Curious how to catch or buy live bait in Miami, Florida? Here’s what you need to know!

How to catch live bait?

Blacked Out Live Well full of Pilchards

The Holy Grail of Offshore Fishing – A Blacked Out Livewell

If you’re not fishing live bait on your offshore excursions – to say you are missing out is the understatement of the year. You can only troll dead baits or lures for so long before you lose your mind not catching anything.  Lots of fishermen in Miami swear by trolling…they refuse to do anything else, but those poor souls are missing out on what is, by far, the most effective form of fishing in south florida. If you want to catch fish consistently when you’re deep sea fishing – you need live bait. Period. There’s a few options for catching live bait – using sabikis and catching them individually, or throwing a cast net to catch part of a school of baitfish.

Baitfish, like most gamefish in south florida, are highly seasonal.  How do you catch live bait?
You catch them with a cast net, or sabikis. Certain times of the year are better than others and at times, you can’t even catch a pilchard if your life depended on it. The purpose of this article is to educate you on the types of baitfish you can catch in Miami waters and the methods you should use to catch them. In case you’re simply looking for a place to buy live bait – we’ve got that too (scroll to the end of the article).

You can catch live bait with castnets from 5-14′ feet in diameter.  Learning to throw a castnet is a great skill, but takes experience to be successful.  Catching live bait with a net also tends to “beat up” the baits, meaning they will not survive as long due to missing scales, or other damage inflicted while being caught with a net.  For the friskiest baits, we prefer to “hand catch” bait with sabikis of varying size.  Sabikis are the best way to catch live bait if you don’t have a castnet, and have the time and patience to find them and catch your bait a few at a time.

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The most popular baitfish for fishing in miami includes pilchards, threadfin herring, mullett, blue runners, goggle eyes, cigar minnows, and pinfish. These baitfish are available most of the year but certainly have peak seasons. Depending on weather, current, water clarity, temperature, salinity, and oxygen content – these baitfish tend to move around in search of their comfort zone. Bear in mind these baitfish are constantly running for their lives – they seldom hang out in places where they can be ambushed for very long.  Knowing where to find them and how to catch them is the challenge you face and is the key to your fishing success.

Pilchards in Miami
Pilchards are a prolific and popular bait for offshore fishermen.  Almost everyone who fishes offshore professionally knows how and where to catch these baitfish – they are a crucial ingredient for catching every pelagic species. Mahi, sailfish, tuna, and wahoo will crush pilchards any chance they get. Pilchards are also very hearty baits and can survive a long time if you’re gentle when rigging them and are careful about keeping them in the water.  While they are prone to injury, they are perfectly frisky and flutter spastically in the water. They are never found solo and tend to swarm over grassy areas in large schools. Pilchards will swarm a chum bag if you find a hungry school and can be caught with small sized sabikis. Wherever the pilchards roam, cudas and bonitas usually aren’t far behind.  When catching pilchards with sabikis, its common to get cut off and lose multiple baits or rigs.  When the pilchards are schooled up, throw a cast net and you’ll undoubtedly land a dozen or more at a time.  Pilchards that are caught in a net usually don’t live as long as pilchards that are caught with a sabiki – as i mentioned they are prone to injury and sensitive to being crushed. It is absolutely crucial that you have a well aerated live well to keep them alive…buckets with bubblers won’t cut it.  Pilchards burn lots of oxygen and have a brisk heart rate…they need to be kept in fresh recirculating water to remai at peak condition. Most pilchards you catch in miami will be small, but in the spring and early summer its common to catch them as large as 4″. Pilchards make excellent offshore baits because they can be rigged through the nose, which is quite sturdy.  They cast well and swim deep after hitting the surface. If you find yourself in a school of dolphin or frenzied tunas – pilchards are a sure fire way to keep the fish at the boat.

Threadfins in Miami

Threadfin herring migrate through in the winter months but can be caught during most of the year around structure where the current is moderate. They are large frisky baits that sailfish and large pelagic fish just can’t pass up. A well full of threadfin herring ensures a good day fishing, but these baits are the most sensitive of the bunch.  Herring are notoriously weak fish, they can’t live for more than a few seconds out of the water.  While sailfish experts can bridle rig a threadfin in just a few seconds, you’re average angler will choke the fish to death long before that happens. They are also delicate and cannot be crushed.  When the opportunity presents itself to cast net a large school of herring, the baitfish usually won’t live more than 24 hours. Threadfins feed best when chummed up in current, and can be caught with small sabiki rigs.  They are super frisky, which means if you hook a stringer its important to reel quickly so they don’t swim in circles and get fouled up. Threadfin herring also make excellent cuts baits as they are very oily and leave a scent trail.  Their large size makes them poor dolphin baits, as schoolies will grab them but can’t swallow them whole. Bonitas, Kingfish, wahoo, and lots of pelagic predators will crush a frail threadfin at any chance.  Threadfins also swim along the surface when free lined or flat lined, which makes them excellent surface baits. Because these baits are big and broad, they do tend to spin when hooked through the nostril, which makes slow trolling them a challenge. Threadfins are best for kite fishing or flat lining, but also make excellent bottom fishing baits.  Their helplessness and frantic fluttering makes them attractive to reef dwellers in search of an easy meal.

Mullett in Miami
Mullett are the absolute go to bait for just about anything.  They can only be caught by cast net when schooled up but are some of the hardiest baits you can get.  Their weight and bulk make them easy to cast and their endurance is second only to goggle eyes. Mullett require very little oxygen to survive, which means they can live in poorly oxygenated baitwells or buckets for quite a while.  Cobia, kingfish, and even sailfish will chomp a mullett found swimming in the bluewater.  Mullett are also the absolute best tarpon bait you could hope to acquire.  Mullett are usually found inshore, in canals, marinas, creeks, mangrove islands, and channels. When they migrate through in the fall, they can be targeted in massive schools and easily captured.  Mullett can live in a bait well for up to a week, if not longer, and will flap till their hearts give out.  Small sized mullett, also called finger mullett, make excellent dolphin baits.  Sometimes referred to as “gummy bears”, finger mullett are the bait of choice alongside pilchards when you find floating debris offshore. If you’re targeting groupers, amberjacks, or other stubborn reef dwellers, a helpless mullett rigged on a finder rig is a sure fire bet. Few groupers and large snappers can resist a fluttering mullett twitching across the sand.  Mullett also make exceptional cut bait, but should be fished live offshore if possible.

Blue Runners in Miami
miami blue runner baitsWhile they’re a far cry from Goggle eyes, blue runners are readily available on the reefs, rock piles, markers, and channels around Miami.  They are always hungry and can be caught with medium sized sabikis while chumming.  When pilchards, threadfins, and goggle eyes won’t cooperate – blue runners will save the day.  They are frisky baits that can be bridle rigged or flown on a kite.  Their size makes them formidable swimmers and hardy alternatives to weaker baitfish.  Offshore, small to medium sized blue runners are the go to bait for BIG dolpin.  Large blue runners are even used for swordfishing when drifting baits near the surface. For the most part, you can catch blue runners year round – they love structure and every fish that swims loves to eat them.  Kingfish and Wahoo will crush blue runners that are flat lined or trolled on a planer board…drop one down over a wreck and you’ll surely draw a bite from an amberjack or almaco.  While blue runners are superior in strength to herring and pilchards, they can wear out fast if fished on a kite or slow trolled.  It is best to live line blue runners with a little bit of weight to get them down below the surface.  In most instances, it’s best to use wire and a trailing treble hook as toothy pelagic fish will cut them in half long before engulfing them whole.

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Goggle Eyes in Miami

There is no bait in Miami waters that rivals the awesomeness of the Goggle eye.  The baits are big, frisky, shiny, and olympian swimmers.  They are radiant with color and flutter with panic when fished from a kite or on a down rigger.  Catching them is difficult as they feed principally at night and retreat to reefs and rockpiles during the day.  Their amber color and prismatic skin acts like a beacon to pelagic species.  Fishing with Goggle eyes is a sure fire bet to catch anything in the immediate area.  It seems that every predator knows when a goggle eye hits the water.  During sailfish tournaments, goggle eyes are the most sought after bait in South Florida.  Bait boats can make a killing selling goggle eyes to tournament fishermen and weekend warriors – sometimes fetching as much as $100 a dozen! Goggle eyes tend to school with blue runners, jacks, lady fish, and a variety of other inshore species that feed on whatever’s available.  It’s best to chum for goggle eyes on structure in the early morning hours, using large sabikis or tiny jig heads with a gold hook. They fight just as hard as blue runners on bait fishing tackle but never lose strength when removed from the water.  Goggle eyes must be kept in well aerated live wells but can survive in a bait pen for up to two weeks if fed (and if current exists). Again, there is simply no beter bait for fishing in Miami than a goggle eye.  Kingfish, sailfish, wahoo, tuna, cobia…well, anything that swims will crush a goggle eye.  We’ve even put it to the test fishing midwater rods with a variety of baits and the goggle eye ALWAYS gets hit first.  It’s actually pretty amazing. I consider the goggle eye to be the filet mignon of baitfish.  They are truly the best live bait you can get. .

Cigar Minnows in Miami
cigar minnows in miami, flThese tube like baitfish are an outstanding alternative to pilchards and threadfins. They are strong durable baits which can live for a long time in a well aerated baitwell.  They are somewhat shy of sabiki rigs but can be chummed up into a frenzy.  Cigar minnows are always available and can be found on rockpiles, patch reefs, markers, and assorted offshore structure.  While they can’t be dip netted or cast netted, you can load up on them quickly using sabiki rigs.  They are not shy of the boat or the chum and will school up right at the boat if the conditions are right. While you may only pick up one or two at a time, investing an hour to catch a few dozen cigar minnows will prove to be well worth it.  Cigar minnows are dolphin candy.  They also make excellent mid water and flat line baits. Because they are small and tube like, nearly every fish can eat them without trouble.  Cigar minnows are not the best kite baits, but they can save the day in a pinch. They are also a relatively acrobatic baitfish – when rigged through the nose they will hop around on the surface trying to get free.  That behavior send a strong signal to predators lurking down below that free meal awaits them. In order to really catch cigar minnows, its best to spend the time exploring patch reefs and markers when the current is strong.  You will need plenty of chum to get them to the boat and jigging with a sabiki rod won’t help!  Hold the sabiki right in the cloud of chum and wait for a cigar minnow to grab the hook.  Lift them out of the water and get them into the well quickly to avoid losing them.  Cigar minnows slip free from sabiki hooks better than any baitfish that swims!

Pinfish in Miami
live pinfishThese frisky little perch-like baitfish are one of the best cobia baits available.  Pinfish live on grass patches and are voracious eaters. They can be caught with sabiki rigs, cast nets, and will even hit small jigs tipped with shrimp or squid.  Pinfish can grow to be the size of your hand and are grouper candy.  They are excellent bottom fishing and wreck fishing baits, but seldom draw strikes from pelagic species like dolphin (mainly because pinfish live inshore and never ever venture offshore).  Pinfish are extraordinary baits for tarpon, snook, redfish, and grouper…but aren’t so hot for dolphin or pelagic species.  We’ve literally had dolphin turn up their nose at small pinfish when that’s all we happened to have in the well. Its best to keep a few pinfish for reef fishing or when the cobia move through.  Otherwise, use pinfish for tarpon and snook in cuts or channels.

Where to Buy Live Bait in Miami
Catching bait can be a big time pain in the ass, especially when several boats are scrambling to wreak havoc on a terrified school of pilchards.  Whether you’re having trouble catching bait yourself or you would rather just pay the piper and spend more time fishing – buying bait is relatively easy in Miami, Florida. Bait boats tend to congregate at a handful of locations around Miami.  The bug lighthouse, government cut, the entrance to stiltsville, and bayside marina are the most common places to find them.  In the mornings, you can call on radio channel 80 or 72 and the closest bait boat will chime back. Expect to pay anywhere between $40 and $100 for live bait depending on what you need. Because bait is seasonal and demand for bait is incredibly high on fridays, saturdays, and sundays – be sure to call ahead and make arrangements with a local bait fishermen.  Don’t plan your day on buying bait…consider it a luxury.  Always have a game plan for catching live bait if the bait boat is sold out or simply couldn’t find the baitfish that morning. Baitfishing is still fishing – so don’t expect even the best bait captains to have hundreds of frisky pilchards ready to go at 6a.m.

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The easiest way to accomplish this is with ACO Live Bait
near Key Biscayne & Govt. Cut.

Call Ariel and ask for the “marauder special”
or channel 80.

The most reliable, skilled, and famous bait fisherman in Miami is Jimmy Lewis – also known a Kite Hunter.  Capt Jimmy is your go to resource for frisky gogs and fresh caught pilchards. He can usually be found trolling near Bug Light most mornings…almost always on fridays, saturdays, and sundays – but also frequent government cut.  It’s best to call him on his cell phone in advance of your trip to see what bait wlll be available and if he can meet you on your way offshore. Capt Jimmy is in demand for bait at all times – so don’t expect special treatment.  Be early – always give a respectable tip – and don’t be rude.  Jimmy fishes hard and does his best to provide bait for dozens of boats every week! You can reach Capt. Jimmy on his cell phone at 305-725-8807 or call on VHF channel 80a.

Capt. Charlie Ellis

Capt. Charlie Ellis

Captain at Miami Fishing Charters LLC
Capt. Charlie Ellis of Miami, FL has 25 years experience fishing for big game species like Bluefin Tuna, Sailfish, Swordfish, and Sharks. Capt. Charlie is also an avid scuba diver, world traveler, writer, and entrepreneur.
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