BY JUSTIN WILLMER Via Tackle Tactics
When it comes to anglers getting into fishing, as well as when targeting certain species, there is no doubt that bait fishing is an effective starting option, while also being an extremely productive method in particular scenarios, often based around the environment being fished, target species and techniques being utilised. From the simplicity of drowning a prawn off the local jetty, to live baiting mangrove jack, rigging floats for luderick and trolling baits offshore, like lure fishing, bait fishing offers the absolute basics, through to extremely refined and technical tackle and presentations. In this article I want to share 10 tips that have helped me catch more fish on bait, gathered over forty plus years of bait fishing.
You may be following The Bait School, our YouTube video series on the Tackle Tactics TV channel and this series will continue to grow, covering baits, species, and techniques. We also hope to compliment this with more bait fishing articles on tackletactics.com.au, located in the ‘Tips & Techniques’ section of the website. We hope these 10 Tips, along with our growing catalogue of bait fishing content, will help you get stuck into a few. Fish on!
Fresh is Best
When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to surrounded by older anglers who taught me a lot about bait fishing and there is one thing almost all of them emphasised, fresh is best. It’s hard to beat fresh, local bait as it’s often what the fish feed on in that area. Your local tackle store will have the gear you need to pump yabbies, trap poddy mullet, catch gar or cast net prawns, while also assisting you with local rules and regulations surrounding bait gathering and possession. Many stores will also offer fresh local bait as an option for purchase instore, with inland stores even offering baits such as shrimp, garden worms, grubs, and insects.
Don’t panic if you cannot access fresh local bait as most stores will offer frozen options and these will be fine, it’s your job to look after them by keeping them out of the sun and wind. I like to take these frozen baits out of their packets, dispose of the packets appropriately and store the bait in a clip lock container in the icebox. Some of my favourite baits are frozen options, such as mullet gut, chicken gut and pilchards. One tip I would offer is to carry a minimum of two different baits with you as it’s amazing how often fish will switch from one to another. One day they will be eating saltwater yabbies, the next they favour worms.
Know Your Target Species
You can grab a packet of prawns, hit the jetty with the kids and catch a mixed bag of random species, which is great fun and an excellent way to spend some time together. By selecting a particular target species and knowing a bit about this species though, it assists you in refining your bait fishing, including general location, bait selection, rig selection and technique. It doesn’t have to be complicated and can be as simple as bream love structure, such as rock walls and jetties, with flesh and gut baits a great option, while whiting generally inhabit sandy and broken weed flats, with worms, saltwater yabbies, and squid a few favourite baits. Knowing your target species will also assist with the type of hook and rig that you select to use.
Match the Hatch
By knowing your target species you’re targeting, you can select baits that match what the fish feed on. Walk the area you fish at low tide looking for possible food options, keep an eye out for bait in the shallows and around structure and if you keep and fillet fish for a feed, have a look at their stomach contents and see what they have been eating. As seasons change, so can the diet of the fish and if there are squid around, fish could be feeding on squid, likewise prawns, a run of mullet, whitebait and other crustacean and fish species.
There are also those food sources that are consistently available in the areas that you are fishing, and these are often favoured baits throughout the year. As you learn more about your target species, you will also learn more about the preferred baits for targeting them and again, your local tackle store is a great starting point for advice.
Fish Where the Fish Are
This may sound obvious however it is an area where many anglers struggle. They focus on the gear and the bait, then just pull up somewhere where it’s easy to fish and throw a bait in. Take some time to think about why the fish would be holding in a particular area, at a certain stage of the tide and what might attract them to that area. Again, this doesn’t have to be complicated. Next time you’re fishing a jetty, beach, rock wall or channel edge, take some time to look at what is around you and why fish might hold in the area.
Key things to look for include structure, bait, water movement creating eddies and pressure points, birds feeding, fish feeding and any other sign that may assist you in selecting your fishing location. The area surrounding the jetty, or the expanse of beach may all look similar until you look closer and spot changes in water depth, weed and rubble, a slight point jutting out from the bank, a few birds flying above the water, and all of these give you a starting point in terms of where to fish.
Don’t feel like you need to fish one area for the whole session either as picking up your gear and moving twenty metres could be the difference between no fish and a hot bite. Keeping a fishing journal, including information such as catch, location, tide, moon, bait, and so forth, can also assist you to build some fish feeding patterns around the season, tide, moon, and other variables. I wish I had kept a journal of my decades of fishing, however, one cheat if you haven’t, is to look back on the photos from hot sessions that you have had, noting the date, and then referencing tide and moon for that date. So, take plenty of photos, for the memories and future reference.
Rod / Reel Selection
When it comes to bait fishing you don’t need to spend a fortune on gear, however I would recommend stepping up from the basic entry level combo and looking after your gear, so that it should give you years of service. The biggest mistake that I see people making when targeting river and estuary bread and butter species, such as bream, whiting and flathead, is selecting a fishing rod that is too heavily rated and ‘stiff’.
When lure fishing, we will often select a rod that feels ‘stiffer’ or more responsive as we are using the rod to impart action into the lures, set the hook on the slightest touch and so forth. When bait fishing, we want the fish to eat the bait and a stiffer rod creates resistance, seeing the fish pick up the bait, feel the unnatural resistance and drop it again. This often translates as a tap, tap, tap, or even just a single tap seen through the rod tip, without any further commitment from the fish to eating the bait. A softer tip means less resistance and the fish will tap, tap, tap, and then slowly swim off with the bait, bending the soft tip of the rod and allowing you to lift the rod and set the hook.
My favourite series of rods for bait fishing are the Okuma Barbarian Spin Rods and the Okuma LRF GEN2 Spin rods. Both rods feature soft tips, with plenty of power in the bottom end, and UFR technology in the tip, with long strand fibres running the length of the tip section, providing increased strength, durability and up to three times the lifting power of a standard rod blank. Basically, the tip actions are more like the action of classic solid glass tip bait rods, without the heavy weight. The Barbarian series are inexpensive and range from 7’ to 11’6” to cover applications from jetty, boat, and bank fishing, to light surf. The LRF GEN2 rods are super light, spec’d up a little, range from 6’6” to 7’4” and transfer well between bait and lure fishing.
Rod length generally comes down to required casting distance, with a longer rod generally able to cast further, while also keeping your line clear of waves and structure. I commonly fish a 7’ rod from a jetty, 7-9’ rod for general bank and boat fishing, and a 10-11’6” for light beach / surf and when I require very long casts from the bank. The Barbarian 8’ or 9’ rod is a great allrounder, while the LRF GEN2 is light and fun to fish on whiting and bream.
In terms of reels, I run Okuma JAW reels on my Barbarian rods, which keeps the overall price down and allows me to set up multiple bait fishing combos for different applications. I then step up to Okuma Epixor XT reels on the LRF GEN2 rods as I love these reels for transitioning between bait and lure fishing. Reel size comes down to line capacity for the selected breaking strain, while also assisting to balance the weight of longer rods. I generally run 30 (2500-3000) size reels on the 7’, 45 (4000) size on the 8’ and 9’, with 55 or 65 (5000-6500) size reels on the longer rods.
Go Light / Get Bites
The heavier you go with rods, reels, lines, leaders, sinkers, swivels, and other accessories, the more cumbersome the combo becomes to fish with, the less naturally the bait presents and the harder it is to catch fish, especially more finicky feeders and when the bite is tough. Hence my previous rod and reel selections, which are generally spooled with 10lb Platypus Pulse Mono and 10lb Hard Armour Leader, stepping up to 20lb for fishing pilchards for tailor and maximum 30lb for a heavier surf combo.
Platypus Pulse Mono is thin in diameter, meaning the 10lb is about the same diameter as an entry level 6lb, allowing me long casts, minimal drag in the air and water, and increased knot strength and overall strength for the same diameter. If you do grab an entry level combo and it comes with mono line already on it, chances are that this line will be thick, stiff and have a lot of memory that will see it coil of the reel and hang like a slinky. I would urge you to spool any reel with Australian Made Platypus mono as it will improve your fishing experience and increase your catch rate. My father fished with Platypus, his father fished with Platypus, and I have fished Platypus my entire life.
Another good idea is to hang onto any line left on the fishing line spool, once your reel is filled, as this can be carried with you as leader material (the line between your hook and swivel or mainline), rather than continually cutting into the line on your reel every time you re-rig. Even better, I will carry separate leader with me, allowing me to run a 10lb outfit, while switching between 6lb leader for finicky, big whiting, 10lb for standard fishing, and 20lb for tailor, snapper, mulloway, and other larger predators. Northern anglers may carry heavier leader again, such as 40lb or more for mangrove jack and barramundi. My go-to leader is Platypus Hard Armour, with its advantage being increased strength and abrasion resistance.
Another common mistake anglers make is going too heavy in their swivel and sinker. Swivels are often rated on their packaging in terms of the line class they are suited too, with a quality, small black rolling swivel for example suited to 8-15lb line, with a rated strength of 80lb. The job of the swivel is to spin if your bait spins, to avoid transferring twist up through your line. If your swivel is too large, the line doesn’t have the power to turn the swivel and instead your line twists, while the large swivel also adds to the bulk and unnatural appearance of your overall rig.
The sinkers job is to increase casting distance and anchor your bait where you want it or keep it at a desired depth as the current carries it to cover water. I try and fish the smallest sinker I possibly can, which is commonly a size 1 to size 4 ball in the rivers and estuaries, although I have fished up to a 10 ball in deep river mouths with fast current. I commonly fish a running sinker rig, while those fishing a paternoster rig will select snapper or bug sinkers of the desired size, which can be looped off and on the bottom of the rig. Again, a lighter weight means less resistance and a more natural presentation.
Big hooks will catch big fish, smaller hooks will catch all fish. I have caught a lot of big fish on small hooks and small baits meant for bream and whiting. Yet I commonly see anglers fishing a big hook, 2/0 or 3/0, and large bait while targeting ‘anything that will bite’, which is more than likely going to be bream and whiting. You are generally going to get more bites and catch more fish on smaller baits and smaller hooks, which is great when fishing with kids, even if you are catching a few smaller models.
I will commonly fish hook sizes from 6 through to 1/0 in the rivers and estuaries for bread and butter species, with larger (3/0, 4/0, 5/0, 6/0) hooks reserved for gang rigging whole fish baits such as pilchards, or presenting larger flesh baits for snapper, mulloway, tailor, and so forth. Think of a size 1 as the middle point, then as the whole numbers get larger, the hooks get smaller, 1, 2, 4 -> smaller -> 6, 8, 10. On the other side of the numbering system we have a /0 in front and the hook sizes get larger as the number gets larger, 1/0, 2/0 -> larger -> 3/0, 4/0. Someone once told me that when they were new to fishing, they just remember /0 – Oh that’s a big hook. Whatever works.
The main things to consider when selecting a hook is whether it suits the bait that you want to use and the mouth / feeding technique of the target species, for example a longshank hook for a whiting with its small mouth and sucking the bait in, or a suicide hook for a picky and aggressive feeder such as a bream. We could write a whole article on hooks, and maybe we will, but in the meantime stay tuned to The Bait School videos and future articles for talk around hooks, baits, and rigs.
When starting out in bait fishing my advice would be to keep it simple. Learn to tie a locked blood knot (check out our Knots and Rigs on tackletactics.com.au) and keep your rigs simple. Start with a sinker running straight down onto your hook, a running sinker rig with a swivel keeping a running sinker 30-50cm above your hook, or a paternoster rig. Once you have mastered this knot, a basic rig and started catching fish, you can learn more rigs and techniques on our website thanks to Gary Brown’s Essential Bait Fishing Rigs.
Don’t be afraid to speak to your local tackle store about rigs and they will also be able to assist you. There is a stack of pre-made rigs available, however they vary dramatically in terms of quality and design, so remember to keep in mind the previous tips in terms of sinker, swivel, hooks and going light to get the bite.
I mainly fish without burley, targeting specific species, structure, tides, and locations, with burley at times a negative in terms of attracting small fish. By throwing used baits in the water when fishing and checking my bait, I am in fact releasing burley but at a minimal level. If you’re not catching fish though, unleash the burley as it can only help. The trick with burley is to release a small amount more often, rather than throw out a heap of burley and watch it disappear with the tide, carrying the fish away with it. Burley cages and buckets are a good way to slowly release burley.
Burley can be in the form of chicken pellets, commercially made burley pellets, nuts, bombs and blocks, or you can keep your old bait and mix it in with some sand or old bread. I keep old leftover bait and when I get home, I simply chop it up and put it into a plastic container or section of plastic pipe in the freezer, for use as burley later.
Never Stop Learning
This is probably the most important thing to remember… fishing is a lifelong journey. There are species I am yet to target, baits and techniques I’m yet to use, places I’m yet to fish and tackle I will use that hasn’t even been invented yet. Speak to other fishos, visit your local tackle store, read magazines, watch videos, devour the content on our website and most importantly listen and think about how this information can be applied to how you fish.
I was lucky enough to learn from older, experienced anglers and I feel it’s important that I pass on what I have learnt to future generations, so that our sport continues to grow, evolve and be accessible to future anglers. I have also learnt as much at times from first time anglers as they cast fresh eyes on our sport and the gear, baits, and techniques that we use day to day. If you are new to fishing, welcome to the journey and if you are already on the journey, I hope that fishing brings you as much joy and as many lifelong memories as it has for me. Fish on!
See you on the water…