Goggle-eyes don’t hold bankers’ hours. They move under cover of darkness. That’s why they have such big eyes; so they can stick together and evade predators.
Technically speaking, it’s a bigeye scad, or if you’re fishing south of the border a caballito, which translates to little horse. It’s an opportune nickname because wrangling this prized baitfish requires an understanding of tide, current, moon phase and water temperature.
Weekend warriors typically don’t have the time, or drive, it takes to load up on gogs. They rely on a network of strong-willed bait men to keep them stocked. And like other commodities, the price of goggle-eyes fluctuates with demand. Come tournament time, you may pay $10 or more per bait. That adds up quickly when you need several dozen in the tank for a day of fishing.
I meet Tyler Hall at Lighthouse Point Marina in Florida’s Fort Lauderdale area, where he’s unloading a few round plastic bins that resemble four-person Jacuzzi tubs from his pickup truck. He’s tall and wiry, with fast-moving eyes and exaggerated facial expressions. He’s high energy. He moves quickly and expeditiously as we walk down the dock toward the fuel pumps. Tyler began catching bait as a teenager, growing up in Pompano, Florida, always with a fishing rod in his hands. He’s now building his own bait empire, selling delicately handled assets at two of the busiest marinas in the area, Lighthouse Point and Lauderdale Marina.
As we walk toward the fuel dock, Hall says hello to a pair of older gents who have just returned from a day of fishing. It’s about 5 p.m. Hall recently woke from a nap after a long night catching bait. “It was a good kingfish bite today,” one of the men says. “We had a big sailfish on, too, but we lost it.”
Hall gives him a little grief about losing the fish but congratulates the guys on a good day. “You give me a call if you need some fresh bait later in the week,” he says as we move on.
I spy two large tanks on the fuel dock and several more in the water, tied off and taking up an entire slip. Pool pumps supply a steady stream of water into the big tanks on the dock. One pen holds goggle-eyes, selling for $85 a dozen. Another tank holds pilchards for $60 a dozen. This is the heart of Hall’s operation, 954 Live Bait.
Each pen holds 10 to 20 dozen baits swimming in circles. I ask Hall if he has to feed them. He says they often get sold so fast that it’s not necessary. Sometimes during summer, when demand is low, he will cut small chunks of fresh bonito and barracuda that he takes spearfishing and feeds them to the baits, which never stop swimming. “It’s kind of like putting a fat guy on a treadmill with no food. After a while, he’s going to die,” Hall says.
I ask if he makes the pens, and he says he build some of them. “That makes sense,” I say. “It’s not like you can go buy them at Home Depot.”
“No,” Hall says, “we buy the big ones at Tank Depot.” He’s not kidding. Tank Depot is a store that sells the large, opaque plastic containers, which are meant to store chemicals. Hall shows me the intricate plumbing he concocted to keep the system running. There are giant ball valves to control the overflow. He demonstrates how he can shut things down to drain and clean the tanks. As he talks, the fuel attendant scoops out three baits and sells them to a guy bobbing in a kayak.
“We’ve got the best bait in town,” says Jeff Reuss, the man running the gas dock. The marina buys bait from Hall at wholesale and resells it at retail. “There’s no competition. I’ve had guys come and buy every single bait we had,” he says.
Reuss asks if we want a water or a soda. He comes back with the drinks, and as I stumble for my wallet, he says it’s on the house. I get the impression Hall’s bait must make the marina some good coin. Reuss doesn’t look like the kind of guy who gives much away.
At 33, Hall has the enthusiasm and drive required to build this type of business. You can’t do what he does over a Zoom call; it requires never-ending energy and muscle.
It’s a Thursday afternoon, and there are two big tournaments taking place during the weekend. Hall’s phone rings and dings with orders. He needs to stock up. It’s time to go fishing. “You’ve got to make hay while the sun is shining,” he says.
We leave the marina and head south on I-95. Hall keeps his 27-foot Conch center consle on a trailer so he can launch closer to where he fishes for bait. We drive toward an inlet, the name of which I’ve been asked to withhold. There is an hour and a half of daylight left, and Hall expects the gogs to start biting when the light gets low.
We board his boat, which is covered in graphics and big, bold letters announcing the name of his company. The boat is simple and Spartan. The interior is sprayed with a thick layer of Line X protective coating. The boat is completely customized for what Hall does. There’s a 200-gallon live well in the bow and a 100-gallon well in the stern. He runs the wells off of a Hooker Electric pump. He flips a switch, and the big tank forward fills in a few minutes. The flow rate is impressive. This is no duct-tape operation.
The boat has a long history of catching fish in South Florida. Hall bought it from another bait man, and it also was owned by prolific tournament angler Art Sapp. It’s powered by twin 225-hp Mercury outboards. The previous engines, which were old 2-strokes, sounded “like a bumblebee in my ear all day,” Hall says. The new outboards are quiet and efficient, but we never have to get up on plane.
On board with us is Mitch Martineau, who’s also tall and wiry, sipping an energy drink out of a brightly colored can. He’s been working for Hall for a year and a half but catching bait as an occupation for eight years. Martineau used to be a crane operator. Hall ran a landscaping business while he saved money to purchase his first boat.
I ask Hall if he ever fishes for fun. He says the timing doesn’t work for him; when the fishing is good, he’s too busy catching bait. “I can’t risk losing the time and money to go catch fun fish,” he says.
There are only two rods on the boat, and they’re long — 10 and 12 feet — with whippy tips. They resemble surf-casting rods and have a stout midsection so the bait can be swung over the side of the gunwale. They’re spooled with 30-pound clear mono tied directly to a sabiki rig, and a chunky weight sits on the end. Simple.
We idle around, watching the sounder. “This is the most beautiful place in the entire world,” Hall says. We make a few drifts but don’t mark much. A Spanish mackerel whacks one of the quills in the water next to the boat and gets hooked. Hall cusses out the fish for messing up his sabiki. He splices a few more quills on, combining sections of two rigs. He never uses a net to catch bait. “The nets destroy the bait’s slime coat, which protects them and acts as their immunity,” he says.
Hall and Martineau treat their baits carefully, never touching them. They drop the fish directly into the tank using a dehooker. “When the customer puts the bait on a hook, that’s the first time it’s touched,” Hall says.
It’s four days before the full moon, and the current is ripping with an outgoing tide. Goggle-eyes migrate, so catching them is a game of cat and mouse. Sometimes they’re out in deeper water. During the winter, they move south. “As the fish move, we move,” Hall says.
The sabiki rigs are 8 feet long. Martineau fishes a 16-ounce lead to get to the bottom quickly. Tyler’s weight is a bit lighter so he can log more bites in the middle of the water column. He buys sabikis by the box. I watch in awe as he splices lines in seconds, with one hand moving between the steering wheel and the throttle. He uses his mouth as a third hand, to hold the line. Later, I’d watch him unravel a tangle in complete darkness. Muscle memory and eagle-eye vision give him his super-hero power.
As the current picks up and the sky grows dark, the goggle-eyes appear. We’re the only boat out, except for ships moving through the channel. Martineau and Hall work at a maddening pace. Drop down, crank the reel a few times, lift the long rod high and pull up a stringer full of kicking bait. I can see why it helps to be tall in this occupation; you need long arms to hold the rod with one hand as you unhook baits with the other and drop them into the pickle jar.
What starts as a trickle becomes a river of bait. The surface is rippled with rising baitfish. The sounder is covered in red boomerangs and blobs from top to bottom. “I’ve never seen gogs congregate like this,” I say.
“I think they’re spawning,” Hall says. “It only happens a few weeks a year.”
Hall has zeroed in on the biomass like a migrating humpback whale following herring. Both fishermen wear wide smiles as they fill the tanks, counting as they go. Each sabiki holds eight to 10 hooks, and when they load up, it’s roughly equal to a $50 bill. The action is nonstop. It’s like winning every time you pull the handle of a slot machine, but it’s not luck that keeps them in the money. It’s years of hard work and local knowledge. Hall asks if I’d like to give it a try, but I decline. This is money fishing, and I don’t want to hurt the bottom line.
The action slows after 90 minutes or so. We follow the bait a bit offshore, trying to stay on top of them, but they begin to disperse in all directions. Full quivers of bait give way to singles and doubles. And just as fast as the action kicked off, it abates to a trickle. In a few hours, the guys catch 300 baits. Not a bad haul, but it’s typically not this fast and furious. On most nights, they fish till the sun comes up, battling sharks and king mackerel that take their prize and slash their rigs. This night is special.
We head to Lauderdale Marina to transfer the gogs from the boat to Hall’s tanks on the dock. Diners watch as Martineau walks past with 5-gallon buckets. They put just two or three baits in a bucket at a time so they don’t damage them. It seems to take longer to transfer the baits than it did to catch them. I pick up a few fallen soldiers from the deck of the boat and place them in a bucket to feed to the monster tarpon that cruise through the glow of the dock lights. A covey of 20-something women ask if they can try it, and I’m engulfed by social media influencers making Tik-Tok videos. Their screams are a mix of disgust and glee.
Our last stop is a house on a canal not far away. Hall idles up to the bulkhead, and Martineau pulls the customer’s bait pen over to the boat. They pop open the lid and transfer two dozen frisky gogs. Hall texts the customer: “Just dropped off your bait, good luck tomorrow.”
It’s bait by Instacart. Now that’s what I’d call customer service.