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The Best Bait on the Bay

You’re not alone in loving soft crabs

In early morning, we were drifting bridge structure for rockfish on a slowly moving tide. I had already dropped down my bait, lightly weighted with just a quarter-ounce twist-on sinker, and fed out plenty of line. Thinking it finally near the rubble-strewn floor 30 feet below, I put my thumb on the spool and lifted the rod tip to give the bait a bit of motion. I may have waited too long. Apparently my rig was hung up on the bottom.
    Shifting the Yamaha into reverse, I crept back up-current to get a better angle to try to work it loose. But the line angled off in an unexpected direction into the water.
    Suddenly suspicious, I put the reel in gear, cranked in line to eliminate any slack and lifted the rod in a strike. Something powerful came immediately alive on the other end, unhappy with the sudden pressure. My spool blurred, and the drag hummed as a large and angry fish headed away. The king of baits had seduced another victim.
    Bait-fishing is about the oldest technique for catching fish on hook and line. It also remains the deadliest. From producing the most fish to securing the largest, it continues to be the ultimate method.
    However, not all baits are equal.
    Worms, baitfish of all types, clams, squid, shrimp and their ilk are all great producers at one time or another on the Chesapeake. But one bait in particular will outproduce all others: the soft crab.
    Like human epicureans, most of the fish in the Bay love soft crab. Its mere scent makes virtually every species of pan or game fish throw caution to the wind in their desire to find and consume it.
    Anglers determined to tempt larger rockfish from their lairs will often find that just a half or quarter of a soft crab is sufficient to get their attention. Many anglers prefer to present these baits on a treble hook, believing that the extra hook points mean a more solid purchase within the bait, so they can strike instantly upon noticing any degree of bite and be assured of a hook-up.
    The 34-incher below that bridge abutment was just the last of our limit that morning to fall victim to our supply of softies. The remainder of our baits we would use (in smaller pieces) to temp the lunker white perch that often populate the bases of the same bridge piers that larger rockfish like to frequent.
    Though rockfish consider most white perch legitimate prey, an 11- or 12-inch perch with big, needle-sharp spikes on its fins is usually safe from all but the largest rockfish. While these big perch are well experienced, having survived at least six or seven seasons and among the more difficult types to entice with the usual baits, they, too, cannot resist a piece of tasty soft crab.