To bait or not to bait: The great debate

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By Jack Sparacino
One of the first things we liked about our new home in the Lowcountry was its dock which sits on a tidal creek.  Right away, we noticed hundreds of mud minnows swimming in the shallow water. My first thought was “hmm, minnows around our dock.”  My second thought was, “hey, BAIT!”  And lo and behold, I’ve been catching fish down here ever since using those minnows.  Trout, redfish, flounder, croaker, bluefish, ladyfish, sharks, rays, even the occasional whiting.  Plenty for Jane and I and our friends, many of whom would otherwise not have much access to fish for dinner that were caught the same day.
Now as effective a bait as live minnows are, I’ve always preferred using artificials — and these work extremely well in Lowcountry waters.  They have other advantages, too — you don’t have to chase around for bait or be concerned about keeping it alive or fresh in the freezer, and lots of times you feel the fish’s strike harder and more directly.  But that’s a subject for another day.
Back to live minnows.  They really have only one serious competitor for live bait when in-shore fishing here, and that’s shrimp.  Just about everything that swims will eat shrimp and they are excellent bait.  This includes the best game fish you can catch readily in very shallow water — sea trout, redfish and flounder — but also lots of fish you may not want to bother with.  We’re talking bait stealers such as pinfish and small grunts.  So be prepared when fishing with shrimp to take along dozens of them and be ready to lose lots of them.  They are relatively fragile and just won’t stay on the hook very long if almost anything with an appetite is swimming nearby.
So minnows have some advantages as bait in local waters.  Here are my top “de-baiting” points.
1. They are extremely plentiful, easy and nearly cost free to trap.  They will eat almost any protein (I like using fish skins best) or even stale bread.
2. You don’t necessarily need any other tackle except for a rod, reel, line and hook.  A small split shot (bullet) sinker is useful if the tide is running more than one knot or so, but when the current is slack or close to it you can often forego the sinker and simply live line your bait.  If you like, you can use a float; the best ones rattle.
3. Minnows are hardy.  They keep well in a bait holder (available at tackle supply or hardware stores for around $10) and stay active on the hook better than shrimp.  It’s not a big deal to catch a second nice fish on the same minnow you started with as they often come back in one piece.
4. They really work like crazy.  I caught my first seatrout over 20 inches (and my second, third, and fourth) on minnows.  Also large (too big to keep) redfish and beautiful flounder.
So next time you want to take a kid or a novice friend fishing and agree that nothing succeeds like success, bring along a pail of live minnows in addition to whatever else you had in mind.  There’s no “debaiting” it, minnows are a great bait here.
In closing, I’d like to share a favorite and very simple recipe for preparing flounder.  We used this recently on a nice one I caught locally and it was delicious.
1. Gut the flounder, cut off the fins; leave on the head and tail unless the pan is too small to accommodate the whole fish (or you prefer not to look at them).
2. Heat butter with a little olive oil in a large skillet; add spices such as Old Bay to taste.
3. When the skillet is hot, place the fish in with eyes up.
4. Cover pan and cook several minutes, depending on fish size.
5. Turn flounder over with spatula and continue cooking a few minutes until skin is golden brown, adding a little white wine you would normally drink (optional).
6. Place fish on plate and use fork to pull back the skin.  Pour butter/oil mixture from pan over the fish.
7. Serve with lemon wedge and your favorite sides: cole slaw, salad, small red potatoes, etc., and favorite beverage.