July 15, 2022
Back in the day (and by that, I mean the early 1970s), gathering bait was part of the fishing experience. Seldom did my father and I visit the bait shop. Instead, we’d drive down to the creek outside my hometown and push a seine for an afternoon, collecting plenty of what the Old Man called "crappie minnows," along with a handful of crayfish, which would be fished on the bottom for channel cats.
Crawlers? Same story, minus the seine. Equipment? A headlamp with the requisite red lens and a Maxwell House coffee can.
"That's two bucks a dozen you're saving, son," the Old Man would announce as we climbed aboard his ’65 Ford 500 Custom. Then it was off to John Shafer’s yard where, according to dad, the 'crawlers were more numerous than stars in the sky.
Today, catching and keeping live bait is somewhat a thing of the past, which is too bad. There's no better way to ensure you’re getting—and using—the very best than to catch it with your own two hands.
Perhaps the easiest bait to procure and keep lively is the nightcrawler. A damp lawn (the darker the better), a headlamp, a container and a quick hand are all that’s necessary. However, a few tips might make this nocturnal adventure more productive. The red lens mentioned earlier does help greatly, as it reduces the harshness of an ordinary LED light to a degree that doesn’t send the ’crawlers scurrying back into their burrows. As for the style of light, I recommend a headlamp, as it frees both hands for double-fisted ’crawler picking.
Though tough to find now-a-days, herbicide-free yards are by far the most productive nightcrawler habitat. I’ll suffer through a few dandelions and patches of Creeping Charlie if it means having plenty of worms.
This should be obvious, but it has to be dark before the worming gets good. Step away from the streetlight glow and chances are you’ll find greater numbers.
As for the picking itself, resist the urge to simply grab and yank; that strategy often results in pulling but half a ’crawler. Instead, press down on the worm with your middle finger where it emerges from its burrow, pinning it to the ground. With your off hand, grasp the ‘crawler tightly and pull gently, allowing the worm to relax before sliding it from its hide.
Nightcrawlers can be kept in an ordinary cardboard box that’s been lined with damp newspaper and filled with a commercial worm bedding like Magic Products’ Buss Bedding (magicproducts.com). Cover the container with damp—not wet—newspaper, and keep it in a cool, dark place. If you intend to keep the ’crawlers for longer than 2 or 3 days, sprinkle an 8-ounce cup of coffee grounds on top for feed. Magic Products also offers a worm food that keeps ’crawlers happy and healthy.
Minnows aren’t difficult to catch; in fact, seining a local creek can be quite enjoyable. It’s the maintenance after the catch that often proves challenging. Minnows, particularly those taken from moving water, require a lot of dissolved oxygen. Give them the oxygen they need, and you should have plenty of lively minnows on hand.
I’ve found seining minnows easier when done as part of a two-person team, with one running the net and the other on the bank with the bucket serving as the picker. Don’t spend too much time in the center of the creek, but rather poke around under overhanging brush, shoreline scrub and cut banks, as these are all preferred minnow hiding places.
Well known for their landing nets, the folks at Frabill offer a great 4-foot by 8-foot, quarter-inch-mesh black seine that covers plenty of water, but is easy enough for one person to handle efficiently.
Minnow traps are another option. These small mesh cages are baited—often with bread, crackers or dry dog food—and dropped via a retrieval line into a quiet eddy or backwater portion of a creek.
Minnows swim into the trap through funnel sections at either end and find it difficult to make the return trip to the outside world. A 12-hour soak is often sufficient; a 24-hour dip, if convenient, can often result in a larger catch.
Minnows are typically used shortly after their capture, making containment a simple matter; however, there remains the issue of oxygen depletion. A small hang-on, battery-powered aerator can solve this problem. Better yet, Magic Products’ AeroBait Bucket operates on a single D-cell battery and provides quiet, constant aeration in a 5-gallon environment.
Crayfish, like minnows, are often widely abundant, and both fun and relatively easy to catch and keep. Creeks and streams are often thought of as prime crayfish habitat; however, these small freshwater “lobsters” can also be found in good numbers in ponds and lakes.
Rocks are best, as it’s here that crayfish make their home and hide from the long list of critters—aquatic and otherwise—that relish a crustacean-focused meal.
Seining is one method of capture, if one doesn’t mind spending time in the water. Again, a two-person approach is perhaps best, with one—the catcher—holding the deployed seine tight to the bottom and at a slight angle with the current.
The second person—the walker—moves slowly downstream toward the net, dislodging rocks with each stride. In theory, displaced crayfish are swept downstream into the net, which is then quickly lifted. Any bait is picked and put into a waiting 5-gallon bucket. Word of warning, though: Mind those pincers.
Similar in design to minnow traps, crayfish traps are baited with canned cat food, raw chicken scraps or small fish carcasses, then weighted and lowered into rocky areas to soak overnight. Like minnows, crayfish have high dissolved-oxygen demands, especially when confined. Aeration is essential, as is a short turn-around from capture to use.
Not much is heard about using leeches for bait anymore, despite the squirmy little critters being excellent for a variety of game fish, including walleyes, smallmouths, big bluegills and channel catfish.
Cool, still water is prime habitat for ribbon leeches. Commercial traps are available, but it’s easy enough to make your own. Punch several pencil-diameter holes in a metal coffee can, drop half a brick inside and secure one side of the plastic lid to the top with a cable tie and the other with a small carabiner. Bait can be a mid-sized fish carcass, though I’ve had better luck using the heart or sections of liver saved from the previous fall’s whitetail. Tie a strong rope to the carabiner, lower to the bottom and wait 12 to 24 hours for the leeches to find your trap and make themselves at home.
Hardy critters, leeches can be kept alive for days and days, even weeks, if kept cool. A Styrofoam flat or small plastic tub works for storage, but be sure to change the water frequently. Keep in mind that many municipalities use high levels of chlorine and/or fluoride to treat their water, neither of which is good for leeches. Well water or distilled drinking water is better.
This article was featured in the East edition of June/July 2022 Game & Fish Magazine. How to subscribe