Using Shrimp for Bait
The best bait of all are live bait. The best live bait - arguably - for Florida fishing are the natural shrimp our fish eat.
Questions are only stupid if you do not ask them, so when we hear somebody ask us what the best bait is for a particular fish, we think about the answer - even though it is probably at the very tip of our tongues just dying to spray into the mind of the excited student. We are teachers by trade; any successful publisher is an information source. A resource. The question is always the same. What changes are the species. And ninety percent of the time if the water is less than 20' deep the answer is the same. The best overall bait for the fish we pursue in our subtropical waters are live, healthy, and active shrimp.
Picking the best shrimp for the trip...
We live in Florida, but the same is true for most Gulf coastal fisheries. You can buy shrimp almost any time of the day or night and almost any day of the week all year. Hard cold snaps will certainly result in empty bait tanks at your local Bait & Tackle, but for the most part every morning brings a tank load of live shrimp to the local shops. A big hose literally pumps the bait into the tanks, along with bubbling oxygenated salt water. The best bait shops for an angler are the ones on the water - be it brine or the sweet freshwater of fish-filled lakes.
The sizes of the shrimp are fairly consistent in the delivery tanks. Some runs contain mostly small shrimp, some huge ones and some in the middle. Someone then physically separates them into "Regular", Medium", "Select", and "Jumbo". A Jumbo shrimp is longer than four inches, and for the most part we stick with the Selects.
If the shrimp they're calling regular are fat, healthy, and three or four inches, don't pay the extra money for selects. If the regulars are puny, by all means buy the selects. Always have the best bait you can get. The difference in price between selects and regulars isn't that great to make too much of a difference. If you're short on cash, figure out a mix of good sized baits: let's say one dozen select and three dozen regular.
The third size of shrimp you'll see in the bait shop is the Jumbo variety. Jumbo shrimp are just that: huge. Jumbo shrimp probably shouldn't be all you have in the bucket. There are times when a big bait will not produce hits and a smaller one will. Many very good fisherman believe that a four-to-five inch shrimp is perfect, and a six inch beast is just too big.
Others think that the bigger the bait the bigger the fish. We usually buy a mix: 2-4 dozen for each person on the boat of regular sized shrimp, and an extra dozen or so of selects and/or jumbos to round out the well. Big shrimp will often bring strikes from big fish.
Using Dead Shrimp
Fish eat dead shrimp, so the shrimp that die after you buy them are not a total waste. Simply freeze them and thaw them out before you use them, like so:
- Use them whole as bottom baits on a FishFinder rig,
- Cut them into small chunks and put on a sabiki bait to catch threadfin herring for tarpon or scaled sardines for snook (and anything that swims)
- Put them on a jig, using the crustacean's tail in place of an artificial plastic simulation of a shrimp tail. You can literally put a shrimp tail (or head for that matter) on a lead jig and simply cast it out and leave it on the bottom.
Hooking live shrimp for bait
As is the case with any live bait, be it a fish like a scaled sardine for snook or a blue crab to catch a huge cobia near a marker in the bay, rigging the bait so it acts naturally is critical to the success of the bait. Like a lure, a bait that is worked properly - presented properly - is much more likely to attract a hungry fish or make one that is not hungry angry enough to grab the bait. This holds true for shrimp; you need to hook them so they act as naturally as possible with a piece of steel stuck in them.
The way we like them best is rigged with the hook from the tail up (removing the tail to the first joint will dramitically improve the smell and attractiveness of the bait; we show the tail here only so you can see where the hook is positioned). That said, a lot of very effective and experienced anglers hook them from the head back - being careful to avoid piercing the dark spot where their brains are. That will kill them instantly and put them into your "dead bait" pile.
There are a few different ways to hook a shrimp, because you can literally stick the hook anywhere except one place: their brain. If you hold a shrimp up to the light, they are translucent, and you can look near the horn on their heads and see their brain. One might argue that a shrimp brain cannot be all that thoughtful, but it is the center of their nervous system, and if you push the steel barn through that dark mass the shrimp will die instantly. If they do, refer back to the list of things you can easily do with dead shrimp.
If you want to try catching a fish with a live shrimp, and you want it to swim relatively naturally, there are a number of different ways you can rig them. Every one will work, although if you took a survey, you would probably find the majority of anglers use the tail-hooking tactic.
There are lots of ways to use a shrimp as bait.
The Tail: Like we said above, most of the angling population that uses live shrimp as bait hooks them from the tail. A large majority of those fisher folks hook them from the tail up. For all but the very largest of live shrimp, a #1 or #3 hook hooked just slightly above the tail through the meaty part of the shrimp and driven up from the bottom will let the shrimp still flip their tail to swim naturally, but slows them down and makes display the fact that they are slightly injured. Fish eat them up either way though, so try both. If you do tear off the tails, save them, and when you have about a dozen or so, put them into a "Chum Bat" and toss them onto the surface of the water. The smell and maybe even the shadow they cast into the water often will produce a boil from a fish rolling over what it thinks is a worthwhile food source.
The head behind the horn: The horn is a sharp extension that is actually part of the creature's shell, which is an external skeleton. If you are going to accidentally kill a shrimp by piercing its brain, it is trying to hook them near the horn. Just make sure you look to see where the brain is before sticking the hook in them.
Many people experienced using shrimp for live bait feel that removing the tail and the first joint of meat improves their chances of catching a fish. It makes a lot of sense, because there is no question that the spot where you pinch the tail off exudes fluid, and in turn scent. Our friend Captain Mike Plastic swears that his shrimp work more effectively if he bites the tail off rather than simply pinching by hand).
Wrapped with the hook in the body: Another very popular way to hook a live shrimp is to slip the hook into the entire body from the tail towards the creature's head. A lot of anglers consider it the perfect rigging for bottom fishing in anything more than 12' of water.
The Top of the Body: A shrimp is essentially all head and tail, so the body is the tail for all intents and purposes. Some anglers like to hook the shrimp through the top of the tail. We do know that there is a black vein-of-sorts that run along the back. It is the part you are taught to remove with a slice along the shrimp's length if you are cleaning them for deep frying or a recipe. The vein adds bitterness to the meat, and must serve some purpose to the living creature's behavior. So if you hook them through the back, make sure the hook is set deep enough to come underneath that spinal mass.
Wrapping the entire hook: One other thing we need to mention, and that is sheepshead. Sheepshead are not the easiest of fish to hook. Experienced anglers joke that the perfect way to set the hook is to do so just the moment before you feel them gently tap and crunch the bait they are often meant to steal. Granted, experienced anglers who target them make hooking up on the tasty structure fish look easy. But to the normal anglers, a lot of times when you are fishing near a bridge or piling and something steals your bait before you knew it, it was a striped sheepie that enjoyed the free lunch. Peeling the shell off a shrimp's tail and literally wrapping a small hook (J-hooks seem to work better) with the meat can win sheepshead tournaments. We realize there aren't major sheepshead tournaments, but you know what we mean. Burying a small hook in the soft, shell-less shrimp meat is a great way to catch sheepshead.
Tricking Shrimp to Keep them Alive...
In the summer, shrimp die quickly. If you can't immediately transfer them to fresh, flowing water (like in a live well or a trolling bucket), then a few ice cubes will extend their lifespan tremendously.
If you can get them, buy "Select" or even "Jumbo" shrimp. Many times the smaller, or "Regular" shrimp at bait shops are a little too small to make effective bait. A very small fish will eat a very big shrimp, and huge fish - Tarpon - will eat a big live shrimp if it's presented right. So, buy big and make sure to pay attention to keeping them alive. When all is said and done, they're the best live bait you can get if only for ease-of-purchase.
You can actually keep shrimp alive without water for a considerable period of time using this old trick: Take a wooden crate and line the bottom with damp newspaper or brown paper like that used for grocery bags. Put a layer of ice down, and cover that with another layer of paper. Put down a layer of shrimp, making sure that they're not jammed together. Cover them with paper, a layer of ice, and another piece of paper. Put down another layer of shrimp, and continue building your live shrimp box like a pan of lasagna. When you are done, keep it in a shaded place. You can keep them alive for a few days that way, until the ice melts and they get really soft and stink really, really bad.
Last Thoughts on Using Shrimp for Bait
Shrimp are good to have with you even if you have whitebait, because there are times when they work when nothing else will. In the heat of the summer, when there are plenty of sardines swimming around, a shrimp seems to make a good alternative tasty treat for snook or reds. We've even known tarpon to pick them up and head for the sky.
If you're fishing in back bays in and around the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean, there are probably shrimp to be had. Almost any bait shop worth its salt has tanks that can keep them alive, and a source that comes by in the morning to load them up. Shrimp are native to most of our waters, and as a result, they're great bait. Assuming they're kept in fresh, cold water, and you don't kill them when you put them on the hook, they can stay alive (and lively) for a pretty long time. They smell good to fish, they're natural, and they move around a lot. Another thing that most people don't think about, but is perhaps more important than any other factor, is that they make noise; lots of it. They click, hiss, rattle, and beep. And fish can hear them.
In closing, if you fish in waters where live shrimp are a natural component of the ecosystem, we argue that they are the best live bait.
- You can buy them and do not need the considerable skills and equipment required to catch them.
- They are relatively cheap.
- They work and they work well.
Using any live bait will increase the odds that you are going to catch a fish - both the ones you are targeting as well as anything within smelling, hearing or certainly seeing distance.
They can be used dead or alive, so very little will go to waste.