Live Bait Part 3: How To Fish Croaker And Piggy Perch
I don't know how many times I've been in the baithouse on a summer morning and heard a customer ask, "What're they biting on?" after which the shop owner replies with a slow drawl: "Been bite'n on croaker."
An excited "I'll take a couple of dozen of those!" quickly shoots out of the beginner croaker-fisherman's mouth.
I can't help but wonder what those 24 croaker will go through during the day. Hopefully, after you read this article, the croaker and the fisherman will have a more pleasant day.
Fishermen like to ask, What's the best? Piggy perch or croaker? That can be a tricky question. Croaker actually show up at the baitshop earlier (in May) than piggies (June), so early in the season the choice is easy. But next comes the problem: How to determine when piggies will become productive, and which size will be effective.
I start using piggies as early as possible, and sometimes I'm still buying both a month after they show up at the baitshop. Because of their size, croaker are stronger swimmers for deeper water, but the Piggies doubled up in the shallower sand pockets can be awesome fish-catchers too.
Leader: When fishing piggies and croaker, I always use a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader tied to the main line. I don't use a swivel because I believe it's in the way – it snags more grass, and it's more visible to the fish. As with most live bait or lures, I use a loop knot at the terminal or hook end. The leader length should be about 18" give or take. The leader should never be so long that it travels through the top eye of the rod during a cast.
Hooks: I use 3/0, 4/0, 5/0 or 6/0 Gamakatsu or VMC Kahle hooks, depending on the size of the bait.
Corks: I predominantly use Cajun Thunders. On days with lighter winds, the old Mansfield Mauler can be an option too. I even save old corks for those days when the Redfish don't want a lot of sound. I always start with two primary colors – pink and chartreuse. Most of the time you'll find Redfish like one and not the other, and the same for Trout. However, they may be hitting both, or you can select the color depending on the species you expect to catch.
Knots: I use a line-to-leader knot instead of a swivel. The only time I use a swivel is when I'm fishing the bait on the bottom with a weight. I always tie a loop knot with the Kahle hook for more realistic movement.
Accessories: Beads aren't as important in this type of fishing, but they can be used. If you're going to try beads, the general rule of thumb is to start with small beads and use at least one rig without a bead. Always make sure you and your buddy are fishing the bait properly before you rule out any combination. Going to a larger bead when the water's very muddy or stirred up sometimes makes a difference.
Now that the terminal gear has been laid out, it's time to talk about presentation. The cast should be made in an arch, then you should slow the bait down just before it hits the water to make a softer presentation. Next, allow the bait to swim to the bottom (count 1 second for every 2 feet of water) – otherwise you'll stress the bait by forcing it to swim against the tight line. Occasionally, especially with a third or forth cast of the same bait, you might have to flick your rodtip to wake the bait up.
Once that bait's down to where the fish are, you'll need to flick the rodtip about every 10 to 15 seconds, which accomplishes a combination of things: 1. It gets the bait to react so you can tell how lively it is, 2. It pulls the bait away from its prey and thus entices a strike, and 3. It'll keep the bait from burying in the grass or shell. The flicks are more "whips" with the rodtip between the 10 o'clock to 12 o'clock positions in a manner that only moves the bait several inches at a time. (When doing this on the flats and sand pockets, don't move the bait too much or you'll grass it up and have to recast.)
This style of fishing requires that you feed line to the fish after it takes the bait, and feed it in a manner that the fish doesn't detect tension on the line. Then comes the famous bass-angler hookset (Bill Dancing). Just kidding – that type of hookset will lose you a lot of fish. Here's the proper way to hold the rod and set the hook.
With A Spinning Rod
1. Hold a spinning rod at 12 o'clock with a slight bow in the line while waiting on a strike.
2. When you feel the thud of a fish, drop the rodtip as the fish takes the line, but remember to keep the same slight bow in the line. If and when the fish stops running with the bait, you must immediately (and I mean immediately!) flick the rodtip back to the 12 o'clock position and be ready for it to come back, which it usually will. Sometimes you have to do this three or four times before the fish really swallows the croaker or piggy.
3. Reel up and set the hook and when you feel the weight of the fish, firmly lift the rod back to the 10 o'clock position.
4. Keep good pressure on the fish to get him up to the surface and into the net – trout like to shake their heads and regurgitate the bait. If you're fishing the rigs, there are a lot of snags if you let the fish stay deep.
With A Baitcaster
1. Hold a baitcasting rod at about the 10 o'clock position with a slight bow in the line and be ready to freespool during the run (a baitcaster actually works better for this type of fishing).
2. When you feel the thud of a fish, drop the rodtip and keep the same bow in the line as the fish takes the bait. If and when the fish stops running with the bait, you must immediately (and I mean immediately!) flick the rodtip back to the 10 o'clock position and be ready for the fish to come back, which it usually will. Sometimes you have to do this three or four times before the fish really swallows the croaker or piggy.
3) Reel up to set the hook and when you feel the weight of the fish firmly lift the rod back to the 10 o'clock position.
4. Keep good pressure on the fish to get it up to the surface and into the net – trout like to shake their heads and regurgitate the bait. If you're fishing the rigs, there are a lot of snags if you let the fish stay deep.
Live Bait Locations
I use croaker and piggies when fishing the bay oil rigs, deeper bay oyster reefs, outside bay islands and channels with deep-water access to grass in about 3 to 5 feet of water. I also use these baits on the flats, such as when fishing sand pockets, or even right in the grass itself.
On the flats during a windy day, I put a Piggy 12 to 20 inches under a Cajun Thunder, which can be killer when nobody else has had a good bite. Just keep the bait fresh – they don't last long casting under a cork (expensive but effective). I even use a cork sometimes when I'm anchored up fishing potholes and grass – just for something a little different.
Here are some special tips to work these baits in the areas I mentioned. After time, you'll add your own touches that work for you or your fish.
- On the flats, double up your small baits – it keeps them from burying in the grass.
- On the flats, cut the tail on the bigger piggies so they don't bury in the grass, and so they put off a scent.
- When the bite's slow, change up techniques – double your bait (with smaller baits), try piggies, try croaker.
- Sometimes the redfish and flounder love a piggy/croaker combo (usually a smaller piggy).
- On the flats, a piggy doesn't have to be alive under the popping cork for Redfish, but I like 'em that way.
- I've caught some great fish on piggies that were big enough to keep the cork under while fishing in the deeper areas off the flats – especially on busy days when boat traffic may have pushed the fish off the flats.
- In deeper bays, the piggy or croaker must be lively as heck. They also must swim toward the bottom.
- After a morning of trout fishing in a deeper bay, come back to the flats to throw some of your weaker and smaller baits into potholes for some Redfish action. This is good because they can't bury in the grass as easily.
- I never really use croaker under a popping cork, but I might try it one day. Use your imagination.
In closing: Remember that nothing about fishing is set in stone. Pay attention, vary your approach and find what works. Remember: If you don't eat it, release it. And try to release all big trout – especially those over 25 inches.
Previous articles in this series:
Capt. Scott McCune, the "Saltwater Cowboy," is a nearshore and offshore guide and tournament competitor in Port Aransas, Texas. His two sites,TheSaltwaterCowboy.com and FishnTexas.com, chronicle the Texas Gulf Coast experience. Connect with him there, or send him an email at Scott@FishnTexas.com.
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