Ladyfish Don’t Enjoy a Good Reputation, but the ‘Poor Man’s Tarpon’ Offers Great Sport
Many years ago, I walked out on the pier that projected out into the Gulf of Mexico. I saw the emerald clear water and the school of baitfish under the pier. I saw people fishing and one angler hook a long, skinny fish that leaped, thrashed and jumped like nothing I’d ever seen before.
I asked the man what he had caught as he unhooked the brilliant silver fish and then tossed it with disgust back into the gulf.
“Nothin’ but a darned ladyfish,” He replied. “Dern worthless things!” he uttered as he went back to fishing.
I thought the ladyfish looked interesting, so I trotted back to my folks’ vacation rental motel room, got the car keys and retrieved my little old Zebco 33 rod and reel combination. I used to pester crappie, bream and small bass with it back home. I grabbed a couple of the heaviest crappie jigs I could find in the tackle box and took my bad little self back to the pier.
I cast as far as I could out into the clear gulf waters and I started my retrieve. I just knew I would hook something and I was right.
Soon, I got a very sharp strike. My line went tight and all of a sudden, I was attached to a crazy creature. This thing jumped and then it ran. Then, it jumped again, treating my poor old freshwater reel badly. I managed to get this wild thing of a fish back to the pier. When I had it in hand, it pooped on me, I mean, a whole lot of poop, too!
I was amazed and excited. I’ve been fond of ladyfish ever since that first meeting and very recently was able to introduce my grandson to the pleasure of catching ladyfish. According to him, ladyfish are lots of fun and he wants to catch some more of them.
What a Fish!
Ladyfish are members of the same group of fish as the mighty and widely popular trophy fish – tarpon. Like tarpon, they are sliver-sided, big-eyed and go crazy when hooked. Unlike the tarpon, they never get very big. A 5-pound ladyfish is a good one. Many anglers in Alabama call ladyfish “skipjack.” Whether called ladyfish or skipjack, the fish is the same.
Ladyfish almost always travel in schools. Sometimes, they roam in massive schools. Frequently, anglers can look for working birds diving on water that is boiling and bubbling with actively feeding fish below the surface. Quite often, ladyfish schools move into and out of a small area over a long period of time, so anglers can set up a boat and expect to see and catch fish there over an extended time.
Ladyfish don’t jump out of the water as much as Spanish mackerel do when they feed in schools, so it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between a feeding school of ladyfish and mackerel, even from a distance. Sometimes feeding schools will have both Spanish and ladyfish mixed together. Whatever the mix, finding a feeding frenzy busting on top is lots of fun.
Ladyfish strike violently. There’s no gentle hesitant take of a bait or lure. Ladyfish smash a bait and then run. When they feel the pressure of the line, they jump and they usually keep jumping until they are brought to hand. Then, they bleed and poop. Catching ladyfish is a good way to mess up a boat in a hurry, but it’s so much fun to catch them that it seems worth the clean-up later.
Here’s another helpful hint: Wash that blood and poop off the boat immediately. Once that nasty stuff dries and sets up, it is very hard to remove it from a fiberglass deck. At least, get it wet so it will clean up easier later.
Where to Find Ladyfish
Ladyfish can be found anywhere in coastal Alabama. From far offshore to far up past the Interstate 10 Bridge, ladyfish can and will show up. They follow the smaller bait and wherever the poor pogies, silversides and shrimp try to escape, the ladyfish follow.
In particular, ladyfish are an absolute blast when caught off the beaches of Alabama. Early in the morning, the gulf surface just out from the breakers on the beach can erupt with massive schools of feeding ladyfish. At this time, anglers can cast and catch a fighting ladyfish on every cast.
The areas around Perdido Pass can be especially good for holding big schools of feeding ladyfish in the warmer months. Dauphin Island beaches on flat calm mornings often see massive schools of feeding ladyfish chasing small bait. These fish are easy to hook and catch and they are perfect for vacationers who just want some hard line pulling and fast action.
How to Catch Them
Ladyfish are equal opportunity biters. Anglers can use spinning, bait-casting or my favorite, fly tackle. Technique is not very important when fishing for ladyfish. As long as the bait or lure reaches the fish, they will bite.
When specifically targeting ladyfish, anglers don’t need super heavy gear. A rig that will cast 12- to 15-pound-test line a long way is good. Rods about seven feet long are good and allow long casts, which are sometimes necessary when ladyfish run up and down a beach or shoreline following their prey.
A short 18-inch long leader of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon line can help eliminate break-offs and lost lures. Ladyfish have very abrasive jaws, but no big teeth. However, they can wear through a light leader quickly as they jump and fight.
Hooking ladyfish is generally very easy once their feeding school is located. Any small shiny lure that can be cast a long way will work. Minnow imitation plugs are great, but there’s a good chance the lure will be lost from repeated ladyfish strikes and fights, so don’t tie on that special one-of-a-kind lure that can’t be easily replaced. Fancy stuff is not necessary, anyway.
Simple jigs, either nylon trimmed or tipped with soft-plastic grub bodies, work fine. Most anglers can throw these a long way. Just cast out as far as possible and then reel the lure back as fast as possible. There will be no doubt when a ladyfish strikes.
An absolutely deadly ladyfish rig is the venerable bubble rig. This is a clear, water-filled plastic float that gives good casting distance attached to a short leader with a 2-inch section of drinking straw slipped on the leader above a small treble hook. This rig can be cast a long way and when ripped across the surface at warp speed, ladyfish and Spanish mackerel find it impossible to resist. All local bait and tackle shops sell bubble rigs and they don’t cost much.
My 7-year-old grandson visited us recently. After he mastered the art of casting his new spin-cast rod and reel with a small jig, he was able to do his own casting and catching when the ladyfish moved in to our stretch of beach. Judging from his yells of excitement and for help landing these big fish, the old jig and closed face spin-cast rig still works just fine on ladyfish.
My personal favorite method of catching ladyfish is to use my old been-through-the-wars 5-weight fly rod. A simple white or chartreuse streamer is all that it takes. I use an 8-foot straight section of 10-pound-test monofilament line for a leader. I use a 12-inch section of 15-pound-test line fluorocarbon as a shock and bite leader to help cut down on lost flies when the fish abrade the leader.
By the way, catching ladyfish on a white popper or other surface fly is more fun than the law should allow. It’s amazing how hard a 2-pound ladyfish can hit a topwater fly and then take to the air in the fight.
Anglers can expect that many ladyfish will jump free when they are hooked and this saves having to unhook them and suffer through the blood and poop that comes with them. Just don’t rush that lure back in after a ladyfish throws it. Quite often, another hungry ladyfish will strike a tossed lure before it gets back to the boat. In fact, in a hot school of ladies, three or four strikes and hook-ups on a single cast are quite common.
What Good Are They?
Not many people keep ladyfish for eating. Let’s be honest here. There’s not much meat on a ladyfish. Basically, ladyfish are all scales, bones and bad attitude. I’ve heard of folks who fillet them, boil them to soften the bones and then scrape the meat off the skin to make fish cakes, but I’ve never been hungry enough to try this.
One thing ladyfish are very good for is catching other bigger fish. A smaller ladyfish pinned on a stinger-hook steel leader rig is a dynamite smoker king mackerel bait. Slow troll a live ladyfish behind a boat out in the gulf and don’t be surprised when the rod bends way over and the reel starts to make noise. Kings attack ladyfish viciously.
Hook a ladyfish through the upper jaw with a big circle hook and you’ve got a very effective tarpon bait. Tarpon love to eat their smaller cousins. Drift this bait along the beaches of Alabama at night and tarpon will inhale the ladyfish. Don’t be surprised if a big shark decides to make a meal of the ladyfish, either.
Perhaps the best way to use ladyfish for bait is to cut the ladyfish up into 2-inch chunks and drop them on circle hooks down to snapper and grouper reefs in the gulf. Reef fish love to eat ladyfish chunks. Being tougher than most cut bait, ladyfish chunks stay on the hook better and longer.
For fun, put a ladyfish fillet on a circle hook above a slip sinker and let it drift over Dixey Bar for a little while and see what the big bull redfish think of it. Hold on tight to your rod. Big reds love to smash and run when they take ladyfish.
Smaller ladyfish chunks on small circle hooks are super effective bait for triggerfish. The tough skin and meat of the ladyfish chunks make it hard for triggerfish to remove the bait without getting the hook.
The best thing that ladyfish are good for is simply providing anglers, whether beginners like my grandson or more experienced anglers like me, a whole lot of fun. The beginner learns some valuable fishing skills and confidence. The older angler just gets taken back in time to enjoy again the hard strike, fast fight and spectacular leaps of the ladyfish.