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A cast net is an essential fishing tool, but choosing the right mesh size can be tricky. This guide will walk you through the factors and keys to selecting the perfect mesh size for your needs.
What is a cast net?
A cast net is a simple yet effective fishing tool that has been used for centuries. An untapered, circular net with weights around the perimeter, a cast net is hurled by hand to trap and encircle schools of fish. The lead weights cause the net to form a circle as it sinks and traps the fish within. Cast nets come in various sizes, from only a foot or two wide to 15 feet or more. They are primarily used in shallow waters to target smaller baitfish such as shrimp, sardines, and anchovies. Larger cast nets can attract game fish like spotted seatrout and red drum that follow baitfish into shallow waters. Cast nets offer an easy and inexpensive way to catch bait for hook-and-line fishing or to harvest small fish for the dinner table.
How to choose the right mesh size
Mesh size chart
A useful guideline for choosing the most appropriate cast net mesh size is referring to a mesh size chart. These charts specify the recommended mesh sizes for different types of baitfish and sportfish. Here are some common guidelines:
- For threadfin shad or smaller minnows (under 3 inches): 3/8 to 1/2 inch mesh
- For gizzard shad, glass minnows, and mosquito fish (3 to 4 inches): 1/2 to 3/4 inch mesh
- For bluegill, perch, and other panfish (4 to 8 inches): 1 to 1 1/4 inch mesh
- For smaller croaker, pinfish, and spot (4 to 8 inches): 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inch mesh
- For average-sized mullet (8 to 12 inches): 1 1/2 to 2-inch mesh
- For larger sheepshead, drums, and mullet (over 12 inches): 2 to 3-inch mesh
Referring to these mesh size recommendations for the most common baitfish and panfish will ensure your cast net is in the optimal size range. Checking the mesh size chart is a simple step you can take before buying your cast net to dramatically increase your chances of catching fish and having a successful day on the water.
Factors that influence mesh size selection
In addition to determining the fish species you hope to catch, several other factors influence the optimal mesh size for a cast net.
- Water depth and clarity: In deeper and murkier water, you'll need a larger mesh size to compensate. This allows the weights to sink deeper before the net fully opens, so it can still envelope fish swimming lower in the water column.
- Fish size: The size of the target fish, whether baitfish or sportfish, will largely dictate the minimum mesh size needed. The mesh holes should be slightly larger than the size of the fish to ensure a high catch rate.
- Season and time of day: Certain fish, like anchovies and mojarra, school in different sizes depending on the season. Mesh sizes may need to be adjusted for different times of the year. Similarly, baitfish often gather in larger assemblages at dawn and dusk, requiring a bigger mesh during those periods.
All of these factors work together to point you toward the cast net mesh size that will produce the highest quality and quantity of fish for your particular situation. Considering water variables, target species traits, and seasonal changes will lead to choosing the "Goldilocks" mesh size - not too big and not too small, but just right.
Tips for choosing the perfect cast net
Consider fishing companions and needs
When choosing a cast net, it's important to consider who will be using it in addition to yourself. Will your children or spouse also be casting? Each angler's needs may dictate a slightly different mesh size.
For example, if you mainly target mullet with a 2-inch mesh net, but your kids want to catch bluegill, then getting a 1 to 1 1/4-inch mesh net, in addition, would allow them to catch their own panfish while you chase larger bait.
The key is finding the right compromise between mesh sizes that will work for the whole group. A general-purpose one-1/2-inch mesh can catch everything from small panfish to average-sized baitfish, satisfying the diverse needs of most fishing parties. But having a second slightly smaller or larger mesh net available will ensure that no one feels limited by the gear.
Multiple anglers with varying tackle preferences are common when families or groups go fishing together. Take this into account when shopping for cast nets, and consider buying two nets: a general purpose 1 1/2 inch net for most situations, plus either a smaller or larger mesh size based on the range of targeted species. Two cast nets, each finely tuned for different circumstances, will maximize your chances of consistent action for everyone involved - young and old.
Buy a few different sizes
One of the best strategies for a versatile cast net fishing rig is to actually buy three or four cast nets of different mesh sizes. While a single "Goldilocks" mesh size will catch some species most of the time, different nets will allow you to precisely match the hatch under a variety of conditions.
For example, you might have:
- A 3/8 to 1/2 inch net for targeting smaller shad and silversides
- A 1 to 1 1/4-inch net for general-purpose panfish catching
- A 1 1/2 to 2-inch net for medium-sized bait like pinfish and croakers
- (Optionally) a 2 to 3-inch net for larger baitfish like mullet.
Having a small, medium, and large mesh net gives you the flexibility to adapt to changing forage bases and species behavior throughout the year. On any given day, different fish may be schooled up and actively feeding. With a quiver of nets at your disposal, you can quickly select the best-sized mesh to perfectly match the forage opportunities that day has to offer.
Common cast net mistakes
While cast nets are effective fishing tools when used properly, there are some common mistakes anglers make that reduce their effectiveness. Understanding these pitfalls can help you make the most of your cast net game.
Oversizing the mesh: One of the most frequent mistakes is getting a mesh size too large for the target species. This happens when anglers overcompensate for water depth and clarity, resulting in most fish simply swimming out of the net. Always aim for a mesh that is slightly larger than the target fish.
Not casting far enough out Many anglers don't give their cast net enough "room to open" by casting it far enough from their body. To ensure a full and even spread, the net should be thrown out at least 10-15 feet to allow all of the weights to sink before the weighted rim closes the circle.
Snagging grass or structure: Cast nets should only be used in open water areas free of submerged aquatic vegetation and structure. Casting into grass, rocks, or wood often results in a hung-up net that is difficult to retrieve.
In summary, properly selecting the right mesh size cast net for the fish you want to catch and the conditions you face is perhaps the most critical factor influencing its effectiveness. By understanding what fish you target, how various environmental factors affect mesh size selection, and simple tips like referring to mesh size charts, considering the needs of fishing companions, and owning multiple nets, any angler can choose cast nets that maximize their opportunities to catch bait.
Avoiding common mistakes like using nets with mesh that is too large, not casting far enough, and throwing the net in areas prone to snagging will ensure the highest performance from your cast net. Following the basics of mesh size selection and good casting technique will allow any angler to easily catch plenty of fresh baitfish, improving their chances for an enjoyable and productive day of sport fishing. With the right cast net and mesh size in hand, the rest is just getting out on the water and soaking up the joy and satisfaction that such a simple yet effective fishing method offers. I wish you the very best of luck filling your bait well with abundant harvests from your cast net!