Paul Lebowitz – IT'S JUST FISHING

Click here for Paul Lebowitz – IT'S JUST FISHING

Bait the Hard Way

Catching it yourself is often the first step towards that trophy

Word leaked out of La Jolla last week that jumbo seabass are back on the chew for kayak nation. One of the best stories came from Dane Dudley of Thousand Oaks, who hopped on his kayak despite a gimpy, post-surgical foot. Dudley fished hard into a second day, through balky batteries and a false start or two. Finally the bite kicked up, but he found himself without bait. Working fast under pressure, he made a few precious mackerel, bailing fresh water into his bait tank to keep it lively.

His persistence and one particular lucky greenback mackerel paid off in a big way, with a fat tanker of a seabass plucked from the kelp. A worthy reward!

Dudley was coached throughout his catch by kayak guide Josh Pruitt, who has proven to have an uncanny knack for getting his clients onto La Jolla’s big fish. Pruitt and another client also connected, as did Hobie royalty Morgan Promnitz and Jared Lane and boss Baytuber Kiyo Sato. Every one of their fish was a trophy. The bait of choice? Live greenback mackerel.

It doesn’t take much of a guess to say they matched the hatch, baiting the natural forage these fish are currently keyed into. It’s not the only route to success, but it surely ups the odds for most of us, and not by a little bit. This is especially true for the least experienced, who might expect to hook up five or ten times more frequently than if they put their faith in a trolling plug or are just getting started with the iron.

SABIKI STYLE – The faster bait making goes, the better, making the multi-hook sabiki rig the weapon of choice. There are plenty of varieties on the market. The most common are the fish skin styles shown here. They have one common trait; the hooks are wickedly sharp.

That means before you catch that trophy yellowtail or halibut, first you need to corral something much humbler: greenies, like the ones that accounted for last week’s run of seabass; their plainer cousins the jack mackerel or Spanish; or for halibut hunters, skinny, yellow-chinned smelt.

Face it. Few of us enjoy the luxury of a pass by the bait receiver. Since we launch right onto our fishing grounds, we have to catch our own. Fitting, isn’t it, for a sport founded on individuality and self-reliance?

This is old hat for kayak fishing veterans, but a mystery for most coming into the sport. It isn’t a skill that’s commonly practiced on half or 3/4-day boats, or by skiff anglers unless they are keen on jigging up their own fresh lobster bait.

I’m only going to cover the basics this time around. If there’s interest, we’ll dial in some of the pros whose success starts with catching a bunch of bait and delve into the finer details some time in the future. Not that this is rocket science; its simple stuff. Keep in mind the key is to find and then catch all the live bait you need for your day, doing it quickly and efficiently so you can get down to the real business. You want to pull them in by the twos and threes. For that, only a sabiki rig will suffice.

If there’s one truism about sabiki rigs, it’s that they are nasty, multi-hook buggers prone to tangle and bite. With as many as six hooks on the rig, there’s a lot to pay attention to when fishing one from the tight confines of a kayak. Those ultra-sharp hooks will sink right into a finger or a deck line if given the chance. For better control, they really need to be fished on a long stick. Another solution is to cut one down to size by removing a hook or two, but then if you break off one of the hooks (it happens) you’ll be undergunned.

Personally, I think a soft rod tip helps keep the bait on once you’re hooked up and helps with jigging action. Most people use a cast-off, either an old conventional stick that’s fallen out of favor or a heavy bass rod with plenty of backbone. Don’t mess around with a noodle, or the bait will run rampant and knot the rig into an irredeemable mess. That also relates to the size of the torpedo sinker to clip onto the end. You want it heavy enough to lay the rig out. 2 oz is usually about right.

What about Sabiki Sticks, hollow rods with a cupped end built especially for bait making? They do an outstanding job of keeping the sabiki hooks out of the way and ready to go. Rigs can last for several trips, unlike with conventional rods where cutting them off and storing them for later use is a chancier proposition (a rig can be wrapped around its sinker, then stashed in a hard-side box). Unfortunately, every Sabiki Stick I’ve used was stiffer than 151. Feel suffers, and baits may fall off more easily. It’s a trade-off.

Use the smallest hooks possible on your sabiki rigs, size 14, 12, or 10 depending on the size of the bait. These differ from manufacturer to manufacturer, so there’s no hard and fast rule. The current batch of greenies has been on the larger side.

From there, the hardest part is locating the bait. Under the lights is a good starting point. Once the sun is up, key on visual cues such as nervous water or seek out good marks on your fishfinder. When that fails, you can try blindly along the kelp line or even troll the sabiki or try casting and retrieving. Remember, sometimes all it takes is one golden swimmer. In a pinch, kayak anglers have been known to chum with cat food or thread tiny bits of squid onto their sabiki hooks.

That’s the deal in Malibu and La Jolla. Catching most trophies doesn’t start until you’ve corralled the bait. And if you come up zeroes on the big game, you can always eat it (ever taste saba in a sushi joint?) or better yet, pass it off to another kayaker. That’s a good shot of fish karma.

• LIVE BAIT LUNKER - Dane Dudley admires his enormous coastal seabass caught on a live greenback mackerel. Like this one, many a La Jolla or Malibu trophy catch starts with the essential task of making bait. PHOTO COURTESY DANE DUDLEY

• ITS ISLANDER TIME – WON is hopping aboard the Islander for a 1.5-day kayak fishing cruise from April 30 to May 2. Come and join us aboard this premier mothership operation. The traditional target is San Clemente, where calicos like this chunk are common. PHOTO COURTESY JEFF KRIEGER

Join WON for Islander Kayak Action at San Clemente Island, April 30-May 2

Once again, WON is kicking the spring kayak season off right with a 1.5-day adventure with the fish-savvy crew of the Islander mothership. Captains Shane Slaughter and John Coniff will set their sights on San Clemente Island’s ideal kayak waters, where vast kelp beds and plentiful boiler rocks beckon. Trophy calicos are as near a sure thing as they get. WON’s season-opening trips have consistently delivered halibut too, for those who dangle live baits along the beaches. White seabass and yellowtail are other possibilities.

The trip departs Friday evening April 30, fishes all day Saturday, then arrives back in San Diego on Sunday May 2 around breakfast time. The cost is $295, including all meals, bait, and stateroom accommodations. To book your spot, call WON’s Mike Flynn at 949-366-0030 x30 or email

Reader Comments
Paul, Thanks for the advice! I literally just posted the following thread on BigWatersEdge forum and you touched on most of my concerns. Here's my blog: To All: I am looking for some details on how to "quickly" fill my bait tank. You know, the stuff everyone seems to take for granted - For example, where to jig (in the pier pilings? xyz feet of water? inside edge of kelp line? just past shorebreak? outside kelp? in open water?), what to jig with (sabiki rig is pretty much standard, but what size hooks and /or patterns?), how to jig (send it straight down? cast it? just let it dangle? yo-yo?) and should I try tipping the hooks with some squid or something enticing? Also, it seems the general consensus is to favor the greenback mackerel over spanish, and either of those over anything else except live squid (candy)? So far most of my time on water has been spent farming for bait , rather than fishing with bait. Sorry, no pictures yet. Any advice is appreciated.
Bait the Hard Way is an excellent article and I'd like to recommend the Eagle Claw brand of sebiki because it comes with circle hooks that put the hook in the corner or lip of the bait fish for easy & fast removal.
John Pawlak
Leave a Comment
* Name:
* Email:
Website (optional):
* Comment: