You know that feeling you get when you are about to do something that is going to cause some drama? Well, I have it right now as I stare at this computer screen because I am about to put into print the two most controversial words in the world of coastal fishing and those are “live bait.” Yes I wrote it, the forbidden words that stir up trouble and make blood pressure numbers skyrocket. No matter how hard you try to stay neutral there is no greater polarizing subject along the Texas Gulf coast and everybody who wets a line is involved. The whole dispute between the two sides is tragic in a way because the “anti” groups out there enjoy fishermen fighting other fishermen. Just like the old saying “divide and conquer,” if we keep fighting one another we only hurt the sport we love. I hope that even if you are against fishing with live bait that you will at least read this story and respect those fellow fishermen who subscribe to the live bait method because they enjoy the sport just like anyone else.
One thing over the years that I have come to realize is that as hard as it is to believe not every angler along the coast is a “plugger” or a “grinder” or any of those cool buzz word terms that some anglers use. Not every fishermen lives for the “blow up” or the hours of empty casts that culminate in one great fish. Are they wrong for not living and dying by the “topwater til you drop” philosophy? Not no, but HELL NO! In case you haven’t noticed, the folks throwing terminal tackle outnumber the artificial only crowd by a large margin. Besides what the numbers show you can’t tell me that somewhere down deep inside you still don’t get a kick out of watching a cork get pulled under, that’s perhaps the most basic thrill of the entire sport and anybody who tries to tell you different is kidding themselves. Live bait fishing takes you back to when you were a kid and stirs up memories of trips from the past that are as real and vivid as anything out there.  I guess if I could emphasize one point on the subject, that would be there is no difference in a cooler full of dead fish caught on artificial or a cooler full of dead fish caught on live bait, dead is dead. Respect your sport and your fellow fishermen as long as they obey the law; because we all want to enjoy our time outdoors.

Try as they might, no hard lure manufacturers will ever be able to create a lure that works better than the “real” thing, period. The typical profile of the weekend angler is not that of the high end trophy trout hunter who chunks artificial lures for hours on end looking for one big fish. It’s the fisherman who takes a quart of live shrimp or a bucket of mud minnows and looks for anything that will bite. Much has been made of the big trout phenomenon and all the hoopla that surrounds that style of fishing; I personally have devoted plenty of articles to the subject as well as many days on the water. On the other hand I have devoted plenty of time on the water fishing with live shad or mullet and I enjoy those trips just as much or maybe even more on occasion. There is something very calm and social about anchoring up in the mouth of a little bayou or in the river and peacefully anticipating the next bite for whatever species shows up next. Some of the best conversations I ever had with my son were on the back of boat as we sat and fished live bait. The laid back mood associated with this style of fishing is a welcome change from the hectic world that we live in; it’s a shame that more anglers aren’t willing to participate for fear of their macho image being tarnished. I feel sorry for those folks because they don’t know what they are missing.

Here in the Sabine area we are very fortunate to have such a great supply of free live bait, virtually anyone who can throw a cast net can catch enough bait to fish without spending a dime. Most anglers who live here locally have no idea about how much money weekend anglers on other bay systems spend on live bait, it’s crazy. Live shrimp by the quart ranges anywhere from 12 to 20 dollars a quart! Now if you plan on fishing all day you probably will buy at least 3 quarts, that’s an extra of 40 to 60 dollars a trip on top of already high gas prices. Anglers who fish with guides on places like Calcasieu or Galveston bay not only pay guide fees but they also are expected to pay for the live bait as well, that price gets steep in a hurry. I don’t know how many horror stories I have heard from anglers who went out with a guide and paid for live shrimp only to have the bait die half way through the trip due to a bad live well system or some other problem only to have to go back to the bait stand and by more shrimp. My wallet hurts just thinking about it all.

The other high dollar live bait that we really don’t have in this area is croaker, the big trout bait of choice on the lower coast. Live croaker cost around 6 to 10 dollars a dozen on average and will usually last all day with minimal care. The live croaker as a bait industry is a huge money making business, the numbers of live croaker sold on Saturday at the big bait camps are staggering. Many in the fishing community attribute the decline of the croaker to the emphasis on them as bait instead of a game fish. Live croaker are lethal on trout in the summer, while artificial only guides struggle to put together a decent box of fish many “croaker guides” limit out in 2 or 3 hours and get back to the dock well before lunch. There have been plenty of cleaning table altercations surrounding this practice but regardless what some may think using croaker for bait is perfectly legal.

While we don’t really have a consistent supply of live shrimp or croaker in our area we do have live bait that is every bit as good if not better, live shad. The small pogies and menhaden that thrive in our waters are great baits for almost any and or all species of fish that can be caught in our area either fresh or salt. Besides being readily available for those who can throw a cast net the best thing about them is that they are 100% free. The summer months are tailor made for drifting shad under a cork or fished along the bottom on a Carolina rig; both are popular methods and each works well. If there is a draw back to fishing shad it’s their durability, shad are difficult to keep alive for long periods if you don’t pay attention. Most anglers try to put too many shad in their live well; this is a recipe for disaster. All the shad in the same small space produce waste and deplete the oxygen in the water which usually kills all the shad really quick. In order to make the most of your shad don’t put too many in your live well, change your live well water frequently, and keep the water in you live well cool by adding frozen water bottles or some other means. By taking a few extra precautions you can keep your bait fresh and lively for a really long time.

Which ever method you prefer, live or artificial, the summer forecast looks really good for Sabine and Calcasieu. The saltwater content is super high right now and there are all manner of gulf species swimming around the lakes and the rivers right now so who knows what your next bite will be? Take precaution with the heat and keep an eye on the summer thunderstorms that will flare up in hurry, but most of all be sure to enjoy your time on the water.