Offshore Insights: How to Catch Live Bait

Offshore Insights: How to Find Live Bait

The Bluefin USA Guide to Catching Live Bait

With winter quickly approaching, live bait fishing is hot in South Florida and around the Caribbean. Knowing how to catch live bait is an important skill for any angler. From late October through February, fishing live baits on the edge of the reef is one of the most productive techniques for sailfish, wahoo, mahi-mahi, tuna, and kingfish. These fish patrol current and temperature breaks, searching for livies that swam a little too far away from the school. A live well full of frisky baits can mean a day of non-stop action from pelagic species. This article will teach you how to catch live bait … with enough time to get to your fishing spot while the bite is hot!

We’ll break live bait fishing down by species and give you tournament-winning guides’ tips for live bait success.


How to Catch Ballyhoo for Live Bait

How to Catch Ballyhoo
Bridling a Live Ballyhoo: a Deadly Offering for Sailfish, Mahi Mahi, Wahoo, Kingfish, Mutton Snapper, & Grouper. (Photo Credit: Sport Fishing Magazine; 2019)

Ballyhoo are a trolling, live baiting, and bottom fishing staple. You can freeline them, slow troll them live, troll them dead, butterfly them, drop them to the bottom, use them as cut bait… Ballyhoo often save the day offshore. If you don’t know how to catch live bait with a cast net but you do have a Cuban yoyo or light rod on board, ballyhoo will be your best friend.


In the wintertime, they move to nearshore patch reefs, giving anglers an easy opportunity to load up live wells. We’ve found it easiest to anchor on patch reefs in 10’ – 60’ of water. We chum and wait until they schooled up in a ball behind the boat. If you need a few dozen, cast nets or hoop nets are the quickest ways to get the job done. The brand “Ballyhoop” makes a folding hoop net that’s tough to beat when catching ballyhoo.


If you want to preserve your baits and keep them healthy, catching them one at a time on hook and line is the way to go. The rig is simple. Put a tiny bit of peeled shrimp on a #14 long shank hook positioned 18” below a small float. Float the bait back with your chum and you’re sure to have a ballyhoo on the line soon. Always use a de-hooking device when removing the hook to preserve their slime coat. This ensures that they’ll last all day in the live well.


How to Catch Goggle Eyes (Bigeye Scad) for Live Bait

How to catch goggle eyes for bait for offshore fishing. Sailfish, wahoo and Mahi Mahi bait.
The top bait for sailfish, goggle eyes are also tasty treats for Grouper, Mutton Snapper, Mahi Mahi, Wahoo, and Kingfish when you’re fishing the edge of the reef. (Photo Credit: Sport Fishing Magazine; 2019)


A favorite of kite fishermen in South Florida, goggle eyes roam near-shore reefs at night. These baitfish can cost up to $120 a dozen in prime sailfish season if you can’t catch them yourself. A member of the jack family, these baits are hard swimmers underneath a kite. When a fishing kite lifts them out of the water and drops them back down, goggle eyes swim downwards, sending vibrations through the water that call sailfish in from fathoms away. They also survive well in live wells and bait pens, making them a sailfish tournament captain’s best friend.


Google eye fishing has remained a bait fishermen’s secret for many years. They are not often caught as bycatch and you rarely see them if you don’t go looking for them. They take a little more dedication than other bait species since many anglers opt to catch them the night before going offshore fishing. If you keep your boat in the water or have access to a bait pen in a marina, catching goggle eyes the night before makes a lot of sense. Kite fishing can be fantastic at daybreak and goggle eyes are kite candy. While we can’t give all the trade secrets away, here’s what our staff writer, Elijah James Bogdansky, learned while working on a bait boat out of Key Largo, Florida.


“Google eyes are usually targeted at night. At night, they move further inshore and school on reefs near the drop-off. We like to drift reefs in anywhere between 45 and 120 feet of water, with one or two chum bags out. When you’re looking for a goggle eye spot, you need moving water and a rocky reef bottom with good relief. They eat sabiki rigs of various sizes and colors depending on where and when you’re fishing… It’s a lot of trial and error. Make sure your Sabiki rigs are constructed of at least 20lb main line since a rig with 4 goggle eyes on it will put up a fight! They’re not an easy baitfish to catch yourself, but you can load up a live well in a half-hour once you’re dialed in on them.”


How to Catch Scaled Sardines (AKA Pilchards or Whitebait)

How to Catch Pilchards for bait for inshore and offshore fishing
Pilchards between 3-5″ long are prime offshore pitch baits, while pilchards in the 1-3″ range slay inshore or on the reef. (Photo Credit: Sport Fishing Magazine 2019)


“Whitebait”, more formally called scaled sardines or pilchards, show up on grass flats in bays and estuaries. These baits love deep channels near grass flats and will spend time schooling on these shallow grass flats when the conditions are right. When you find them moving water on a flat, you know you’ve hit the money. Pilchards tend to stay around one area of a flat, dimpling the surface of the water and flashing beneath it.

Pilchards are most easily captured with a cast net, though they are also targeted in deeper water with small sabiki rigs. The Bluefin USA team likes to throw an 8 – 12-foot net with 1/4” mesh so we can black out the live wells in just a couple of throws. We’ve found flats between 3-6’ deep with strong incoming tides to be most productive.

Anchor up on the edge of the flat, put out a chum bag, and wait to see the bait flashing or making dimples on the surface of the water behind the boat. A school of pilchards looks like a patch of light rain on the water’s surface. Once they’re in range, open your cast net on them and blackout those live wells. In deeper water, locate schools of pilchards hanging near the bottom with your fishfinder  Target these baits with a chum bag and sabiki rigs. Scaled sardines (pilchards) tend to hold lower in the water column than threadfin herring do, but they respond to chum very quickly. 


How to Catch Threadfin Herring (AKA Greenbacks) 

How to Catch Threadfin Herring for bait for offshore and inshore fishing
Threadfin Herring (AKA Greenbacks) closely resemble pilchards when they are small. If it has a long, thread-like fin protruding back from its’ dorsal fin, you know it’s a Greenback. (Photo Credit: Sport Fishing Magazine; 2019)


At times, threadfin herring can be found in similar areas to scaled sardines, but they spend more of their life cycle offshore. Threadfins are most commonly targeted schooling off beaches, off markers in passes, near range marker buoys, or in deep channels. Many anglers have a hard time telling the difference between greenbacks and pilchards when they are small. At adult sizes, the differences are apparent. The unmistakable, long, thread-like fin on the back of the bait lets you know it’s a threadfin.

Threadfin herring typically hold higher in the water column than scaled sardines do. So if your fishfinder shows a cloud of bait on the bottom in 20’ of water, they are most likely pilchards. Your threadfins will hold higher in the water column. Compared to pilchards, greenbacks also tend to make more commotion when schooling on flats.

In water between 10 – 50 feet of depth, you can mark threadfins with a fish finder and target them with sabiki rigs. These baitfish tend not to respond to chum, so save your blocks for the pilchards. Positioning your boat on top of the bait school is crucial for this method. When they’re in a hurry, skilled captains will cruise range markers or deep channels looking at their fish finder. When they mark a school of threadfins, they’ll position the boat so a mate can throw a cast net. Since these baits like to hold mid-water column, a cast net with at least 1.5 lbs/ foot weight is a necessity. 10’ – 12’ Cast nets with 3/8”+ mesh are great for this purpose.

 “If you’re lucky enough to see threadfins schooling on a grass flat, nail them with your cast net and give them a free ride offshore.”


Live Bait Catching: Gear Guide 

Here we’ve compiled a list of our favorite bait-catching essentials. Click the links to load up for your next bait slaying session!


Goggle Eyes:

Scaled Sardines (AKA Pilchards/ Whitebait):

Threadfin Herring:


In future articles, we’ll show you more of the secrets on how to catch live bait!

To improve your sport-fishing game and learn tournament-winning guides’ secrets, read the rest of our “Offshore Insights”! 


Tight Lines & Good TImes

-Bluefin USA

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