By Ric Burnley
For the most part, the playing field is pretty even,” states pro skipper Captain Andy Kubiak, “the one difference is bait.” Dock talk and the internet spread new techniques and tackle like wildfire; secrets don’t stay secrets for long. Today’s professional crews are seasoned, synchronized and sober. So, victory or defeat are determined by the details. “Having the best bait can be the difference between winning and losing,” Kubiak insists.
On the Tournament Trail
Captain Andy Kubiak is one of the original bait snobs; “We fished a lot of rigged mullet back in the seventies,” he recalls. At the time, mullet were prepared by removing the backbone and splitting the tail. “Those baits were good for hooked rigs because they were mostly skin without a lot of meat,” he explains.
When dredges hit the scene, Kubiak didn’t like the split tail mullet he was using. “I wanted something that would move better, so I started cutting my own bait.” To insure he was using the best bait available, he manages every step from the time the bait is pulled from the water until it goes into his spread.
“Either I catch the bait myself or I rely on a trusted source,” he says. The bait is handled gently and immediately placed into a brine to preserve color and texture. Kubiak looks for bright colors and strong contrasts. “Mullet should have a dark black tail,” he insists, “and ballyhoo should keep the bright yellow tail.” He looks for all the scales in place and clear eyes. “There shouldn’t be a lot of blood or poop in the bag,” he adds.
When it comes time to thaw the bait, he keeps it in the package that he places in a bucket of saltwater. “Never let the bait touch freshwater,” he stresses. Fresh water will suck any salt out of the bait and leave it mushy and dull. Once the bait is thawed, Kubiak places special attention on how it is rigged. “Be sure that the mullet heads are tied up tight with the mouth shut and the bait secured to the rig.”
Properly rigged, a mullet should last all day on a dredge. Crews are rigging 200 to 300 mullet and as many ballyhoo for a weekend tournament. “The true test is when I see a half-dozen billfish on my dredge,” he says. Captain Kevin Paul has been a bait snob since birth; he grew up in a high-end seafood market and came to age on a South Florida charter boat. “I knew what it takes to produce the best-quality seafood,” he recalls, “and I expected the same out of my bait.”
Paul controls all stages of the bait process. “Everything matters,” he insists. That includes where the bait is caught. “I demand our mullet come from sandy bottom not muddy bottom,” he points out. He even tracks what time the fish are eating and how long they eat. “Sometimes they eat all day, sometimes they don’t start to feed until 10 am.” This year, he has personally caught all of the Spanish mackerel that he sells. “I’m real proud of my mackerel,” he says, “you’re not going to find better baits.”
Time of year and water conditions also affect the quality of the bait. He adds, “If it is the mating season and the fish are full of roe that can affect how they perform.” For ballyhoo, he looks at how the fish are caught and handled on the boat. “How are the fish dumped and brined on the boat?” he asks. While he wouldn’t divulge all of his secrets,
Paul did let go his brine recipe. He starts with a 150-quart cooler filled with water and adds 80 pounds of Kosher salt and 10 to 15 pounds of baking soda. “The baking soda preserves the color and locks in the scales,” he explains.
Water temperature also affects the bait quality. “Winter baits are great because the fish don’t eat as much in winter,” he admits, “but a really cold winter and the fish will suffer malnutrition.” This results in skinny baits that don’t swim as well. When it comes to ballyhoo and mackerel, he avoids fish that are eating and spawning. “Those fish are pretty much junk,” he laughs.
From the boat, the bait is packaged, vacuum sealed and flash frozen. Paul distributes the baits to specialty suppliers and discerning crews. “There are only a few bait shops that have a freezer with low enough temperature to keep the bait,” he adds.
Paul suggests keeping mullet frozen through the dredge rigging process. “Take them out of the package and put them in the bait box,” he starts. Handling the bait will soften it enough for rigging. Once the bait is rigged, it goes back on the bait tray and out of the sun. “If I’m trolling fast for blue marlin, I salt the be-Jesus out of it,” he says. For a slower troll, he uses less salt.
“I sprinkle as much salt as I would use on my mashed potatoes,” he says. If his dredge mullets are in good shape, he will reuse them. “Cover them with salt and store on ice,” he suggests. However, if there is any compromise in the bait, he will replace it. “No matter how much salt you can use, you can’t turn chicken shit into chicken salad,” he jokes.
The Northeast Perspective
While ballyhoo and mullet are hitting the docks along the Northeast, New England anglers have taken prepping chunk baits to an art form. The center of the action is J&B Bait and Tackle in Niantic, Connecticut where owner Kyle Douton is a bait snob since birth. “When I was in elementary school my dad and I would drive to the distributors and load the pick up with bait,” he reminisces.
Now, Douton gets his bait delivered to the shop, but he’s been known to go the extra mile. During a hot tuna bite last year, a butterfish shortage had him on the road. “We would drive to Manhattan and buy food quality butterfish,” he says. When Douton picks up a flat of bunker he looks for bright colors, intact fins, clear eyes and a light coating of frost. On spring tuna trips, he’ll take two or three flats, but by the early fall he’s up to ten flats of bait.
The water temperature is higher and the night is longer,” he explains, “so we need more bait.” If the day-time chunking bite is hot, he’ll take more flats. He warns, “Some guys are getting bait directly from draggers, but if it isn’t flash frozen it will turn out mushy.”
He’s also added herring and even sardines to his chunk menu. When it comes to squid, Douton says the best bet is to catch fresh squid on the fishing grounds. “Use a squid jig or a long-handled, fine-meshed squid net to catch squid that come to the light,” he suggests. Adding a little stream of menhaden chum will bring more squid to the lights. Douton says some crews have even figured out how to catch squid and keep it alive between trips.
For swordfish baits, he looks for nine-inch squid that are flash-frozen and vacuum-sealed. “Keep the squid frozen until you’re ready to fi sh,” he suggests, “squid thaws fast because it freezes at a lower temperature.”
The night before the trip, Douton will stack flats of bait on the boat to thaw. “I pull a few of the best-looking baits off the top of each flat to rig for hook baits,” he explains. Those premium baits are placed in a freezer bag with a good coating of kosher salt. “I’ve even started keeping the rigged baits in a salty brine to toughen them up,” he adds.
From there, the baits go on a bait tray over ice. He stresses, “You want to treat these baits right because you will be handling them.”The rest of the bait is prepared for chunking. He says that some guys have invested in a meat-grade band saw to cut the frozen flats into manageable sizes. Otherwise, he recommends cutting the 1.5-inch chunks with a mandolin knife. “If I’m fishing for big bluefin, I’ll make bigger chunks and baits,” he adds. He says that it is important that the chunks match the size of the bait, especially when yo-yoing with unweighted chunks.
To distribute the chunks, he recommends a motorized Chum Chucker. “It keeps a steady stream going even when the crew is busy or asleep,” he explains. Other crews use a scoop to launch chunks upstream from the boat. Frozen chunks don’t sink. “I want the chunks to sink at the same rate as the baits,” he explains.
Douton admits handling and prepping bait for chunking is pretty simple. “But it is a big part of the game,” he adds, “so you have to consider how you will store and handle it.” He points out that the best local skippers make the best bait a priority.
Not much debate…
When it comes to bait, only the best will do. Bait snobs know that the best preparation and the most expensive gear won’t make up for bad bait at the end of the line. Captain Kevin Paul puts it this way: “If the bait is right, the crew did their work, and the boss opened his wallet, then there is no excuse for a bad day except bad luck.”
The Baitmaster’s Story
Since June of 1993, Baitmasters of South Florida has been preparing and shipping top quality rigged and unrigged bait, chum, rigging supplies and more. With an international client list and a body of tournament-winning captains and crews who credit their baits for victory, Baitmasters has set the standard. From sourcing, selection, preparation and packaging of baits, nothing happens by accident.
Baitmasters owner Mark Pumo details the process and what goes into consistently producing and distributing quality baits on a global scale. “The most important part of catching bait is what happens to it immediately after baits come out of the water,” Pumo describes. “We catch several million ballyhoo each year.
When, how and at what temperature the fish enter the brine is the most important factor in the process. When fish come out of the water, they are all alive. A fish that dies in the net is much worse than a fish that dies in slush brine. The benefits include: they’re not missing scales, their fins and beak are intact, the color is much better, they are going to look fresh when thawed,” Pumo says.
The brine that Baitmasters uses to prepare their baits– Magic Brine, is the same that the company sells to customers. “It’s a proprietary brine that we’ve tested over the years. After more than 20 years’ experience, through trial and error and with the assistance of scientists, we believe that we have the perfect recipe,” Pumo states proudly.
“When our baits are thawed, they almost look mishandled, there has been very little enzymatic breakdown,” Mark states. “Our ballyhoo are harvested with a lampara net. Our fisherman fishes for us exclusively. This provides a distinct advantage because we know the product that we get is perfect all of the time.”
While their bait is flash frozen in brine at -30 degrees Fahrenheit, it is designed to keep in customers’ freezers as well. “Baits can last three years or longer. For long term storage, they should be kept in chest freezers. Home freezers have a daily defrost cycle that causes temperature fluctuation that will ruin the baits in a matter of months,” Pumo says.
Is there anything that Pumo would change about the Baitmasters business model? “I would love to have a percentage of our customers’ tournament winnings. It would be tens of millions,” he says with a laugh.