A good berley (ground-bait or chum) trail is so close to being essential to catching fish when bait-fishing that to try and do so without one is mostly wasting fishing time.
The aim of a berley trail is to draw fish from the surrounding area to as close to your bait as possible. There is a key to successful fishing here; a good berley trail should concentrate fish around your bait.
This point is highly important. If the berley trail is going anywhere but where your bait is likely to be, then fish will be drawn away from your bait.
The surface method is usually achieved by hanging a berley pot over the back of the boat and pounding some bait-fish through small holes in the side of the berley pot. The best fish to use in the berley pot is the bait you are using, but another major factor is to attract small bait-fish into the trail. Little fish get eaten by bigger fish, who get eaten by bigger fish, who...
Catching bait-fish that show up in the berley trail and adding them to the berley pot is a great way of adding extra attraction to the trail. Freshly caught and killed bait-fish adds various odours that signal to predators that somewhere near fish are in trouble, and that is an irresistible attraction to predators.
If you are fishing with youngsters, putting them to work with light gear catching bait-fish is a great way of keeping them occupied till the bite comes on. Works on big kids too - me included.
One of the keys to a successful berley trail is to ensure the trail is unbroken.
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It is easy to stop 'stoking' the berley pot when fish start biting, but a break in the trail will have fish following the trail away from your baits.
A frozen block of berley works well in a stern-mounted pot too. The block slowly melts releasing small amounts of minced fish-flesh and oils. One of the key benefits of frozen berley is that the trail is continuous.
There are a number of myths about what makes a good base for a frozen berley, and one of the more persistent is that you should use any old rotten fish you can find. Fish flesh that is too-far-gone into the rotten stage of life is probably not a good idea.
But fish frames, mushy pilchards, and other bait that has gone past a useful life as bait is good enough, as long as it is not actually rotten. A good sniff usually sorts out the good from the bad.
If you are making up your own berley, try adding about one third of the volume of minced berley with water. This helps to slow down the break-up of the berley's solid material, giving your berley a longer life in the water. Adding some sand to the mixture can also help to sink the berley more quickly.
If chasing predominately bottom feeding fish, it is important that when using a stern-mounted pot a good portion of the ground bait falls to the bottom within range of your baited hooks.
Using a surface-mounted pot and berley in a current can pull the berley out and away from your bait. You can actually draw fish away from your baits. (See diagram alongside).
If the current is strong, and anything over a couple of knots can, in this context, be 'strong', it is probably best to use a bottom-berley trail system.
However if you are chasing kingfish or other fish that do spend some time near the surface, a surface berley system is ideal.
It is especially useful if there is a strong current. The surface system will quickly spread your trail over a wide area, which will help to draw in fish.
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A bottom berley trail is achieved by lowering a weighted berley-dispensing device to the bottom, lifting it up one or two metres, and letting the berley dispense at the level many of our target species feed.
Lowering a berley pot to the very bottom, even when there is a strong surface current is not productive.
There is an area right on the bottom that often has no current at all despite the current just centimetres above the bottom. The friction of the water in contact with the bottom causes this. Placing the berley pot right on the bottom can mean your ground bait is going nowhere.
There is very little choice other than to use either frozen berley in a weighted cage or one of the proprietary solid-oil type berley in a bottom pot.
But whichever berley type you use - the key, once again, to successfully fishing the trail is to ensure that your bait is in the trail. If the current is strong this may mean using heavier sinkers.
A trick that works well if using Berley-Mate brand berley is to take some of their slow-release berley, and a fast-release sausage.
Put two thirds of the slow-release sausage in the dispenser, and top it up with one third of the fast-release. The fast-release Berley-Mate will get the trail going quickly, allowing time for the slower release product to kick into action.
Another tip is to combine frozen and Berley-Mate berley, in the pot. Berley-Mate usually lasts longer than the frozen berley, so you have some insurance that the trail will not be broken by the frozen product running out before you lift the pot to check it.
Building and maintaining a good berley trail is one of the cornerstones of successfully fishing with bait. Attracting fish into the area where they can find your bait, will increase the chances of catching fish immeasurably.
Article written by Tony Bishop
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