Fishing - Get back to basics with natural bait

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Technology and innovation may be yielding more lifelike synthetic lures, but nothing tops Mother Nature

Technology and innovation may be yielding more lifelike synthetic lures, but nothing tops Mother Nature

Countless lures in various styles and colors adorn the walls of local tackle shops around the world. They all work best at various times and places, but many saltwater anglers prefer the real thing: a hunk of “beefsteak” on the hook to fool their saltwater quarry. Simply put, fishing with natural bait is “the real deal.”

We all marvel at the write-ups or photos of huge striped bass, sometimes topping 60 pounds, caught in our Northeast waters. An inspection of what those fish grabbed would often reveal large live bait like a whole bunker, porgy or hickory shad.

Beginning anglers interested in catching such giants often find the fishery a specialized one where one concentrates only on big bass and nothing else. This includes that big school of blues on the surface tearing into baitfish some cool fall morning; or birds wheeling and diving into bait brought to the surface just inside the surf line by school stripers — schoolies — or fish smaller than 20 pounds. Both provide lots of fun — often fish on every cast — but they are not the target.

Eyes on the prize

A good angler needs blinders at times to ignore the ready action and head off to the deeper reef to drop bait that may weigh over a pound, down into say 30 to 50 feet, looking for a fish longer than 50 inches. Catching large fluke is often choreographed the same way.

Anglers looking only for the bigger fish used large strips cut from the underside of smaller fluke often with a large smelt or shiner on the same one- or two-hook rig. The entire “sandwich” is sometimes more than a foot long, a meal indeed for an older fluke.

Big fluke have been caught on whole herring meant for blues fished in the deep water off Waterford, Conn., the fish often hitting at certain periods of the tide. Like pursuing big bass, consistently catching fluke over 7 pounds is a specialized trade, helped greatly by offering a big fish a big natural bait.

Recently I went with a big fluke specialist on the closing days of the season in southern New England. Using large strips of fluke belly and 5-inch-long smelt, all on the same hook, he landed 14 fluke from 3 to 9.8 pounds in just under 3 hours. Ten of the fish were over 4 pounds, three of that total was over 7 pounds; a catch that isn’t uncommon for people with the discipline to learn their quarry and employ the biggest baits possible.

Drifting along

Chunking is often the average man’s way of fishing for stripers since he can anchor his boat and drop a piece of frozen bunker bought in a local tackle shop to the bottom and awaits results. It requires minimal preparation, which can be particularly appealing with today’s demands of work versus recreation for many.

While the midsection of the bait is often heralded as the best, don’t overlook the head. It, too, will fool big bass and blues. Lying on the bottom, it’s an easy target. As an example I cite the 75-pound bass caught in New Haven Harbor a few years back in May — victim not of a savvy sport fisherman, but two anglers in a small boat fishing close to shore.

You can also use a chunk of the real thing to catch bass from under all the bluefish that hang around from Plum Gut, that section off tide rips off the east end of Long Island near Orient Point.

One of the tricks to catching bass, along with bluefish, is to drift a chunk of bait down close to the bottom, using either a short trace of wire or just mono, with the latter foregoing a lot of blues, but catching the bass.

Natural bait works well for cod and haddock in the fall, many employing clams or pieces of herring on a two-hook rig fish in 180- to 300-plus-foot from northeast of Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod all the way up into the Gulf of Maine.

Bait fishing is ideal for newcomers or one-time anglers visiting the region who want to catch something for dinner, but don’t have the interest or physique to raise and lower a heavy metal jig all day long.

The scent of the bait brings cod of all sizes to your rig sitting on the bottom under an anchored boat. Five or six rigs doubles and triples the effect, acting as a watery chum line, bringing in more and more fish in the vicinity, drawn to the smell of food on the plate.

Time for tautog

Somewhere prior to Thanksgiving many of us will make our last trip of the season, often for blackfish on some craggy hump or wreck. Green crabs are usually the main bait, often cut in half with the hook in one of the leg sockets. Whole green crabs often attract the biggest tautog, just like the whole bunker for big stripers and large strip and smelt for big fluke.

People in smaller boats sometime find big blackfish in close to shore, sometimes in less than 10 feet of water in the same spot they anchor and chunk for stripers. Note the outsized blackfish caught from the shore are various northeast spots, including an 18-pounder from Milford, Conn.

Anglers in small boats can often catch bigger blackfish by putting down a whole green crab after tapping on the shell to let the juices seep out, which will attract fish.

If there is little tidal movement, try dropping the whole crab down with just a hook, letting it reach bottom on its own. Or, you might need a small, rubber-core sinker if you have a bit of tide or perhaps the store-bought blackfish rigs with enough weight to hold bottom.

I’ve caught blackfish as big as 10 pounds on light conventional tackle — great fun when the tiny, flimsy rod doubles over and Mr. Tautog dashes for home. Many people associate black fishing with heavy sinkers and big fishing poles, but that’s not always the case. You may have a fishery just outside the marina, in a rocky spot you never thought about such fish — until you try, helped by natural bait.

Natural baits, with their odor and real-deal appeal are great for the weekend angler. They can tip the day in his or her favor, bringing home the bacon, putting something in the cooler, the fish fooled by something Mother Nature manufactured.

Tim Coleman has been fishing New England waters for more than 30 years. He was managing editor of The Fisherman magazine’s New England edition until 2001, and is now a freelance writer based in Rhode Island.