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Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 12, 2012
Of all the subjects I’ve covered in my how to column over the years, there is no subject that has created as much confusion and controversy or generated as many emails and phone calls as bait brining.
Here in Northern California seasoned anglers rely heavily on natural baits, whether they are fishing for halibut in the bay, targeting salmon in the ocean, chasing stripers in the Delta or trolling for kings and trout in our reservoirs.
Clearly, rigging and properly presenting natural baits is an important part of angler success, but these steps really represent the end of the process. To set the stage for properly rigging and presenting natural baits, you’ve got to start with quality bait and prepare the bait properly. This is where brining enters into the equation.
When it comes to brining baits there are really two ways to go, wet/dry brining and wet brining. I can already smell the confusion building, but stay with me. Here’s the distinction. If your baits will be used for trolling a wet/dry brining procedure is the way to go. If you will be using your baits for still fishing or drifting a simple wet brining approach is all you need.
Now before we get into recipes and procedures let’s think about the commercially produced brining compounds that are available today. Most of these products have some common characteristics. First of all most of them work very well when it comes to enhancing and preserving bait. Yet these products tend to be pricy and as near as I can tell the angler that uses them is paying a few dollars, for a few cents worth of product if he were to pick up his own components and mix up his own brine.
A lot of the commercial products claim to add exotic ingredients that make fish extra aggressive. I can’t speak to the validity of these claims, after all I’m not a fish, but in all honesty I haven’t noticed a measurable difference in terms of fishing success between baits prepared with commercial products or the home made brines I’m about to discuss.
As I’ve already alluded to, the first step in successfully brining baits is starting off with high quality bait. The best brining procedure in the world isn’t going to work well when combined with mushy spoiled bait. You want to either start off with fresh bait or super high quality frozen bait. Take anchovies for example. Chances are you won’t be able to get fresh anchovies, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for a frozen mass of bag anchovies. Instead purchase high quality tray baits and then brine them to make them perform better and last longer.
Let’s start off by looking at wet brining. This is the method you’ll want to employ when working with shad or sardines for striper fishing, anchovies for halibut drifting or mackerel and anchovies for catfish fishing. There are a few different recipes for wet brining, but the process is basically the same.
For wet brining you’ll need four basic components in addition to the bait you intend to brine (for our purposes we’ll assume that you are working with 3 pounds of baitfish) and a small ice chest to do the brining in. These components are the “brining power” (a mixture of dry ingredients), bluing, ice and water that doesn’t contain chlorine. If you let tap water set uncovered for a few hours the chlorine dissipates.
The simplest cheapest brine you can use is a simple salt solution. This is accomplished by putting a gallon of ice cubes and a gallon of water in your cooler. To this add a tablespoon of bluing to make the bait shine and two cups of rock salt, kosher salt or canning salt. Avoid iodized salt, as it will make your bait turn brown. Stir these ingredients and then incorporate your bait. By draining off the water and continuing to add ice, salt and bluing you can keep bait fresh for up to 3 days using this solution.
As good as a simple salt solution is, it can be improved upon by adding either baking soda or powdered milk or some of each. Baking powder neutralizes the enzymes that cause the flesh of the baitfish to break down and soften. Powdered milk is a protein. It causes the flesh to become firm, while maintaining it’s flexibility.
The rule of thumb when adding baking soda or powdered milk is to use half as much as these ingredients as salt. In other words if you used two cups of salt, you’d use 1 cup or baking soda or powdered milk. If you decide to go with both use a half-cup of each of baking soda and powdered milk.
Whether you use straight salt, salt/baking soda, salt/powdered milk or salt/baking soda/powdered milk all these brines will keep your bait fresh, firm and attractive looking for up to four days, provided you continue adding ice, brine powder and bluing.
These brines are also great for preparing bait for freezing. Simple soak the bait in the ice and brine mixture overnight, drain the bait, put a single layer of bait in a zip lock bag, squeeze out the air and pop it into the freezer. When you want to fish with the bait thaw it in brine and keep it in the brine throughout the fishing trip.
A lot of folks are confused about bluing. Bluing is what folks used to use for brightening white clothes before chlorine bleach hit the market. Bluing makes your bait look shiny and alive.
Some of the same companies that sell prepared brine powders sell bluing, but as with their brines they tend to be pricey. I’ve been buying Mrs. Stewarts Bluing over the web. Mrs. Stewarts sells three 8-ounce bottles of bluing for $12. For the average angler that’s probably a two or three year supply. You can purchase Mrs. Stewarts Bluing on line at http://www.mrsstewart.com.
Okay let’s move on to wet/dry brining for trolling baits. Begin by putting your baitfish, be they shad, anchovies or herring into your favorite wet brine for 24 hours. Before removing them from the water put a two to one mixture of canning salt and baking soda into a large plastic bag and mix thoroughly.
Take your baits out of the wet brine a dozen or so at a time and put them into the bag containing the salt/baking soda mix. Gently shake the bag Shake ‘N’ Bake style until the baits are thoroughly coated. Remove the baits, shake off excess powder and then place them into a dry zip lock bag and place them into the freezer. Don’t crowd the baits in the bag, in fact it pays to work them with your fingers to insure that they aren’t touching.
These baits will keep for up to a year. When you are ready to fish with them remove them from the bag and place them into a simple salt, ice and bluing solution. You’ll find these baits to be shiny and supple, yet tough enough for rigging and trolling for extended periods of time.
Bait brining doesn’t need to be intimidating, mysterious or costly. Start the process with quality bait, employ the basic ingredients and procedures I’ve outline and you’ll be well on your way to success. Yet once you’ve mastered the basics don’t be afraid to experiment, that’s part of the fun!
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