The question, “What’s the best bait?” often arises when fishing Pass-a-Grille and Southern Pinellas County. So, here’s my two cents worth.
Bait falls into two catagories- live bait and lures. We’ll save lures for another day. The best live bait depends largely on the species that you’re targeting. Common inshore live bait includes shrimp, tubeworms, whitebait, greenbacks, grunts, pinfish, fiddler crabs, and more.
Fiddler crabs and tubeworms are pretty much exclusively used when targeting sheepshead. A common tactic is to scrape barnacles from the pilings, and allow them to drift in the current. This sets up a scent trail that the sheepshead will follow to the source. Barnacles, by the way, also make a pretty decent sheepshead bait if you can figure out how to get them on the hook.
Whitebait and greenbacks are caught using a cast net. They vary widely in size. Smaller ones are good for snapper, small grouper, flounder and Spanish mackeral. Large ones work for snook, trout, bigger grouper, redfish and the occassional tarpon. Throw a medium one out, and you never know what will end up hitting it.
Shrimp, of couse, is the most popular bait in this area. You can use frozen shrimp- but don’t! The only excuse is if the bait store is out of live shrimp. In the winter, it’s easy to find jumbo, and select shrimp. Spring and fall offers ‘hand picked’ shrimp. And, in the heat of summer, you may find only ‘regular’ (which is to say tiny) shrimp. Here’s a quick rule of thumb- big shrimp, big fish!
Keep your shrimp alive using a bait bucket with an air pump. An insulated bait bucket seems to extend shrimp longevity by many hours. You can use a ‘flow thru’ bait bucket, but you’ll spend a lot of time pullin gthe bucket out of the ocean and putting it back.
Proper hooking technique is critical! You should always match your hook size to the bait, not to the fish you’re trying to catch. A size 2 hook is fine for most shrimp; maybe a 1 or 1/0 for select size. You will not a ‘horn’ on the head of the shrimp, with a couple of dark spots below. Hook the shrimp through the horn, either in front of or between the dark spots. This allows the shrimp to swim and kick normally. If you are having a problem with smallr fish stealing shrimp, you may consider the ‘tail hook’ technique, but this will immobilize, and soon kill the shrimp.
Pinfish and grunts are great for snook, redfish, grouper and trout. Hook them just in front of the dorsal fin, or through the meaty part of the tail. Grunts alwys seem to outproduce pinfish, due, of course, to their load grunting sounds- a true snook magnet!