Live-baiting rigs and tips (2008)

Adam Clancey shares a few hints and tips on his preferred live-baiting techniques

It really is a ‘eat and be eaten’ world beneath the ocean; almost every fish eats other living creatures, with very few fish leading a strictly vegetarian existence. 

This ‘law of the jungle’ even extends to the land creatures venturing into the fishes’ submarine world (including us!), with the larger, apex predators occasionally welcoming opportunist and unusual snacks.

From an angling perspective we have the ability to take advantage of the fact that most fish will even eat their mates, given half a chance. In fundamental terms, although a hook stuck in any living fish transforms it into a ‘live bait,’ the trick is to present such live baits in a way that they look like an attractive and worthwhile feed to whatever’s being targeted. To do this, we use assorted live fish and present them in various ways using different rigs and tactics. As with all fishing there are no hard and fast rules to fishing live bait, just some techniques that have evolved over time and are well proven.

To illustrate the value of live-baiting, I recall the first snapper over 20lb (9kg) I caught many years ago. At the time I was fishing in the Bay of Islands on a very unpleasant day, meaning our fishing spots were confined to a few sheltered parts of the Bay.We had deployed masses of berley and were using good baits, but the action was dismal. Then I was lucky enough to snag a koheru on a set of bait flies, so quickly hooked it up through the nose and cast it well out from the boat with no balloon or sinker. Before too long the rod bent hard over, and after a quick but tough tussle I landed a snapper that weighed in at 24lb (11kg). We caught no other fish that day. Since that time I have caught many snapper on live baits, and most of them have been large.

In order to take advantage of live-baiting, the first skill and, probably the hardest, is to become accomplished at finding and catching live bait. I can’t stress enough that having the right tackle to catch live bait is critical. My personal live-bait tackle includes sabikis or bait flies in various sizes, jigs from 7-30g, small trolling squids, tiny 7cm bibbed minnows, silver tolling spoons, and a paravane rigged on a cord hand-line. These items of tackle cover most of the live-bait opportunities that arise.Once you have caught your live bait, the next trick is to keep it alive until ready to use it. Minimal handling will keep your bait less stressed, and a good live-bait tank will keep them kicking all day. 

The best live-bait tanks are the ones with the strongest water circulation. I have had big kahawai stacked up head down with their tails sticking out of the top, with no room to swim, but with plenty of water pumping through their gills they still lasted for hours. Once you get your live bait to your fishing spot, the next trick is to present it in the strike zone. This may be near the surface, mid-water or close to the bottom, but in all cases the trick is to make it look distressed or different – but not to the point that it looks too unnatural. 

To keep a reasonably small live bait, such as a piper or mackerel, close to the surface, a rig with a streamlined float (sometimes called a bobby cork) works well. These floats have a hole through the middle, so you can control the depth at which your live bait is presented by adding a stopper knot to the line. The line can then slide through the float until the knot is reached, jamming at the entrance and preventing the live bait from swimming any deeper. Then, when it comes to winding it back, the float slides back down, so you don’t have to cope with a long trace boatside – and you can even cast out if necessary.  For larger live baits, a partially inflated party balloon makes a great float. Many people attach balloons to the top eye of a swivel, but I prefer to have a stopper knot instead so I can control the depth more effectively and avoid tangles. 

Fishing live baits in mid water can be as simple as letting them swim freely away from the boat, or, for a more controlled approach, slow troll them using a downrigger. Obviously, to fish near the bottom you must add weight to your rig to get the bait down where you want it. There are two approaches you can take here. For deep water species like hapuku, or slow swimmers like john dory, use a ledger/dropper rig with plenty of weight. This serves several purposes. For a start, the bait can be dispatched to the bottom quickly and it is then much less likely to swim around other lines; also, as fish like john dory are notoriously poor swimmers, the heavy sinker makes it easier for them to catch the bait. 

On the other hand, if targeting more aggressive predators such as snapper and kingfish, a ball sinker directly on top of the hook works really well. Use sinkers from 1-4 ounces and, if necessary, stack three or four of them on top of each other to get down in deeper waters affected by current. This technique is great for drift fishing over deep reefs or among schools of fish. To get the most out of live baits, the terminal tackle must be right. Using too large a hook for the size of live bait causes too much damage, leading to premature death, and as the hook is so obvious, prospective predators are less likely to be fooled into eating the bait. 

When using big live baits, large circle- or recurve-style hooks in sizes 11/0-16/0 work really well. Hook placement can be up through the lips or in front of the dorsal. Mid-sized baits, such as mackerel and small kahawai, suit 7/0-10/0 hook sizes. I find the traditional offset live-bait hooks seem to have the edge here, although small circles work if the live bait is nose hooked. 

Small live baits, such as sprats and piper, require small, lightweight hooks that don’t impede the live bait’s ability to swim properly. But such hooks must also be strong enough to avoid being straightened by the tackle you’re using. Choosing the right strain of leader material can also be tricky. Use too light a trace with a big live bait and the first decent fish hooked will likely smash you off on a reef, but too heavy and you won’t get a bite in the first place. In all instances, use the lightest trace that’s likely to handle the size of fish present and the terrain you’re fishing in. 

There are many tactics that can be employed when live-baiting: changing your live bait for a fresh one if the action has been slow can suddenly create action; try slow trolling back-hooked baits close to headlands, reefs and islands (with or without a balloon); cast a popper around your live bait to attract and excite attention; place the hook in the live bait’s anal fin so it swims erratically around on the surface; position your live baits at different depths; berley steadily to attract bait fish, which in turn help bring in the predators. 

The final stage of good live-bait fishing is timing the strike. This could be instant or may take minutes, depending on the target species and the size of live bait. Rule of thumb decrees it’s best to wait until the line is being steadily pulled away, your thumb gently thumbing the spool in freespool, or with just enough drag exerted to prevent an overrun. Then, with the line leaving in a steady stream, you can either strike, if using a traditional hook, or put the reel in gear and let the weight come on if using a recurve hook.

So, if you want to make use of the ‘law of the jungle,’ it always pays to put out a live bait – who knows what might eat it!

2008 - Adam Clancey
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
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