Sunday, November 29 , 2015, 12:13 pm | Fair 65º

Captain’s Log: Desperate for Live Bait at Santa Barbara Harbor

Without our own hauler, we're often left waiting at the dock for a supplier that first services other harbors

Bait haulers bring live bait to the Santa Barbara Harbor after working long, cold nights.
Bait haulers bring live bait to the Santa Barbara Harbor after working long, cold nights.  (Capt. David Bacon / Noozhawk photo)

By Capt. David Bacon, Noozhawk Columnist |

Here we are at the beginning of our fishing seasons and we have no live bait. It sucks!

Rockfish and lingcod season began March 1. Lingcod love live baits, though they will also attack lures such as the Lingslayer®, available at Hook, Line & Sinker. Salmon season opens Saturday, and we could use some live bait. Soon we’ll be actively targeting calico bass, halibut, white seabass, thresher shark and plenty of other dinner fish. We are desperate for live bait at the Santa Barbara Harbor.

Santa Barbara does not have its own bait hauler, but some folks feel we should. We are dependent on a bait boat from the Channel Islands Harbor, which serves three harbors (Channel Islands Harbor, Ventura Harbor and Santa Barbara Harbor). Being the farthest away, Santa Barbara typically waits until the other harbors are baited up and the bait boat nets a large supply of bait worth the time and expense of a long run uphill to our harbor.

The bait boat crew has been trying very hard — and we appreciate their effort — but two problems persist. One is the combination of boat repairs and maintenance. The other is tough fishing.

Baitfish such as anchovies and sardines are plentiful one week and absent the next. They have these tails and they use them to swim away — and then back again. Meanwhile, we wait drumming our fingers for live bait, which is crucial to the Santa Barbara Harbor being a viable and popular sportfishing harbor. Fishing activity is very good for a great many of our waterfront businesses.

I have great respect for bait workers. The live bait story begins at sea during the night, when captain and crew (called “bait haulers”) work wet and cold, long and hard, to find and catch live bait. They search all along the coast, or many miles at sea, looking for large schools of anchovies and sardines on the surface, where the crew can net them.

The bait boat pulls up, puts out one end of a long purse seine net and runs the net off of a large drum as the boat circles around the bait. Then the net is pulled tight at the bottom and up against the side of the boat. The baitfish are scooped with long-handled, no-knot scoop nets into the large holding tanks aboard the bait boat. Great care is taken to exclude and protect nontargeted species, which happen to be among the bait. Then the nets are reeled back onto the drum, ready for the next set.

The ride to the harbor must be slow and gentle to avoid damage to the fragile cargo. Once at the receivers, the bait is slid through a large tube from the holding tanks aboard the boat and into the waiting net-lined receivers. If some of the receivers have bait left from the prior load, it is commonly sold while the new load “cures,” or rests.

When it’s time to sell the bait, it is “crowded” within the receiver into netting stretched between poles or netting stretched within a rectangular frame, making it easier for the bait receiver attendant to scoop the bait into a long-handled scoop net for passing to the bait tank aboard a fishing boat.

Pinning a “hot” lively bait on a hook certainly increases your chance of attracting a great predator. Folks fishing on a tight budget (that would be most of us) tend to grouse at the price of bait, but considering the value of live bait to fishing and the cold, wet, harsh nature of the work to provide that bait, I’m amazed at how little live bait costs us.

My well-worn hat is doffed to our hardy and intrepid live bait workers!

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit to learn more about the organization and how you can help.

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