Natural bait and artificial lures
There are two broad categories of baits: natural and artificial. Natural baits are organic. They include minnows, worms, insects, crawfish, leeches, frogs, cut bait (fish pieces)—a wide variety of living or once-living critters.
Artificial baits include a vast range of lures. Some mimic natural bait. Others bear no resemblance to any natural food, yet they have some attraction that causes fish to bite. (Besides being hungry, fish strike artificial lures because they’re mad, greedy, curious or impulsive.)
The list of categories of artificial baits includes top-waters, spinners, crankbaits, soft plastics, jigs, spoons and flies. Further, these categories can be broken down into individual types of baits. For example, soft plastics include plastic worms, lizards, grubs, crawfish, tubes, eels, minnows and more.
So, which should you use: natural bait or artificials? Anglers have faced this decision since the first artificial lures were invented. (Before this, natural baits were the only choice.) Basically, this is a matter of personal preference, convenience and bait capabilities. Each has certain advantages over the other.
Fish usually prefer natural bait over artificials. A bluegill will eat a real earthworm before it will a plastic one. If a live crawfish is retrieved next to an artificial crawfish, a bass will recognize and take the live one. These are examples of why more fish caught in North America are taken on natural bait. It’s hard to beat Mother Nature.
So why even bother with artificial baits? There are several reasons. First, many anglers enjoy the challenge of using artificials. Since fish are harder to catch on artificials, these anglers feel there’s more reward in fooling the fish with them. These people are fishing more for sport than for meat.
Second, artificial baits are more convenient. You don’t have to dig or trap them, and you don’t have to keep them alive and fresh. Most can be kept in a tackle box indefinitely and fished with no advance preparation.
Third, artificial lures have certain capabilities and attractions that natural baits don’t have. While natural baits are normally used with a stationary or slow-moving presentation, artificials may be retrieved fast to cover a lot of water quickly. They sometimes cause inactive fish to strike out of impulse or anger as the bait runs by (the “catch-it-before-it-gets-away” syndrome). On the other hand, this same fish might ignore a minnow hanging under a bobber.
So, when deciding which to use, weigh the advantages of natural bait versus artificials as they relate to your particular fishing situation. Which is more important: making a good catch, or enjoying a sporty challenge? How difficult is it to get and keep natural bait? Which type bait is more likely to suit your fish’s mood and location and the technique you’ll use to try for it?
Using Natural Bait
To use natural bait, you have to get it, keep it fresh, hook it on properly, and offer it with the right presentation. Following are guidelines for fishing with several popular natural baits. But first, although the following outlines tell you how to catch your own bait, in many cases it’s more practical to buy bait from a bait/tackle dealer. True, catching bait can be almost as much fun as catching fish, but I usually buy my bait to save as much time as possible for fooling the fish. One other note: fish normally prefer fresh, active bait to old, lifeless bait. This is why I always keep fresh bait on my hook. If my minnow quits swimming, I replace it with a new one!
Worms-Worms are the most popular natural bait. They include large night crawlers and a variety of smaller earthworms. Worms can be used to catch a variety of panfish and sportfish.
Worms are easy to collect. You can dig for them in moist, rich soil in gardens, around barnyards and under rotting leaves or logs. Night crawlers can be collected on a grassy lawn at night following a warm rain. Place worms in a small container partially filled with loose crumbled dirt. Make sure any top has holes so the worms can breathe.
Keep the worm can or box out of the sun so the worms won’t overheat and die. Many anglers keep their worms in a cooler. There are several methods for using worms. With a stationary rig (bobber rig, bottom rig), gob one or more worms onto the hook, running the point through the middle of the worm’s body several times with the ends dangling free. When fishing for small panfish, don’t put too much worm on the hook, since these fish have small mouths. But when fishing for large fish, the more worms on the hook, the better.
If you’re fishing for walleye or bass with a walking slip-sinker or a bottom bouncer, hook the worm once through the head so the body can trail out behind. When drift-fishing in a stream for trout, hook the worm through the middle of the body and allow the two ends to dangle.
Minnows—Shiners, tuffies (fatheads) and goldfish are popular minnow species that are sold in bait stores. Also, other small minnows can be caught from ponds, streams and lakes. Anglers routinely use minnows to catch crappie, bass, walleye, catfish, stripers and other fish.
One of the easiest ways to catch minnows is to set a wire basket trap. Bait the trap with a piece of bread and drop it into a pond or creek where minnows live. Leave it for a few hours, then retrieve it with its catch inside. Minnows may also be seined or caught with a cast net. However, seines and nets are expensive, and both take a fair amount of know-how to use. For these reasons, I don’t recommend them for beginning fishermen.
Minnows must be cared for properly, or they will die quickly. Keep their water cool and fresh. I use Styrofoam buckets instead of metal or plastic, because Styrofoam keeps the water cooler. I never put more than four dozen minnows in a bucket to avoid overcrowding. If the water in a bucket becomes too warm or stale, the minnows will rise to the surface, and you must take quick action to save them. Exchange the old water for fresh. On extremely hot days, add chunks of ice to keep the water cool. Store minnows in the refrigerator and change their water as often as needed.
When I fish with minnows, I put them on the hook two ways. If I’m using a stationary rig, I hook the minnow through the back under the main fin. This allows it to swim naturally. But if I’m using a moving rig like a bottom-bouncer, walking slip sinker or two-hook rig, I hook the minnow through both lips, from bottom to top.
Crickets/Grasshoppers—You can catch grasshoppers in grassy or weedy fields either by hand or with a butterfly net. To catch crickets, look under rocks, planks or logs, and catch them by hand or net.
Place grasshoppers or crickets in a cricket box, or make your own container by punching holes in a coffee can that has a plastic lid. Cut a small round hole in the lid, and keep it covered with masking tape. Peel the tape back to deposit grasshoppers or crickets as you catch them. When you want to get one out, peel the tape back, shake an insect out of the hole, then stick the tape back over the hole.
Grasshoppers and crickets should be stored in a cool, shady place. Each day add a damp paper towel for moisture and a table-spoon of corn meal for food.
Grasshoppers and crickets are normally used with bobber rigs or bottom rigs. They are hooked by inserting the point behind the tail and running it the length of the body and out at the head.
Crawfish—Crawfish are found in most freshwater lakes and streams. Many anglers think of them as good bass baits, but they are also deadly on catfish. Pieces of crawfish tail are irresistible to sunfish.
The best way to gather crawfish is by wading in a shallow stream and slowly turning over flat rocks. When you see a crawfish, ease a tin can (with holes punched in the bottom) up behind it, and then poke at its head with a stick. Crawfish swim backward to escape, so it should back up into the can. When the crawfish goes in, lift the can quickly. Keep crawfish in a Styrofoam minnow bucket half-filled with water. They can be kept several days if refrigerated. When handling crawfish, be careful to avoid their pinchers, which can cause painful injury. Hold them by the body just behind the pinchers. Live crawfish should be hooked in the back section of the tail, from the bottom through the top. They are usually fished on or near bottom with a standard bottom rig or live-bait rig. They can also be trolled slowly along bottom with a slip-sinker rig or bottom bouncer. And once in awhile, they should be fished just above bottom with a bobber rig.
Leeches—Several kinds of leeches inhabit North American waters, but only ribbon leeches are widely used for bait. These leeches squirm actively when held; less desirable leeches are lifeless when held. To trap leeches, put dead minnows, liver, beef kidney or bones into a large coffee can and mash the top of the can almost shut. Sink the can in leech-infested waters overnight, and rapidly pull the can up the next morning. Leeches keep well in water-filled minnow buckets placed in the shade. Leeches work well suspended under a bobber, since they squirm continuously. They may be trolled or crawled across bottom on a live-bait rig, slip-sinker rig or bottom-bouncer rig. They are also frequently used as a trailer on a leadhead jig. To hook a leech, run the point of the hook through the head.
Cut Bait—Pieces or entrails of baitfish are excellent for catching catfish. Larger shad, herring, smelt and other oily baitfish are best. These can be netted, cut into square inch chunks and hooked onto bottom rigs. Also, a small slice of panfish meat adds to the attraction of a small jig for sunfish, white bass, crappie and yellow perch.
Using Artificial Baits
Live worms and leeches wiggle on the hook. Live minnows swim. Live crawfish scoot across rocks or mud. But artificial baits hang motionless in the water until the angler gives them life by casting and retrieving. In most cases, the more skillfully this is done, the more fish a user will catch. This is why many anglers consider artificial baits more challenging than natural baits. You’ve got to add the life!
Following are short descriptions of various artificial lures and how to use them.
Topwaters—This is the oldest category of artificial baits and one of the best. Bass, muskies, pike, stripers, white bass, trout and other species feed on the surface, normally in warm months and low-light periods of early morning, late afternoon and night. Sometimes, though, fish will hit topwaters in the middle of a bright day. Basically, if you see surface-feeding activity, give topwaters a try.
Topwater baits indude wood and plastic lures in a broad variety of shapes and actions. Poppers (also called chuggers) have scooped-out heads which make slapping sounds when pulled with short, quick jerks. Floating minnows rest motionless and then swim with a quiet, subtle side-to-side action when reeled in. Stickbaits resemble cigars with hooks attached. They dart across the surface in a zig-zag pattern when pulled with short, quick snaps of the rod tip. Crawlers have concave metal lips. This bait wobbles back and forth and makes a popping noise on a steady retrieve. Buzz baits have revolving metal or plastic blades that boil the water on a steady retrieve. If fish are actively feeding on the surface, use a lure that works fast and makes a lot of noise. But if fish aren’t active, select a quieter lure and work it slowly. (In this case, after the lure hits the water, let it sit still until all ripples disappear. Then twitch the lure slightly, and hold on!) When casting a topwater lure, be ready for a strike when it hits the water. Sometimes fish see it coming through the air and take it immediately. When a fish strikes a topwater lure, wait until the lure disappears underwater before setting the hook. This takes nerves of steel, since the natural tendency is to jerk the instant the strike occurs. However, a short delay will give the fish time to take the lure down and turn away with it, which increases your chance of getting a good hookset.
Spinners-This bait category includes spinner-baits and in-line spinners.
Spinnerbaits are shaped like an open safety pin. A rotating blade is attached to the upper arm; a leadhead body, skirt and hook are on the lower arm. This design makes a spinnerbait semi-weedless, so it can be worked through vegetation, brush, timber and stumps with few hang-ups.
Spinnerbaits come in a wide variety of sizes and blade configurations. Some have one blade, while others have two or more. Some have Colorado or Indiana blades (oval-shaped) for slower vibrations with more “thump; while others have willowleaf blades (elongated/ pointed) for faster, higher-pitched vibrations. Colorado/Indiana blades are better for slower retrieves for inactive fish. Willowleaf blades are made to retrieve faster (especially in current) and for fish that are actively chasing baitfish.
Spinnerbaits are normally associated with bass fishing, but they’re also good on muskies and pike. Very small spinnerbaits can be effective on small panfish like crappie and sunfish. The blade on an in-line spinner is attached to the same shaft as the body, and it revolves around it. Because of this compact design, in-line spinners work well in current. These lures are typically used for smallmouth bass, rock bass, trout and other stream species. Spinners are a good artificial lure for beginning anglers. In most cases, all you have to do is cast them out and reel them in. As your skills increase, you’ll learn to vary retrieves and crawl spinnerbaits through cover or across bottom. In any case, when you feel a bump or see your line move sideways, set the hook immediately!
Crankbalts—This is another good lure family for beginners. Crankbaits are so-named because they have built-in actions. All you have to do is cast them and then crank the reel handle. The retrieve causes these baits to wiggle, dive and come to life.
Crankbaits are used mainly for largemouth and smallmouth bass, white bass, walleye, sauger, muskies and pike. They are effective in reservoirs, lakes and streams, around rocks, timber, docks, bridges, roadbeds and other structure. Generally they’re not effective in vegetation, since their treble hooks foul in the weeds. However, crankbaits can be effective when retrieved close to weeds or over the top of submerged vegetation.
There are two sub-categories of crankbaits: “floater/divers,” and “vibrating:’ Floater/ divers usually have plastic or metal lips. They float on the surface at rest, but when the retrieve starts, they dive underwater and wiggle back and forth. Usually, the larger a bait’s lip, the deeper it will run.
One of the secrets to success with floater/divers is to keep them bumping bottom or cover objects. To do this, you must retrieve them so they will dive as deeply as possible. Maximum depth may be achieved by using smaller line (6-12 pound test is perfect), cranking at a medium pace instead of too fast, pointing your rod tip down toward the water during the retrieve and making long casts. Once the bait hits bottom, vary the retrieve speed or try stop-and-go reeling to trigger strikes. Keep it working along bottom as long as possible before it swims back up to the rod tip. Sometimes a floater/diver crankbait gets “outof-tune” and won’t swim in a straight line. Instead, it veers off to one side or the other. To retune a lure, bend the eye (where you tie the line) in the direction opposite the way the lure is veering. Make small adjustments with a pair of needlenose pliers, and test the lure’s track after each adjustment to get it swimming straight. Vibrating crankbaits are used in relatively shallow water where fish are actively feeding. These are sinking baits, so the retrieve must be started shortly after they hit the water. They should be reeled fast to simulate baitfish fleeing from a predator. This speed and tight wiggling action excites larger fish into striking.
Soft Plastics—This family of baits includes plastic worms, grubs, minnows, tubes, lizards, craw-fish, eels, and other live bait imitations. These baits are natural-feeling and lifelike to fish. They are used mainly on bass, white bass, stripers, panfish, crappie, walleye and other species.
Soft plastics are very versatile lures. They can be fished without weight on the surface, or they can be weighted with a sinker or jighead and fished below the surface. They can be rigged weedless and fished through weeds, brush or stumps.
Plastic worms are among the most popular of soft plastic lures. The most common way to use them is to crawl or hop them along bottom structure. To do this, rig the worm according to the instructions under Texas-Rigged Plastic Worms in the previous chapter. Use a small slip sinker for fishing shallow water and a heavier sinker for deeper water. A good rule of thumb is to use a 1/8-oz. slip sinker in depths up to 6 feet, a 1/4-oz. sinker from 6-12 feet, and a 3/8- to 1/2-oz. sinker in water deeper than 12 feet.
Cast the worm toward the structure and allow it to sink to the bottom. (You’ll feel it hit or see your line go slack.) Hold your rod tip in the 10 o’clock position and reel up slack. Now quickly lift the rod tip to the 11 o’clock position without reeling. This lifts the worm off the bottom and swims it forward a short distance. Then allow the worm to fall back to the bottom, reel up slack line and repeat the process. This lift/drop/reel sequence should be repeated until the worm exits the main target area (tree top, brush, weedbed, etc.)
When hopping a plastic worm, be alert for any taps or bumps, and always watch your line for sudden, unnatural pulses or sideways movements. Sometimes strikes are obvious and easy to detect. Other times they are light and subtle. If you know you’ve got a bite, reel up slack line and set the hook immediately. But if you’re not sure, reel up slack and hold the bait still for a few seconds. If nothing happens, tug on the bait ever so slightly. If you feel something tug back, set the hook! To set the hook with a plastic worm, lower your rod tip to the 9 o’clock position, then set hard and fast with your wrists and forearms. If you don’t feel that you have a good hookset, set again. This method applies to tackle spooled with line above 10-pound test. When you’re using lighter line, set with less force, or you may break your line. Virtually all soft plastic baits can be fished with the same lift/drop/reel technique described above. Also, grubs can be hopped along bottom or swum through mid-depth areas with a steady retrieve. Lizards and eels can be slithered through weeds and brush. Minnows can be threaded through sunken flats and timber. Crawfish can be bumped through rocks. Weightless worms and plastic stick lures can be worked over sunken vegetation and other cover. Experiment with various baits to see which one the fish prefer.
Jigs—If there’s such a thing as a universal bait, the leadhead jig is it. These balls of lead with hooks running out the back can be used in a wide range of circumstances to catch almost all kinds of freshwater fish. Jigs are basic baits and all anglers should learn to use them effectively.
Jigs come in a wide range of sizes. Tiny jigs (1/32-oz.) will take trout or small panfish in shallow water. A 1-oz. jig might be used to bump bottom in heavy current for walleye or sauger. The most popular jig sizes are 1/16,1/8, and 1/4 oz. Many veteran anglers keep different size jigs in their tackle boxes and then select the right size for a particular fishing situation. This selection is based on the size of the target fish, depth of water and amount of wind and current. The bigger the fish, the deeper the water, and the stronger the wind and current, the heavier the jig should be.
Jigs are almost always “dressed” with an artificial trailer or live bait. Some jigs are made with hair, feather or rubber skirts wrapped around the hook Others come pre-rigged with plastic grubs. But the majority of jigs are sold without any trailer, leaving this choice up to the angler. You may install your own trailer (plastic grub, tube, small worm, pork rind), or you may prefer hooking on a live minnow, night crawler or leech. Also, in addition to trailers, some jigs have small spinners attached to the head of the lure to add flash.
There are several effective jig retrieves. The basic one is the lift/drop: allow the jig to sink to the bottom, then hop it along the bottom with short lifting jerks of the rod tip. (This is similar to the lift/drop/reel method for fishing a plastic worm, except faster.) Another popular retrieve is the steady pull, swimming the jig in open water or just above bottom, sometimes grazing stumps, rocks or other structure.
A third retrieve is vertical jigging. Lower the jig straight down to bottom or into cover, lift it with the rod tip, then allow it to sink back down. Most strikes come when the bait is dropping. As with plastic worms, strikes on jigs may be very hard or extremely light. An angler using a jig will usually feel a bump or tick as a fish sucks in the bait. The key to detecting this is keeping a tight line at all times. If you feel a bump or see unnatural movement, set the hook immediately. There’s no waiting with jigs.
Spoons—Metal spoons are the “old faithfuls” of artificial lures. They’ve been around a long time, and they’re still producing. They are excellent for catching bass, walleye, pike, muskies and white bass. Some spoons are designed to be fished on the surface, while others are for underwater use. In both cases, the standard retrieve is a slow, steady pull. Sometimes, however, an erratic stop/go retrieve may trigger more strikes.
One special use for spoons is for fishing around or through weeds and surface-matted grass. Topwater spoons will ride over the thickest lily pads, moss, etc. Spoons retrieved underwater will flutter and dart through reeds and grass with minimal hang-ups. In this situation, a spoon with a weedguard over a single hook is recommended.
Trailers are frequently added to a spoon’s hook for extra attraction. Pork strips or plastic or rubber skirts are standard trailers. When adding a skirt to a spoon’s hook, run the hook’s point through the skirt from back to front so the skirt will billow out during the retrieve.
I have described rods, reels and line as “tools” for fishing. Baits are also tools in the truest sense. They are objects designed to help you catch fish. Different baits serve specific purposes. You must learn what various baits are designed to do, then apply them where they work best. You start to do this by reading, but then you must apply what you read on the water. There’s no better teacher than experience. Lakes and streams are your laboratory. This is where you’ll carry out your experiments with various fishing tools.