I’ll come out and say it right now — I’m a cast-and-retrieve kind of angler. But as far as catching the big one with minimal effort or experience, bait trumps lures nine times out of 10.
There are so many different fishing situations you might find yourself in, and each one of them has a corresponding bait type you should use (although hucking out a hefty chunk of squid has never failed me in Vineyard waters).
You can buy both live and cut bait at Island tackle shops, or go grab some fish, squid, or frozen shrimp from Stop & Shop. But the most effective bait is always the freshest — and what’s fresher than bait straight from nature’s bounty?
Not only is catching your own bait the most thrifty way to fish, but it’s also a heck of a lot of fun once you know what you’re doing.
Let’s start with the absolute best you can put at the end of your line — live bait.
This is the most challenging kind of bait to fish with. It’ll thrash, it’ll pinch you, it’ll wriggle off your hook, but the whole experience is one that any new or seasoned angler will want to have, and the reward for all that hassle and hard work is certainly well worth it.
The type and size of live bait you use will depend largely on the type and size of fish you are trying to catch. If you’re going for a larger fish, you could use a crab, a large minnow, a hunk of bunker (menhaden) or squid, or even a whole squid. You want to mimic the fish’s normal prey, and make sure it’s not too big for the fish to bite, or too small to get its attention. Bluefish and striped bass have similar diets, with the blues pretty much being a bottomless pit for baitfish — they’ll basically tear apart anything.
In the interest of avoiding major disappointment, it’s important to know how to hook live bait properly — so that the animal stays alive and active long enough to get a fish’s attention, and doesn’t escape your line.
When fishing with live saltwater bait, use the lightest hooks, leader, and line possible in order to delicately secure the hook. When fishing with live bait such as eels, shad, or large minnows, try to get the hook through the fish’s mouth, eye, or nostril, so it will be able to swim naturally. After that, push the hook through the gill on either side. Another popular method of hooking eels and other baitfish is pushing the hook through the bottom jaw and out of the eye socket. This encourages them to swim downward toward all the big fish lying in wait at the bottom.
Hard-shell, soft-shell, and peeler crabs are also good saltwater fishing bait. You can pull them apart or use them whole. To hook a whole crab, dig through either of the pointed sides of the shell with the hook, avoiding the actual body of the crab. This way the crab will stay alive, and will be securely fastened until that big hungry bass comes along.
For attaching a live squid, take your hook and push it through the pointed end of the mantle (the main body). Make sure the hook won’t rip out when you cast the squid by pulling gently on your line and gauging whether it’s far enough through.
Squid arrive in Island waters around mid-April, and are more or less ever-present late on summer nights, especially after stormy weather. I won’t reveal my personal favorite spot for snagging squid, but the Memorial Wharf in Edgartown is often your best bet during high tide on a cloudy or rainy night.
Even though it’s the most technically involved and often frustrating live bait to use, eels are my favorite — especially on a warm, breezy night in Menemsha.
Of course, folks can source live eels from their local tackle shop, but there are also eels swimming in Vineyard waters just waiting to snatch up a juicy worm (at the end of your hook).
During the day, eels hide from predators in the mud underneath rocks and in marine vegetation, so letting your worm fall all the way to the bottom is essential. You can also fish for eels during the nighttime as they feed. Use a hook size that corresponds to the size of eel you want, then cast out and let your rig sink to the bottom. Pay close attention to any tugs — eels are light, but you’ll feel them on your hook, especially if it’s a big one.
Set your hook firmly after two or three tugs, reel in, and you’ve got yourself the most sought-after live bait you can find. Immediately take any live bait you catch and put it on ice or store it in water (depending on the type of bait).
For catching other baitfish, you can use worms, or slivers of shrimp, squid, or fish. In many situations, I’ve found myself simply reeling in some bait, storing it on ice for a short time, then changing up my rig, and casting the wriggling bait right back out. By doing this, you are using the bait at its peak freshness, when it will be the most active (drawing the attention of hungry fish).
Squid are best caught using a special kind of lure, called a squid jig. Instead of using a single or double hook to catch the little buggers, squid jigs have sharp barbs facing upward that spear the tentacles as the squid attacks. The jigs imitate a tasty shrimp or, less commonly, a baitfish.
Eels can survive out of the water for a good deal of time, but other fish, like minnows, will either need to be cast out immediately, or placed in a live well with a built-in aerator that oxygenates the water so the fish can stay alive. If you don’t have one of those, a bucket filled with water will suffice for a short time.
Eels are much easier to handle when put on ice, and their writhing can be controlled rather easily by holding their head with a dishrag when inserting the hook.
Cut bait and whole (dead) bait is much more manageable to fish with. This is what we call real bottom fishing, and I like to say it’s relaxing and effortless — until you get a fish on.
Placement is key when fishing with dead bait. You want to make sure your bait isn’t being obscured from view by too many weeds, and should always avoid letting it drift under a rock or crevice. There’s nothing worse than feeling a tug from a fish, then having a jagged stone snip your line.
Some folks prefer to bottom-fish by opening up the bail and loosely holding their line between their rod and forefinger to wait for a bite, but I prefer to simply loosen my drag all the way and wait for the fish to run.
It’s a carefree and enjoyable way to fish, but be ready for a serious fight, especially if you’re using a large piece of bait, or any live bait.
There’s bait for every fishing circumstance, but choosing the right kind, and learning how to target certain types of fish, is a skill that only comes from years of experience.
Whether you’ve been fishing with lures or flies for a while and want to learn a new tool of the trade, or are just getting started on your angling journey, it’s never too late to cast out some bait.