That’s the secret of chum — and the burden you have to bear if you want the advantage of the greatest fish-attracting tactic ever devised.
Just about every species found inshore or nearshore not only responds to chum, but can be made just plain stupid with the stuff. If you don’t carry a chum bucket, you’re not playing with a full deck — at least in terms of attracting fish.
Spanish and king mackerel are a classic case. Both species display an almost shark-like compulsion to track down the scent of baitfish, following it hundreds of yards. Bluefish are equally mesmerized, and even cobia often show up in the slick.
Tarpon, snook, trout and reds are also chum-heads.
Menhaden oil is the universal solvent when it comes to melting the brains of the mackerel clan. Add a cup to a bucket of dry dog food, put the whole mess in a mesh bag and tie it off on the transom.
Your boat is suddenly a mackerel magnet.
Some professional kingfish anglers also slow-troll with this arrangement, and perhaps add a menhaden “drip” — the same titration rig nurses use to drip pain medications into you in a hospital — allowing a slow metering of the oily scent into a slick that follows the boat. They troll in long loops, often around hard bottom or near major inlets, and kings sooner or later find the “perfume” that leads them to the big blue runner, menhaden or ladyfish that will be their demise.
Another chumming tactic is to anchor up, drop a block of frozen chopped threadfins or menhaden in a mesh bag (available at most beach-front bait shops and marinas) and wait for the fish to show up in the slick. This tactic works only when tides are running, of course; in slack water the scent does not carry far enough for the fish to find it.
Many anglers like to pitch a few fresh-cut or live scaled sardines or threadfins — which can be caught with cast nets along the beaches and under Intracoastal Waterway bridges — into the slick to really turn up the bait, or to get a fish to “skyrocket” and show itself. The same trick will chum trout, reds, snook and tarpon.
While chum is most commonly used for migratory nearshore species, it also can be highly effective for reef fishes. All the snapper family, famous for wariness otherwise, can be talked into biting much easier when there’s chum in the water.
At depths out to 80 feet and more, surface chumming can lure yellowtails and mangrove or gray snapper right to the surface, with the larger red snapper hanging not far below them. The trick is to anchor well uptide of the structure that holds the fish — typically a ledge, hole or wreck — and then scatter chum so it gets down near bottom by the time it drifts across the cover.
This is a case where strong currents can make chumming difficult; a slowing but not slack tide is ideal. Once the fish get after the chum, they’ll rise higher in the water column, eventually appearing right at the transom.
Any sort of fresh cut baitfish works well on snapper, and they also come to shrimp shells and heads, bits of squid, etc. Smaller dime-sized pieces are the ticket for yellowtails and grays, while bigger chunks that will sink faster are likely to reach down into red snapper land.
Once the yellowtails and mangrove snapper rise near the surface eating chum, the first bait over the side with a hook in it gets eaten. But it gets progressively tougher, because these guys are smart. Go to 6- to 8-pound clear mono on light spinning rigs, tie on a size 4 hook with no weight, then put a piece of the chum on the hook and free-line it at the same time you drop over a handful of chum. As the baited hook sinks along with the chum, the fish grab it.
Of course, a small live bait pitched into the chum stream often works wonders. A pinfish or scaled sardine about 2 to 3 inches long often catches the biggest snapper of the bunch, so it’s a good idea to make a stop inshore before heading out and collect a few dozen livies.
Yes, it’s nasty to handle and it stinks, but a bucket of chum can go a long way toward turning a slow day to fast action.