Live Bait Basics

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Published on: May. 2, 2009

Last revision: Dec. 13, 2010

Nine-year-old Kate Sebaugh watched her bobber. It twitched once, and she bent her legs to get ready to set the hook. The bobber twitched again, then dipped under water. Kate raised her fishing rod with both arms.

“You got a good one?” I asked as I trotted over to string a big bluegill caught by her older brother, Scott.

“It’s pulling hard!” Kate answered back excitedly.

Her line cut circles in the water as she worked another fat bluegill to shore.

My role on this fishing trip was to help Kate and Scott catch fish. And catch fish they did—20 nice bluegill, three bass and three channel catfish! My most important contribution to the morning’s success was setting the kids up with crickets. Like many older anglers, most of my fishing involves artificial lures, but I had not forgotten how effective and simple it is to use live crickets to catch bluegill.

In situations like the one with Kate and Scott, when I really want to make sure we catch some fish, I’ll rely on live bait. For bluegills, crickets almost always work well, but almost any live bait is easy to use and generally produces pretty good fishing. The kids seem to like using it, too.

Earthworms

Sifting through piles of leaves in the backyard or digging in soft dirt behind the barn has started many fishing adventures for kids. Worms are also readily available at bait shops. Pin small worms or thread pieces of larger worms on a hook. Both really work!

I like to use night crawlers, which are really just very large worms. They’re fun to collect, too. You can gather them from mown lawns in many places by searching at night with a flashlight after a heavy rain. The rain allows earthworms to come to the surface to feed and breed without the threat of drying out. You can also collect night crawlers in creek or stream floodplains by poking around in the moist piles of decaying leaves and other plant material left by high water at the base of trees and shrubs.

Night crawlers have tough skin, which is another reason anglers favor them. Hooked through the head region, the shorter of the two areas separated by the band, the worms hold well to the hook. You can also hook worms and night crawlers through the more fragile tail section. This encourages them to swim or crawl away from the hook, which adds an enticing action to the bait.

Fishing with worms is simple. You can suspend them beneath a bobber or fish them on the bottom by adding a small sinker or two to your line.

Crayfish

Crayfish are an ideal bait for fishing in rivers and streams. They comprise much of the diet of Ozark stream game fish, including smallmouth bass and goggle-eye.

The problem with crayfish is their pincers, which look formidable when crayfish raise them in a threatening manner. They won’t hesitate to use them, either. The pinch they deliver, however, is not that painful and seldom breaks the skin. If you pick them up from behind and grasp their upper body between your thumb and forefinger, they’ll be unable to pinch you.

Often, the best way to catch crayfish in clear creeks and streams is to turn over rocks and grab them, or you can use a small hand net to avoid being pinched. Usually it’s best to divert the crayfish with one hand, while trying to capture it with your hand or the net. Kids love to catch crayfish almost as much as they like fishing with them.

The best way to present crayfish is tight-lining with no bobber. Depending on current, a sinker or two may be needed to hold your crayfish where you want it. Hook a crayfish through the lower edge of the tail so that the hook point faces up. Your first cast with a crayfish often offers your best chance of catching a fish, for the crayfish is fresh and more likely to swim, triggering fish to strike.

You can keep crayfish healthy by storing them in a cool place. A bait bucket with an inch or two of water and a generous supply of tall grass works for me. The grass allows the crayfish to crawl in and out of the water. If left in standing water, crayfish will deplete the oxygen and suffocate.

Crickets/Grasshoppers

I’ve become good friends with one of the farmers on whose ground I turkey hunt. A few years back he invited me to come out and fish with him at one of his ponds. When I pulled up, he was swishing a homemade net to capture grasshoppers from the tall grass by the barn. He placed them in a coffee can with a lid. We then hopped on his tractor and headed to his back pond.

I fished with 1/16th-ounce horse-head jigs, fitted with a spinner and rubber skirt. He used grasshoppers—and caught four fish to my one.

“Country boys and country ways are sometimes tough to beat,” he told me later.

Both grasshoppers and crickets will catch most any game fish in Missouri. In early spring, young grasshoppers, recently hatched from eggs laid during fall, are not large enough for fishing, so I’ll use crickets, which I usually buy at a bait shop.

Both crickets and grasshoppers can be fished beneath a bobber or by tight-lining on the bottom with a sinker or two. With a bobber, cast toward likely cover, let the bobber settle for several moments, then begin a slow retrieve. If fish are around, they’ll usually strike.

Tight-lining on the bottom typically works best when midsummer heat drives fish to deeper, cooler water. When tight-lining, let the cricket or grasshopper sit in one place, or slowly reel it in. This tight-lining technique is a good way to catch red-ear sunfish and channel catfish, which tend to feed close to the bottom.

Both crickets and grasshoppers can be kept in commercial cricket baskets. Store them in a cool place. Put a potato slice into the container and don’t overcrowd them. With good care, they should last several days.

Minnows

Minnows are a “natural” for most game fish. The most common minnow sold in bait shops in Missouri is the golden shiner. These hardy minnows work well as bait.

You can catch your own minnows in a seine or a minnow trap. Larger seines require two people, one for each pole. They are best used going downstream, with one person stopping and anchoring one seine pole at stream’s edge with the other person swinging the other end around, encircling the minnows.

Some seines are small enough for one person to use. Hold the seine poles in front of you, with the poles touching the stream bottom, then pull it upstream while kicking and shuffling the gravel with your feet. The seine captures minnows, along with invertebrates, that head downstream to escape the ruckus.

Use these seines at the head of holes where water tapers down to riffles so that you can corral the minnows. Through trial and error, you’ll quickly learn a lot about capturing minnows

Commercial minnow traps and jug traps also are effective. I like to use a Mason jar equipped with a plastic funnel and baited with a few finely crushed saltine crackers. I fill the jar with stream water and face the funnel opening downstream. Minnows follow the fine stream of crumbs into the jar and can’t easily exit through the small funnel hole. Sometimes a jar will fill up with minnows in less than 10 minutes.

Some anglers hook minnows through the lips; others hook them behind the dorsal fin. Either way works fine, but I’ve found it’s usually best to hook them in a way that keeps the minnow alive. Suspend minnows from a bobber or jig them around structure. On streams, anglers typically tight-line on the bottom with sinkers or let minnows drift free in the current with no weight.

Non-game Panfish

The best way to catch these is with hook and line baited with crickets or worms. Small panfish are great bait for catching big catfish—particularly flatheads.

Flathead catfish are the connoisseurs of the catfish family, eating only live or freshly killed prey. Trotlines or limb lines, baited at dusk with live sunfish hooked behind the dorsal fin, are an effective means of connecting with these whiskered giants.

If you catch more—or larger—panfish than you need for bait, you can fillet and fry them. Even the small ones yield small but delicious fillets. Turn the fillets into poorman’s shrimp by boiling them for 3 to 4 minutes in water seasoned with shrimp seasoning, then chilling them in ice water. Served on a bed of lettuce with cocktail sauce, the fillets are quite tasty.

Live Bait and the Wildlife Code

Below is an excerpt on live bait regulations. You can pick up a copy of A Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations at permit vendors or download a PDF at www.MissouriConservation.org/2115.

Live bait includes: crayfish, freshwater shrimp, southern leopard frogs, plains leopard frogs, cricket frogs and nongame fish. Bullfrogs and green frogs must be taken under season limits and methods listed in the Summary of Fishing Regulations.

Methods: Live bait may be taken by trap, dip net, throw net, pole and line or seine. Live-bait traps must have a throat opening not more than 11/2 inches in any dimension, and must be labeled with your full name and address. Traps must be removed if they cannot be checked at least once every 24 hours. Seines must not be more than 20 feet long and 4 feet deep, with a mesh of not more than 1/2 inch bar measure. Live bait, except fish, may be taken by hand. Crayfish also may be taken by trap with an opening not to exceed 11/2 inches by 18 inches.

  • All bluegill, green sunfish and bullheads more than 5 inches long and other species of nongame fish more than 12 inches long must be returned to the water immediately after being caught by any of the methods listed above except pole and line. The daily limits for nongame fish apply to the large fish taken by pole and line.
  • Bighead carp and silver carp may not be used as live bait but may be used as dead or cut bait.
  • There is no length limit on bighead carp, common carp, gizzard shad, goldfish, grass carp and silver carp when used as bait.
  • Live bait taken from public waters of Missouri may not be sold or transported from the state.

Seasons: Live bait may be taken throughout the year.

Daily Limit: The daily limit is 150 combined total for crayfish, freshwater shrimp and nongame fish. The daily limit is 5 each of the following amphibians: southern leopard frog, plains leopard frog and cricket frog. The daily limit is 8 bullfrogs or green frogs, combined total of both species. Bullfrogs and green frogs may be taken only from sunset June 30 through Oct. 31 (Check the Summary of Fishing Regulations for details). There is no daily limit on bighead carp, common carp, goldfish, grass carp and silver carp. Live bait, when purchased or obtained from a source other than the waters of the state or a licensed commercial fisherman, must be species on the Approved Aquatic Species List and may be possessed in any number as long as you carry a dated receipt for the fish.

Other species that may be used as bait include:

Nongame fish of any size, except bowfin, if taken according to the methods and seasons listed in the Summary of Fishing Regulations. Mussels and clams legally taken by sport fish methods.

Game fish or their parts may NOT be used as bait.

Avoiding Injury to Game Fish

Live bait has one drawback: Fish sometimes “swallow” the bait, and the hook lodges deep in the fish’s throat or gills. This is no problem unless you want to release a fish; usually it’s too injured to survive. Use forceps or needle-nosed pliers to gently remove hooks. If the hook is beyond reach, cut the line. There’s a good chance the hook will eventually work itself out. You can usually avoid having fish swallow the bait by setting the hook the moment you feel or see a strike.

Don’t Dump Bait!

It’s illegal to dump bait in Missouri waters.

Throw unused bait in the trash. Unwanted animals and plants can invade local water, damage habitat and ruin your fishing. To learn more about protecting Missouri’s streams, rivers and lakes from invasive species, visit the link listed below.

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