Whether or not the bait is “in” is a critical factor for most expert anglers and virtually all guides on Tampa Bay these days.
If the bait — that is, scaled sardines (Harengula jaguana) — is in, then fishing is going to be good, probably very good. But if it’s not in, anglers will have to get by with live shrimp, pinfish or artificials, which are OK in their own right but lacking the magic associated with scaled sardines.
These silvery, flat-sided baits have a large, dark eye, relatively large scales, and can survive in a variety of salinities.
Sardines have great advantages. All inshore and near-shore fish love them. They are extremely abundant when they are in, which in the Bay area is usually from April through November under the current climate. And they are hardy enough to survive in a bait well and tough enough to stay on a hook.
But the great secret that makes them magic — first widely publicized by captain Scott Moore of Anna Maria some 30 years ago — is that used as live chum, they can make any fish anywhere turn on and start snapping at everything in the water.
That is the key to the success of the legendary army of successful inshore guides from Clearwater southward along Florida’s west coast. It’s also a big factor on Florida’s east coast, where the sardines are known as “white bait” (they sometimes are called that here, as well).
Some anglers call sardines “greenbacks,” but most anglers reserve that name for threadfin herrings (Opisthonema oglinum). Put the two species in a bait well and you’ll quickly see why threadfins are called greenbacks. They appear sea green from above, while scaled sardines look to be a pale tan or gray in most light.
Regardless, they’re not the same thing. Greenbacks are far more delicate, and unless you have a truly huge live well, most will die in a few minutes after hitting the tank, while uncrowded sardines might last all day.
Scaled sardines, which often prowl the edge of the grass flats, come to chum. Threadfins, which live in open bays and offshore, don’t. That’s why sardines are easier to catch.
“Scaled sardines have been staying in about four feet of water around Tampa Bay in recent weeks,” captain David Rieumont said. “Purina Tropical Fish Food is all you need to chum them. Use an 8-foot cast net with three-eighths-inch square mesh. Anchor at the bow and use a second anchor off the stern to prevent shifting out of my chum line. Shut your sounder off as not to scare the bait.
“A key when chumming is to give the bait time to arrive. The tide has to take the chum out to the bait fish and draw them to you. Be patient; it will come. If the water is very clear, the scaled sardines will sit way back from the boat. Sometimes making the water cloudy with a watery chum mixture will draw them closer to you.
“Pinfish will be the first bait to arrive and easy to net, but wait until you see some scaled sardines before you throw the net.”
Once you’ve got the bait, find a deep mangrove shoreline or a grassy pothole, throw over a handful of slightly injured sardines, and let the fish tell you where they are. Then, hook one on a short-shank 1/0 hook — lightly, through the nose is best. Cast it to the boils on a spinning rig with 15-pound-test braid and let the fish do the rest.
The “magic” bait really does make just about anybody a better angler.