It's an age-old question, one asked by both resident fishermen and travelling anglers alike: “What should I use for bait?”
Most anglers, at least those who fish the west coast of Florida, will agree that the scaled sardine (whitebait) is the prey of choice for springtime snook. Biologists might disagree, insisting that pinfish are found most often when looking at the contents of snook stomachs.
But the average angler banks on sardines to catch the elusive linesider. This species is one of the most plentiful forage fish in the state’s estuaries during the spring months. Scaled sardines are a relatively fast growing, but short-lived fish that have a life span of about one year. They can get to 6 or 7 inches long, but most specimens are in the 3- to 4-inch range.
Scaled sardines spawn offshore year-around. They feed on zooplankton and play an important role in the food chain. While they may be the favorite food of snook, everything from Spanish mackerel to blacktip shark will eat them as well.
While sardines may be a popular live bait for anglers throughout Florida, it has relatively minor commercial importance. Total statewide commercial harvest of scaled sardine in 2013 was 22,763 pounds, while the statewide recreational harvest was estimated at 857,054 pounds in 2013.
Other top baits include the Atlantic thread herring, commonly called greenbacks and sometimes horse minnows, which work well as a good inshore and offshore bait.
The pinfish, a favorite forage food of snook, is a member of the porgy family is also the favorite target of young anglers learning to fish. Pinfish are commonly sold in bait shops. They are one of the most versatile baits available, making them a good choice for both inshore and offshore anglers.
Have trouble catching bait? Try this chum recipe: Start with some leftover bait from yesterday's fishing trip, chopped into small pieces. Add two cans sardines, two cans mackerel, 18 ounces of rolled oats and a one long squeeze of menhaden oil. Mix together then sprinkle in the water. And watch the bait arrive in droves.