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Baitfish Odyssey

Live Bait Story
by Capt. David Bacon

I hear the cutest questions from passengers as we buy live bait from the attendant at the bait receiver in the harbor. Some folks ask, “Do the little fish swim in there and get trapped”?. Others ask, “Do they raise those baitfish there”? Yet others ask, “You mean, they stay there all night and fish for those little baitfish”?!  It is apparent to me that the live bait story needs to be told. The story includes capture at sea, transport and transfer to the receivers, care and feeding, crowding bait in the receivers, customer protocol and bait receiver etiquette, transfer to fishing boats, and keeping bait alive during the fishing day. The story end with pinning a lively bait on a hook for fishing.

The live bait story begins at sea during the night where captain and crew (called “bait haulers”) work wet and cold, long and hard, to find and catch live bait. They search all along the coast, or many miles at sea, looking for large schools of anchovies and sardines on the surface, where the crew can net them. The bait boat pulls up, puts out one end of a long purse seine net and runs net off of a large drum as the boat circles around the bait. Then the net is pulled tight at the bottom and up against the side of the boat. The baitfish are scooped with long handled no-knot scoop nets into the large holding tanks aboard the bait boat. Great care is taken to exclude and protect non-targeted species which happen to be among the bait. Then the nets are reeled back onto the drum, ready for the next set.

The ride to harbor must be done slow and gently in order to avoid damage to the fragile cargo. Once at the receivers, the bait is slid through a large tube from the holding tanks aboard the boat and into the waiting net-lined receivers. If some of the receivers have bait left from the prior load, it is commonly sold while the new load “cures”, or rests and feeds on the meal it is given daily. Linsead meal is commonly used to feed anchovies and sardines.

When it is time to sell the bait, it is “crowded” within the receiver into netting stretched between poles or netting stretched within a rectangular frame, making it easier for the bait receiver attendant to scoop the bait into a long handled scoop net for passing to the bait tank aboard a fishing boat.

During the selling process is when customer protocol and courtesy come into play. Most boats launch early and it seems like everyone wants bait at the same time. The best way to stay organized and calm is to que up boats near the receivers, roughly in a line, and wait for a turn. It sure helps to maintain a somewhat orderly line, because if one boat drifts away, and then comes motoring back in demanding it’s place in line, it looks to new arrivals like someone is trying to cut in line. Tempers can get out of control, especially when everyone is in a hurry to get bait and get to the fishing grounds. Commercial passenger carrying fishing vessels such as party boats and 6-Pak boats typically get served right away because they are commercial operations on a strict time schedule, plus our mortgages and repeat business depend upon it. This sometimes bothers a few private boaters, but the reality is that without the commercial operations, there probably wouldn’t be any live bait available for private boaters.

Please don’t take out any frustrations on the bait receiver attendant, and remember that a bait dock attendant is a service industry worker - which means relying on your generous tips to help make ends meet. That person gets up early and goes out there to do the best he or she can with what there is to work with. If the bait runs out or has “rolled” (died), that person can’t help it. If the commercial operations are taking the last bit of bait as it runs out, just remember that those operations are the reasons you have bait on most mornings. It isn’t the attendant’s fault, yet I’ve heard attendants get chewed out on many occasions. Those boaters are lucky I’m not the attendant.

One more thing about bait receiver etiquette… stay aboard your boat. When you step off of your boat and onto the receiver, you are leaving the coverage of one insurance policy and assuming (we all know how dangerous assuming can be) another policy coverage - if there is even a policy in effect. If the attendant requests that you come onto the receiver to help with a task, that’s okay. Refrain from just stepping onto the receiver without specific invitation however. The attendant will usually be able to tie up the boat, so there is infrequent real need to leave the boat.

Live bait wont stay alive for long without a flow of new seawater adequate in volume to support the number of baitfish put in the tank. sufficient space is also a factor which dictates how well bait stays alive. Given uncrowed space with plenty of water flowing through, a tank of live bait will stay alive all day, unless the sea is rough and the person at the helm insists on pounding the boat mercilessly. That sure kills bait fast. A smooth ride to the fishing grounds will keep the bait healthy.

Once there, pinning a “hot” lively bait on a hook certainly increases your chance of attracting a great predator. Folks fishing on a tight budget (that would be most of us) tend to grouse at the price of bait, however considering the value of live bait to fishing and the cold wet harsh nature of the work to provide that bait, I’m amazed at how little live bait costs us. My well-worn hat is doffed to the intrepid live bait workers!

Capt Dave Bacon is a private charter skipper specializing in fishing whale-watching and dive trips.  Visit his web site at www.wavewalker.com for more information.


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