LIVEBAITING is one of the most successful ways to land quality fish from our beaches, and gathering livies is an important skill to learn if you want to improve your catch. In recent months our coastal waters have been teeming with quality livebait opportunities of all varieties, and after reading this you too should be able to source this valuable resource more efficiently next time you hit the beach.
Thanks to additional input from ‘Sharky’ Shane Downe, who’s the skipper of MV Doreen Too and the best bait gatherer I’ve seen along our foreshores, here are some criteria for being efficient at the art of gathering livebait.
You can acquire this only by spending hours on the sand. I’ve spent hundreds of hours on our local Four Mile Beach and I’m always learning. Nothing in life is a sure bet, even in the bait gathering stakes, but by studying the formation and lies of your beach you can narrow down the odds considerably.
Baitfish are closer to the bottom of the food chain and are very wary of their surrounds – something or someone is always after them, including birds of prey. The baitfish generally source higher ground if possible, and as the tides moves in they go as shallow as possible without being totally exposed from above. They are also very aware of the human factor – or so it seems. This, however, is a bonus for land-casting fishermen because, more often than not, the bait will be a few metres from shore. So knowing this, the bait normally congregate on the shallower flats, jutted landscape points which rise up from deeper water and also pockets or gutters of slightly deeper water as the water rises. Initial rising tides are best because the baitfish are the first to arrive in these areas. As the tide rises they have more options available to them and they become harder to find.
Don’t bother trying to gather livies without a pair of polarised sunglasses. If you don’t have a pair you can pick them up for around $20 at the local shop.
On any given day these glasses cut out the glare of the water, allowing you to see through it – and its amazing what you’ll see below the water. You can easily identify bait. Even during low light, keep your sunglasses on as they definitely will give you the edge you may need. I keep mine on from first light right until dark, and I use amber coloured lenses, mainly because during the day they highlight the array of magnificent colours our coastlines and reefs offer, which is part of the experience. However, darker lenses are preferred by others due their penetration abilities into the water on brighter days. It’s a personal choice. If you can afford it, carry both colours.
Next, acquire a monofilament cast net, the bigger the better (depending on your casting skills). On the beaches there are fewer fears of snags and rocks, unlike in the rivers – where cast nets are often ripped to shreds. A bit more stealth is needed on the beaches because of the shallower water associated with catching bait. You’ll often have to perform long distance cast, and this is easier when using a mono net rather than a heavier material meshed net.
The rope attached to your arm is often a hindrance, so I replace it with a thicker piece of rope in a bright yellow or orange and keep it only a metre or so long. I cast the net without a rope attached to my wrist and this gives considerably more distance without fear of a rope tangle. After throwing the cast net, the bright coloured rope tends to float above the net. This allows me to find it quickly, which is helpful in slightly dirty water.
The only time I use an attached rope is when I’m casting without legged protection during the box jellyfish season. There’s no way I’ll wade through the water to retrieve a net If I know the ‘boxies’ are around. They congregate near bait schools, which is their primary source of food, and you can rest assured that if there’s bait aplenty during the summer/wet season the ‘boxies’ will be there. Late May is often the end of their season but gauge newspaper and other media reports before you go wading without protection.
Being able to cast a net successfully is another story, but if you know someone who can, approach them for a few tips. It doesn’t take long to pick up the basics and will cut down on hours of wasted time trying to work it out yourself. This exercise can be learnt anywhere and doesn’t necessarily have to be learnt on the water. I learnt how to cast a net in a carpark!
When it comes to keeping bait alive I’ve found a 20 litre bucket to be best for size because it can hold quite a few baits and isn’t too much hassle to cart around.
Oxygen and fresh saltwater are the key to keeping bait alive. Baitfish are extremely sensitive, particularly garfish and sardines which are prized baits. The less stress you inflict on them, the better. I’ve tried various methods – everything from battery oxygenated machines, which are a waste of money in my opinion, to buckets with holes everywhere which you dunk into the water, which are difficult to keep in the shallows as the waves suck in and out.
The best way I’ve found to keep bait alive is to continuously replenish the bucket with fresh saltwater. I do this by using a little 9-litre bucket to carefully top up the 20 litre number every 10 minutes or so. My 20-litre container has a lid with a few holes made by a drill in the top section of the bucket to cater for any overflow of saltwater you may add.
I find that the less the baitfish can see, the less stressed they get. It’s similar to placing a blindfold on an animal in distress – it has a calming effect. Baitfish use less oxygen when they’re calm, but it’s still important to monitor them. A fresh saltwater supply is best, no matter what your bucket type.
As time goes by you’ll be able to pick a bait school and also be able to identify them before you actually cast – most of the time! Unlike in our rivers, where bait often sit just below the surface, bait on the beach tend to be closer to the surface. This creates ripples because of the shallows they venture into. It does happen in rivers but becomes even more apparent on our beaches and associated flats. Certain baitfish carry certain trademarks, and the following is an outline of the characteristics of different species.
These make great bait for all species, particularly for those fish which are prepared to search all levels of the water column, including barramundi and blue salmon. Mullet travel on the surface when free but tend to stay a bit lower once on a hook, carefully hugging the bottom of the sand or mud. Once detected though, they become alarmingly active.
Mullet run in smaller schools, from three or four up to a dozen or so. They are easy to identify because they are always on the move; they’re probably the hardest baitfish to corner because of their speed. When alerted, they can shoot in all directions at incredible speeds. However, if you’re fortunate enough to source a sleepy school, the ripple they create is similar to a group of flying ducks in the ‘V’ formation. There will be a leader and the rest of the fish will follow in a flowing pyramid shape. To capture them you need to cast just ahead of the leader fish, as the mullet’s first reaction is to shoot forward before dispersing in all directions. Mullet are very hardy and require less maintenance to keep alive.
Every predatory fish along our beaches loves a fresh short-nosed garfish. The best ones are 5-7” long but the bigger ones have taken some monster queenfish, salmon and barra. If you have a bigger bait, always put it out as alternative on a bigger rod and reel outfit.
Garfish are difficult to keep alive. If any die in your bucket, take them out or the others will soon keel over like dominoes. If you can minimise or keep up to half a dozen per bucket (if available), they will last considerably longer – providing you up their fresh saltwater supply.
Garfish are best hooked in the tail and will float toward the surface, opening them up for all sorts of hungry fish. These baitfish tend to roll in once the flats and sands are at least shin deep. They tend to come really close to shore, more so closer to dark. They generally hang from to 5-15m from the water’s edge, and some wading is usually required to catch them. They display very subtle surface action; the only thing that gives them away is the vast pack they generally travel in. During calmer conditions the school may be the size of a six-seated dining table.
Garfish generally swim against the grain of the wind and water so make sure you are upwind and current of them. Finding them can be hard, but sometimes the odd silly gar may flick its tail ever so daintily on the surface, which is the best way to locate them in rougher conditions. Even when under attack by a feeding fish, gar tend not to break the surface. It’s almost like a code of being a garfish.
Gar are pretty hard to keep alive after an hour so make sure you make hay while the sun shines. The consolation is that as a fresh dead bait they are just as deadly on the end of your hook.
Hardiheads are generally easy to find. They don’t grow much bigger than 3-4” long, but the trevally, tarpon and queenfish seem to like them.
These baitfish are easy to identify on the water, as their erratic movements disturb the surface. The fish swim excitedly close together and generate a buzzing ripple that’s roughly oval in shape and around the size of a bathtub.
Hardiheads can become a bugger at times because you can spend wasted fishing time picking the vast numbers out of your net. However, if you’re in need of bait, cast at the side of the pack; the fish sitting a little deeper on the edge will provide more than enough livebait for one session.
These baitfish keep pretty well in a live bucket supplied with fresh saltwater.
Unless you know your beach you won’t necessarily spot these classic baits but, as a general rule, they won’t be far away from a river/creek entrance along the foreshore. Where you spot juvenile jelly prawns spurting on the surface as the fish chomp through them, the bigger prawns should be nearby.
On ultra-clear days you can spot the prawns (with the aid of your sunglasses) hugging the edge of a rising tide. I’ve found that they prefer the dirtier pockets of water sitting low on the mud or sand. All you need to do is to spot one to three prawns hanging on the edge and then investigate a bit further. Often they will be in their hundreds only metres from the shoreline, so cast out and see what happens. There’s nothing as exciting when casting for bait as you watch and feel a prolific squad of mature prawns bounce recklessly into the top of your net (what is the group name for prawn?). Not only do they make a brilliant feed, they’re also splendid baits when cast out yonder under a float. No fishy predator will knock back a fresh, solid live prawn suspended mid-water on the beach.
If the sardines are present be sure to nail them, however they only seem to appear on the beaches during neap tides and really ultra calm conditions. You’ll normally spot them in large schools just under the water, and with the aid of your sunglasses you’ll spot their glimmering flanks. They are a superb dead bait, too – particularly for beach barramundi.
There are dozens of other baits you may net in your quest to obtain livebait, but these few mentioned above are far superior.
Good livebaiting on our beaches normally involves 4-8kg line on a running sinker rig with a solid 10-20kg leader. A smooth running reel is important as the better fish display an awesome amount of speed and power across the skinny water.
Good luck and keep at it – you’ll find that livebaiting will result in better catches, particularly if you’ve been using stinkin’ dead bait and only seem to catch sharks, shovel-nose and stingrays.
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