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Bait ’em up!
  |  First Published: March 2009



Here’s a solid run-down on collecting and storing your own bait

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Fuel is probably the most expensive part of your fishing adventures and for many anglers the coast of bait comes second, and if you buy frozen bait over the counter, you can never be sure if it will make the grade.

Unless you caught it yourself or procured it from a commercial fisher, your expensive bait could have been decomposing before it was frozen, or frozen and thawed many times over, suffered freezer burn due to mishandling or faced any number of other issues down the supply chain that stops with you.

Service stations and small businesses which don’t rely on sales of quality bait won’t usually get new bait after a power failure. Look at those black prawns or pure white squid we’ve all seen!

Ask a top bait angler their secrets and you’ll get replies about tides and moons, favorite spots and, if they’re really truthful, about the bait grounds they visited early that morning gathering yellowtail or slimy mackerel or drifting for squid. Serious anglers will trap poddy mullet, walk the rocks for crabs and gather beach worms, pipis and cockles, harvest clumps of mussels bridge and pier pylons, gather sea urchins for berley, cut cunjevoi from oyster posts and exposed rock platforms.

A few fishos spend a lot of time gathering bait so they have it on hand, frozen fresh or preserved, when the fish arrive in their area.

I have taught my kids how to collect bait and on the beach they find worms and pipis, in the estuary they trap poddy mullet and collect mussels and cockles and around the freshwater dams they catch shrimp and collect grasshoppers, crickets or cicadas. They haven’t yet tapped rock platforms, due to safety concerns.

It surprises me that many anglers can catch bait but don’t know how to keep it in top condition for the rest of the day. Way too often I have seen fishos leave fish dead in a bucket of water which slowly warms to the point where it becomes soggy and useless.

If you don’t have an insulated bait box, small esky or insulated bag and a little ice, try a hessian bag dampened with saltwater and folded over the fish. Wet the bag every hour or so and the bait won’t dry out or decompose too much.

Don’t do this to fish that will be eaten; it needs to be put on ice as soon as possible.

There are so many baits you can collect it would take a book. Yellowtail, slimy mackerel and garfish can all be taken in estuaries and inshore waters. Bait jigs and small handline rigs are by far the best way to get them.

All these fish can keep quite well in freezer bags that have a good seal. Some coarse salt and a splash saltwater is all that is needed.

Now let’s talk about some of the more common baits and how to collect them.

TRAPPING MULLET

There aren’t many fish-eating species that won’t chew on a piece of mullet.

The No 1 bait for them is bread, either used in a trap or on a line.

Traps are real money-savers. They are cheap enough and work well,as long as you stay away from the square mesh-style ones.

The clear plastic cylinder traps are the only way to go, I reckon.

This is how I do it.

Sandflats and seagrass beds are the best places to find mullet.

I pick a low tide that is just beginning to rise over a sand flat and start throwing small bits of bread around a 15m area, concentrating on where I want to lay the trap. Don’t throw the bread too high in the air or seagulls will eat your bread and scare off the mullet.

Go into ankle-deep water, crumble a slice of bread and spread it around, then wait until some mullet find it and start feeding.

Bait the trap with a crumbled half-slice only, too much and the mullet won’t enter, then lay it where the biggest concentration of mullet or other baitfish like whitebait or herring are feeding. Naturally, they’ll scatter.

Move away and within five minutes most of the fish will return. Give the trap a good 15-minute soak while you fish, swim, read a book or whatever a good way away from the trap.

When you go to check it, walk to the side because if you head straight to the end they seem to flee in a straight line out of the two entrances. Pick up the trap, cupping an ends with each hand and the water will drain, leaving splashing fish.

By now the tide should be moving faster so add a long sinker to anchor the trap. Face the trap along the current and throw small tidbits of bread around the ends to attract the fish to the openings.

Don’t forget, the trap has to have a float attached with your name or boat number or phone number and the words ‘bait trap’ in waterproof marker pen. A lightweight torpedo float or sanded chunk of styrofoam is best, with about 80cm on heavy fishing line. You don’t catch mullet in deeper water than that.

Keep moving the trap back up the flat so that the water is ankle to knee deep each time, that’s where the fish are best.

Ensure that it’s legal to do so where you’re trapping; check local rules. Only one trap per person is allowed and it’s illegal to even have one on the boat in closed-trap waters.

MULLET ON LINE

Catching mullet on a line can be real fun but it isn’t always an easy task and there have been times I have had 100 or so mullet around the boat and haven’t been able to catch one.

A trick I use is to tie a rod length of 4lb to 8lb line directly to the rod tip guide, use no weight and tie on a short-shank hook from No 8 to No 12.

After berleying the fish around with white bread, I lightly moisten a slice, squeeze out the excess moisture and form a dough ball. I squeeze a pea-sized blob onto the hook and just dip the bait in, wait for a bite and simply lift the mullet into the boat.

I have found that if you have the rod so they can even gain a millimetre of line, you miss the hook-up so I rarely use the reel or set the rod up properly.

Some of the best rigs are simply a few snoods off the smallest bait jigs available, or you can use very small trout fly hooks.

If you finding they’re grabbing the bait but are too quick, a clear plastic bubble with a little water inside can help.

Frozen or stale bread is OK for berley but falls off the hook.

The NSW limit is 30 sea or bully mullet over 30cm but when it comes to bait, you are allowed 20 poddy mullet less than 15cm long per person for bait use only.

Half a poddy mullet is a deadly bait for bream and a whole live one is a brilliant bait for flathead, jewfish, mangrove jack, snapper, kingfish, you name it.

MOLLUSCS

Shellfish come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and species and are great bait because that hard shell is protecting something soft and tasty that many fish relish.

They are easy to find and keep for a day’s fishing but freezing mussels, razor fish, oysters, turban snails, periwinkles and cockles isn’t easy. They have to be taken from their shells and put in freezer bags with a small amount of saltwater and a little table or sea salt. They need to be frozen quickly after opening.

Oysters and other shellfish frozen in their shells die and open and smell pretty bad, it’s not a good way to keep them. They go a little soft after thawing but are able to be fished with the second time OK, after that they can be added to a berley.

MUSSELS

Mussels live on pylons, floats, piers and over exposed rocks. Hairy mussels live in northern and central parts of the State while smooth-shelled specimens are common on the South Coast.

Large ones make great bait for bream, whiting, luderick, snapper, groper and especially morwong., At times they need a strand of cotton or fine elastic wrapped around them to hold them to the hook more securely but if you have three on the hook they usually hold on OK.

They have a green-orange band on the outer edge of the meat (the mantle) which you should always try to hook through to hold the bait on better. As a morwong bait there is nothing better, they really love these and at certain times of the year morwong will enter estuaries to feed on crabs and shellfish.

PIPIS

I used to collect pipis a lot but due to restrictions that prevent you from taking them 50m beyond the high tide zone, I have given it away. I use them only on the spot and although they are a top beach bait, they have been decimated to the point of near-extinction in some places.

They were a real seafood delight and some beach tours took hundreds of people by 4WD buses and let them collect sackfuls. Thankfully that is over.

Use them when you’re on the beach but don’t take any home. Wriggle your toes into the sand on the lower part of the tide until you strike something hard – hopefully it’s not a rock!

COCKLES

In warm, sandy shallows you can find cockles under mini-anthills, usually in clusters. They have tougher flesh than mussels and hold to a hook much better. Smiths Lakes is one of the best places I have found cockles, and the back sections of Wallis Lake – also the places my biggest bream have come from.

One large cockle makes a great large bait on a 2/0 suicide hook and bream shoulder each other out of the way to get to them.

Huge Aboriginal midden piles of empty shells are testament to their value as food. These piles can be indicators of where to start searching for them.

RAZORFISH

Razorfish are prolific throughout Lake Macquarie, the estuaries of the Central Coast and down through Victoria and South Australia, where they’re the No 1 King George whiting bait.

Their sharp-upward-facing shell edges are a hazard in areas where people swim and every empty razorfish shell I have found held a blue-ringed octopus – take that as a warning. Wear stout footwear, too.

One large shell can provide several baits. Again, a strand of cotton can help hold the soft flesh to the hook.

CEPHALOPODS

Squid, octopus and cuttlefish all are able to be caught easily enough and they freeze very well, even without salt or water.

I chased a 3kg octopus around a wharf one morning, to the laughter and fascination of passers-by.

Once I caught it, I rode it home because it stuck to the handlebars of my bike. It must have been a funny sight, a guy riding along with this huge octopus hanging on.

I cut the legs off and the head and froze them for snapper baits and I ended up with a month’s worth of bait.

All in all it’s a fun part of fishing to go out and collect your own bait, I have left out so much like pumping nippers, green weed for luderick, turban snails, starfish, sea urchins the list just goes on and on.

Facts

Bag Limits

Anchovies, pilchards, sprats, herring, slimy mackerel, and whitebait: 50 of each.

Garfish, yellowtail, jack mackerel, hardyheads: 50 in total combined.

Mullet: 30 sea or bully mullet over 30cm. 20 poddy mullet less than 15cm long for bait use only.

Cockles, mussels, pipis: 50 total (pipis not to be taken further than 50 from high water mark).

Beach worms: 20 whole or parts

All other worms: 100 total

Cunjevoi: 20

Turban snails: 20

Sea urchins: 10

All other molluscs: 20 total.

Squid, Cuttlefish: 20 in total.

Octopus: 10

Facts

Storage

After experimenting we were able to keep fish at its best by putting it in a freezer bag with saltwater from the estuary where it was caught. You have to get it frozen fast and not leave it in a bucket or bait tank for long periods unless they’re alive. A saltwater ice slurry is perfect for cockles, mussels, oysters and razor fish as well as fish.

Snap-lock bags containing fish or molluscs can be floated in an ice slurry of seawater and then frozen later. Add some water to the bag before freezing it, just enough to soak the meat. Two teaspoons of is about the limit.

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