Live bait: unfair advantage or labor-intensive art form?

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As Charley Soares noses the bow of his 18-foot skiff toward the edge of the boulder field, I glance quickly at the near-2-pound scup dangling from a treble at the working end of my line and brace my knees under the coaming in preparation for what I know will be an ugly lob, at best.

Zach Harvey

Where we’re fishing, the bottom shoals up abruptly into a veritable minefield of sunkers and bearded reef-heads. Conditions are about as nice as they ever get in here — a breath of south wind backing a gentle northbound swell that churns its way ashore through a maze of stones, cresting but for the most part not breaking. If you value your boat and your life, you keep your wits about you in here, always with one wary eye on the advancing sets, looking for surprises. Earlier this morning, Soares hollered a quick warning to me as he hitched up the throttle to sprint out of harm’s way — an outsized curler hissing up behind us before exploding on the reef.

When he gives the word, I exhale sharply and sling the awkward casting weight toward the wash of a hulking rock he suspects is harboring a few monster striped bass. The serving-platter-sized live bait looks ridiculous as it lurches through the air, tail beating frantically as it approaches splash-down. I brake the spool with my thumb as soon as the condemned scup slaps the surface and am amazed by how quickly it charges toward the bottom.

About halfway down, it changes direction, rushing back toward the surface in a surge that actually pulls drag for a second. Before my synapses can catch up, at least three things happen: The scup breaks the surface in an aerial display reminiscent of a tarpon tail-walking, a massive broom-shaped tail arcs out of the water, and just as my frantic livey succumbs to gravity, a 6-foot plot of water explodes as though someone has detonated a depth charge 15 feet below.

I’m so stunned by the spectacle that I almost lose my grip on the rod when the poor little bugger meets his destiny. A tremendous thump transmits up the line, then total slack. Before I can react, a second boil erupts, I feel another sharp jolt, and my 8-foot rod doubles over, the spool crackling as line zips out through the guides.

The fight, to my dismay, lasts mere seconds. The cow bass bulldogs her way over the top of the jagged reef, then dives over its barnacled back, parting my 100-pound-test line like so much cotton thread. In fact, it takes me three attempts to stick a fish I can hold all the way to the boat — that hard-won catch the product of some handy tight-quarters maneuvering by my deckmate, some respectable rod work and a healthy dose of pure luck.

Of course, if you ask a self-styled “purist” — a devotee of the fly rod, the wooden plug or the trolled artificial — live-bait fishing is the province of the sport’s Neanderthals, simpletons and meat-mongers. As their rhetoric runs, the act of presenting live prey to a game fish is so brain-dead-simple that any jackass with a live well, a rod and reel, and some hooks has both the means and the motives to carry out his very own piscine extermination campaign.

The reality, according to my own experiences with live-lining, is that live-baiting — as one of many methods at a well-rounded angler’s disposal — requires every bit of work ethic, discipline, practice, perseverance and attention to detail that plug or fly angling does. Sure, there are situations when live-lining can be absolutely lethal, but the same could be said of jigging, plugging, fly-casting or dead-bait fishing, given the right circumstances. And for every trip that the big bass, cobia, bluefins, permit, etc., turn stupid in the face of well-presented live quarry, there are plenty of days when simply rounding up a tide’s supply of baits — never mind converting them into an eye-popping trophy catch — will leave you mumbling to yourself in utter defeat.

I propose that anyone who views live-lining as an inferior technique probably ought to spend some real time putting the method into practice — ideally with the clock running in a biggest-fish tournament. Like any effective tactic, swimming live baits is especially simple and deadly before you’ve attempted it yourself.

Fishing with live bait is not as easy as 'purists' from other angling disciplines would have you believe.

Make no mistake: I love almost every method of catching fish. I love few things in life more than the sight of a 35-pound bass demolishing a pencil popper or the feel of a substantial school tuna whacking a diamond jig. It’s just that after years of pursuing fish with some need for demonstrable results as a charter- or party-boat deckhand, I tend to favor whatever tactic is most likely to bend rods, given the circumstances. Every lure, rig or bait is but one weapon in an extensive arsenal.

As for the particulars of live-lining, I’ve been absolutely stunned by the level of precision involved in getting so much as a bite on many outings across many areas and many fisheries. I’ve seen occasions when the only way to get heavyweight linesides to attack a live scup was to scrape the scales off one side of the bait with the non-skid before deployment. I’ve spend untold hundreds of hours prowling misty mooring fields at ungodly hours in search of one usable bunker for a morning’s striper fishing, only to have an 8-pound bluefish maul the three measly baits we eventually scrounged within 10 minutes out on the grounds. I’ve had days when a live-lined shad drew a thunderous blank from a sizable body of bass, while the same offering trolled at depth on wire line met instantaneous appeal.

I’ve released half-a-hundred striped bass north of 30 pounds while trying desperately to round up a quick — and suddenly uncatchable — half-dozen 5-pound bluefish for a day’s sharking. I’ve also fished plenty of days when artificial lures flat-out shellacked the Real McCoy in terms of catch rate. Those who live and die by the livey are better acquainted than most other fishing specialists with chapter and verse of Murphy’s Law.

Of course, I also understand that there are as many reasons to fish as there are methods of catching them. For some, it’s the challenge of making stubborn fish conform to their preferred means of targeting them. Others live and die by the strike — the actual fight that ensues almost irrelevant after that heart-pounding take. For me, the challenge lies in unraveling the puzzle that each day on the water presents; when it turns out my hunches have been sound and the fish respond enthusiastically to the way I’ve chosen to dupe them, the smile is hard to suppress. Then again, 50 fish or nary a bite later, any day with hooks in the water and the dock lines hanging safely on their respective pilings is a good day to be alive.

May 2013 issue