Whitebait - The Best of the Rest

Can't catch nothing without whitebait.

Some people frown on using live bait. Some people only use live bait. Rather than use a live shrimp in the wintertime, some people prefer to use artificial bait made to look and smell like shrimp. Those artificial lures produce fish, without a doubt. People have been trying – often successfully – to catch fish with artificial lures and attractors since day one. But we're going to talk about live bait – whitebait to be more specific.

515-WhitebaitWhitebait -- what we call one of several species of baitfish -- filling a live well.

Called "blacked-out," wells filled with this many freshly-caught live baits can have a dramatic impact on your effectiveness on the water. It's why with rare exception the professionals fill their wells like this. The day this picture was shot we were on the boat with two of the best of those professionals that fish the west coast of Florida -- Captains David Rieumont and Mike Cole.

David believes that if you want to regularly catch the widest variety of fish, you have to have live bait on the boat. He works with many of the top manufacturers to help them design the gear many of us use. From the engineers at Shimano to executives at Pure Fishing, he's put a lot of ideas into tackle design and a lot of pulls on their rods.

There are different kinds of baits with white sides that could be considered whitebait. For that matter, if you cut a strip of squid to use to catch flounder (or almost any species, but it's great for flounder), it's a white thing that's a bait. But the whitebait we're talking about in this article is the live and swimming-fish kind of whitebait.

What Exactly is Whitebait?

The first, most important, and for many species the most effective whitebaits are pilchard sardines. They are around all year, but in the colder months are harder to find and catch. You can catch them effectively and in big numbers with a cast net, or catch them just as effectively for single-bait use with a sabiki lure.


Pilchard sardines (also known as scaled sardines) are usually found in shallow water although you will find schools of them in deep water on the bottom and up within the water columns, depending on current, temperature, and where they are finding food. That means the best place to look for them is on the flats or very near the shore. In the summertime, they tend to stay on grass flats in and around sand patches. In the wintertime, they tend to stay near mud flats, shore lines, and under docks. Sometimes you can find them near markers or bridges as well. When the water gets really cold they disappear. Even then, you can find them in deep pockets.

WhiteBait 450 2In S. Africa. sharks love Pilchard sardines.

The best bet is to use a trolling motor and slowly move around on the flats or other likely spot. Look for pelicans and cormorants, or disturbance on the surface of the water. You can be 100 yards from feeding pelicans and not see a single bait. If you see pelicans high-diving, go directly to that exact spot.

Once you're in position, move around and look down into the water. whitebait move in schools of between 10 and 100 baits, and are very, very spooky. Relax your eyes and watch for flashes and movement.

If you see a school, stop, set up, and begin to chum. Sometimes there are so many baits in the water that you can "run and gun." Have one person running the boat and another standing on the bow with the net fully loaded. When bait is spotted, the net is thrown. This is a bit trickier then chumming, and only works if there's a ton of bait or if it's contained. If the bait is against the shoreline, for example, this technique works well. At other times, bait simply won't come to the chum.


Threadfins are in the Herring family. They're called threadfin because their dorsal fin often extends almost all the way to their tail. They're bigger than regular sardines, and are often used for Tarpon baits. Smaller ones are very effective for snook, redfish, trout, cobia, mackerel, snapper, or grouper. They make good dead baits as well.

WhiteBait 450-Threadfin

Threadfin travel in large schools and are generally found in deeper water – either out in the wide open or near bridges, markers, or structure. They often play near the surface and "shower" in large groups, creating a surface disturbance that can be seen for a mile on a clear and calm day. To catch them effectively, you'll need a relatively heavy net that sinks quickly.

Threadfin – when they're small – can look a lot like whitebait. The difference is their scales, or more accurately how easy they shed scales. If you load up a net with shiny little baits, and when you drop them into the well the water fills up with a cloud of little shiny scales – it's them. They make wonderful bait, but are more fragile then their cousins the Pilchard.

Buying Live Whitebait

There are places you can buy whitebait, but it is not cheap, and is by no means easy to find. The reason for that is simple: the bait shops would need a constant flow of fresh saltwater. Whitebait is something impossible to keep fresh if you're not right on the saltwater, and it's why the only bait shops you will find whitebait is the ones that are on piers or otherwise on, or very close to the water. When you can buy them, and if you cannot use a cast net, buy them.

The ultimate way to catch them is to use a Sabiki. You do not need a cast net if you have a light sabiki rig. Whitebait will try to eat those tiny lures every bit as fast as the big snook will try to eat them.

The Online Fisherman

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