If you’ve spent any amount of time fishing in the Florida Keys, chances are you’ve used ballyhoo for bait. This long, slender baitfish with the long beak is one of the most productive baits that you can put on a hook. Whether fishing offshore, at the reef, in the backcountry, or at the bridges, any number of species won’t hesitate to slam a live or fresh cut hoo.
To catch these excellent baitfish first anchor up on a patch reef, or on the deep reef, and get a good chum slick flowing. The ballyhoo should show up behind the boat in a matter of minutes, and then it’s your choice if you want to throw a cast net, or catch them one-by-one on hook-and-line. If you’re planning to use live ballyhoo for bait, I recommend catching them with a light spinning rod. Reason being, the ballyhoo are so thick right now that if you throw the cast net on them, chances are you’re going to fill up the net, and the bait will get beat up while transferring them to the livewell.
To catch ballyhoo on hook-and-line, tie on a small gold hook, with or without a float, and tip it with a piece of shrimp or squid. When you get the fish to the boat, put it in the livewell as soon as possible, and with as little handling as possible. Ballyhoo caught this way will not only live longer, but they’ll also be livelier in the water and greatly increase your chances of having a fish go after them. If you’re planning on cutting the ballyhoo into chunks, or loading up the freezer with rigging baits to skip offshore for pelagics, then throwing a cast net is the way to go. One good throw should fill up your freezer with a healthy supply for many days to come. Last week the ballyhoo was so plentiful that we were able to scoop them up in the dip net!
Once you’ve loaded up on bait, it’s time to decide where to fish, and what to target. My recommendation is to stay right where you caught the bait—at the reef. On a single trip to the reef last week, fishing in 60 to 80 feet of water, we caught six different species on ballyhoo, including yellowtail, mangrove and mutton snapper; black and red grouper; and cero mackerel.
There is a variety of ways to fish ballyhoo at the reef, and I like to mix it up and try each. First, I like to send a bait to the bottom with a stretch of 40-pound fluorocarbon leader, a four-ounce lead, and a 3/0 live bait hook. The bottom rod will catch anything from mangroves, muttons, and grouper, to big yellowtail snapper.
The more common way to target the yellowtails is to freeline cut pieces of ballyhoo in your chum line. Keep the bait constantly moving in the current, and as soon as the line starts ripping off the spool, start winding. When targeting yellowtails this way I like to start with a 15 to 20-pound leader. The reason I go a little heavier is that the big mangroves and muttons will also come up into the chum line, and they’re difficult to land on lighter line.
A third way to fish ballyhoo at the reef is on the surface. Hook a live ballyhoo on #3 or #5 wire (depending on the water clarity), and you should have constant cero mackerel action. For targeting ceros, I like to join the wire leader directly to the mainline. Ceros are aggressive and will often go after anything shiny, including a swivel, so it’s best to avoid using one altogether. Also remember to use a reel spooled with plenty of line. The big kingfish like to make an appearance from time to time and you don’t want to run out of line when that smoker king makes his drag-screaming run.
Your Best Bet for the Week Ahead: Ballyhoo!
Take advantage of the tremendous amount of ballyhoo on the reef. Whether targeting snapper, grouper, mackerel, dolphin, wahoo, tuna, tarpon, sailfish, and more, you’re sure to have success with ballyhoo on the end of your line.