As a former fly fishing guide of 20-plus years, professional fly tyer and television personality who's sponsored by Rapala, the world's largest manufacturer of artificial lures, the next statement may come as a surprise to you.
If it is presented properly, live bait is ALWAYS the most effective way to make a fish BITE. Yes, I said ALWAYS. And I DIDN'T say hook or catch, I said BITE.
This story is about what I believe to be some of the most important observations I've made in a lifetime of angling. The few close friends with whom I fish begged me not to reveal some of this information.
Yet, I promised Steve Pennaz I'd write a live bait piece for North American Fisherman. I was tempted to leave a few things out, but I've decided to keep my promise to Steve. However, that promise must be accompanied by a promise from you...
This may sound melodramatic, but I have to ask anyone who reads this to promise me up front, on a proverbial stack of Bibles and his great grandmother's grave, that you will not employ any of these big-fish tactics unless you are using a non-offset circle hook. I really mean it. If you don't use a circle hook, there is a high likelihood the most spectacular creature you've ever hooked will die as a result of its encounter with you.
My first live bait versus artificial revelation came early in life. My father, who started me ice fishing at age 4 and flailing a fly rod for bluegills not long afterward, was strictly an artificial lure man.
What he liked best, and still does, is chucking a topwater lure against the bank with deadly accuracy and finessing it along heavy cover.
Grampa Louie, on my mother's side, had nearly a dozen kids to feed and was strictly a live bait man. We'd anchor just upstream from where he figured the fish were and hammer them with huge, fat nightcrawlers he picked on the golf course and raised in a bathtub buried in the earth just outside his doorstep. The only words he ever spoke to me while fishing were "drop the anchor" or "pull up the anchor."
We'd catch more fish in one hole with worms than my dad and I would catch in 10 miles of river throwing artificials. To this day I truly believe the only reason he took me along was so he could legally keep twice as many fish. He was regionally famous for all the big sturgeon he caught. In fact, he almost single-handedly cleaned out what was left of the really big ones in Wisconsin's upper St. Croix during the '50s and '60s.
When he was targeting a big boy, Grampa Louie used 35-pound line and a size 2 ringed-eye O'Shaughnessy commercial setline hook loaded with two big 'crawlers. He'd fish it around major log piles adjacent to deep holes.
He always used two lines. When he'd get hung up in a log, he'd just leave it there on a tight line and wait for a fish to find it. In fact, with one line he'd often get hung up on purpose, knowing sooner or later a sturgeon would swim by to suck insect larvae off the log and most likely find his double nightcrawler gob. When he wanted his hook back, he'd just pull and straighten it out. Good trick. Still works.
FROGS FOR HAWGS
When I was about 11, rumor got to me about some huge largemouths living under a cow bridge. When I looked into the clear water behind the log structure of the bridge, my eyes almost popped out. There rested half a dozen bass from 4 to over 6 pounds!
I threw spoons, my best yellow River Runt, two different colors of Bass-O-Renos. Fast, slow, downstream, sideways, upstream. Deep, shallow and in-between. Nothing worked. Nothing. (Rapalas hadn't been marketed yet, and plastic worms weren't available either.) I finally got one of the smallest ones to hit a Paul Bunyan 66 spinner burned at 15 mph across the pool.
Finally I resorted to my old standby. I quit fishing for a couple of minutes and caught a live green leopard frog. I put a hook through his nose, clamped a dog-eared sinker a foot and a half above it and lowered it into the water so it fell right in front of their noses.
The moment I let go of him, the frog used both hands and feet, contorted in front of his nose, in an effort to gain leverage in the futile effort to pry himself off the hook. He was paying absolutely no attention to the bass. Their universal reaction to Mr. Frog's Houdini impression was to move off to the side and let him go by.
I flicked him in the noggin' with one finger to put him to sleep so he'd lay on the hook better. Then, I jigged my frog and diddled with the fish until I was convinced they weren't going to bite. In disgust I took the frog off the hook and tossed it into the river. It lay stunned for a second or two, then began swimming strongly for the shore. On its fifth kick the biggest bass in the school came roaring up off the bottom and engulfed it.
I learned a universal truth that day, and it colored the way I looked at fish, and fishing, forever. Live bait is best rigged in such way that it is not so impeded by the hook(s) or line that it fails to react to the presence of a predator.
Getting back to frogs, they are definitely great bait. It's too bad they're getting so scarce. I used to use them regularly to catch walleyes, catfish, largemouth bass and pike.
They are especially effective early in the year, at the end of winter hibernation, when fish pick them out of the mud. This usually happens in shallow, dark-bottom bays when the water first warms into the high '40s and low '50s.
They are also deadly later in the year, fished like a pork rind on back of a jig. I've also had great success fishing them just off the bottom on live bait rigs for big bass that wouldn't bite anything else.
You've probably heard the old-timers talk about fishing the "frog run" in late summer. It can be amazing. Big, hungry fish in very shallow water. It can actually happen twice. Once after the frogs have hatched and matured and need to spread out to new territory; and again later when they move out of the ponds and grassy fields, back into the bays where they spend the winter.
Maybe the craziest "killer" frog tactic was something I discovered by accident as a kid. I had a frog that for some reason had become bloated in my pocket. He was frisky and perfectly fine except he looked like a marshmallow with eyes, arms and legs, and looked to be pushing 50 psi. I quickly snapped on a weedless hook, put it through the end of his nose and tossed him under a heavy canopy of vegetation at the confluence of a coldwater creek.
The frog struggled to get underwater but couldn't because he was full of air. Poor Kermit was going crazy on the surface trying to submerge when a 10-pound pike ate him. It was the most beautiful pike bite I had ever seen. The fish's eyes looked like Cat's Eye shooter marbles and it had an expression like a T-Rex.
I found I could replicate this amazingly effective tactic if I used a fine, hollow stem of dry grass to inflate the frog from the port side (there will not be a diagram or photo illustrating this). With the decline in frogs I suggest you use them only where they are plentiful, and if you can get them legally. If you decide to inflate one, take a lesson from Bill Clinton and don't inhale.
UNLEASH THE 'DOGS
Waterdogs are one of the most potent of all live baits. You want the smaller, soft, greasy, little immature ones. Not the big, hard growlies just about ready to mature. You can fish them in all the same ways as you fish a frog. My favorite way to fish them is on the back of a jig like a giant piece of pork.
They're effective on big bass after they've set up on deep weedlines and humps, especially in late summer and early fall. Every year I lived in Minnesota, I caught at least one largemouth over 7 pounds on a jig and waterdog. For big fish I focused on three different types of scenarios:
1. Outside bends and wood fishing in the lower two-thirds of small reservoirs.
2. Deep cabbage on major structures on super-clear lakes.
3. Lakes and pits designated and managed for trout, but where gamefish like pike and bass have snuck back in.
'Dogs are easy to keep alive and fun to fish with. I used to order them by the thousands and keep them in a big cattle watering tank with a cover on it, outdoors in the shade. With minimal care, even with dragging them back and forth from the lake, they'll last until the fish eat them.
Sometimes I seine-netted the spillways below small power dams and caught buckets of crayfish. Using them in the river with only marginal success, I finally climbed a tree so I could watch the fish as I tossed crayfish in the water to see how they reacted. I was amazed. If the crayfish assumed the kung fu fighting position, the bass would often just back up, or move over, and let it pass. But if the crayfish kicked his tail and tried to take off, it was curtains every time.
Needless to say, a crayfish that was doubled up and twirling on a hook with a sinker dragging behind it was most often ignored. That is until the fish ate a few escaping crayfish and got "turned on." Then it didn't seem to matter. They'd bite almost anything that came by.
After they'd had their fill, the fish would start ignoring things again, but sometimes the last few crayfish that tried to escape would get eaten. I remember thinking to myself, "This is remarkable. The stimulus that triggers a bass to eat a crayfish isn't that the bait looks exactly like a crayfish; what matters is how the crayfish swims away and reacts to the presence of the bass."
This is similar to the lesson I'd learned earlier with the frog.I discovered that freelining crayfish with a tiny hook in the carapace worked a lot better than anchoring them to the bottom. Taking off the pinchers helped too, otherwise they walked around like a mountain climber with both hands on the rope.
One of the most startling observations I've made with live bait is noting the difference between wild bait versus farm-raised. You might think I'm crazy, but I've tested this on dozens of different occasions and in my mind there is no doubt that when the fishing is tough and you are for sure on fish, it makes a big difference.
What happens is, oftentimes, the farm-raised bait doesn't react as vigorously to the presence of a predator. Sometimes it doesn't react at all. I've seen huge pike and muskies swim up to a big farm-raised sucker and bump it with their noses when it didn't try to get away.
A farm-raised bait hasn't learned that predators are bad. It's been raised in an environment devoid of them. The wild sucker is still alive only because it has thus far been quick enough to escape the many predators it encountered every day.
To really test the difference, I bought a few dozen farm-raised suckers 4 to 5 inches long. They were packed in air, tempered to the water they were to be transferred to and fished in, then submerged in a constant flow of fresh water. I also seined a couple dozen wild suckers the same size from a shallow gravel channel behind an island.
They were less slippery and much firmer feeling than their domestic brethren and were also leaner, with bigger heads for their length.
The water was dead low and crystal clear. It was almost a month after opener. Nobody had caught walleyes for two weeks. All the community holes seemed devoid of fish. I slipped my flat-bottom river scow into position quietly with the oars and dropped the anchor.
I lip-hooked a farmie with a size 6 Kahle-style hook, added a couple medium shot and pitched it just up-current from where I knew the deepest slot in the swift, rocky run happened to be. Each cast I got braver, letting it sink deeper and go where it wanted, or where the current took it. A dozen casts produced nothing.
I replaced it with a wild sucker of the same size, and using the same hook and hooking it in the same manner, pitched it to the same spot.
As the sucker was sinking I felt soft thumps as it became startled and began to swim frantically, then a firm thud as a walleye inhaled it.
Beautiful 4 pounder. Three casts in a row, I landed nice walleyes. In every major hole for the next eight miles of river the scenario repeated itself.
I told a few fishing friends. They neither believed there could be such a difference, nor that I was hammering walleyes. One shot his mouth off and bet me he could catch as many on plain jigs as I could with live bait. He lost. I caught his limit and mine. Twelve keeper fish, two limits, to zero. I invited a couple of my other buddies to come along and see for themselves. It happened the same way again and again. If you've got good live bait and know how to fish it, you don't need voodoo.
Since then, I've observed a similar phenomenon in saltwater as well. Whether you are fishing with live fish, frogs, crabs, crayfish or shrimp, live and healthy is better than sluggish, and wild is better than domestic. It's worth the effort to keep your bait totally healthy. If it gets stressed once, you can keep it alive, but it's hard to make it really healthy and frisky again.
Just as important, two good baits are better than 20 bad baits. Don't try to put too many baits in a tank. Being alive, and being really hot and frisky are two different things. Oxygen bubbles are no substitute for a steady flow and exchange of fresh water. A quick difference of only three degrees Fahrenheit will bean out most fish. Treat your minnows well and they will go to the end of the line and die trying get you a big one.
Remember, too, states have different laws regarding the transport of wild-captured bait. Respect the laws and never release live bait back into the water.
RIGS YOU'LL DIG
What point is there in going all out to keep your bait healthy if you do a "Vlad the Impaler" routine when you put it on the hook? The most common mistake when fishing live bait is to mortally injure the bait with the hook, or to place the hook in such a way that makes it hard for the minnow to breathe.
The best way I've seen to solve this problem is a method I first learned in Panama while fishing for black marlin with live bonitos. It's called "floss rigging."
This is very common in saltwater, yet I've never seen anyone try it in freshwater. It's easy on minnows 4 inches and longer. It can be done on smaller bait but it takes a little surgical skill, small needles and finer floss.
A floss-rigged bait is extremely versatile. For instance:
1. You can freeline it and let it go where it wants.
2. You can add shot ahead of the bait to make it go deeper, or slow it down so it's easier for a sluggish predator to catch.
3. If you want to fish it on the bottom, use a slip sinker rig.
4. To keep it a fixed distance from the surface or out of rocks, weeds or timber, use a bobber or a balloon.
I particularly like balloons because you can inflate them to any buoyancy, even large enough so they act as a sail and carry the bait out from shore or away from the boat. You can tie them slip or fixed.
They're highly visible and can double as markers, yet they're lightweight and take up negligible space.
If you want your bait to swim away or down, it's sometimes best to place the hook in the back on either side of the dorsal fin, or affix it between the tail fin and the vent on the underside. Also, you can try to hook the fish under the skin or use an upholstery or mortician's needle to sew floss to the skin, but it's sometimes hard to get it to hold firm.
A good trick I learned from South African surf expert Rick Jacobs is to poke a small hole just through the skin of the bait where you want the hook to be. Now carve a sharp, 1/4- to 1-inch sliver (depending on bait size) from a toothpick and insert it in the hole, horizontally just under the skin and parallel to the body. Push the sliver forward until its entire length is under the skin, then gently slip it backwards under the skin so it's centered under the hole.
You can place your hook directly under the sliver or use floss. It holds like you wouldn't believe and has almost no ill effect on the bait. If you use floss, I suggest hitching the floss loop to the sliver before you insert it under the skin to minimize handling trauma. This is a good way to rig if you're fishing stationary, or current is not a factor.
I'm not quite out of tricks, but I am out of space. Steve, I did the best I could in the space allowed.
Am I suggesting that everyone get rid of their lures and become live baiters? Not for a second! But I am suggesting that the application of good live bait techniques in areas where fish have become educated will produce big fish. It will also provide you with a no-voodoo reality check and, through observation, may lead you to more successful tactics and strategies to employ when using flies and artificial lures.
One last thing. The best way to clean worm grime out from under your fingernails is to rake your nails across a soft bar of soap then scrub them with a soft brush. The spine of a small catfish works to clean out the cracks and corners and doubles as a toothpick in a pinch...Oh, and I meant it about using circle hooks!