Getting better bait
  |  First Published: March 2003

Good bait can mean the difference between a fun day out on the water and a fishless session. Gary Brown explains.





Getting better bait
Good bait can mean the difference between a fun day out on the water and a fishless session. Gary Brown explains.

Is it better to go and catch your own fresh bait for a day’s outing or just grab the first pack of frozen bait you lay your hands on in bait shop?

The answer will depend on a number of things. Where does the angler live, what species of fish they are going to target, how far away they live from reliable bait grounds, whether they are fishing out of a boat or off the shore, what available time that angler has to fish and, when they do eventually get this bait, can they store it. When I fish with bait I prefer to have a few options up my sleeve.

If I was to go bream fishing up the Hawkesbury River at Bar Point during Autumn months I would take: Hawkesbury prawns, small squid (‘inkies’), fillets of mullet, chicken fillets and live pink nippers. This may vary due to changes in weather and water conditions. If there was a lot of fresh water about, such as after heavy rain, I would delete the pink nippers and squid and include striped tuna fillets and chicken gut.

In the this article I will compare the benefits of using fresh and frozen prawns, worms, cunje, abalone gut, pink nippers, bonito and tuna fillets, garfish, mullet, whitebait and squid.


When I go prawning for a feed, I find it almost impossible not to set aside a few for bait. Live prawns would have to be one of the most effective baits to use for bream, flathead, jumbo-sized whiting and mulloway.

The only problem I find with using live prawns for bait is that sometimes the effort that it takes to catch and then keep them alive until you are ready to use them is so time-consuming I couldn’t be bothered. But when I last fished down at Burrill Lake, if we hadn’t put in the effort to get the live prawns, we wouldn’t have caught the quality bream and flathead we did.

It is very easy to go down to your local bait supplier and buy a frozen packet of prawns, go fishing and catch a few fish without too much effort. But which frozen prawns do you get to achieve the best results?

When fishing the estuaries of the Sydney region, I can’t go past Hawkesbury River, Sydney Harbour and blue-tailed prawns. These three types of prawns catch me a lot of fish. They can be re-frozen once or twice if kept in an esky while fishing and will still be a great bait. Another prawn that is worth a look at is the royal red, a deep-water prawn.

The only time that I don’t peel a frozen prawn is when I am drifting for flathead. Sometimes, I will add grated parmesan cheese to the peeled prawns prior to storing them in the freezer.

A lot of the time when you use prawns you will find that they will go a bit black around the head. When this happens, all you need to do is peel and re-freeze them for a later time when you are chasing trevally, bream, drummer and leatherjackets down a berley trail. The shells and heads are great when chopped up into small pieces and fed down the berley trail.


There are so many different types of worms that you can use for fresh or live bait.

When fishing the surf, the first worm that comes to mind is the beach worm. If you have never been beach-worming, it can be one of the most time-consuming and frustrating times that you will ever spend gathering bait. But if you keep on trying, you will be able eventually to get enough for two or three hours of chasing bream and whiting off the beach.

Beach worms can also be very good in some estuary systems, especially those that empty onto a beach. Narrabeen Lakes and Lake Illawarra are a couple that come to mind. Beach worms can be kept for up to a week in the bottom part of your fridge. Just lightly roll them in dry sand and cover them with foil.

For longer-term live storage, you can keep them in a polystyrene foam fruit or vegetable tray with about 2cm of sand in the bottom and 10cm to 15cm of sea water on top, with an electric aerator keeping the oxygen up to them.

To preserve beach worms, plunge the live worms into a couple of cupfuls of methylated spirits for 30 seconds, pack them in zip-lock plastic bags and store them in the freezer. I haven’t had as much success with these worms as with live ones but some surf jewie anglers swear by methoed worms.

A lot of Sydney bait shops will go to the trouble of keeping live blood, tube, squirt and beach worms, making it a lot easier for the angler who doesn’t know how to catch them or who is short of time. Just call in and pick up a dozen or so and head off to have a fish.


Cunjevoi, more commonly known as cunje or the sea squirt, is found in vast colonies on the edge of the rocks. It is brown and leathery on the outside and when you step on them they usually squirt out a stream of water. When you cut a cunje with a knife, the inside has a pink to purple colour and it is this purple part that is the toughest part –where the hook should penetrate for maximum holding.

I have caught bream, snapper, luderick, trevally, groper, wrasse and drummer on freshly harvested cunje. When using fresh cunje, I will get myself down to the rocks about five hours before the top of the tide. Cut off the top section of the cunje, leaving the guts in the bottom part. As the tide rises and the wash breaks over them it creates a berley trail at your feet.

Now the tide may not coincide with the time of the day that you wish to fish off the rocks. I would suggest that you collect the cunje you think you will need, paying attention to bag limit, at low tide and then take it home. Put the cunje into an ice cream container in layers, pouring pool, coarse or butcher’s salt over them to toughen them up for the next time when the conditions are right for you to go fishing.

Abalone gut

About 14 years ago I found out that there was tip down at Mallacoota Inlet that was knee-deep in Abalone gut. The local abalone cannery was throwing away tonnes of one of the best baits for drummer and bream off the rocks.

At the time it was very hard to get quality abalone gut, so after many phone calls I was able to track down the manager and I asked him to package and freeze me some of it. He thought I was a raving lunatic when I wanted to buy 100 10kg blocks of abalone gut and part with my hard-earned cash for what he thought was crap.

When it arrived at my work on the back of a semi-trailer, my workmates also thought I was nuts. After putting these blocks into freezers of other anglers, my mates’, Mum’s and my own I felt I had enough drummer and bream bait to last for a few seasons.

I found that a mornings session with a couple of mates off the rocks chasing bream, drummer and luderick that the three of us would go through a 10kg block in a session. Since then I don’t buy it in such large quantities. The cost has gone up, I have limited storage and most of my mates don’t want to store it any more for me – I can’t imagine why not.

If you do buy ab gut in 10kg blocks I suggest that you let it thaw out over a few hours, then fill up some ice cream containers, mix some salt with it and store it for a later date. If this is too messy for you, you could always buy the sealed packs of salted abalone gut from your bait shop. To get fresh abalone gut, you either have to know somebody who goes diving for it, dive for it yourself or find a fish shop that will sell it to you. Remember, bag limits on abalone are strictly enforced.

Pink nippers

Pink nippers, bass yabbies, nippers, saltwater yabbies, call them what you like, these little crustaceans inhabit estuarine sand flats on most parts of the east coast of Australia. They would have to be one of the most prolific breeders of the estuary.

Due to the relative ease with which I can get to the nipper flats in my area, I tend to use pink nippers a lot. Including travelling and pumping time, I would get 50 in about half and hour. Bream, whiting, flounder, flathead, luderick, mulloway, salmon, drummer, snapper, leatherjackets, trevally and kingfish cannot resist them.

Investing in a good nipper pump is the way to go, and it can pay for itself hundreds of times over. Find a sand flat on a falling tide and look for clusters of 5mm holes in the sand. Put the pump mouth over the holes, hold the plunger handle still and slide the pump body down into the sand. Lift it out, push the handle down and force the sand out.

You may find nippers at the first pump but you’ll find more over the next few efforts in the same hole, especially when you get to a mixture of sand/mud and water.

Until a few years ago I was under the belief that a nipper that had been frozen, then thawed out and put on a hook was useless. That was until Scotty Lyons of Southern Sydney Fishing Tours told me to freeze about 20 in a container with no water and then take them out when you head off fishing. Every time I out chasing bream, trevally and kingfish, the thawed out nippers are always on board.

If you don’t want to muck about doing this you could always go to a shop that sells live nippers. This will save you a lot of time, petrol and travel, especially if you live at Liverpool or Penrith and want to go for a morning’s fishing on the Hawkesbury River, Sydney Harbour or Botany Bay. Mostly the bait shops have them as a convenience as they don’t make a lot of money from them.


Bonito, slimy mackerel and striped tuna are great fun to catch. But try using them as fresh strips of bait by taking off the fillets and then put the frame into the berley pot – the results can be deadly on just about any species of fish. You can keep them for a later use by placing the whole fish into an ice slurry, taking it home and filleting it. Then salt and freeze down the fillets ready for the next outing for bream, flathead, snapper, mulloway, kingfish and tailor.

Salted or frozen fillets are not, however, always just that. Depending on what brand you buy, the fillets may also contain a food colouring added to allow for the blood being leached out while they though the brining process.

You can catch your own slimy mackerel on bait jigs or small hooks baited with prawn or fish flesh. Look around weed beds, drop-offs, wharves and other structure.

Bonito and striped tuna can be caught on small chrome lures cast or trolled around the bait schools. Look for flocks of birds diving in and don’t run through the middle of the school – always work the outsides.


In my early years, using fresh or live garfish for tailor, salmon, mulloway and kingfish on ganged hooks was the done thing. Then, in the 1970s, with the increased availability of WA pilchards, the use of garfish on ganged hooks was almost forgotten.

I still used to catch garfish, but they were mainly cut up into pieces or fillets for bream, snapper and flathead. Until a few years back, most or all of my garfish were rather large and the only place they would go were onto the barbecue or into the pan. Nowadays they are back in my bait arsenal when I am targeting bonito, kingfish, salmon, mulloway and tailor.

With the increase of that many different types of pilchards on the market and the lack of consistent quality, I have found an increase in popularity of the use of frozen or salted garfish. A lot of the bait shops are now starting to stock more garfish than they used. Gars tend to not go as soft as some pilchards and they last a lot longer than the pilchards. They also can be re-frozen and used for the next outing.


Greg Joyes, of Calmwater Fishing Charters, chases big flathead and mulloway in the lower part of the Hawkesbury River system. Greg says that if you want to catch big flathead and mulloway, you have to use large live mullet. The 30cm to 35cm mullet that we caught for bait I would have taken home and cooked up.

A live bait tank complete with raw-water circulation is the go for keeping these alive and frisky. Be sure to take out any that may have died and use them for strip baits. Smaller poddy mullet are also very deadly on flathead, john dory, kingfish, schoolies and big bream.

My late father always used to say how great pieces, strips and whole mullet were as bait. Whether he fished offshore or in the river, from the rocks or the beach, the main bait Dad would take was whole mullet or fillets he had brought from the local bait shop or fishmonger.

I can still remember sitting on the wharf at Port Macquarie, using strips of mullet on an unweighted hook and pulling in bream as quick as we could get the bait back under the wharf. The fish may have thinned out a bit, but frozen mullet will still do the job.


To the novice buying whitebait, all whitebait will look the same. On closer inspection you may notice a couple of differences. There may have been plastic packets that were packed closely with whitebait, while there may also have been others that were loosely packed in oversized bags. These loosely-packed ones could have been IQF (individually quick frozen) and would have cost more than the others. I have found that IQF whitebait stay on the hook better, last longer and re-freeze well.

I have never tried using live whitebait in NSW but have had a go for them in Queensland with a cast net (illegal to use in NSW). After being shown for hours and still not being able to master the art of casting the net, I decided to buy some from a local bait outlet.


With freshly caught squid, do you use the ones you catch for bait or do you eat them? When I have been out fishing on Sydney harbour with either Craig McGill from Fishabout tours or Myer Berg from Foreshore Fishing Charters, one of the prime live baits they chase is squid.

Squid can be use live or cut up into strips for kingfish, samson fish, mulloway, snapper, bream, flathead and leatherjackets. Scotty Lyons also targets these fish in Botany Bay and the Port Hacking swears by squid as a great bait and they can be kept and frozen to be use on a later charter.

All three of these guides will also have frozen squid on board in case they are unable to catch live squid on the day. If you are not into catching your own squid or you don’t have the time, you can buy frozen ones from bait outlets. You need to be on the look-out for the small pink to red Hawkesbury bottle squid, the larger Indonesian or Californian squid and small white with black spot Inkies. All are great used whole, strips or pieces.

In a later issue of NSWFM I will cover some of my bait-gathering techniques and where in Sydney you can get them.



Type bag limit

Beach worms20 per person per day

Cunjevoi20 per person per day

Poddy mullet20 per person per day, 15 cm upper size limit

Red, brown and green crabs 20 per person per day

Prawns10 litres per person per day

The following are classed as baitfish: Pilchards, whitebait, bluebait, herring, anchovies, yellowtail, jack mackerel, slimy mackerel, garfish, hardiheads, soldier crabs, nippers or saltwater yabbies.



Outlet & Phone NoTypesAvailability

Ace Bait & Tackleblood worms, nippersYear round

9821 4109

Brads Bait & Tackle blood & tube wormsNov to Easter

9540 1873

Brighton Bait & Tackleblood worms & nippersYear round

9567 1226

Chatswood Bait & Tacklenippers year round

9417 3988blood & tube wormsSummer

Kyeemagh Bait & TackleBlood wormsyear round

9599 3075


Mac’s Bait Barblood wormsyear round

9546 1341

Mako Bait & Tackleblood, squirt, tube wormsyear round

9600 6999nippers, prawnson request

beach wormson request

Narrabeen Bait & Tacklenippers, blood & beach wormsyear round

9970 62048

The Tackle Shop, Waverley blood wormsyear round

9369 4133



Gourmet-prepared blue pilchards, bottle squid, prawns and slimy mackerel, plus a dash of Mako Bait Prep, was the undoing of a number of bream, trevally and flathead.


If you want to pump nippers, make sure you invest in a good quality pump between 80cm and 90cm long. It will definitely save your back and produce more bait.


Even though yellowfin pike are smelly and slimy, they make terrific live baits for mulloway, kingfish and flathead. They can also be filleted and cut up for strip baits.


Chris and John had a ball with a few mates from school trolling up bonito on the way out to The Peak and the Twelve Mile. Christmas tree lures work a treat trolled between 10 and 12 knots.


Soldier crabs should not be passed by as live bait for bream and whiting. Try using the smaller ones for whiting and the larger ones for bream.


If you don’t believe how good live squid are as bait, have a look at Craig McGill’s Fishing Sydney video, especially the kingfish segment.


As Scotty Lyons from Southern Sydney Fishing Tours calls them. kingfish lollipops.


Blue pilchards as just as good when cut and used for berley when cubing for yellowfin tuna or put onto a set of ganged hooks for tailor, salmon, bonito or kingfish.


Whether you use salted or frozen garfish, pilchards or slimy mackerel, scavenging yellowfin bream can’t seem to resist a well presented bait down that berley trail.


Yellowtail kingfish are suckers for live or strip baits.


Greg Joyes from Calmwater Fishing Charters is a great believer in using big bait for big fish and after a few trips with him, so is the author.

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