Thoughts on Live Chumming, by Chip Willimon 4/7/2015

At Blue Moon Expeditions about half our charters are serious fly fishermen who only want to target fish on fly. The other half want to catch big numbers, big variety and the quality fish the Everglades and Florida Keys offer. No question live bait is the way to go most of the time to really keep a rod bent. The only exception is if you are searching for fish, you can cover a lot more water with lures. But once you have a group of fish located switching to live bait can really keep them biting.

For producing the largest variety of fish, it's hard to beat a livewell full of pilchards, also known as white bait. With several hundred pilchards in the livewell, it allows you to "live chum". That consists of pulling up to a likely looking spot and throwing out handfuls of live baits which gets the food chain going. Usually the snappers, jacks and ladyfish will explode on the baits first but that feeding frenzy doesn't take long for the bigger predators like snook, redfish and even tarpon to move in. I usually wait to start dropping a live pilchard back on a hook until I start seeing some bigger swirls at the baits. Sometimes a bait on a freeline (just a plain hook with no weight) works best. Other times a small weight or a bait on a jig head works better, especially if the water is deeper or current is heavy.

Unless you live on the water in an area with a really good tidal flush like an inlet, it is very hard to keep a large number of pilchards alive overnight. Even then you need a massive bait pen. Your best bet is to plan to catch them fresh every day. For bigger pilchards you can catch them with a sabiki rig but it would take way too long to catch enough to live chum with. The most effective method is a cast net. For pilchards I keep two cast nets on the boat, A 10 foot (radius) with 3/8 mesh and an 8 foot glass minnow net which has 1/8 inch mesh. This has mesh so small even the tiniest baits can't get caught in the gills with it. If the baits are running smaller, which is very common, this net is a life saver. Both nets were custom made by Tim Wade who makes the finest nets I have used for very reasonable prices.

Keeping several hundred live baits requires a good live well. A large flush of water is required. The ammonia that builds up from the pilchards waste is what will kill them the fastest. The ammonia will settle to the bottom of the tank so having a well that will pull at least part of the water it is draining from the bottom is a huge asset. For livewells with a standpipe drain you can take a PVC pipe with holes drilled primarily in the lower third of the pipe and fit it over the stand pipe. This will force the water draining up from the bottom of the sleeve and out the top of the drain pipe. Email me if this doesn't make sense. I replaced my 800 GPH livewell pump with a 1100 GPH pump to make sure I get a really good flush of water into the well. My Egret has a 35 gallon well and I have kept 600 plus pilchards alive for hours with this system.

Of course the hardest part is finding pilchards every day. Some days I will spend the first few hours hunting for them but I often feel like I'm wasting the best hours of the day. My preference is to just go fish and keep my eyes open for pilchards through the day. I usually come across them at some point. Look for pelicans busting the water or just a large collections of pelicans sitting in the trees or on the water waiting. Or you may just see the schools of bait dimpling the surface. If you are in the clear water of the Keys you can always just ride around and look for them. Canal mouths, docks and flats edges are all good places to look. You will see waves of them when they are plentiful and they often look smaller in the water than they actually are.

It doesn't take big pilchards to catch big fish. I was fishing a big pod of tarpon last summer and ran out of pinfish so I started chumming the tinny pilchards in the well hoping to fire the fish up to hit lures. They got going so strong they were blasting the schools of pilchards right against the hull of the boat.

In all honesty, while live chumming can load the boat with fish, it's a ton of work. Your best bet is to give Blue Moon Expeditions a call and let them do the hard part for you. If you are interested in this type of trip, June to November is prime time for this type of fishing. Give Captain Shafter a call.