Salting your bait is a great solution to some of the drawbacks of fresh bait, such as mushiness, blood, slime and restricted shelf life.
Salted baits are tougher, so more resilient during casts or when pickers are about. They also don’t need freezing or refrigerating, so can sit on a shelf in the shed instead of taking up space in the freezer. They’re denser and heavier than fresh baits, so sink faster without as much weight – hopefully down to where the fish are waiting. Finally, salting your leftover bait at the end of a day’s fishing is a better option than refreezing, which sees it cluttering the freezer and being softer when used afterwards.
Some say that fish prefer fresh bait to salted, but over the years I’ve been fishing both bait types, I haven’t seen any difference. The fact that your bait is tougher and therefore spends more time in the strike zone means more fish get to see it, and bigger models get the chance for a look in before the pickers have stripped you back to the hook.
The principle of salting is that the salt draws much of the water out of the fish or shellfish flesh. It also draws the moisture out of bacteria in the flesh, killing them or making them go dormant, and this means the meat doesn’t rot or stink.
The process is surprisingly fast and clean. Ideally you want to start with fresh or freshly defrosted fish/shellfish, but if you’ve been out all day and only have ropey old baits left, they’ll do, too. Tired old pillies will still firm up and make a good bait, although the belly will be fragile and the whole bait will fall apart faster.
My salting bin is an old washing-powder bucket with a lot of 5mm holes drilled in the bottom, and a lid on top to keep the rain out. The salt is so effective at curing fish flesh that all the usual vermin you’d expect to be a problem, tend to keep their distance. (A rat once chewed its way into an earlier bin, dragged out a salted pillie, and took exactly one bite before spitting it. He wasn’t a picky rat either, eating the plastic coating off electrical cables!)
A well kept (i.e. well salted) bin is virtually odourless and shouldn’t get you on the wrong side of family members or the wider community.
The salt I use is raw, coarse salt from RD1, but a lot of salters on the net get theirs from a pool-supply shop. This is incredibly cheap: a bit over $10 for 25kg. I’ve heard it said that iodised table salt is no good, as the iodine repels fish, but I’ve used it a few times when stuck and had no problems at all. The finer salt trickles out the holes in the bottom of the bin, though.
Salting small baits like pilchards is easy: just put a good base of salt (say 3cm) on the bottom of the bin, lay down your pillies, cover lightly with salt, then put another layer of pillies down. Keep alternating pillies and salt, then close the lid and leave it. Virtually immediately, water will start leaching out the bottom of the bin. It’s important to ensure that this doesn’t run anywhere undesirable, like into your begonia patch, onto your car and the like, because, as you’d expect, it’s highly salty.
I used to catch this liquid in a tray, then decant it into coke bottles to use as berley. I’d put a small hole in the bottle and throw it in the berley bag. I’m not convinced it did much good though, as the fish oils tend to stay locked up in the fish. Now I let it drain harmlessly into the gravel on a path. I’ve read on the ‘net that the bloody salt left in the bin makes good ground-bait, but I’m a bit dubious. I would imagine that each grain of salt is covered in a thin layer of blood and juice which washes off more or less instantly when it hits the sea – not the kind of slow release you’re after when ground-baiting. Also, the bloody salt can stay in the bin for the next load of baits.
After 24 hours or so, dig out the pillies and put them in a plastic container or ziplock bag. They should have become firm, rubbery and dry. Less than about 12 hours and they’ll still be a lot firmer than fresh baits, but they may deteriorate faster than properly cured baits, as some of the bacteria deep inside might have survived the shorter salting process. Longer than 24 hours is fine too. I’ve read that the salt will ‘burn’ the flesh after 24 hours, but I’ve left bait in the salt for many weeks and it’s come out fine.
Baits can then be left in a dry, well-aired spot, like a shelf in your shed etc. They only smell up close, and have an incredibly pungent reek. This sticks to your hands, so don’t wipe your hands on your hair after handling them – unless you want to be chased down the road by cats.
Mussels from the supermarket or collected from the rocks are also an excellent bait for salting. Fresh and raw, they make great baits for a variety of species, especially finicky eaters like trevally, parore and moki, as well as garbage-guts feeders like kahawai, blue cod, snapper and gurnard.
However, they have some negatives: they take a bit of work to get out of the shell, they’re pretty slimy, and everything loves them, including spotties, leatherjackets, hiwihiwi, crabs and other hook-strippers. Thus, in their natural state, you must first extract them from their shells, then bind them onto the hook with Bait Elastic, before watching your rod tip tap away as the pickers strip the rig back to bare steel in a third of the time it took to bait up.
Salting mussels takes a bit of preparation, but results in much tougher baits that can handle long casts and better withstand the teeth of the ooglies.
To kill the mussels, put them in the freezer for half an hour until the shells open. Next, shuck them by sliding a butter knife into the gap between the two shells, hard against the shell, to detach the abductor muscles, which are the white disks of muscle holding the two shells together. Then use the knife to scrape the meat out into a bowl. The fringing hairs and the odd pea crab should go in too.
The mussels can now be tipped into your salting bin, covered with salt, mixed up a bit and left. After a day or two you can remove them and put them in a lunch box or Ziplock bag, and, like pillies, just leave them on a shelf until you need them. The cured bait will be even tougher if bound on with some Bait Elastic, and is best used on fine-gauge hooks, as thicker hooks tend to split it into fragments. Mustad Penetrators are perfect, but the smaller sizes can be a bit thin if big snapper are encountered.
The ease of use, lack of slime, and the variety and size of fish that will take mussels make this preparation time worthwhile. A fellow ‘fishingnet’ user recommends inserting the bait into surgical burn-gauze to make it last longer, but this is something I haven’t tried yet.
I also chuck the shells into the salt bin and then take them out to throw in as groundbait. The fluttering action as they sink through the water column and the residual scents left on the shell help sound the dinner gong.
If you want to avoid the initial hassle of shucking, you can just freeze them till they’re dead and then chuck them in the bin. This means you’ll still have to remove the animal from the shell on the boat, beach or rocks, which is a pain when there’s a hot bite on the go. However, you can throw the whole salted mussel, complete with its shell, into your spot as groundbait, as they’re tough and smell great, so will keep plenty of fish activity on the go. This might seem pretty wasteful, but it helps to think you’re swapping one type of kai moana for another – and besides, this is simply the natural order of things in many locations.
When yellowtail (jack) mackerel are around in numbers, it’s a good idea to take advantage and collect a few extra for future use. Unless they are really huge, they can simply be buried in salt whole, emerging some time later as rubbery corpses ready for the hook. For larger models, I’d recommend filleting them and salting the fillets, or ‘spatchcocking’ them (taking one fillet off and possibly removing the backbone) to open up the whole flesh to the salt. Leave the guts in for extra appeal. It’s a good idea to slice open the guts and/or slash the sides before baiting up, as this enables more scent to be released.
Another option, when you have a whole lot of these little guys, is to chop them into small bits and salt them for groundbait. This requires a decent, sharp, heavy knife, or better yet, a cleaver. Get the knife going like a paper-cutting guillotine and feed the fish in nose first. The same can be done with fish frames and heads from larger fish such as kahawai, trevally etc. Snapper flesh and bones can be repellent to other snapper, so are best avoided.
Be aware that making berley can be a fairly noisy, messy process, so wait till members of the household are at the shops or do it outside. You want to end up with diced pieces about 1 or 2cm square. Chuck them out a handful at a time as you fish. You’ll find a lot of these bits in the stomachs of the fish you keep.
Bigger fish, such as skipjack tuna, mullet, kahawai etc, make ideal salted slabs. It’s important to scale kahawai and mullet before filleting, or the scales harden like steel. Fillet them as normal, but keep the ‘wings’ (including the pectoral and pelvic fins) intact. Then cut these pieces into squares of about 150mm by 150mm and lay them in the salt bin, alternating the fish with layers of salt. I’ve tried pre-cutting these into bait-sized pieces, but they tend to curl up and harden into unnatural-looking shapes.
If you feel like adding some fish oil to the bait to perk it up a bit, I recommend doing this at the last moment. Get the bait on the hook, then dip it in oil or give it a squirt from a squeezie bottle. Some people recommend storing the bait in fish oil, but this can make a horrendous mess when you come to use it. A reader’s tip that featured in this magazine a few years ago, involved refilling an empty deodorant roll-on bottle with fish oil and using it as an oil applicator – a good idea. Dipping baits into Gulp! Alive soft-bait liquid would also be worth trying.
Salting squid makes an already tough bait even tougher. Frozen tubes from the supermarket can be chucked in the bin immediately. If you get a really big whole squid (and you don’t want to eat it!), remove the head and guts from the tube and salt them separately. The toughened guts make excellent baits, and the tube can be cut into any shape to fit your hook size. A pair of kitchen scissors is handy for this.
Squid can be cut into soft-plastic shapes and threaded onto jig heads as cheap soft-bait substitutes – although the bigger tentacles tend to be even better. They are much tougher than many of the soft-plastic brands on the market, have an enticing wiggle, are natural, and work out cheaper than SPs. Trevally, especially, seem to love them. To increase their lifespan, bind the tentacle’s stump tightly to the hook’s shaft or the jig-head’s base with Bait Elastic.
Whatever type of bait you use, salting it down will toughen it and make it harder for the fish to rip off. It’s cheap, easy and clean, and means you get a lot more distance out of those unfinished bags of pillies that typically get chucked in the back of the freezer and forgotten about until only good for berley.
August 2011 - Tom Lusk
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
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