How to catch and use pinfish for bait

Pinfish bait overview

Pinfish are a great bait choice for fishing both offshore and inshore in Islamorada as well as many other locations.  While often not the first choice of many larger predators, most anything that will eat a bait fish will eat pinfish.  Fish such as redfish, snook, and tarpon will all take a pinfish.  They work great in the gulf or on the reef for things such as cobia, grouper, mackerel, and snapper.  Offshore they can even be used for dolphin or tuna.  They are a hardy fish which can be easily caught with hook & line, bait traps, or a cast net.  One beautiful thing about the pinfish is how easily they are kept alive.  I regularly have my bait pen loaded with 200 pinfish ready to go and as long as the pen is big enough you don’t really have to worry about feeding them or anything.  Also once in the boat a simple aerator will keep them alive in most live wells.  One downside of pinfish is they are tough to chum with when compared to things such as shrimp or pilchards.  When thrown out alive they will swim back down to the bottom and hide, so you can’t get fish really ‘fired up’ by throwing freebies as you do with other baits.  However with as easy they are to catch and keep alive, they are a great back-up bait to have when other preferred baits are not available…

How to catch Pinfish

Trapping Pinfish with a Pinfish Trap

My preferred method is using a pinfish trap.  These small traps are built out of chicken wire and have multiple openings which pinfish can swim inside and then get stuck as they can’t find the way out.  You can find them online pretty easily or pick them up at your local bait & tackle store.

Pinfish Trap

Pinfish Trap

Using a pinfish trap is pretty straightforward.  I like to take a frozen chum block and cut it into 5 or 6 pieces.  This winds up being about 1.5 lbs bait per trap.  Simply place the chum inside the trap and close it.  Many of the flats and grassy bottom areas of the bay will hold pinfish, simply put the trap out and let it sit for a couple hours then retrieve it.  Generally speaking the colder months (winter time) you will likely have to let the trap soak a bit longer as the chum thaws slower and their are often less pinfish around then.  I’ve had to let them sit for up to 6 hours during a cold front when the water was ~65 degrees, and I’ve let them sit for only 1 hour when the water was ~85 degrees.  I recommend getting a few traps, and fishing them in different areas until you find one area that is productive.  Then you can put all your traps in the same general area.  Also this way if one trap doesn’t produce the others may do better, and if you decide you can fish different areas too.  Fish carcasses will work for catching pinfish too, though you may have to let the traps sit for a day or so.  This method may be preferred if your leaving the trap out all the time and just picking it up in your boat when going out.

Hook and line fishing for Pinfish

You can catch pinfish easily on hook and line in many areas.  Simply put out a block of chum near a grass flat or in the bay where you think pinfish may be.  You often will see them swimming around or notice them stealing bait when fishing with shrimp in fishing areas, so try these.  For tackle a light leader is best close to 12 # test.  Use a tiny hair hook with a small split shot weight.  Just about anything will work for bait, though something like squid is great as it will stay on the hook for multiple catches.  Shrimp is good too but you have to rebait often – just cut the shrimp into small pieces and use a little bit of meat.  Cut bait such as mullet or any other fish should work too.  A small dehooker is recommended for removing them, you’ll save yourself getting poked and it is healthier for the bait too.  Once you get the process down you can often catch them quickly in no time.

Cast Netting for Pinfish

Finally a cast net will work for catching pinfish too.  If your chumming in an area and pinfish are around, simply load up your cast net and throw.  With as spiny as they are you can’t really help but get them stuck in the net.  I’d recommend a heavy net of maybe 1/4 inch mesh.  They also have a tendency to swim down and away and not come up to the surface, so often they will see the net coming and disperse quickly.  They also get beat up from the net and may not live longer than the day of fishing, so won’t keep well for later fishing in a bait pen.  These are reasons I don’t like cast netting pinfish, but in a pinch if you want to get them quickly, go ahead and try!

Fishing with Pinfish

Surface rigging Pinfish

Pinfish can be fished on the surface, on the bottom, or even cast and retrieved on a jig.  One thing to remember is they have a tendency to want to swim down constantly.  This is one reason why floating them can work very well – they will constantly struggle to get to the bottom which nearby predators cannot help but notice.  You can be anchored up or drifting while using this method.  Adjust your float to the depth your trying to fish.  A circle hook is a good option if your going to let the bait sit out and you don’t want to pay attention to it.  A J-hook I prefer when your actively fishing it.  Adjust the size of your hook to the size of your bait – bigger bait, bigger hook.  Circle hooks should pretty much set themselves, and left unattended often may give a better hookup ratio then a J-hook.  But hanging on to the rod I like being able to set the hook myself with a J-hook.  When fishing structure such as tree lines or underwater debris, hooking the pinfish in the upper back near the tail is a good option.  This way the pinfish will swim towards the structure and often underneath it, where big fish such as redfish and snook often hide.  However with this method if your reeling the bait in and recasting it often, the bait will not stay very hardy for more than 2 or 3 casts.  The other way to hook them is through both lips.  This will work in all other situations, and the bait will stay nice and hardy for a much longer period of time.  Also if your just leaving the bait sit out I would recommend this way as the bait will not be struggling constantly and become tired.  Some times people hook them through the upper shoulders too, this may allow the bait to swim down a little bit more which is preferred in some situations such as heavy current, though you’ll have to play around with different methods and presentations!

Bottom rig with Pinfish

A simple knocker rig will work for pinfish as well.  Generally you want to be anchored or stationery when fishing pinfish with this method as you don’t want your bait just dragging along the bottom while drifting.  Basically just have an egg sinker go straight down to your hook.  Adjust the size of the sinker to the amount of current your fishing in – go only as heavy as will keep you on the bottom in the spot your fishing.  A circle hook or J-hook will work, again a circle hook being good if leaving the rod unattended and a J-hook if your actively setting the hook yourself.  Adjust the hook size to the size of your bait.  I often fish multiple baits with this method and will just keep an eye on them to double over with a bite then just grab the rod and reel!  If fishing a J-hook remember to give a little jab to set the hook.

Jigging with Pinfish

Finally a simple troll-rite will work well fishing pinfish too.  Depending on the depth of the water and size of fish your trying to catch, vary the size of your troll-rite.  For deeper water, harder current, you will need a heavier troll rite.  Hooking the pinfish through both lips will work well and you can recast him often.  You can also try hooking them through the tail if your trying to get him to struggle more or get him to swim towards underwater structure or something.  Just remember if your retreiving him often or going to let him just sit out on the bottom, he won’t live as well this way and become tired much faster.

Free lining Pinfish

You can also try free lining pinfish in certain situations.  Simply just have a hook tied straight to your leader with nothing else.  The pinfish can be hooked any of the ways mentioned above.  This method will let the pinfish swim from the top of the water column all the way to the bottom naturally.  This presentation often works well when predator fish are skittish and spooky.  Often times you will cast the pinfish out and just let him swim out with the bail open.  After a period of time just reel him up and try again, or you can let him sit out there and wait for a bite!


Capt. Rick Stanczyk