by Sharon Watson
"Bait" is a Four Letter Word:
Some prefer to ignore it, but organic baits work -- on almost any fish species.
It seems we accept this truth as self-evident, with less reluctance, when we decide to go catfishing!
For catfish filets, weíll happily stoop to the "Cast-and-Wait" program. Besides, there are times when we need to just sit and watch clouds and bugs crawl across the sand. Baitfishing is actually a meditation practice and causes humming.
Even baitfishing, however, can be refined. My dear fellow or lady, just loose-fitting rubber gloves will do wonders for the smell on your hands! After cloud-watching for a time, thinking may re-occur. This is an opportunity to polish your baitfishing skills. The rewards will often be bigger fish, and more fish, especially when "Cast-and-Wait" is obviously not working.
Beating the Odds:
Despite all the wonders of modern fishing techniques, we all know that too often the odds are stacked against us. Thatís called "sport!" Now honestly, we know fish have predictable patterns which they display unpredictably, right? Weather plays a huge roll in our fishing success, and even the weatherman canít get that right. Seasons influence fish behavior. And the moon is a factor. We canít keep it all straight!
We need a bag of tricks -- (a legal bag.)
Take stream fishing for trout when the spring currents are high, cold, muddy and filled with debris, for example. Many anglers wonít even go out under such conditions, yet plenty of trout can be taken then, particularly on baits exuding strong smell. The old early-spring standby is an angleworm free-drifted behind sheltering rocks and in deep eddies.
Under these high-water conditions, we have to fish less empty-minded. Because trout canít see baits very well in discolored water (and are too cold to chase them far anyway), you need to drop offerings right on their noses. This means moving upstream constantly, pecking here and there as you go.
Fluorescent colors have been proven to retain visibility best underwater, so a small piece of bright fluorescent yarn tied at the hook eye may draw more strikes in the murky current.
Watch Your Language:
Worms and nightcrawlers will catch most any Idaho fish, but grasshoppers are sometimes better. Fish have moods, you know, and they prefer a change in diet sometimes. Grasshoppers are available in late summer. Use them. Catch them early in the morning while it is still cool, so they wonít hop away from you. "Fishing" for grasshoppers can be almost as much fun as real fishing. Brown bug juice isnít any worse than fish slime. Have a kid along -- in both cases (catching fish OR grasshoppers). Life is more amusing that way, and it gets the kids used to disappointments and dirt early on. You donít want to raise a child who learns language like "icky" and "yucky," do you?
Aquatic nymphs are deadly on cold-water fish species, but are rather small for an all-around bait, besides being hard to come by. Salmon eggs and whole-kernel corn are okay for trout and kokanee, but donít particularly interest warmwater species.
Cut-bait (fish cannibalism) is a dynamite trap for perch and crappie (the little pagans) , but bluegill and bass may turn up their noses at it.
Whole shrimp and crawfish will nail catfish, steelhead, sturgeon, and bass, but smaller pieces of these tasty critters donít stay on small hooks too well when used for catching trout and panfish.
Commercial cheese and blood baits (euphemism for bloody, smelly stuff you donít know what is! Donít say "yuk" in front of the kids, though) are good for catfish, sturgeon and most salmonids, but are ho-hum for perch, bluegill, crappie and bass.
Liver bleeds scent "nicely," but catfish are about all Iíve ever been able to get to dine on the jelly-like murky substance.
So, back to worms. (Just always have them as a backup.)
Obvious Secrets for the Thinking Angler
Bank-sitting on a calm lake is the simplest and most common plan of the "Sit-and-Wait" crowd. With worms, you can rarely go wrong. But even here a thinking angler has an edge over the sitter. For example, visual-feeding trout cruise constantly, so itís wise to float your bait above concealing rocks and moss and into the cruise-(or "flight") path of feeding trout. Bottom anglers do this with tiny buoyant marshmallows, frequently colored, and flavored (but you have to hide them from the kids; dole them out carefully; count them; the buggers will steal you blind. So will the fish, for that matter.)
If trout are near the surface, a small bobber above a weighted bait does the same job, while also enabling the angler to "reel troll" his offering slowly to draw attention. This is my favorite thinking-personís technique. You see people doing it, but itís really a secret trick. Done well, it is absolutely scary, itís so effective. (And, a marabou jig under the bobber is very nearly as deadly as bait!)
The same bait-suspension and "trolling" techniques work with reservoir bluegill, crappie, and bass, though these skills, separately or in combination, are inappropriate for bottom-grubbing bullheads and channel cats.
Structure-oriented bass and panfish donít "cruise" as much as trout do, so for those species youíd do better to move around more as you would for stream trout.
Sink or Swim:
Sinker size and arrangement on your line are important first in getting, then in detecting, more bites while baitfishing. Most reservoir bait anglers tie a heavy bell sinker to line end, with one or two snelled dropper hooks above. Stream fishermen and -women mostly use one or more splitshot above the hook, or "pencil weights" in surgical tubing when drift-fishing heavier currents. These are basically good rigs if you use the lightest weight possible for what youíre trying to do.
Particularly in stream fishing, a light weight lets bait free-drift naturally to waiting trout and steelhead rather than anchoring them solidly on the bottom. In lakes or big river pools, a heavy sinker can discourage light-striking fish before the angler realizes he even has a bite. On the other hand, if your sinker is very heavy and your hook extremely sharp, striking fish may hook themselves against the weight of the sinker! (Donít become addicted to this technique, though. It works sometimes, and it works for some people all of the time only because they never do anything else!!!)
Hooks, Lines and Sinkers:
To better sense light-striking fish, use tiny splitshot or rig your line to run freely through a heavier egg-type weight so fish wonít have to lift the sinker to signal a bite. Placing dropper-snells three or more feet above terminal weights will also put you in better contact with soft-striking fish.
Vertical fishing from a boat for semi-suspended like perch and crappie best employs a terminal sinker-snell-dropper arrangement to suspend several baits at pre-selected depths to identify the level where most fish are schooled.
In shallow water, try using no weight at all. A free-sinking or drifting bait is pure death on all kinds of stream and reservoir fish. A fly rod works nicely for such weight-free bait fishing, as does a spinning rig with light (two to six lb. test) line.
In bottom baitfishing, a lot of terminal tackle (fake critters and other weird hardware tied to the end of your line) is lost to snags. This can be minimized in several ways. My favorite winter whitefish rig, for example, is one or two splitshot clamped two inches from an unknotted line end. A foot or two above, I secure one or more dropper snells with the little plastic leader attachments available in most sports stores. (No knot-tying whatever in cold weather with this rig -- and if a splitshot slips off in bottom rocks, itís easy to clamp on another.) Using larger components, this rig also works when drift-fishing baits to big channel cats, stream trout, and large-river steelhead.
An alternative snag-free rig consists of a 3" to 12" piece of common wire bent into a "V" and tied at its apex to line end. The wire "walks" over the bottom rocks without lodging in crevices.
Hooks should get more attention in all forms of angling, including baitfishing. Even new ones arenít as sharp as they should be, so use a file to bring their points to where theyíll scratch the back of your thumbnail. This may seem extreme, but consider the following: wet monofilament stretches up to 30 percent of its length, so youíre trying to set a dull hook with a short of glorified rubber band. Normal line sag prevents a direct pull between rod tip and hook point, so your mightiest hookset effort only feebly and belatedly reaches a striking fish.
Only a few anglers are careful to set a hook repeatedly and with the stiff lower two-thirds of their rods, not the springy tip, so most of us get a one-shot mushy hookset at best. A few baitfishing innocents start reeling without first socking the hook home, and then wonder why the few fish they catch always swallow the hook!
Besides an extremely sharp point, hooks are helped to dig in in other ways. The Tru-Turn hook design has a bent shank made to "cam-rotate" hook points into better contact with a fishís mouth. At a minimum, all baithooks should have points that angle off non-parallel to their shanks. Light wire hooks with an unusually wide bite and a shortened point are great. For soft baits like cheese, small trebles are fairly good.
Sweat the Small Stuff:
Bobbers and water-filled casting bubbles should be used more in baitfishing than they are. As with sinkers, keep them SMALL, so fish donít have to fight to pull them under (I canít emphasize this enough. The small ones are hard to find. Complain to the retailers about it.) Floats are great as strike indicators, but theyíre far more important in suspending and "wave-fluttering" baits at a given depth or near fish-holding brush.
In stream fishing, a bobber is superb at holding a moving bait just above bottom snags, yet almost nobody uses floats on Idaho trout streams!
Why do so many anglers gravitate toward heavy lines which will safely hold rampaging gamefish when lighter lines would give them more strikes, and with care, would land as many hookups???
Summer and Idahoís great lure fishing will be here soon enough. Right now is a good time to soak natural baits in chilly, murky waters for whatever gamefish youíd like to try. Donít let artificial lure purists tell you that "bait" is a four-letter word!
- Light lines cast small lures and baits more easily.
- They also cut through deep water and heavier current better, so you have more sensitive contact with nibbling fish -- especially important in feeling the chilled soft strikes of early spring.
- Light lines are also less visible to fish and donít discourage strikes from water drag as heavier lines might.
- (On my last whitefishing trip, two friends caught more than 20 whiteys each on split-shotted 4-lb. test line, while another person fishing the same holes took only seven with 10-lb. test line and heavier sinkers.)