Part 4 - Collecting, Fishing, and Keeping Natural Baits
Over the course of my fishing life, it has become obvious to me that day in and day out nothing outproduces natural baits. This is especially true when targeting rare native species about which not much is known of their feeding habits. For predatory fish like gar, muskellunge, bowfin and catfish, having a good lively baitfish indigenous to the water you are fishing is by far your best bet for connecting with the species you’d like to catch. I’ve seen just about every species of fish hooked on a nightcrawler at one time or another. A nightcrawler fished on the bottom of many rivers can produce outstanding species tallies, not to mention being your best option for some of our scarcest species like blue suckers, black redhorse, buffalos and sturgeons. Frogs or waterdogs can bring explosive strikes at certain times of the year. Live crayfish are impossible for many species to resist. A working knowledge of various kinds of natural baits and different rigging options for the situation you find yourself in is invaluable to the successful fisherman. This five-part series of articles is meant to be a rudimentary overview of bait-fishing essentials.
A good supply of fresh, lively bait is always a good start to a fishing excursion. There are many ways to obtain fresh bait, the easiest probably being a local bait shop. However, bait shops often have the same old variety no matter where you go, and sometimes their bait is not good and fresh. Their minnows have been shipped across state, stressed and neglected in a hot bait truck then dumped into tanks and sorted. Many are missing scales, bruised or even have fungus. It is nearly impossible to expect the bait shop to have good lively minnows indigenous to the water you are fishing, and these are by far the best baitfish to be using. Their nightcrawlers are expensive and tend to be weak, old or just plain dead. Good luck finding a shop that carries willow cats, waterdogs, bullheads or frogs. If you find one, let me know. So the best way to keep yourself in a good supply of bait is to gather it for yourself. It’s not as difficult as you may think. Here’s some specifics about various natural baits. Keep in mind that different states and provinces have different regulations regarding what can or can’t be used for bait and how you can gather it.
Minnows and Other Baitfishes
There are a lot of ways to gather minnows and baitfish. One of the simplest and best ways is to catch your bait on hook and line, as you fish another rod. Use a light rod set up with a micro fixed-float, maybe a small shot if necessary, and a very small fly hook, #18-24. Bait this rig with a tiny slice of angleworm, maybe up to the size of a peppercorn. Scan the water for schools of minnows, or just try around weeds or brush. This is a good way to gather various good-sized shiners, gizzard shad and chubs. Another method is to set out a minnow trap of some sort. All shapes and sizes of traps exist, and most work quite well. I’ve seen a few pro minnow trappers’ rigs and they are all different but get the job done. Put a buoy on it and bait it with dog food or donuts or something. Umbrella nets are a very useful tool at times. I’ve caught lots of great bait from concrete walls or fishing platforms below small dams. Lower the net down and let it sink 4 feet or so under the surface. Next chum on top of the net with bread, and when you see a good amount of minnows over the net quickly pull it up. This can be very effective. Good luck if some carp get on your bread chum, however. They can wreck a net quick. Cast-netting is probably the best way to gather large amounts of baitfish. Most people believe that the skill of throwing a cast-net well is some sort of mystical feat, but I learned rather quickly. The key was following each and every step explained exactly, then getting out on the water and practicing. Scan the water for dense schools of shiners or gizzard shad or try some chumming with bread, then try to cover the school with the net. Often more bait than you could use in a whole year will be taken with just one cast. Another mass-quantity minnow-gathering tactic is seining. Dip- nets are another option for gathering minnows. With two dip-nets you can use one to herd the minnows into the other.
If you’re fishing from a boat with a livewell, put your baitfish in there. For shore-bound anglers, a flow-troll type minnow bucket(usually yellow and white with holes in it) is best because it keeps fresh water circulating continuously. Keep it tied to your forked stick or staked out farther. Another option, especially for large baitfish is a mesh keep-sack. These come in different sizes and one end floats and one sinks. This can be staked out in the water and your bait will keep lively for days. I’m lucky enough to have a small creek in my backyard so I keep my baitfish alive in it using flow-trolls and keep-sacks. An old washtub with holes in it also works well, but without a cover you’ll lose your bait in a flood or to the raccoons. 5-gallon buckets or larger containers can also be used. Be sure to keep them in a cool place in the summer, and change the water regularly. A small aquarium aerator also helps keep your baitfish lively for extended periods. Most minnows and other baitfish can be fed bread, cereal, fish flakes or bloodworms. If you can find a source of daphnia or mosquito larva, your minnows will love you and gladly sacrifice their life for the catching of a trophy fish when the time comes. For vehicle transport, a 5-gallon bucket with some kind of aeration is recommended. Excess baitfish can be frozen in ziplock bags for later use as dead or cut bait.
Always be on the lookout for potential new bait-gathering spots. Small creeks can be a goldmine. Many varieties of shiners, chubs, suckers, bullheads or panfish can be found here. Where I live, the whereabouts of a good bullhead spot is protected like a whiskey still. Serious Flathead Catfish anglers know there is no better bait for their quarry. I always prefer to hook my minnows under or just behind the dorsal fin, lightly and with the hook pointing toward the head. This increases the chance of a good hookup. Lip-hooking a minnow will not allow it to breathe and it will die in a short time. If you must lip-hook your minnow, hook it just through the top lip so it can open and close it’s mouth. And, don’t have a dead baitfish out there unless that’s what you’re going for. Keep them fresh and lively and the fish will respond. A lively bait freelined with no weight around structure is often a killer on predatory fish. On a trout stream, there is no better bait for large fish than a lively sculpin fished around logs or undercut banks. Keep a tight drag, or a large trout will take you straight into the cover.
Nightcrawlers and Angleworms
Rainy springtime evenings I can often be found hunched over the dim glow of a half-dead flashlight with a small metal pail, slowly covering the yard with slow sweeps. The neighbors recognize my camo raincoat I guess, and don’t call the police about some crazy prowler in the neighborhood. I’m gathering nightcrawlers for upcoming fishing outings, the best way I know of. My dad taught me how to pick ‘crawlers when I was very young, and I’ve been doing it ever since. A full bait box of as many fresh nightcrawlers as we will need always accompanies me whenever I go fishing anywhere. It’s an absolute necessity in my mind. First off, you need to find a good crawler hunting grounds. Basically any field or lawn will work, as long as it isn’t soaked with lawn chemicals. Anywhere the grass has been fertilized or treated with pesticides will be devoid of nightcrawlers. Another consideration is the length of the grass. It is very difficult to pick crawlers in long grass, so a good mow before you pick is a good idea. Gardens or areas of dirt and sparse grass are very good spots to look as well. The key is a good soaking in the top layer of soil. A good hard rain is obviously best, but you can achieve fine results by running a sprinkler on your best picking grounds the few hours before dark. Wait another hour or so after darkness falls, then get after them. The nightcrawlers will be laying stretched out on the ground with their tails still down their burrow. A bright light will usually spook them back down, so that’s why I go with a very dim light. Some guys use red or blue filters on their lights and I’m sure this works great. You have to move very fast in order to grab the crawler before he retreats down his burrow, making sure not to make ground vibrations and spook them. Grab the nightcrawler near the head between your thumb and forefinger, and gently pull upward. Don’t pull too hard or they will break, making them worthless. Often you will find “maters”, or two crawlers from different burrows connected at the collar in the mating ritual. It’s easy to drop your pail and grab both for a double. Sometimes after very hard rains and if you’re very lucky, for some reason nightcrawlers will take to the flooded streets in huge numbers. At these times you can scoop up a gross or more in no time. I’ve never been lucky enough to find this. Of course, you can also try to dig them up with a shovel during daylight hours, along with the smaller angleworms. Keeping a compost pile attracts worms very well. If you find yourself on-stream and wanting a crawler or angleworm, look for any log or rock lying in shaded, damp woods and turn them over. Or, possibly a pile of bark or rotting sticks or moss. Good bait can always be found here, with white grubs, salamanders and centipedes adding to the bait box as well.
Your crawlers and angleworms can be stored for long periods of time with the right care. After you pick them, make sure to rinse them clean and make sure that none are damaged or dead before putting them in the bedding. I always use rainwater or aquarium water to rinse my crawlers and mix their bedding, and I suggest at least de-chlorinating the water for best results. I use commercial-type worm bedding, which I think is made from recycled newspapers or something. Anyway, it is very clean and keeps worms well. Mix this powdery bedding with water and knead it around, until it is all of the same damp consistency. When squeezed, it should just drip and not gush excess water, you don’t want the bedding to be too soggy. The size of your container determines how many crawlers you can keep. I’ve made simple containers from foam coolers, and they worked great. Some ventilation is needed, however. You can buy various styles of worm motels, and they all do the job nicely. For something to bring with on an outing, I recommend the two-sided boxes that allow you to access both the top and bottom. The worms will gravitate to the bottom of the box, so flip it over and they will be on top. Six to ten dozen will live well in these type boxes. I have one with a slip-in ice pack, which is an excellent idea and keeps my crawlers fresh in the hottest weather.
Worm Fishing Tips
Nightcrawlers and angleworms are the bread and butter of most river fishing. When fished properly absolutely any species of fish can be caught on them. Fish just love worms. It’s as simple as that. They are basically your only bait option for many fish like redhorse, buffalos, sturgeons, white suckers and blue suckers. Catfish, bass, panfish, drum, mooneyes and walleyes can’t resist a juicy crawler either. The most common mistake I see is anglers using a whole nightcrawler, hooked just once in the nose and with the remaining ten inches hanging free. This doesn’t work. Fish will simply steal your bait or tear it in half. I usually fish halved nightcrawlers on the bottom of rivers using some kind of stationary free-sliding weight rig, using different weights depending on the conditions. I’ll thread the crawler chunk on a #4-#10 circle hook and leave it at that. Circle hooks are recommended because of a the fish’s tendency to swallow a crawler very quickly and this hook style reduces deep-hooking. After casting out to a spot very near or in the main current or an eddy, I will set my rod in a forked stick and reel up the slack so any tiny twitch can be seen on the rod tip. Many suckers, perches and trout will barely move your rod tip when they take a crawler, so you must pay close attention. When a fish takes your bait, either let him tap it for a few moments then set the hook, or pick up the rod being careful not to let the fish feel you, then gently feel for the bite with the rod in your hand and set the hook when you think he has it. It usually takes no more than a few seconds for a fish to have a crawler. Worms and crawlers also are a deadly bait presentation when drifted with the current. A slinky or split-shot rig is best for this type of fishing. Cast the rig upstream and allow it to sink on a slack line, then follow it downstream as it bounces along with the current, occasionally hanging up is all right too. Strikes will be either a halt in the drift or sometimes a sharp tap-tap. Set the hook if anything feels out of the ordinary in your drift. There really is no better presentation for stream trout, as they just can’t resist a drifting angleworm or small nightcrawler. Fishing a worm or crawler under a float is one of the simplest ways to fish, but can be effective. Work the float around riprap, logs or brush, on current seams or eddies. This is a deadly panfish tactic.
Sweet corn or prepared hard feed corn is a good bait for carp. I’ve seen other fish taken on corn, but not very often and I wouldn’t recommend it for anything but carp. Once you get to your chosen spot, look for an area with little or no current and lay out a good bed of chum in the vicinity. Throw it out by the handful or use a slingshot if one is available. I like to chum one whole can to begin with, then sparsely chum whenever I feel it’s necessary after that. Thread enough kernels on to fill the hook, then toss your bottom-rig out into the area of the chum. Set your rod in a forked stick and wait. A baitrunner or clicker reel works great for this kind of fishing. It often takes quite a while for the carp to find your chum, up to an hour and a half, but once they find it usually you’ll catch lots of them. Once you catch a few, re-chum.
Spawn (Fish Eggs)
Salmon, trout or sucker eggs are a popular natural bait for the same species they come from. Jars of commercially-prepared eggs can be purchased, but from my experience don’t work very well. You are just as well off using a plain yarn fly in my opinion. Fresh spawn is a different matter altogether. I’ve fished a commercial spawn sac through a run in a steelhead river in the fall with no hits, then put on one of my home-tied brown trout spawn sacs and couldn’t keep the trout off it. Smolts and resident brookies swarmed after the flavorful morsel, and in no time I was hooked up with a powerful rod-bending steelhead peeling out drag downstream. To gather fresh spawn you must catch and kill a female fish that has good eggs. It must be gathered sometime before the time the fish spawn, and the closer to the spawn the riper and better the eggs will be for fishing. Once you get some, you can either freeze it like it is or shake it in borax to preserve and toughen it before freezing. I prefer to not add borax, my thinking being that the more natural it smells the better. Before you plan on using it, thaw out the spawn and make it into small spawn bags using fine colored mesh. Generally bags from the size of a pea to the size of a grape will suffice, but some Chinook salmon anglers use golf ball-sized bags. Often smaller is better in my experience. Cut a 3" square of mesh and put a cluster of eggs in the center. Now gather the ball between your fingers and twist the mesh above it to cinch it up. Use sewing or fly-tying thread to make numerous wraps around the material just above the ball, then trim it close. Some anglers prefer to tie the thread off, but I have never found it necessary. Ziplock bags do not work well for carrying spawn, as the sacs get mushed up a bit. Use a small tupperware container or even better a small bait boffer(a small bait container made to fit on your belt with a hinged lid). Make different layers seperated by wax paper in the container. Spawn is best fished on the drift, with either a flyrod or long, light-tipped spinning rod. Short drifts of 10-20 feet are made, with the focus on being right on the bottom at all times, in total contact with your offering. Any slight pause or tap or halt in your drift should be met with a strike.
Crayfish are an excellent bait for all types of fish. Whether fished live, dead, or using just their tails, fish are drawn to their scent and can’t resist eating them. They are always found around rocks and rubble, as they hide in the crevaces and generally venture out after dark to feed and mate. A trap set in a rocky area and baited with some kind of fish will sometimes produce many crayfish. One good bait for a trap is canned mackerel or tuna. Canned fishy cat food also works. Another gathering method is to simply wade around in one of these rocky areas and turn over rocks, looking for the crayfish lying underneath or scooting backward away. A small net can be useful, but a quick hand is usually all it takes to grab a feisty crayfish. Keep them in some kind of minnow bucket. Soft(molting) crayfish are an exceptional bait, if you can find them. They are lighter-colored and the fish recognize these easy meals from a distance. Hook a live crayfish either through the top of the shell being careful not to penetrate very deep, or through the tail from the bottom up. Fish them on the bottom. A hooked crayfish will often crawl under rocks or logs, so moving it a little bit every so often is a good idea. The tails of crayfish also make an excellent bait on their own. These can either be fished whole or cut into smaller pieces. Any fishing method will work with crayfish tails, and you can expect to catch just about any species on them.
Nymphs and Larvae
If you are scavenging around in a rocky riffle and happen to find a strange crawling creature that is big enough to put on a hook, you have found one of the best natural baits of all. The nymphal and larval forms of aquatic insects are excellent baits that will take any number of species. They can be collected by picking up rocks in the stream and looking for them crawling around. They will be found in areas of current. Logs and stumps will also hold nymphs, especially stonefly nymphs. The nymphal form of the Giant Black Stonefly is nearly 3" long and looks more like an underwater cockroach, and works very well wherever they can be found. Caddis larva, also called rockworms, are plentiful in most waters and can provide good bait even though they are quite small. Thread on a few for best results. Hexagenia nymphs, also called Spring Wigglers, are a phenomenal bait when they can be found. This is the only aquatic nymph I have seen sold in a baitshop. A very light rod is best for fishing with nymphs as bait. Most nymphs should be hooked very lightly through the wingcase on their back, or through the tail. Drifting them with a float rig is an excellent way to present these baits, as well as light bottom-rigs. Keep your live nymphs in fresh water, and freshen it very often if you want them to stay alive. They require a high level of oxygen to survive.
Last summer I had been fishing with buzzbaits and scum frogs for largemouths and bowfin up in the thick lily pads of a Minnesota lake. Lots of fish were attacking the baits, and we had great action. The only problem was that we landed only a couple because of the difficulty we had hooking and landing them on these baits. It wasn’t until I crawled into bed that night that it hit me to try some live frogs. I crawled right out of bed, got my flashlight, and went down to the lake. I gathered enough frogs for the morning’s fishing in the grasses near the lake’s edge, using a small butterfly net to catch them. These were Green Frogs of varying sizes, and I put a dozen or more in a flow-troll minnow bucket along with some grass and an inch of water. I then went back up to bed, eagerly awaiting the morning fishing. Early the next morning I was out in a fog-shrouded bay free-lining frogs in gaps in the pads and catching some nice fish. My hooking and landing percentage went way up, and it was a really fun way to fish! I was hooking the frogs through the meat of their rear leg with a large circle hook, sometimes rigging it weedless with a small rubber band. I would flip it out in pockets in the weeds or around beaver feed piles or logs, and just let the frog swim around. It usually didn’t take long before a big swirl erupted on the placid surface and I was onto another fish. Stout tackle should be used for this type of fishing around heavy cover. Another way to fish frogs is on the bottom, with a stationary free-sliding rig. Catfish, pike, gar, bowfin and walleyes will all take a lively frog, among other species. The best part is if you have some left after you’re done fishing you can fry up some froglegs for dinner!
Doughbaits and Bread
Carp and sometimes catfish can be taken on various homemade doughball recipes. Just mix up a batch with your own secret ingredients, and fish your favorite spot like you would with corn. Chumming a little with dough doesn’t hurt, either. Anise is always a good ingredient to include in your dough. Simply ball the dough around your hook and fish it on the bottom with some kind of stationary free-sliding weight rig. Bread is just about the simplest bait you can possibly catch a fish with. Plain old white bread works the best, the cheaper the better. Pick up a loaf on your way out fishing and you’re good to go. Bread-fishing is a surface game, which makes it a very exciting way to fish for carp. First chum the area with a few slices, broken into fourths, and spread them out well. You may want to fish with a different method while you wait for the fish to find your chum, but once they do you have to act quickly to intercept them. The carp will come cruising up and slurp the bread off the surface, then turn and look for the next piece. Often many fish will get in on the free buffet. Simply hook a quarter piece of bread through the crust and toss it out into the chum area or wherever the fish are at the time. A fixed-float can be clipped on a few feet above the bread to add weight and allow for longer casts. Casting bubbles are an absolute necessity for an avid bread-fisher. It’s just a matter of watching your bread chunk floating on the water, and paying attention to what the carp are doing. They will often suck on the bread with their lips, tasting it, before slurping it completely down. Be sure to wait until the fish turns back down to set the hook. Plain bread can also be balled up on a hook and fished like a doughball on either a bottom rig or beneath a float.