I grew up in Central Mississippi fishing for bass with plastic worms, Hula Poppers and small crankbaits. I didn’t get the saltwater bug until a few years ago when I purchased a flats boat and started exploring the inshore areas around Ocean Springs.
Because of my bass-fishing background, I have used artificial baits exclusively while chasing trout and redfish. Call it the thrill of the hunt — tricking a wily trout into eating a sliver of plastic, outwitting my adversary ….
“Stop it,” my wife said, as I read her the above paragraph. “You don’t use live bait because you’re lazy.”
OK. She’s right. That’s the main reason I don’t use live bait.
That, and I’ve never done it and I’m not one to venture too far out of my comfort zone. Throwing a soft plastic on a jighead is very similar to fishing a plastic worm, so that was a natural transition.
Fishing with something I prefer deep-fried and slathered with Zatarain’s cocktail sauce — not so much.
While fishing soft plastics on a jighead is a great technique that catches fish, it’s not necessarily the best option during the summer when the bays and islands are loaded with bait.
The favored summer option for coastal anglers is live shrimp under a cork or on a Carolina rig. These options do require more planning and effort, but in the grand scheme of things it’s really not that big of a deal if you know what you’re doing.
I don’t, so I turned to someone who does: Capt. Glenn Ellis with Goin’ Coastal Charters (goincoastalcharters.com) out of Biloxi Boardwalk Marina.
When Capt. Glenn fishes with live shrimp, he uses a Penn Battle II 2500 spinning combo spooled with 30-pound Berkley Trilene Professional Grade Braid; a Boat Monkey popping cork; and a 3-foot, 20-pound Berkley Trilene Big Game leader tied to a 2/0 kahle hook.
This setup is light enough for my wife to use, stout enough to catch a big redfish and won’t break the bank.
“Most times, something between a 2 ½- to 3-foot monofilament leader is real versatile to fish a wide range of depths if they’re feeding up by the surface,” Ellis said. “Generally speaking, on the places we’re fishing — Biloxi Bay, Deer Island to Cat, Ship and Horn (islands) — from April through October, the water is rarely that clear where it’s needed to have fluorocarbon.”
The captain uses two types of Boat Monkey corks: oval and cup-faced.
Ellis splits the duty between the two types of corks to see if the trout prefer one over the other.
“Sometimes we’ll see a difference in the kind of cork the fish turn onto a little better,” he said. “That cup-faced cork — one thing that’s nice about it, is when you give it a good pop the cork won’t move very far in the water so the fish hone in on the noise. They’re looking for where that noise came from; that cup-faced cork has resistance in the water, so it doesn’t allow it to move 2 or 3 feet forward in the water.
“We put a removable split shot about 8 to 10 inches above the hook just to give the shrimp a little more free range of motion. The closer that split shot is to the hook, you’re restricting that shrimp’s ability to dance around underneath that cork. You really just want it to hold the shrimp down in the water. That’s why we use a 3-foot leader, because your split shot is 8 or 10 inches above it and the shrimp may be dancing around the bottom, where if the split shot was lower you may get hung up more often.”
One rig Ellis showed me brought back memories of fishing with my dad back in Clarke County. Ellis uses a Heddon Lucky 13 like a popping cork for trout, whereas my dad used it for bass.
Ellis takes the hooks off, and then puts the screws back in place to fill the holes.
“One thing I like, especially in calmer conditions, is the Lucky 13 popper,” Ellis said. “That’s something my great-grandfather showed me, along with some other old salts around here.
“Sometimes, when you get a finicky bite, it really does make a difference. Basically what you’re using is a topwater plug; you get the advantages of a topwater plug, where a trout is going to come in there and take a look at it thinking it may be a mullet, but when they get close enough they see that live bait dangling underneath it and it’s over at that point — game on.”
The other live-bait rig Ellis uses is a Carolina rig. It’s basically the same setup a bass fisherman uses but with a live shrimp threaded on the hook instead of a plastic lizard or worm.
“We’ll still use the 2/0 kahle hook with the Carolina rig (and) the same leader — about a 2- to 3-foot leader,” he explained said. “If you get broke off, you still have enough leader to tie another hook on; you don’t have to tie a whole new leader.
“We try to use the least amount of weight necessary, so if you have a really light tide and you’re not trying to get down to deeper water we won’t use any lead at all. It’ll just be the kahle hook, 20-pound monofilament leader (and) a barrel swivel going straight to the main line with no lead. Then we’ll start to ramp it up from there witha ¼-ounce, a ½-ounce, sometimes you’ll need a 1-ounce lead. If you’re fishing near the islands in the passes where the tide really gets ripping you may need a 1-ounce lead, especially if you’re using a croaker.”
Ellis hooks his shrimp a couple of different ways based on a few factors.
“A couple of things depend on where we hook a shrimp,” Ellis said. “If it’s a soft-shell shrimp, we’ll go through the tail — the meaty part of the tail, because if you hook them in the head, under the horn and they’re soft-shell, they’re going to throw off the hook and you’re going to lose them off the hook almost every cast.
“I’d rather hook a shrimp through the head. I think a trout is going to go for a head shot on most any bait, so if we’re able to we’ll hook them right under the horn. You just have to be careful hooking them under the horn: If you go too deep or too far back you’ll hit them in that little black spot, and that’ll kill them instantly. So it’s right in front of that black spot, just barely beneath the horn.
“So we hook them in the head for a few reasons. If they’re a good, hardy shrimp with a hard shell; if they’re a decent-size shrimp; and if we’re in a pretty fast bite we’ll go ahead and hook them in the head.”
Otherwise, the captain moves to the other end of the shrimp.
“We’ll hook them in the tail if it’s a soft-shell shrimp and if it’s a small shrimp because you have a lot less margin for error hooking them in the head,” Ellis said. “If the bite is really slow, we’ll hook them through the tail because the shrimp will stay alive a little longer — say, over a half dozen or more casts once you throw it out there and give it a good pop every 8 or 10 seconds, reel it in and have to recast. So if you’re still searching for the trout, you’re not in a hot bite and you haven’t located the school of fish yet, we’ll hook them in the tail.”
Live shrimp can be purchased at most bait shops along the coast and need to be kept lively to be productive. If your boat isn’t equipped with an aerated livewell, swing by one of our fine local tackle shops and pick one up.
If you’re new to the live-bait game, be patient on your first few outings. You might sling a shrimp or two off when you cast and most likely you’ll miss a few strikes when your cork goes under, but learning is part of the fun, right?
You know, my wife’s birthday is in July. I might just get her a nice, 20-gallon Bait Saver live-bait tank to keep her shrimp swimming strong.