - we see very few of them around this area.

Remember, take only as much as you need and plan to use. Let the rest go alive, and leave some for tomorrow.

 

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