For winter offshore fishing, there are very few fish that won’t eat a live, dead, or chunk of ballyhoo. Ballyhoo, otherwise known as “half beaks,” are a favorite for anglers as cut bait or trolling, but they also have been used as live baits while drifting or chum. They are found both offshore and inshore and can be caught using a variety of methods.
The easiest but most technical would be using cast nets. When cast netting, you’re going to want to set your boat up anchored along a patch reef or reef line where there is moving water. Current is key for attracting ballyhoo using a chum bag. Deploy the chum bag and watch the slick water disperse the chum down the reef. It may take some time, but eventually, you’ll see some disturbances on the surface moving closer and closer to the boat. When they get in netting distance, that is when you strike. The key is to wait for them to be comfortable around the boat in the chum and have a large amount visible to make the most out of your net throws.
If you’re not the best with a cast net, a hoop net can be used, or you can use a hook and line method. On a very light spinning rod, rig a small hair gold hook size 12 to an 8 lb. leader with a small cork a few feet from the hook. Tip the hook with a small piece of shrimp or squid and cast it back into the chum slick. Using a rehooking device, remove the hooks over the live well to ensure happy and healthy baits. If you’re going to use ballyhoo as live baits, the less you touch them, the better they’ll perform once on the hook.
If you’re fishing inshore targeting redfish, snook, or trout during Florida’s winter months, you’re going to want to have a livewell full of pinfish. Whether you’re fishing docks, deep holes on a negative low, inlets, or mangrove shorelines, a live or chunk of pinfish is a great bait for winter. One popular method for catching pinfish is a pinfish trap using any kind of chum. As long as you’re in the right spot, this is a very easy and effective method to catch bait without throwing a net and getting wet on those chilly winter days. If you’re not sure where to drop your traps, pinfish can be found in sandy holes along or in grass flats. You can locate them simply by cruising the flats or sandy edges, looking for the flash of these small baitfish, and then deploying your trap in that area for 15 to 20 minutes.
If you do not have a pinfish trap, a sibiki rig tipped with shrimp or squid will also do the trick. To do this, set up on a grass flat in 2-4 feet of water and either throw out dry chum or a traditional chum bag. Make sure you have moving water to get the chum away from the boat and dispersed around the flat. If you know how to throw a cast net, you can catch a large quantity of pinfish quickly by waiting for them to get into your chum slick. This usually takes about 3-5 minutes. Eventually, you will see the flash of pinfish in the chum, and that’s when you’ll want to load up the net and let it fly.
Once you’re loaded down with pinfish, it’s time to get them rigged up. 20 lb. braid on a 7’6 medium inshore rod with a 3-4 foot 25 lb. fluorocarbon leader to either a jig head or circle hook and split shot will do the trick for fishing mangrove shorelines or skipping docks and structure. A good way to rig live pinfish is with the fins and tail trimmed down on a jig head through the lip of the bait. This is an effective way to cover a lot of docks or structures in search of redfish or inshore gag grouper. Often times you’ll feel your pinfish vibrate and get nervous shortly before the bite. If you’re fishing for lethargic snook or reds on the coldest winter days, you’re going to want to use a chunk of pinfish rigged with circle hooks and split shot to ensure the bait stays on the bottom. The game here is patience and making sure that cut bait isn’t moving at all. It may take some time to get bit, but some of your biggest snook and reds of the year can be caught using this method.