When I was a kid, there were five bait and tackle shops in my hometown. Today, there are zero. I mean, yeah, we’ve got the big-box joints, but they lack more than the character and friendly faces of the mom-and-pop shops—they lack bait variety. Back in the day, you could buy three sizes of worms, crickets, crayfish, hellgrammites, homemade catfish dough bait, and everything from fresh menhaden to frozen mackerel from establishments where everybody knew your name.
I know I’m not the only one that lives in an area where the best you can hope for is that the worm fridge is stocked at Wal-Mart. But the truth is, your local grocery store (which may also be Wal-Mart), is a pretty good bait shop, too. You might not find everything you need to catch every species you crave, but you can clean up pretty effectively with what you find in aisle 10. Here are some killer grocery store baits that can help you in a pinch.
White Bread Wonderbread works wonders on a hook. The trick, however, is not letting it get too stale and dry. If you pinch off a soft, fluffy piece of fresh white bread and roll it into a compact ball, it’ll stay on your hook a lot longer than you’d think. Once it absorbs some water it almost returns to a dough-like state, similar in texture to Powerbait. The more crumbly the bread, the more difficult it will be to wad up and keep on the hook. There’s nary a sunfish that won’t slurp a bead of white bread, but channel cats chow it, too. White bread is also killer for both common and grass carp. Get them worked up by chumming the area around your baited hook with bread chunks. You can also get creative with bread by dunking the balls in Kool-Aid or garlic powder to ramp scent and visual appeal.
Corn and Marshmallows Canned corn has been a staple for stocked trout and carp anglers forever. Those truck trout likely recognize a single kernel as a hatchery pellet or perhaps a salmon egg. Carp, however, are genuinely attracted to the sugary smell of canned corn. This is why carp anglers often fling a few handfuls around where they’ve set their baited lines, hoping to create a carp frenzy.
Though less popular for trout than corn, small marshmallows are equally potent and have a bonus feature—they float, at least until they dissolve. Rigged on a short leader above some split shot, a marshmallow will actually suspend off the bottom, theoretically making it easier for fish to see. You can also add a marshmallow to a hook baited with a light mealworm or corn to keep them hovering just off the bottom.
Tilapia Most serious anglers I know loathe tilapia. It’s a genetically enhanced farmed fish that, in my opinion, tastes like nothing. But, these days, there’s not many grocery stores that don’t have it in the seafood cooler. In a pinch, when I didn’t have time to catch bluegills or ran out of frozen shad, I’ve had great success catching catfish and bowfins with tilapia. Compared to fresh trout or salmon, tilapia is far less expensive. Even though the catfish in my local waters don’t swim side by side with tilapia, I’ve noticed that it outfishes other store-bought saltwater fish like mackerel and bluefish. While it’s just a theory, I think because tilapia is a freshwater fish, it smells more like the local, natural forage species than completely out-of-place saltwater fish.
Velveeta One brick of Velveeta creates a lot of bait. This overly processed “cheese” also doesn’t need to be refrigerated, so you can keep it in a Zip-Loc bag in your tackle box for quite a while. Its color is pretty close to natural salmon eggs, which means stocked trout will pounce on a tiny ball of it drifted along the bottom in the local honey hole. Likewise, that pungent, cheesy aroma calls in catfish and carp. To extend the life of this fake cheese on the hook, I’ve known anglers that roll it to size the night before a trip and freeze it. Regardless, it will dissolve eventually, but as it’s doing so it’s releasing a cheddary scent trail into the water that catfish can follow right to the hook.
Chicken Livers Good tackle shops often sell chicken livers for the catfish crowd, but most of the guys I know that lean on them always got them at the grocery store. Chicken livers are one of the best catfish baits on the planet, but if you’ve never used them before, here’s a trick: These soft, slimy baits don’t stay on the hook very well, often flying off when you cast. So, before you head to the check-out line, swing by the beauty products and grab a pair of pantyhose. On the water, cut a piece of the hosery and wrap it around some livers, tying it up to create a neat, round bundle. The porousness of the pantyhose will allow all that chicken liver scent to seep out while your hook stays firmly planted in the nylon material. If your grocery store doesn’t stock chicken livers, chicken in general is a terrific catfish bait. It just bothers me to spend good money on chicken cutlets only to toss them into the river when I’d rather throw them on the grill.