Catching your own bait

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Michael 'Smudge' Parker
20 January 2016

It might be easy to buy yourself a bag of bait from your local store but catching baits can yield much better results in deep water

Live baits and fresh whole baits can be very effective when it comes to catching bigger fish; live baits in particular will keep smaller fish at bay and whole fresh dead baits hold up to the ravages of smaller fish as well. Trouble is, many people struggle catching bait fish, but with the right approach it’s not so hard.

Picky piper

Known as garfish in Australia, piper can be a fun fish to catch with kids. Like marlin, piper have a tendency to leap out of the water, usually to escape hungry predators and the sight of a big school of them tail walking is a something to behold. Piper are possibly one of the more difficult fish to catch but they can be a deadly bait to use for snapper and kingfish.

As with all fishing the first step is to find them. Bait fish like structure because it offers them shelter from the elements and from predators. Unfortunately for them the predators like structure because of all the bait fish! Piper also like to hang out in sheltered bays, particularly if they have an outcrop to protect them from strong currents.

Piper have small mouths and are fussy eaters. Berley will certainly help especially if it is mostly floating on the surface. That good old kiwi breakfast, Weetbix, does a fair job -  just crumble it up and send it out with a few rolled oats or breadcrumbs added in. Piper are usually snooping around in the top quarter of the water column. A float above a metre long  trace (depending on water depth), with three hooks equally spaced below and a small split shot clamped on will help to get the hooks down to the required depth. When fishing this way you will often find the majority of the fish will be caught on only one or two of the hooks.

Baiting the bait

You can use a small sabiki rig, or just use small hooks - trout hooks are perfect. Baits also need to be small and pretty much anything will do. I prefer a firm bait and I use a craft knife to cut a very small sliver off. A bait knife is usually too large and clumsy. An alternative is to use a dough made from flour and water. The bait won’t last long but you only need the smallest piece and piper go crazy. Some people make it more durable by mixing up some cotton wool in the dough.

If I can berley piper in close enough I prefer to sight fish for them. Usually they appear in numbers and, if I can, I’ll drop a single unweighted hook down into the action. I use just enough line so I don’t have to wind the reel, I just lift the rod up and swing it over to drop the fish into a bucket of water. Piper aren’t a hardy fish so if you intend using them as a live bait it is best not to touch them. Piper used dead or alive are an excellent bait for kingfish, snapper and kahawai.

Marvellous mackerel

Mackerel are another great bait and Jack mackerel in particular are prolific in many places. Jack mackerel are also known as yellow tail mackerel, yakkas or simply Jack macks. Wharves and jetties, particularly at night when the lights are on, are by far the most productive places to catch them. In this situation over the warmer months they can be ridiculously easy to catch, giving away their presence by splashing around as they feed on tiny creatures and plankton attracted to the lights – no berley needed!

Of course it isn’t always convenient to catch them in those circumstances, particularly if you wish to keep them alive but then again, what good fishing expedition doesn’t start off in the early hours before the sun is fully out!

In daylight hours mackerel can often be seen on a fish finder as a mid-water image. Dropping a baited sabiki down into the school is the easiest method for catching them. A slow lift and drop of the rod tip to give the sabiki some movement usually helps. Once again you don’t need big baits, a small bait just means they will hook up easier.

Jacks are a very hardy bait and kingfish, snapper and John dory love them, unfortunately so do stingrays. Often, when you’re looking for Jack macks, you might end up with koheru. They have a bluish colouration and a more rounded profile. They are a great bait fish too and are found in clean water around headlands, particularly if there is deep water nearby.

Killer kahawai

Kahawai are also popular as both cut and live baits and are one of the easiest fish to target as they will take lures of all types as well as baits. Although they are usually voracious they can be fussy feeders at times, usually when they are feeding on small fish such as whitebait or small anchovies. In that situation a quarter ounce sinker sliding down onto a trace about 300mm long with a small, white saltwater fly attached almost always works.

So often reffered to as the People's Fish, kahawai are the ultimate multitasker. They make excellent cut or live baits and can be served for dinner in a wide range of ways including raw as cervice, cooked as fish cakes or fillets, or smoked and served with crackers and cold beer.

While there aren’t too many certainties in fishing, one thing you can rely on when it comes to finding kahawai are white-fronted terns in feeding mode. When you see these birds dipping down into the water it is usually because kahawai will be herding up small bait fish. The little fish will rise to the surface thinking the kahawai won’t be able to attack them from above. Unfortunately for them the terns will be there to take care of that job. Kahawai are great cut baits for snapper and gurnard and lots of kingfish have fallen for kahawai live baits.

Fiddly squid

Although most fishermen buy squid from their local bait shop, they can also be caught by recreational anglers. Squid frequent shallow water at night and are attracted to lights. Berley helps to concentrate them into an area where they can be caught using specialised squid jigs. They are loads of fun to catch but be warned that it can be a very messy business as they can squirt sticky black ink for metres. It‘s surprising just where these creatures will turn up, with Auckland’s waterfront a popular venue for squidders. They are most available during winter and spring.

Offshore for skipjack

While they are only available to offshore fishermen, skipjack tuna are certainly one of the best of all the bait fishes caught in this country. Skipjack are a pelagic fish, marketed as bonito by bait suppliers. While not everyone has the opportunity to catch them they are highly sought after by many.

Trolling lures is the easiest way to get them. They can often be seen feeding on the surface in blue water or close to it. They are easily recognised by their fast moving surface splashing, usually accompanied by all sorts of seabirds. Bullet shaped skirted lures or even a weighted saltwater fly or soft bait will catch them. They are powerful fish and a heavier trace is needed. For skilled marlin fishermen skipjack  make phenominally effective live baits. some of the best charter operators catch more marlin on live skipjack each season than lures.

While baits are traditionally the preferred option for catching fish it is important to remember that each fish we take out of the sea will have some effect on the ocean’s biomass. While skipjack tuna make great baits, there is some worry about whether they will still be around in a few years' time. Fish responsibly, even when it comes to catching bait fish.

Top Tips for catching baitfish

  • Keep a good berley trail going
  • Sabiki rigs work well for most small fish
  • Bait fish like to congregate around structure
  • Use a light line and small
  • sharp hooks
  • Mackerel & koheru can often be found in early mornings on the shadow side of islands and headlands
  • Avoid handling the fish if you intend to keep it as a live bait
  • Keep the live bait tank
  • well aerated
  • Match the hook size to the live bait – a piper won’t live long with a 10/0 through its back

Super supper

A novel way of catching piper is to wade a sheltered bay at night with a lantern or torch. They will come right up close to you and they are very easy to scoop up with a little hand net.

Use the small ones for bait but keep the larger ones for supper; they are one of the tastiest fish around. Clean them and poke the bill through the body down towards the tail so it forms a doughnut shape. Coat with flour and quick fry until they are a nice golden brown then straighten the fish up and the whole spine will separate from the flesh.

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