Using a Sabiki

You can make your own, but these inexpensive and easily available bait rigs will produce and are only pennies each.

The Japanese – like all peoples of the world – love to fish, but their language is as foreign as their beautiful nation is to many of us. However, American anglers have certainly learned a word or two in Japanese, with “sabiki” being one of them (sake wine comes to mind). Sabiki means “to catch bait” in Japanese. But enough about that, let’s talk a little about how to use a sabiki rig to catch baitfish

A sabiki is a string of lures connected together onto a single leader. Sabikis usually have anywhere between 6 and 10 small hooks (although the same rig can be used with larger hooks for fish like Mackerel). Each hook is on its own dropper line which are usually about 4-6 inches long. One of the easiest baits to catch with Sabiki are Threadfin herring (also called Shad or Menhaden) and threadfin are one of our top tarpon baits.. This incredible fish is more easily caught with these live baits as they are with any other.

We have looked at just about every sabiki video on the web. You can learn how to make them yourself, too, but the hassle is just not worth it in our opinion. This video from a guy named Lily Kay on YouTube is actually the best one of all that we’ve found. He covers the bait catchers all the way from start to finish (on the water!). We have included a range of sabiki tackle at the bottom of the article.

About catching tarpon on live baits:

Since we mentioned tarpon we should take a moment and talk about them.

The use of circle hooks keeps the fish from swallowing them, and no-gaff hand-releases by experienced anglers sets a post-release survival rate that is in the high ninety percentile. It is important not to use tackle that is too light when chasing “poons,” because if you fight a tarpon for 30 or 40 minutes it is either going to drown, or be an easy target for predators such as bull sharks and those nasty hammerheads. So please use the right tackle. Don’t touch them more than you need to. Land them fast, release them quickly, and they’re gonna get caught again if they’re not smart. Hope that if they do get hooked, the next angler’s as ethical and careful as you are and you teach your kids (and any interested angler) to be.

The hooks connected to the main leader of the sabiki are made from tiny gold (usually but not always) hooks. The hooks are covered with foil or Mylar plastic clipped with scissors we think so they’re the shape of a tiny fishie. Some very effective varieties are impregnated with fish or shrimp and some are even made from fish skin. Sabikis are a proven, effective, and simple way to catch bait. Many experienced anglers prefer sabiki rigs instead of cast nets because the baits are less injured and usually stay alive longer and are much livelier. Some very effective varieties are impregnated with fish or shrimp and some are even made from fish skin.

sabiki rig
Assorted 22 Packs Freshwater/Saltwater Sabiki Bait
Buy on Amazon

In short, a sabiki is a lure for baitfish, and one that’s perfect for catching tarpon bait. They come in different sizes for different sized baits. We’re talking about small ones used for small baitfish and large ones used for larger baitfish.

At the bottom of the main leader is a clip. The clip can be opened so you can connect the bottom of the leader to what is called a “Bell” sinker (Bell lead) or a pyramid sinker. On the other (top) end of the leader is a small barrel swivel. You tie your leader to the empty ring at the top of the sabiki rig, and lead to the bottom. We also use “Teardrop” sinkers, “Bank Sinkers, and if you’re in really deep water, what’s called a “Disk” sinker.

When you’re learning how to use a sabiki rig for bait, the gear you need can be light and easy to grab, handle, and (very important) get out of your way. Sabiki rigs are a collection of sharp little gold hooks tied to one line. Yes, they’re great for bait, but be careful cause they’ll catch a lot more than threadfins; anything from your shirt, hat, pants, skin, eyes, hair, toes, other rods – absolutely anything will grab them. They stick quick and deep, and are not all that easy to remove. But, they can be ripped out of you without doing the “String Trick Hook Removal.”

Peacock bass sabiki rig

If you are fishing for grouper in deep water, or need to cover more ground to reach the bait, or the flow is such that you need heavier weight, than naturally you will need an appropriate rod. The normal sabiki rod we use is a seven foot, which can easily control a bell sinker of an ounce or an ounce-and-a-half. That much weight will usually reach any bait you need. Beyond 80 feet or so of water, figure you are going to just connect a sabiki rig to the grouper rod next to you, and easily drop a four, six, or eight-ounce rig to where small fish are eating.

Special Fishing Rods Designed for Sabiki

Special sabiki rods showed up around eight or ten years ago, and some people really swear by them. Some of us love them and some find using a seven foot spinning rod that can handle a nice gold or silver spoon on the same trip is a more effective use of the available space on any boat. But they are effective. They use a hollow rod, so when you fully retrieve the lure, the entire leader – with all the swinging and cloth-and-skin-grabbing tiny gold hooks – is pulled into the tube that is the rod blank. Again, people that love them love them. We do not love them. If you see them advertising on the site, that will not change. We do not deny people the ability to reach you with their products, but those products have to have passed a test of time and use by experienced anglers, and sabiki rods have definitely done that. Publisher Captain David Rieumont swears by them, as do many of the professionals that support the site and contribute their excellent reports and content. Others use handlines to drop the bait lures. But either way, the lure works.

Sabiki Rod

Special Sabiki rods allow you to put a small level-wind reel (way better than a spinning reel) made for largemouth bass fishing onto the reel seat. You then run the line into the small entry-hole that goes into the tube-like fishing rod. The end is capped with a specially-made reverted cone that replaces the loop-closing role guides play on a regular fishing rod. The concept works well, and a lot of anglers are completely willing to put an extra — albeit limited use — rod on the boat. You can “sabiki” bait (the verb form of the Japanese word we hope) with a regular seven-and-a-half-foot spinning rod, a PVC pipe, or a handline. This is just an angler’s delight for the toy nut that is well worth the investment. You keep the hooks out of the way, and assuming the bait doesn’t just eat every single gold hook first drop, save a lure or two.

One major advantage of a sabiki rod is when you’ve caught all the bait you need to fill (“blacked-out”) your live well, the sabikis are put away for the next time, along with the rod. Those of use that do not use them are more likely to discard the used sabikis. Sabikis themselves are pretty fragile, and you will lose a lot of the hooks to bait or mackerel if they’re around. Either way, make sure you discard your sabikis properly. We know guys who tie their own, and clip the hooks off for a re-rig. Us? No way we’re gonna tie those little suckers when a six-pack of great sabikis can be bought at one of the shows or online for a few bucks.

Special Sabiki rods allow you to put a small level-wind reel (way better than a spinning reel) made for largemouth bass fishing onto the reel seat.

Sabiki lures are real powerhouses. Before you use them, take a look at what they’re wrapped in — the package. They are marked on the sides. One side says “Rod Side” and one side says “Sinker”. Believe us when we say we didn’t bother to read the freaken package the first eight times we used them, and connected a loop to the clip, the clip to our eyelid, and the eyelid to a beer cap. Look at the package.

Sabiki Sinker packageIf you look at the packaging of these Sabiki bait lures, you will see that they’re marked so you know which side is which.

Rip the top off of the plastic bag. Be careful!!! Do NOT let the little strip of stuff get into the water. Bad enough it’s gonna be found by archeologists in the modern equivalent of a Midden. You will see two things hanging out. There is a little barrel swivel sticking out of the bag on one side:

Sabiki swivel

And on the other side, a clip. Open the clip:

Sabiki Sinker Clip

Tie your line directly to the empty ring on the swivel. Some anglers do not tie sabikis directly to their braided line; they use a regular leader and tie the sabiki to that. But we think it leaves one knot too many in the mix.

Clip the bell sinker onto the clip

Sabiki Bell Leads

A Bell Sinker is shaped like a bell made out of lead and has a loop twisted from wire embedded in the body of the fishing weight.

Tying on the Sabiki and the Weight

Holding the bell sinker in your left hand and while pinching the swivel/knot, start gently pulling the swivel away from the bag. The individual gold hooks wrapped in foil or shiny plastic will start pulling themselves out of the bag. You can hear the pop, almost, or click as they separate from the packaging. Be careful of the hooks. We do not know if we told you, but man, will that catch on stuff. You. Rods, reels, telephones, towels, anything. Keep them in the air.Connect the line to the barrel swivel (on the “Rod Side”) and a Bell Fishing Weight to the “Sinker” side, slowly pull the individual bait lures out of the package one-by-one. They pop and click as they’re released from the slices in the cardboard they’re attached to. The packaging is really quite ingenious and effective once you get used to it. It makes the troublesome lures easy to rig. The first time you use them. After that they are a cobweb of gold hooks ready to trap the closest spider. You!When the last one comes out, the bag will fall away. Make sure somebody grabs it and disposes of it properly. We could fill a truck with stuff we accidentally let fall into the water beyond our reach — or have spent a good half hour more often trying to grab that little sucker that blew away. Be careful of the room you’re in — even if it does span two-thirds of the planet.

So now that we have filled your fish-starved brain with a ton of information about these unique lures designed for tiny bait fish, let’s look at actually catching fish with them.

Using Sabiki Near Bridges and Other Structure:

You are going to use Sabiki where the fish are — and if you’re looking for threadfin, check the big markers in your waters. They tend to sit around them, mostly on the down-tide side of the marker. They’re only trying to rest. We’ve seen a cloud of them sitting with a cobia in their midst, or fanning gently in strong current right in front of the otherwise-dangerous mouths of three threadfin. They hang around structure like markers. If you’re talking structure – or looking for Threadfin (or Scaled Sardines built to feed tarpon) — the big bridges are a prime hunting ground. If you have a bottom finder, watch it closely. Bait schools — which are attracted to structure and sit near bridges — look like a big black cloud. They’re usually heavier in one layer of the water column than another, but if they’re deep enough near the bridges or other structure the bottom finder will find them — and a sabiki will identify them – when you eyes see nary a flash.

Use Electronics to Identify Bait and Choose the Right Sabiki

If you are on a boat, Watch your finder and use the rigged Sabiki lures to identify and search for the right baits. If you catch a threadfin and you’re looking for Scaled Sardines, don’t bother throwing more casts or (worst yet) throwing a twelve foot castnet near the skyway just because you saw a black spot on your finder. We’ve thrown nets onto catfish, so trust us when we say Sabikis can save you some heartache at worse and sore muscles at best. If you’re using a Sabiki to catch Scaled Sardines in skinny (shallow, grassy) water, don’t use a heavy weight — they’ll get you stuck in the grass or keep the baits too low. Use the lightest weight you can cast far enough to reach the bait you have chummed up to your boat. And yes, you can chum sardines to your boat and use a split-shot to get the lure far enough away to load your well with frisky whitebaits.

Catching Baits in Open Water Using a Sabiki

Watch open water for birds. Threadfin show like raindrops hitting the surface — they do not leave the water when they’re schooling, rather dimpling the surface (sort-of) in one direction — as if the rain was being driven by wind. They differ in that open-water behavior from Shad — which flip their tails out of the water and look (and sound) for all the world like a tiny helicopter side-crashing onto the water. But both will eat a sabiki, sometimes five at a time. It is far from easy to open and close a castnet in open, deep water. Even the pros do not find it as easy as using a net near structure — like a huge piling holding up the world’s coolest suspension bridge. The nets don’t sink the same, the conditions are different, and the bait has four times the places to get away compared to moving alongside a stable structure. If they’re in between your boat and the piling, they have front and back to escape through. It’s not easy for them to turn around quickly, either, especially against a running current. In open water the entire school runs out from the center of a circle as quick as their little fins will move them. Which is very fast. The circle they’re running out of is the shadow formed by your descending net. No matter how flat or fast or quick you throw a net, a well-rigged and well-cast sabiki will let you stay away from the school (they sound fast in deep open water – the run is outside the circle in all directions, sideways, angled, and straight down). You can cast into the raindrops, grab a few baits without freaking out the entire community of frisky and tasty tarpon baits, and do it twenty times. That’s 80 baits — more than enough to catch more tarpon than your arms will be willing to land. Or able to land.

Sabiki Surf Fishing

Casting or Dropping a Sabiki Rig:

When the fish are near the bridges or big structure like the training markers in Tampa Bay, dropping the bait — with an appropriately-sized Bell Sinker — is all you need to do. You will feel the first fish bite and hook. Lift the rod gently but do not pull that one up. Their shaking and attempt to escape (which they often do, so be patient) wiggles the remaining as-yet-unbitten lures, and can result in multiple hookups. The weight of the rod will let you know when it doubles, triples, and finishes at five times the weight of the first fish hooked on these highly-effective and tried-and-true lures for Tarpon Bait.

  • Tip 1: One of the great secrets of using a sabiki rig is to “tip” the last two bottom hooks with either a tiny piece of a frozen squid or a piece of Berkley Saltwater strip bait. The Berkley Gulp! Square Patches are great for this. All you need is a tiny slice the size of your fingernail. It will catch “Pigfish” — an even more effective (read PERFECT) bait for Tarpon and even monster (!) snook. The biggest snook you will ever encounter — ones that will laugh at most lures and almost all bait — will eat a pigfish in a single swallow.
  • Tip 2: Although we’re talking here about using Sabiki to catch threadfin (or large scaled sardines, which you also find at the same markers and big bridge structure) for tarpon, you should realize that the same techniques we discuss here in a Tarpon article work for a wide variety of different small fish, and they work almost anywhere in the world. So whether you’re short of live bait in 90′ of water off shore in grouper-land or in six feet of water catching cigar minnows on the Yucatan, having a few packs of sabiki and the appropriate weights for the depth is always a good idea. If you’re gonna be stuck on a desert island, make sure you keep one close to your soccer ball)

For all the great stuff we’ve said now about Sabiki rigs, realize that they cause a lot of bird deaths. Many of these events happen when people are fishing from high bridges (the Skyway, for example) where the birds fly between the deck and the surface of the water. In addition, birds will quickly attempt to grab a piece of bait off of a dangling sabiki, so using them from any bridge stucture has to be done with care.

We wrote an article about that very fact a while back, and you can find it here

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On 06/21 by TOF Staff posted in Bait, How-to Fish

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