Being a complete angler is less about catching fish and more about involving yourself in the entire fishing experience. From exploring a new fishing spot to choosing the right equipment and presentation, the more engaged you are in the process, the better angler you’ll become.
For many fly and spin fishermen, the pinnacle of this ideology is in creating something yourself to catch fish, be it making your own lures or tying your own flies. While convincing a fish to eat something you made in a plastic mold or with a mishmash of feathers and fur is indeed an accomplishment, I don’t necessarily believe it’s the peak of angling achievement. Though I tie my own flies and make my own lures, I still feel I’m only almost to the upper echelon of the fishing class. Real angling Nirvana comes from the more natural route—catching your own bait.
The Bigger World of Bait Many anglers look down on bait fishing, often suggesting that the method is too easy. Sure, it may be easier in some situations, but it’s basically mandatory for many species and can get you into tricky fish when all other tactics fail.
Nevertheless, I don’t think there’s a fisherman out there who hasn’t filled up a coffee can with worms dug from their garden or a convenient manure pile at some point in their lives. Digging worms is a part of fishing culture, a nearly required activity when first taking up the sport. If you skipped that step, return to GO.
Furthermore, just about every fishing method out there owes its existence to catching and fishing with bait. The first lures were invented to imitate baitfish. Even the purist sport of fly fishing can trace its roots back to “dapping,” the art of threading a live mayfly on a hook and letting it float on the surface of the water dangled by a rod and line. Regardless of your views, the bait-catchers I’m referring to are the true connoisseurs.
Bait catching is a way of life for many anglers. I know folks who know can collect almost any bait with a little bit of know-how and creativity. You can catch fathead minnows, dace, suckers, and chubs by placing a minnow trap baited with a few chunks of dried bread into shallow water. You can also fill the same trap with pieces of cut bait and anchor it on the bottom of deeper rocky areas of a lake, river, or pond to catch crayfish, an excellent bait for crappie or bass. Bluegill and perch gobble up insects such as crickets like candy. To capture this terrestrial treat, place an open plastic bottle in a brushy part of your backyard baited with a couple of teaspoons of sugar and breadcrumbs.
This all extends far into the saltwater scene as well, from cast-netting pinfish and shrimp for snook, tarpon, and grouper, to dipnetting herring for Chinook and lingcod, to trolling up big bonita to tempt marlin, bluefin, or giant sharks. It all adds to the thrill of the pursuit and additional satisfaction to a day of fishing because you not only picked the right bait, you caught it yourself.
When you get deep into the world of bait catching, you can even use bait to catch bait. True bait catchers will still dig for worms, which they’ll use to catch panfish. Then they’ll put those panfish on larger hooks and heave them back into the water to capture something more worthwhile like a giant pike, walleye, or even a big trout. Then they’ll use the guts, skins, and heads of those fish to bait their minnow traps or just stick them back on the hook as bait for another species like catfish or gar. It’s a wonderful cycle and an addictive practice that, once entered, can completely transform you as an angler. If you haven’t, make sure to watch Jay Siemens perform this feat with suckers, leeches, and walleyes on The Canadian Angle.
Diehard baitheads often build their own custom crayfish and minnow traps. They’ll get up early before going trout fishing to gather sluggish grasshoppers from frosty grass stems. They’ll roll rocks for hellgrammites and set traps for leeches, and despite getting the heebie-jeebies every time they touch one, they’ll still drop them in the bucket to save for later. They evolve into anglers who understand that fishing with live bait goes far beyond picking up a box of bloated nightcrawlers from the gas station on your way to the lake.
Why You Should Catch Your Own Bait Aside from the financial benefits and humble-bragging rights that come from having a minnow tank in your basement or personal worm bed set up in an old bathtub in your backyard, catching your own bait adds an additional element of pursuit to angling. This added chase can supplement even the slowest days on the water.
On one of my favorite days fishing for striped bass on the Hudson River in Albany, New York, my buddies and I landed only two stripers between us. Normally that would have been a dull day of fishing. However, the Hudson was so full of the herring we were catching and using for bait at the time that we barely noticed the lack of striper activity. We literally caught hundreds of them, gleefully squealing like kids with every tiny wriggling fish we brought aboard on the Sabiki rig. The thrill of the chase expands tenfold when you add the challenge of catching your live bait to the mix. That day, jigging for herring and absolutely hammering them, turned some slow hours on the water into a hell of a good time.
Catching your own bait can make you a better lure and fly fisherman because it’ll help you better understand how fish behave in their natural world. Watching a stubborn trout that has refused to rise to your fly suddenly shoot up and inhale a live, wriggling grasshopper you tossed in the water can teach you a lot about what’s wrong with your presentation. The same can be said for a largemouth ignoring the crankbait reeled right past its nose, then smashing a panicked minnow you stuck on a hook and dropped in the water 30 feet away. Observing the way live bait moves and acts in the water can educate you on how to use lures and flies properly, and having some bait on hand can help you correct those mistakes quickly. Plus, it’s often the only thing that can save you from getting skunked.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of catching your own bait is that it adds a natural element to fishing that often feels diluted in modern angling with so much new technology. Between the use of space-age sonar and the continuous advancement of artificial lures and flies, the simple joy of just catching a fish can feel lost in all the hubbub. Many hunters refer to their satisfaction with reinserting themselves back into the natural world and becoming a part of the cycle of predator and prey. Yet we seem to forget that going fishing used to mean the same thing. We often become so distracted by the idea of getting a fish to eat our chartreuse spinnerbait or plastic stonefly, we forget that fishing is, at its core, a primal food-gathering activity. Catching your own bait reminds you of those lost predatory aspects of fishing, even when you’re practicing catch and release, and allows you to witness the aquatic food chain and take part in it first-hand.
Being More Than Just an Angler Catching your own bait is a special kind of challenge, one on par with making your own lures or flies. It’s also a vital skill that immerses an angler deeper in the natural world. It teaches you about ecology, how fish react and feed, and gives you a set of skills that you can use for survival. In the end, catching your own bait makes you a more complete angler and outdoorsperson—the place we all strive toward since that first time we threaded a worm on a hook.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.