Several years ago we anglers who were beating the rivers and sounds to death with Gulp lures and Mirror Lures but having moderate (at best) luck, looked up to see several youngsters come running up to our docks with some really nice puppy drum and speckled trout. We were astounded that a few youngsters with very limited tackle and literally no boat were taking fish like that while we weren’t having much luck at all.
Luckily these youngsters were willing to share their secret to having good luck with us Old Timers. They’d simply used a patched-up cast net to harvest some live finger mullets from a close by ditch. The mullets were kept alive in a five-gallon pickle bucket long enough to transport the bait to a small dock and rigged up on a hook. These fresh, lively finger mullets were just what any good-sized puppy drum or speckled trout were feeding on and when a disabled mullet presented an easy meal to the larger fish. They gobbled it up the like candy.
The older fishermen began to put their Gulp baits back in the jar with more Gulp Juice and rig up lines that would accommodate live bait under a popping cork to match what the kids had been using. The secret was out and we all started catching some nice drum and trout.
It wasn’t always the younger generation that taught the Old Timers how to catch more fish. Two of the best local anglers I’ve ever known were Ellis and Elsie Ireland from Aurora. When everybody was having to struggle to catch a few fish, these two anglers could usually be counted on to bring in a mess of fresh fish for supper.
The Irelands secret wasn’t really just one secret either. Their first “secret” was that they were consistent in their fishing. If the weather was bad, they’d still find a protected area to fish in and be out there trying. They didn’t always catch a lot of fish but they just never seemed to give up.
Their second “secret” was that they often used local bait. In these coastal waters there were usually abundant beds of aquatic vegetation that offered protection to the smaller fish and invertebrates. Larger predators like the speckled trout and drum liked to feed on these smaller things and stalked things like small fish and grass shrimp in the grass beds.
Grass shrimp are very small versions of the brown and white shrimp that we humans regard as choice seafood. The tiny grass shrimp (a big one might be one inch long) make up for their lack of size by being super abundant. Coastal streams, particularly creeks with a lot of aquatic vegetation in them usually harbor lots of small grass shrimp.
The Irelands had a special dip net constructed for the purpose of catching lots of grass shrimp to use for bait. The frame of the net had a roller on the bottom of the net that depressed the aquatic vegetation as it was rolled over the bottom. When the aquatic grasses were depressed the shrimp rushed from their cover and the fine meshed net scooped them up. The Ireland’s always seemed to be able to take a lot of the tiny grass shrimp to use for bait.
They’d use small hooks and thread several of the tiny shrimp onto the hook each time they baited the hook. Their bait was exactly the thing that a lot of fish fed on by nature and was productive for the anglers.
If you can find live local shrimp and have a way of keeping the shrimp alive, these larger shrimp are one of the deadliest natural baits I know of to take trophy-sized speckled trout. For years the fishermen along the Gulf Coast have preferred the live shrimp to take the nice redfish and trout they’re noted for but this bait isn’t easy to find and keep alive unless you have a lot of ability with a cast net and a good bait tank to keep the shrimp alive until you’re ready to put them onto the hook. Several bait and tackle shops along the coast now offer live shrimp for their customers but be prepared to pay a premium price for this natural bait.
When the best live baitfish like the finger mullets aren’t readily available then fishermen like Curtis Myers use a small dip net to catch what many “Coasties” call a “mud minnow.” These fish prefer the shallow and muddy guts and backwaters of coastal streams and can grow up to four inches long. For some reason flounder dearly love these mud minnows and I can’t think of a better, more natural, flounder bait than these little fish. Some guides that I’ve fished with in the Pamlico Sound set out minnow traps in the shallow guts and when they need bait the make a run along the line of traps and usually catch several dozen of the mud minnows whenever the need them.
When natural, local bait isn’t available or you don’t have the necessary equipment to catch the bait, many local tackle stores now carry live “shiners” that can be bought to use for bait. The larger the bait shiner, the more they cost.
Artificial lures can and do catch fish bit if you really want to take fish like bass, striped bass, flounder, red drum or speckled trout. A live minnow will beat the artificial lure every time.