“Heads or tails?”
It was the most important coin toss of the year, for it determined who was going to fish and who was going to bleed. I was 13 years old when my brother and I started the tradition of tossing a coin to decide which one of us had to drop trousers and wade out into the lukewarm water of a swamp that drained into a particular Adirondack lake we loved to fish. It was the perfect place to gather bait for walleye. Armed with a small dip net, the unlucky brother would wade around the swamp scooping the odd baitfish, though the real prizes were the boggy waters’ less desirable inhabitants: leeches.
On warm days, the small struggling annelid worms would be swimming close to the surface and make easy targets for the net. However, the easier way to gather them in any sort of numbers was the real reason for the coin toss. When we would enter the swamp going “full commando,” our bare posteriors would end up covered in the tiny parasites, forcing the loser to sit still and wait for the winner so scrap them off with a knife blade into a bucket. It was an effective but traumatic way to gather bait. So, after a few years, we discovered a much more effective method for catching leeches that was much less humiliating.
As my brother and I discovered in our younger years, leeches can be an incredible bait for a myriad of freshwater gamefish. While walleye seem to be particularly fond of the creatures, other fish like smallmouth, pike, panfish, and trout will also greedily inhale leeches whenever they get the opportunity. However, many bait shops don’t offer leeches as bait either because it goes against state law or because anglers are hesitant to buy what they imagine to be bloodsucking parasites. So, if you want to use leeches for bait, it often means resorting to catching them yourself.
While taking a bare-legged stroll through leech infested waters may catch a few for you, this is far from the most effective method. Furthermore, many of the leech species that suck blood don’t make the best bait because of their habit of latching onto an angler’s hands and fingers when trying to hook them. Many such species are also actually avoided by fish for unknown reasons. Therefore, your best bet for gathering leeches in sufficient numbers for bait is by making a leech trap. These traps are easy to construct and target scavenging species of leeches, such as the ribbon leech, rather than the creepy blood suckers.
Leech traps can be made of almost anything so long as it can both hold bait and has a wide surface area that leeches can cling to while feeding. Many anglers use things like coffee cans, soda bottles, and even small buckets as leech traps. The items I’ve found to work best are aluminum pie plates because they are both inexpensive and quick and easy to make into traps. Simply fold the pie plate in half and crimp the edges together, leaving a small opening at one end so that you have a sort of small metal envelope. Poke a hole through the top of the opening of the folded plate along its edge to attach line and you’re done. It’s best to make several traps and set them at different depths and locations to increase your chances for success.
The best places to set leech traps are in shallow ponds, creeks, or swamps that don’t have a lot of fish in them or along the shallow, warm edges of larger lakes and rivers that do. Bait your leech traps with a few chunks of fresh cut bait or even with the heads and guts of a previously cleaned fish. Toss in a couple small rocks to help weight the trap down and then attach it to a length of heavy monofilament or twine. Place the trap into the water so that it sits on the bottom and either tie it to shore or to a float of some kind, such as an empty plastic bottle. This is essential if you’re soaking your leech traps offshore so you can easily locate them later.
Leave the traps to rest overnight and hopefully they will be filled to the brim with leeches by the next day. If they aren’t, change the bait and try a new location rather than leaving the traps in place. Soaking the bait too long in one spot will often result in the traps being raided and destroyed by larger scavengers like snapping turtles. When you start catching a few leeches, all you must do is unfold the pie plate and dump the bait in a bucket and you’ll be ready to go fishing. If you want a better look at the entire process, be sure to check out Jay Siemens setting leech traps on Season 1, Episode 1 of The Canadian Angle.
There are a lot of ways to fish with leeches depending on the fish species you’re pursuing. The simplest and probably most common method from either shore or a boat is to rig them with a small hook through the head, attach a few small split shot and a slip bobber to the line and cast. This method allows the leech to swim and struggle naturally and is a great way to catch fish like walleye, bass, and trout that are cruising around in shallow water hunting for a meal. However, when fishing in deeper water or covering a lot of ground from a boat to find and attract them to the bait, your fishing methods can become more intricate.
“Leeches make for a great bait, but you have to know how and when to use them,” professional angler and MeatEater contributor Ross Robertson said. “Warm water is key to success because if the water’s too cold the leeches just curl into a ball and sit there on the hook. You won’t catch anything that way.”
Robertson likes to fish leeches on rigs that can be worked slowly so that the leech can slither and undulate beneath the water’s surface and not just be dragged along like a stick. Trolling leeches slowly with an added attractant such as the floats and spinner blades on a Lindy Rig or worm harness is a fantastic way to target species like walleye and trout, especially when set on a downrigger or weighted bottom bouncer. They also work extremely well when tipped on a jig, especially when targeting fish like bass, walleye, or catfish off of rocky points of structure. To do this, hook a leech through the front of its head using a bucktail jig or plain jig head. Once the leech is hooked, drop the rig down into the water until the jig hits bottom and then slowly lift it a few feet off before letting it fall again. It’s an incredibly effective method.
“I like to tip them on a jig a lot,” Robertson said. “But however I fish them, I always like to fish on a light line or leader and I like to use a small hook, like size 6 Octopus hook, hooked right through their sucker so they stay on and have good action.”
Robertson has some other tricks he uses to make sure his leeches stay good and lively.
“I always make sure to change the water they’re being held in to keep them fresh,” he said. “And when they’re getting sluggish or just when I feel like I need them to have some additional action, I’ll smear a bit of Preparation H on their skin. It makes them go wild.”
The livelier and more active your leech is, the better luck you will have. If you fish with them enough, leeches can very quickly become your favorite live bait.
One of the best things about fishing with leeches is that often they will work when nothing else will. The slow-moving worms are easy to catch and provide a convenient of a meal for many predatory species. Often during the early summer when leeches are breeding and abundant, many fish species target them almost exclusively. This means that in the mid-to-late summer when some fish become more lethargic with the heat or reluctant to eat because of fishing pressure, leeches can be that magic bait that finally puts a bend in your rod. It makes it worth pushing past any stigmas you may have about leeches being blood-sucking parasites, because gathering them is worth the effort. Still, it’s probably better to leave your pants on when you do.