There’s nothing better than the wisdom of older anglers. With their years of experience etched in the lines of their faces, a well-aged angler can teach you more about the fishing game than an entire library of books, podcasts, and YouTube videos. Some teach by taking you out on the water, chuckling gently as they help you bait your hook or they do it by slapping you on the side of the head and yelling “Not that way dummy!” However, the most common way that older anglers convey their fishy insight is with sage-like sayings. They’re always spouting off proverbs like “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work,” and “You never leave fish to find fish.” However, perhaps the most famous of these fishy bits of wisdom that we adhere to unflinchingly is “Big fish eat big bait.”
The concept of using big baits for big fish has been passed down through generations of anglers, soaking itself into the very fabric of fishing culture. It’s an ingrained notion that often has us setting up our rods like the two guys casting out their Christmas roast in Jaws, believing that putting on the biggest bait possible will yield some monstrous reward. Even when we’re not having any luck, we never question the validity of the practice. Yet so often it’s unsuccessful, and with so many anglers out there putting the theory to practice and so few being consistently rewarded, you’ve really got to ask yourself the question—“Do big fish really eat big bait?”
The belief behind the saying is that as fish grow larger and somewhat wiser, they begin to target larger prey items. Just like how an offensive lineman needs to clear out an All-You-Can-Eat buffet to maintain their size and energy, so too do trophy-sized fish need more calories in order to survive and thrive. It’s this knowledge that has caused many an angler (including myself) to throw on the biggest bait possible and chuck it out there in hopes of landing a monster. Of course it often works, further reinforcing the big bait equals big fish ideology.
Ice anglers have long known that using big baits is a surefire way to catch large predatory fish like lake trout and other trophy fish through the ice. Catfish enthusiasts looking to land a behemoth often put aside the usual kitty treats and instead turn to large live baits and cut bait when searching for a big one. Yet while so many anglers adhere to the big bait belief, very few seem to know exactly why it works.
This big bait for big fish trend is most easily explainable in the world of trout fishing where river currents act like a never-ending treadmill causing the fish to almost constantly burn calories. Younger, smaller fish eat a lot of insects to make up for this and expend a lot of energy in their constant hunting of tiny bugs. However, older and larger trout need more calories to stay healthy and to maintain energy which can’t be done with such tiny morsels, so they move and feed less often but eat larger meals. While the small trout are almost constantly zipping through the current in search of their sustenance, the bigger fish choose to conserve their energy and only exert themselves for short periods of time to hunt large prey items like baitfish, crayfish, leeches, and minnows. For trout anglers looking for a trophy, this means putting the small nymphs, worms, and dry flies away and pulling out the big guns.
“If you really want to catch a trophy trout, you need to start throwing big baits like streamers," Montana trout fishing guide Willie Dellwo said. “You’ll catch far fewer fish with larger flies like that but the ones you do get are usually trophies. It’s because those big fish, those trout you dream about, are simply too big to waste their time and energy chasing around little bugs. They need meat, they need to eat other trout, whitefish, and suckers and you want to use baits that imitate that. If you’re spin fishing, you need to be using big live baits like shiners and lures like jerkbaits, big spinners, and even swim baits. Those big baits are what are going to get you the big fish. Shouldn’t waste your time with anything else.”
While hearing all of this reinforces the “big fish eat big bait” theory, it’s important to remember that this is but a small sampling of angling at large. If you depend entirely on using big baits to catch big fish, you’re going to spend a lot of long days on the water with no bites. For there are a lot of fish species, and different times and places, when big fish prefer to eat smaller meals, creating a lot of exceptions to the big baits and big fish belief.
Though the “big fish and big bait” is viable, there are actually a lot of giant fish out there that subsist on smaller meals. The best example of this is the paddlefish, which can grow to well over 100 pounds, but are exclusively filter feeders. Swimming through the water with their mouths open, these prehistoric giants eat almost nothing but plankton.
Large carp are another great example of a big fish that eats small bait. Growing to over 50 pounds in most places they live, carp subsist on a variety of tiny foods including small aquatic plants and seeds, insect larva, and fish eggs. As both these fish species are so large and their diets are so small, anglers targeting them often must resort to unusual fishing methods to catch them like snagging and bow fishing.
Aside from specific fish which live on small meals, there are other times of year and certain fishing conditions that cause more popular gamefish that we often associate with the big bait theory to target smaller prey. While it can vary through different regions and different species, there are just a lot of times when using big baits to catch these fish just isn’t going to work.
Cold fronts and the sudden drops in water temperature that come with them are notorious for making fish sluggish and very nonaggressive. When this happens, large gamefish like bass, panfish, trout, and especially steelhead, will ignore the larger lures, baits, and flies that have been working all season and instead will strike the smallest food items available. These smaller prey items are more readily available and easier to catch than larger prey and will keep a fish full when their metabolisms are at their slowest. In fact, there are certain bodies of water that remain cold for much of the year, such as Nevada’s Pyramid Lake, resulting in large fish living on an almost exclusively tiny diet.
“Pyramid kind of throws you off as an angler,” avid Pyramid Lake angler James Mugele said. “I mean we're talking about Lahontan Cutthroat, which are some of the biggest trout in the country. You’d think that they’d be all over big meals like suckers and even each other. But in that cold water, they seem to eat a ton of tiny things like chironomids and midges. It’s amazing to think of fish growing to such giant sizes on small meals like those, yet all my biggest fish come on the tiniest baits when I fish there during the winter.”
Warm water works in much the same way, especially for aggressive fish like pike and muskie. Big pike and especially muskie are well known for feeding on prey half of their own body length. This means that the fish can hunt and eat massive quarries, including gamefish like trout, walleye, and bass, and even turtles, ducks, and muskrats. These hearty meals allow the big fish to only need to eat once or twice a day and accordingly anglers target them using only the largest baits and lures in hopes of getting lucky. However, there are now several anglers out there who realize that using the largest baits possible isn’t always necessary when chasing pike and muskie, especially during the summer. That’s a time when small baitfish and panfish are more active, causing the big predators to be more opportunistic in their feeding habits.
“As far as I’m concerned, during the summer big pike and muskies will eat a big meal once or twice a week and then they’ll fill in with smaller prey while that big thing is digesting,” Minnesota fishing guide Wil Neururer told MeatEater. “There are times when throwing that big pounder for muskie and pike will work and times when there’s nothing better.”
Timing is everything for Neururer to bust out the big guns.
“The time of year is a big player for big baits and it starts with that first cold front in August. Any time after that it’s big bait time,” Neururer told MeatEater. “But for most of the summer when the water is warm, you can get away with throwing smaller stuff and will probably catch more fish. I’ll throw smaller bucktails, smaller double blades, etc., and work on speed more than on size. More often than not, it’s a good decision to go with a small, fast-moving bait rather than a big bait moving slow during that time of year.”
So while big baits certainly can catch fish, the old adage is a bit vague to really offer totally sound advice.
“I would say that while the big bait big fish thing is true, it’s not the grand solution to catching a big fish,” Neururer said. “A lot of people troll giant suckers in the fall and that for sure does catch fish, but it’s not what I recommend when it’s hot. It’s just not going to give you the return that you want. Most people have their boats put away for winter by the time that big bait stuff really gets going.”
Another time that large fish don’t exclusively eat big baits is when they have a large amount of smaller forage available. During large terrestrial or stonefly hatches, those big streamer-eating trout become more active and gorge themselves on the insects simply because they don’t have to waste a lot of energy to catch them. They get the same amount of calories they would get from a larger meal with less effort. In other places with a variety of smaller food, such as in the Great Lakes, large predatory fish like walleye will feed on whatever is most readily available to them, regardless of the prey’s size.
“Big fish seem to eat what they want and when they want to,” walleye guru and MeatEater contributor Ross Robertson said. “I target giant walleyes on the Great Lakes and it is always interesting to see what they spit up. While I personally release all the big walleyes, I’ve found a little time out in the livewell can give you some great information as they often spit up their last meal.”
This survey method can teach an angler how to “match the hatch,” by sorting out not only what they’re eating but also where they’re feeding in the water column. Showing how much more nuanced targeting big fish really is.
“One day you'll see the biggest fish eating small shiners and the next they are spitting up giant perch, gizzard shad, white bass, or even gobies,’ Robertson told MeatEater. “While this info can tell me lure size I can get away with, the best info I get from it is where the fish are located in the water column. Species such as perch and gobies are typically more bottom oriented where species such as white bass and gizzard shad generally suspend higher in the water column.”
What makes catching a giant fish a true trophy is that they are a rare and special thing. If you just went out onto the water and caught a monster on every cast, those truly gargantuan specimens would no longer carry the same weight. I often think that we adhere to the big fish eat big bait mentality because it almost gives us an excuse about why we’re not always landing the big one we’re after while at the same time, we declare our intent.
Just like when you let a small buck pass by your tree stand or decide to take on a double black diamond ski trail, using a big bait to catch a big fish just gives your angling efforts more meaning and in the end, it makes your success feel all the more epic. So despite all reasons and arguments to the contrary, the big fish eat big bait belief will live on, passing on through the whispered words of older anglers who know that telling an epic fish tale will keep anglers in pursuit of their big fish dreams for generations to come.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.