It's early morning and the forecast for light winds and flat seas has many boaters headed to their favorite reef, ledge or rocks.
Grouper and snapper will be the common targets, but some will spend an hour or so slinging castnets or working a sabiki rig while others make a beeline from the dock to the fish.
The difference is live bait — do you want to burn fishing time collecting it? Opinions vary, but here's the deal: You can run a successful trip without livies, but head offshore without dead baits and you'll severely limit your potential.
Live pinfish, scaled sardines or threadfin herring can, at times, work wonders. Other times, reef fish just don't want it. Rare is the case when grouper and snapper completely shun the dead stuff.
There's a definite price tag to those flats of sardines, squid and Boston mackerel, but if you're investing the expense of running to offshore grounds, what's a few more dollars for bait.
Why it works
Simple and user-friendly, dead bait is about as basic a concept as you'll find in fishing. Offer free food to fish who spend each day looking for it and you have an easy sell.
Despite the often romanticized dramatizations of offshore species, they're all scavengers at heart. That means the easiest meals will always be most attractive.
Central to the easy part of dead baits is the smell. In the low light of offshore structure, fish use their noses as much or more than their eyes to find food. For night missions — a popular summer option — dead baits are unbeatable.
Live baits have their place and a good round of dead stuff will often spark enough interest for grouper and snapper to run down a mobile meal. However, most prefer following a scent trail to food that doesn't flee.
Consider also the "leftover" factor. Anglers typically dump unused live baits back into the sea after a trip's conclusion, but refrozen dead baits work fine. They'll stink worse on the second thawing, but the more smell the better.
The only drawback to recycled dead baits is that they typically turn mushy when fully thawed, so hook them while still frozen.
Don't expect the second-rounders to last as long on the bottom, either. Small reef rats like porgies, spots, grunts and juvenile snapper can easily peck away soft baits. However, the rush of activity will attract attention and stimulate bigger fish to look for the next round of baits.
Tips and tricks
The flash freezing process common to most commercially processed baits yields a tight brick of bodies that are not easily separated. Waiting until you reach your first spot to start tugging on the edges or jabbing the block with a knife yields a lesson in frustration.
Avoid the headaches by opening the box about 30 minutes before fishing time and letting the baits thaw enough to pick them apart. Setting the frozen block in a bucket of water hastens the process.
Just don't let the baits thaw completely. Baits that retain some icy firmness are much easier to cut than those with softer innards.
The main purpose of cutting baits is to simply conserve your stock by presenting smaller pieces, but this also releases more scent into the water. If you use a whole frozen baitfish for big targets, rip off the tail to get the scent flowing.
This also keeps a whole bait from spinning and tangling your line on the descent.
Safety point: Space is limited on boats, so you'll often pass within close quarters of the bait station. The rigidity of a fully frozen baitfish means those little fins are like icy razors. Keep frozen baits in 5-gallon buckets or lay them on the gunwale so no one brushes too close.
Liven up dead ones
From baitfish that die in the well, to bycatch bottom species like vermillion snapper, spots and blue runners, fresh baits can also fit into your dead bait plan. They'll just need a little alteration.
A recently departed fish won't have the scent advantage of a frozen dead bait. Therefore, you'll have to leverage a lively, yet vulnerable appearance.
Drop a freshly dead bait to the bottom and currents will affect some movement. For maximum motion, butterfly the bait by cutting both flanks away from the backbone and leaving the meat attached just below the gills.
For an even easier option, cut a long strip of belly meat and let it flap in the current.
One unavoidable truth of dead bait fishing is that it makes your hands stink. Of course, that's a small price to pay for a full fish box.