Bunker (menhaden/pogies) is a critical striped bass bait. Fresh bunker is not always easily to find on the water or at your local bait shop. The quality of frozen bait available from most tackle shops is questionable (at best). This is why some anglers swear they will not fish with frozen bait. There is a good amount of information on the web for brining bait, most of it is incomplete or more suitable for herring and ballyhoo.
Brining bait on your own is easy and will not only extend the effectiveness of any bunker you catch, but will also help you build your own stockpile of high-quality frozen bait. The techniques described here are also appropriate for brining mackerel, herring, peanut bunker, squid, and other baits.
Professional Brining Formulas
There are several manufacturers of brining additives and formulas. These certainly work, but the added benefits (if any) are really not needed when brining bunker. A carefully prepared homemade bait brine recipe will slow decomposition and maintain the firmness and scent.
Bunker decompose quickly (just leave one in the sun for a few hours) based on temperature. Putting a bunker on ice will slow the process will slow the process, but eventually bacteria and the action of enzymes will render it useless. Freezing a bunker will stop the decomposition, but the water in the flesh will crystallize and when it defrosts, the bait will be soggy and useless.
Bait Brine Recipe
Fishermen have been brining bait for many years both to extend their freshness and to prepare them for freezing. There are four simple components in this bait brine recipe which should be combined in the following proportions:
• 8 Parts crushed or cubed Ice (gallon – 132oz)
• 8 Parts sea water (gallon – 132oz)
• 1 Part kosher salt or fine non-iodized salt (pint – 16oz)
• 1/2 Part baking soda (cup – 8oz)
Salt is Critical
The kosher salt removes the moisture from the fish, slows decomposition, preserves the bait, and also helps draw the heat from the fish more quickly by lowering the freezing point of the ice/water mixture. This ensures that the thawed bait will be firm. Kosher salt is usually preferred because it dissolves easily. Fine non-iodized salt may penetrate the bait more quickly, but is really not necessary for bunker brining. Iodized salt should never be used in the bait brine recipe as it will turn the bait brown.
Baking Soda (not so secret ingredient)
The baking soda counteracts the chlorine that can be found in most local water supplies that are used to make ice. Chlorine will bleach the flesh and break it down. The baking soda will also preserve the color and shine.
Sea water is preferred to tap water because it increases the salt content in the brine (as opposed to fresh water). If fresh water is used, it is best to let it stand for several hours so that the chlorine in it can escape into the air.
Mixing the Brine
The best method is to first dissolve the salt in the water. Sea water already contains a lot of salt, so it may not completely dissolve. The baking soda should be added next and finally the ice should be added. If the bait brine is intended to last several days, sealed half-gallon bottles of ice can be added. This will keep the solution cool without diluting it.
Adding the Bait
The best method is to use a large cooler and create layers of bait and ice slurry. Be careful to preserve as much of the fish slime as possible. Be sure the top layer is the ice slurry. If there is still a lot of air space in the cooler, lay a large plastic sheet (or garbage bag) on top. This will greatly extend the life of the ice in the mixture. This bait brine receipe will also ensure that the baits are never inadvertently flash frozen. The baits will last several days and be nearly as effective as fresh bait.
When freezing baits for future use, they should be soaked in the brine for approx. 6-8 hours. This will give the brine solution enough time to draw the moisture from the bait and penetrate into the flesh. Once removed from the brine, shake off as much water as possible, and place them in a carefully sealed zip-loc bag. Vacuum sealing is even more effective.
Pro Bait Brining Tricks
When bunker are easy to get, the pros will head out with their bait brine already prepared. The bunker will immediately be placed in the brine before any decomposition can occur. Brines should never be re-used. The brine should be dumped after a few days. Prepare your pre-measured mixture of salt and baking soda and store it indefinitely in big zip-loc bags. Never let a dead bait get warm or have any chance to decompose. Treat each bait just as you would an expensive steak.
Other Brining Additives
If you do your own research on the web, you may find some other additives for bait recipes. None of these are really necessary for brining bunker.
- Bluing – This is a laundry addictive brings out the shine and is typically used when preserving herring
- Food Coloring – This is typically used when preserving squid and strip baits
- Powdered Milk – This is a firming agent and also help preserve the shine
- Borax – This is a powerful preservative typically used by taxidermists. It is more appropriate for trolling baits because it can affect the scent.
- Scent – This is typically some type of fish oil and is more appropriate for strip baits
- Clorox – This is mentioned frequently, but should never be used. It supposedly preserves color by killing bacteria, but it can easily bleach out the bait and damage the flesh.
Catch More Fish!
Brined baits that have never been frozen will last several days in the brine provided it remains cold. After that they will quickly lose their effectiveness. Baits that have been properly brined and frozen may not be quite as effective as fresh baits, but will out-fish any frozen baits from the local tackle shop. The key to using frozen bait is to just change it more often.By Capt Andy LoCascio - Host of Northeast Angling TV Share your comments on the Northeast Angling Facebook page