Fish

The bait debate

By HUNTER HILL
Posted 4/1/20

Fishermen all over argue about the use of various lures in different environments: which lures work, what time of day do they work best, for what species, etc. Most will agree, however, that live …

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Fish

The bait debate

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Fishermen all over argue about the use of various lures in different environments: which lures work, what time of day do they work best, for what species, etc. Most will agree, however, that live bait are not limited by those things. Despite the drawback that they are typically good for one use, there is nothing quite like the real thing.

Have you ever taken a bite out of one of those decorative apples on the dining room table, instantly regretting and retracting? When you bite into a real apple there is no hesitation, if anything, a confirmation that this is going to taste as you wish and a trust in completing the bite and ingesting the food. Fish are not unlike us in that they can palate their food and decide whether or not to commit. Lures are great because you can use them over and over, but live bait are the sweet juicy apples of the watery world.

Live bait include a number of creatures like worms, fish and insects. When I was a younger guy still learning all the ins-and-outs of fishing at its basic level, I remember finding a hellgrammite while flipping rocks along the banks of the Delaware River. I kept it in a foam cup in my tackle box for a couple of weeks because my dad told me they were like candy to fish. So, having nearly killed the thing, I remembered one day that it was in there and pulled it out to see. I picked it up thinking it must have died and began to hook it anyway just to try to make use of it. Something you should know about hellgrammites if you don’t already: They have pinchers. Big black armored pinchers. Thank God as it clamped down, it slipped and only caught a bit of dead skin on the tip of my thumb. Lesson learned, but did this demon bug actually catch fish?

I remember casting out into a small pond maybe 50 yards across, watching the bait hit the water, being unprepared to react thinking I would have a moment or two at least to allow it to sink, but my line became immediately taught as it ran from me. So yes, do I think hellgrammites are all they are made out to be? You bet, but after checking what it costs to buy them, I wasn’t about to make it a regular thing.

Worms are the poor man’s gold when it comes to live bait. Mealworms, nightcrawlers, sandworms, bloodworms and many more, the half of which I’m sure I’ve yet to encounter, all function for various worm fishing, but essentially fill the price gap for anyone buying bait. You can spend just a couple bucks around here and get yourself a dozen fat nightcrawlers. Mealworms and waxworms are even cheaper and a popular choice for ice fishermen. As a kid, my dad would bring us to our dock at Duck Harbor with a cup of worms and hooks and bobbers. For those of you with kids, I can guarantee there is no better way to instill a love of fishing at a young age than with this setup right here. Nightcrawlers can be cut up into pieces to stretch them out, especially when fishing for panfish which will simply eat and eat and eat your worms until they are gone. And when they are gone? Start flipping rocks, kids; take that empty cup and go fill it up. Like I said, they’re the poor man’s gold when it comes to fishing.

It shouldn’t be said, though, that worms are an inferior bait. Rigs like worm harnesses and worm-based bait balls can produce serious results when put in front of the right fish.

Baitfish are a premium live bait as well. Herring, fatheads and shiners are popular bait species in our freshwaters here in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. Herring are one of my personal favorites as they produce a bright shine, can be great swimmers and tend to be a more choice meal for predator fish as opposed to the shiners and fatheads I mentioned. Although I will say those other two bring their fair share of success. Another lesser known baitfish is one called the stonecat. It’s a catfish species which can be found in this region and grows very slow. Between the sizes of three and six inches, they make good bait for deep in open water. They have very tough skin as their name may suggest, but since they tend to be found in areas with abundant structure and even smaller bodies of water, devoid of larger predators, they instantly stand out in open water. Large bass, walleye and other native predators often don’t make you wait long if you are fortunate enough to find these to use as bait.

Concerned about keeping your bait alive? It’s important to know what baitfish need to be kept long enough to be used. Herring for example need much more oxygen than shiners or fatheads. You can use an aerator in the tank to keep them fresh, or try throwing in some Morton salt to the water which actually makes them heartier. Salt is not a replacement for oxygen though, so I suggest the latter tip be used as a temporary or last resort rather than a first choice.

Depending on where you go, there are plenty of other species to be found, just as there are plenty of other predator fish to be hunted. Lures fall in and out of popularity and even efficacy if overused in a certain area. Live bait will always be the mouthwatering temptation that no fish can truly ignore. It moves like a snack, it looks like a snack and it smells like a snack. Yes, fish can smell underwater, why do you think people use chum in open ocean fishing. The same concept can be applied for small scale freshwater. At the end of the day there are a thousand methods, styles, lures, baits and types of equipment used to fish. Knowing your options is just a part of playing the game.

bait, live debate

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