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Captain’s Log: Angling For Live Bait

David Bacon provides an insider's look at the live bait operation at Santa Barbara Harbor.

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A bait dock attendant at the Santa Barbara Harbor scoops bait for the WaveWalker. (Capt. David Bacon / Noozhawk photo)

It is always interesting to discover how an outdoors business operates when working with wild critters. Our live bait operation at Santa Barbara Harbor sells anchovies and sardines, but few people understand how the live bait gets there and ultimately into bait tanks aboard our fishing vessels.

Capt. David Bacon (Ramona Lisa McFadyen photo)
The live bait story begins at sea in the dark of night where 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 a large drum as the boat circles around the bait. The net is pulled tight at the bottom and up against the side of the boat. The bait fish 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 that happen to be among the bait. The nets are then reeled back onto the drum, ready for the next set.

The ride to harbor is slow and gentle to avoid damage to the fragile cargo. Once at the receivers, the bait goes 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, and feeds to gain strength.

When it is 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.

During the selling process, the customer protocol and courtesy come into play. Most boats launch early, and it seems as if everyone wants bait at the same time. The best way to stay organized is to que up boats near the receivers, roughly in a line, and wait for a turn.

Commercial passenger-carrying fishing vessels such as party boats and 6-Pak boats typically get served right away because they are commercial operations on a strict time schedule, and our mortgages and businesses depend on it. This sometimes bothers a few private boaters, but the reality is that without the commercial operations, there probably wouldn’t be live bait available for private boaters.

Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a new nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need.

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