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Bait Fishing 101

The basics of using bait
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Published on FishExplorer.com
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Introduction

No matter if you are a novice to fishing or an experienced veteran; you should be able to find something interesting in what follows.  In my years as a member on FishExplorer.com, I have found some disdain directed towards those using live bait.  While I agree with some of the points made, they also tend to look down on my fishing practices.  So, instead of fightin’ in the muck, I decided to share some of my fishing knowledge in the hope that it will educate those seeking to improve upon their own personnel fishing skills and maybe in the process gain some respect for my methods on the water.

Bait fishing is not a thing to look down upon.  Live bait fishing is the purist and most ‘original’ form of fishing around.  While growing up on the waters of the Pacific Ocean, and fishing on day boats, it was common practice to fish with live squid.  At Lake Isabella, you simply wouldn’t hook into any channel cats if you didn’t have some night crawlers, chicken livers, or mussels. There did, however, come a time when I simply had to change things up and step out of the comfort zone that my father had patiently helped me develop.  When you fish next to a man catching fish after fish on a Rapala, it forces you rethink your strategy.

The following information is from the perspective of a shore angler and most of these techniques were developed at Pueblo Reservoir.  Fishing from boat or at different bodies of water may yield different results.

Controversy

The two most controversial topics when one discusses bait fishing are trash and releasing fish.

There is a perception that it’s standard practice of many to leave their trash around.  It boggles my mind every time I go to Pueblo Reservoir, hike a mile into the wildlife reserve, and find worm and liver containers, beer cans, water bottles, cigarette butts, and the packages that they were bought in. There is absolutely no excuse for this. A prime example of the ruin of nature would have to be Lake Puddingstone California. In 1983, this lake was a jewel set in the hills, hiking along the shore to various coves would allow you to reach your limit in the matter of an hour. Now, this body of water is a garbage receptacle. Between the trash, overfishing, and general destruction of the shoreline, it is a ghost of what it used to be.  Simply there is no excuse for any angler to leave their trash, regardless of how they fish, bait, fly, or lure.

My father and the men I grew up fishing with were very content on taking a fish here and there, sometimes none where taken.  All too often, people use the ‘easiest’ form of catching, usually by using small treble hooks or j-hooks. This practice when live bait fishing may result in higher than necessary fish mortality. Some may believe that if the fish is mortally wounded, it’s ok to throw it into a cooler.  However, today’s regulations are such that a badly hurt fish may be legally required to be released.  With that in mind, it takes some extra knowledge to learn how to not mortally wound your catch, so as to allow for its safe release.  I rarely, if ever, wound a fish to the point of no return, and I will show you how to do this, also.

Equipment

Hooks:

Special attention here needs to be given to the circle hook.  I don’t know when the circle hook was created and growing up I was not familiar with it. The best way to catch a fish back then was to use a larger j-hook and hide it inside your bait. You had to be very quick to react to a strike, in order to prevent the hook from being ingested and causing irreparable damage.  Unfortunately, it also decreased your catch ratio greatly. Today, circle hooks are the most effective way of preventing seriously wounded fish. With a circle hook, it’s important to learn to simply reel in, instead of reacting to the strike by pulling on the rod for a hook set.

In my opinion the absolute best circle hooks are made by Gamakatsu and Owner. With some knowledge of sharpening hooks, you can re-use these hooks for at least two years (or more), thus decreasing tackle costs for you. They are somewhat pricey compared to others, but they are worth it. In regards to treble hooks, I will only use large trebles when I am fishing for trophy cats. Catfish tend to play with the bait and ‘sample it’, allowing you more than enough time to get a hook set in the jaw rather then it being swallowed.  Smaller trebles will certainly get swallowed, thus killing the fish on hook set. They should NEVER be used for any other species, especially trout.
 

Packing In/Out:

I had a really cool tackle box handed down to me from my father that I used for more than two decades. It had nostalgia, but it also had no room to pack out trash.  These days, I have chosen to switch over to a regular old hiking bag, necessary as I fish multiple-species at any given time.  However, a smaller day bag or back pack should work just fine if fewer species are targeted.  Not only does a bag allow you to carry more tackle, it also allows you to ditch your cooler, store ample drinks and food, and pack out yours and others’ trash.

Go ahead and see if your water bottle will fit in the bottom compartment of your box, it most likely won’t.  All too often, a twelve hour outing will result in the live bait angler coming up with grand excuses as to why they can’t pack out their trash.  It’s frowned upon for a reason, and if you want that sweet honey hole to continue to be a great spot, you are best to simply ‘pack it out’.


Safe Catch and Release

When handling your catch, you should always have a wet towel.  It’s not only useful for cleaning the nasty live bait off your hands, but it’s needed for taking a photo if fishing alone.  I generally try to never hold the fish by the jaws when taking a photo. You greatly increase the risk for jaw breakage.  Simply lay the fish down on the towel, snap your pictures, take measurements, and release. Wet plastic that hasn’t been in direct sunlight, works well too.  Always wet your hands in order to not remove the VERY IMPORTANT protective ‘slime’ that coats the fish and protects it from infection and disease.  If you do hold your fish up for the camera, always hold it gently under the belly with one hand, loosely by the jaw with the other hand, and keep the fish horizontal.  When catching a larger fish that has given a great fight, you will need to release it patiently.  Hold it gently near its tail allowing it to reorient itself again. It’s tired. If not done properly, the fish can become unstable, swimming upside down and generally losing its ability to recover.  Some fish types are more rugged then others, but this information should be STRICTLY followed for any trout, bass, or wiper.

Techniques

Trout (Rainbow):

I don’t typically target trout, but I will in the late winter, early spring months. Trout, for their size, are an amazing fighting fish. Unfortunately, they are also very fragile after being caught; the risk of mortality is very high if not using artificial lures/flies. The only way one can safely bait fish for trout in my experience is with a barbless circle hook. Simply crimp the barb area of the hook down with your pliers; it will disintegrate under the pressure. This will also increase catch rates.

In regards to bait, stay away from larger night crawlers, and do your best to either use ‘trout worms’ or worms found in the yard. If you need yard worms, run your hose for about thirty minutes in the lawn, you should get more than enough when they surface trying to escape the flooded earth.  Store them in some moderately moist (not wet) dirt. Salmon eggs also work well.  I generally never use power bait unless I am trying to get some kids into fish. 

Using j-hooks should be avoided for the safety of the fish.  If you do use them, make sure they’re barbless. Check your local laws for your body of water, many areas in Colorado DO NOT ALLOW LIVE BAIT FISHING for trout.

Catfish (Flats/Blues/Channels):

Three catfish species in Colorado are typically targeted by anglers; channel catfish, blues, and flatheads. Each has very different eating preferences.  Channel catfish love to scour for dead and easy to obtain food, although sometimes they will also go after live bait when older.  Blue catfish will follow the same eating pattern, but will eat live bait more often than not when they mature, they also love cut bait.  Flatheads are very predatory and generally only go for live bait. The times they will eat ‘dead’ bait is usually a good indication of a very out of balance ecosystem, and it’s simply trying to survive. 

There are times when a larger weight should be used while catfishing, such as one ounce egg shape weights. Ideally they should be set up to slide above your leader.  This will allow your catfish to sample the bait without being spooked by a fixed weight.  If fishing with a fixed weight, try to stay under half an ounce. In general, you don’t need to cast far for a catfish. They tend to roam like sharks, and are very predatory near the shoreline.  Catfish will follow channels and cuts to get to the shore as if traveling by freeway, so know your environment.  Also, if your bait is heavy enough, you will not need any weight at all. This will increase your catch rates dramatically if you can adopt a setup that allows you to ‘fly line’ your bait out.

When it comes to bait, catfish will eat almost anything. Shrimp, worms, marshmallows, hot dogs, cut bait, chicken/beef liver, ‘Zote’ soap bars from Mexico (yes, I just said that), TV bait shrimp, live or dead minnows/shiners, gum (yes, this happened with spearmint), power bait, stink baits, insects, leeches, mussels - the list is endless. The best overall bait has to be shad cut bait.

Don’t fall prey to the myth that catfish are on the bottom.  You’ll be astonished at what a shad under a bobber can do.  Simply hook the shad in the middle under its dorsal fin with a larger circle hook. If fishing with chicken or beef liver, make sure you ‘wrap’ the liver to the hook using pantyhose.  Although you will look very strange buying pantyhose at your local store, this allows you to cast farther, and you will have fewer problems with the liver coming off during the cast.

When you are using worms, create a “worm ball” by attaching multiple worms to the hook. Make sure you have a couple torn in half on too, so the scent will spread out.

My basic setup uses eight to ten pound mono, although braided is becoming popular.  Always use a leader that is the same size as the line you are using.  Catfish will roll constantly during the fight increasing the risk of your line snapping.

 

For trophy sized catfish, you will need to up your setup to 14-30 pound mono, even fifty pound braided if possible. The fight you will have will be intense to non-dramatic. 

Fishing with your drag tightened is discouraged especially if your setup is in a pole holder. Catfish are very finicky, and will actually drop the bait if they feel the resistance, so keep the drag as loose as possible. When your spool starts to sing and you prepare for hook set, simply hold the spool tight. If using a circle hook, wait until the cat stops running, tighten down the drag, and reel in fast. Ultimately, in my opinion, try to learn how to watch your line, and leave the bail open on your spinning setup. When you do see your line going out, patiently and quietly get your rod and wait. You will need to close your bail softly, and wait for the line to straighten out. If using weight, you will have to really reel in hard to fight the counterbalance of the weight and get a good hook set with your circle hook.  When done correctly, you will be ready for one of the best fresh water fights in your life.
 
Wiper/Walleye:

My dad, while I was growing up fishing the Pacific, had no issues with hooking a live squid while we fished for yellow tail or halibut. The things where kind of weird, they would grab your fingers with those tentacles, bite with their beak, and even shoot ink in your eyes if you’d let ‘em.  My dad however, to this day, will never touch a leech. People have this very strange primordial instinct not to like leeches.  I say, get over it. The leech, in my eyes, is what I like to call ‘Colorado Gold’ and the wipers and walleye love them.  The following is an excerpt from a post made Jason Russell on FishExplorer.com:

“Although some of us do have "honey" spots, there are plenty of walleye and plenty of places to catch them. The key is to know the fish. You allude to a pea sized brain, this means that that are very instinctual and also very predictable. Some hints on walleye behavior will hopefully help you in your quest. The biggest walleye (9 lb) I ever caught was from shore, using a leech on the bottom. I prefer live leeches and jigging or slip bobber from shore. But that is also why I have two poles, one can sit with the bobber or on the bottom if it is a jig, and I can try some lures around the area to see if there are any takers. Knowing the bait fish is good too.”

In regards to the fishing practice of targeting walleye and wipers, nothing seems to do better than a leech.  I tend to target both by using a ‘lindy’ setup. This consists of a circle hook, lindy float, leader, and sliding weight in that order. This allows you to search the water column by letting out line every five or ten minutes to find where the wipers or walleye are suspended. Once you find that sweet spot, it’s almost impossible to not get a strike if you are in the right spot. If you are not in the right spot, MOVE.  Other methods of targeting wiper include a live minnow under a bobber, mussel under a bobber, or a night crawler (although less successful).  If you are fishing from boat or shore, a ‘worm spinning harness’ is deadly for walleyes, mostly during dusk or dawn. It all comes down to lots of experimenting and practice to figure the pattern out. This will be discussed shortly. Just like catfish, do NOT set your drag tight when fishing for wiper and utilizing a pole holder. I know a number of men who have literally had their rods snapped in two, due to very large wiper strikes.

Bass (spotted, smallmouth, largemouth):

The state record smallmouth bass was caught at Aurora Reservoir, and it was with live bait under a bobber.  The beautiful thing about fishing is that it’s the ultimate American sport, the great equalizer.  How many stories have you heard of a seven year old girl catching a mammoth catfish on a Barbie Doll pole? Probably a few! Bass are no different. When live bait fishing for bass, I have found the best success with the following.  A night crawler rigged under a slip bobber, a minnow or shiner under a slip bobber, or a crawdad “fly lined” out and allowed to roam the bottom.

When hooking a live crawdad, simply hook it between its tail plates bottom to top, being careful to go between the plates, and to also not rupture the ‘mud vein’ going through the middle. If you hit the mud vein, it will soon after die, leaving you with a much less attractive offering. I also have great success with leeches on a lindy rig setup. Again however, use only circle hooks. Our bass population is in dire need of some love, and any bass mortally wounded should be taken seriously, calling in a change of tactics. Also, take some time to understand the art of ‘tipping’ a jig or spinner with live bait, it will make the difference sometimes between you catching, or not catching. Check your local laws for your body of water, many areas in Colorado DO NOT ALLOW LIVE BAIT FISHING for bass.

The best luck I have had to this day, in regards to live bait fishing, is a ‘bait popper’. This technique is absolutely deadly for top water bass. There are some made on the market, but if you want to be inventive, just set up your own. Simply take your favorite popper, and remove the tail hook. From there, you will want to attach a one to two and a half foot leader, and a circle hook. What this will do, is entice more interest in your live bait. The bass will be ‘triggered’ by the top water commotion of the popper, but ultimately strike the trailing live bait. Even more interesting is when you leave the foremost treble on the popper; they will sometimes forgo the live bait and strike that instead. It makes for interesting fishing!


Planning/Record Keeping

The two most important items I own for my techniques are a topographic map and log book. There are many cell phone applications for both, but I am old and not hip with the times now. I simply keep a log book in a record keeper book, as well as a paper copy of the topographic map.

In your log book you should at the least note the following items:

  • Air/Water Temperature
  • Wind heading, as well as current direction at surface
  • Bottom structure
  • Fish caught/seen
  • Surroundings (other anglers, wildlife activity, bugs,  etc.)
  • Bait used
  • Time of fishing, start to end

What is most important about the log book, aside from what worked is what did not work. Often time’s anglers become very obsessed with using the same old tactics, and this is the greatest key to folks getting ‘the skunk’. By keeping an up to date log book you will know, at the very least, that you should try something different in your spot from year to year.  Also, don’t allow the log book to control trip plans. Just because you didn’t catch something on June 26th 2011 in your spot, doesn’t mean you won’t on June 26th 2012; just change it up this time!  Also, some very tech savvy anglers these days are utilizing GPS, to pinpoint exact locations, instead of relying on shore structure to find where the fish are at.  In regards to a topographic map and fishing from shore, you want to correlate where you where fishing to the notes in your log book. I do this by writing a number in my topographic map where I was fishing and note that in my log book. It would be VERY difficult to help you understand what various terms are in regards to understanding a topographic map. The one I have helps you do this by explaining different terms in the back, but a simple Google search will do the same. The most important terms to know are:

  • Cuts
  • Points
  • Bottom Structure
  • Breaks
  • Point Bars
  • Rip Rap
  • Channels
  • Underwater Islands
  • Inlets/Outlets

If you are having issues figuring out what the bottom structure has to offer, try this trick. Attach a one ounce weight to the end of your line and reel in slowly after casting to your intended spot. This will allow you to ‘feel’ out what the bottom has to offer, without snagging and losing your gear.  Remember to cast farther then your intended target so as to not spook any fish in the area. By learning this information, and the effects of wind, temperature, and current, you will seriously have the MOST important information for live bait fishing in your tackle box of knowledge. If you are fishing a reservoir that goes through extreme water level changes throughout the year, take pictures of the shoreline structure that ultimately will be submerged when the levels increase. Knowledge is power.
The biggest mistake that many live bait anglers make is refusing to move.  At Pueblo, I will actually travel about one half to one and a half miles of shore, one way. By the end, I will focus on moving back towards the start of my trip. You need, at all costs, to move.  Sometimes, fish just will not, in any way, be where you think they are.  You need to move.  I usually always use a pole holder for one pole, and keep my other pole in my hand moving my bait accordingly.  You need to learn the importance of what was mentioned above in regards to structure and under water elements.  As a general rule, I will never stay in one spot longer then 30-45 minutes unless fishing for catfish.  In that case, I will stay for up to four hours sometimes before moving my bait or re-baiting.  It all comes down to ‘what’ you are fishing for, and what the currents and wind are doing.

Conclusion

I hope all this information has been of some use in one way or another. Also, do not feel the need to solely focus on one method of fishing.  Fly fishing, and bait casting are obviously effective methods of fishing.  Although awkward at times, I can still be found bait casting at Pueblo, even though I am relatively new to it. The idea is to not only learn more about what you like, but to get yourself out of your comfort zone. After some years, it will pay off in spades! In the end, you will get some discouraging looks at times from other anglers when you use live bait methods. Follow the advice given above, and in a short amount of time next to them, you yourself will help them understand that you, in reality, are no different than they are. And that my brothers, is the ultimate goal, commonality and the ability to coexist. Go catch some fish, and take care of our waters.

 

© 2017 Shantro Buck
Credit:
Originally from California, Shantro started fishing at the age of two, primarily saltwater. Today he calls Colorado home and can often be found plying his skills at Pueblo Reservoir. Specializing in shore fishing techniques, Shantro’s preferred targets are channel catfish, wiper, walleye, and smallmouth/largemouth bass. He continues to live by his father’s words, “Don’t take what you won’t eat, and if you eat it, eat it all.”