Despite the convenience and durability of artificial baits, sometimes there's just nothing like the real thing of using natural baits for fishing.
Legendary guide Mike Nielsen of Tahoe Topliners remembers his childhood days where using grasshoppers and salmon eggs was the norm for him and all his buddies. Nielsen recalls strolling through fields and grasslands with a mesh-back Miami Dolphins hat and using that ballcap to cover grasshoppers prior to putting them on a No. 6 baitholder hook and catching fish the moment the bait hit the water.
Photo by Chris Shaffer
"I used to use what my dad would call a specialized trap for grasshoppers, aka a good ball cap or trucker's hat. With the trucker's hat you can look through the mesh and see if you caught the grasshopper. We used to do it as kids," Nielsen said. "Back in the day, we'd take Folgers coffee cans, pop a hole in the plastic lids and put the grasshoppers inside. Oftentimes, it was more fun catching the bait than the fish. It'd take twice as long to catch the bait as it would the fish."
Unfortunately, today's youth seems more in tune with video games, TV and the Internet than the outdoors, yet Nielsen's hat swatting techniques still work -- and trout and bass remain keen on natural baits.
Ironically, since the day mankind began fishing, anglers have spent countless hours trying to recreate natural baits. While the art has evolved over the past century, the piece of work hasn't changed. For some reason, inventors, anglers and million dollar-companies believe they can create something that outfishes the real thing. And, while they've come close, it's still a chore to find an artificial bait that rivals its natural counterpart.
And, even while retailers across America continue to bring out the newest and hottest plastic, wood and chemically altered baits, a strong contingent still argues that nothing is better than baits Mother Nature creates.
"I think with any species -- it doesn't matter if it's a bass, catfish, trout or panfish -- the first-best is always going to be a natural bait. Nothing beats the real thing. Bass, trout -- heck any fish -- will react to a real piece of bait first, before they hit anything artificial," says Joel Shangle, host of Northwest Wild Country Radio, the No. 1-rated fishing show in the country. "Think about it; we are all out there trying to add scents to artificials to try to make them better, but nothing beats a natural bait."
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Meanwhile, anglers continue to try to alter baits that don't grow from food, on trees or in the ground. And, while those who consider it a greater challenge to use artificial baits have a point, they still will likely see slower catch rates than those using insects and like baits.
"Think about every single artificial scent on the market. Every single one is an imitation of what happens in nature and, to be perfectly frank about it, it doesn't matter what chemicals/scents you add; there's nothing that beats a natural bait. That's why krill is so hot right now. It's a natural bait," Shangle adds. "And, to further that, all the plastics out there for trout, bass and other species are meant to replicate baits that occur naturally, so, as far as effectiveness, there's nothing that beats a real, natural bait. No matter what anybody says, the bottom line is the best bait is always going to be the natural bait that occurs in that particular watershed."
Bass anglers might be the more stubborn ones, particularly tournament anglers, who wouldn't be caught dead with natural baits.
"We don't use them because we aren't allowed. I don't hardly ever fish with natural baits, but I wish I could sometimes, because I'd catch twice the amount of fish," says Randy McAbee, past FLW Western Angler of the Year. "With a natural bait you have a lot more fish mortality. They swallow the bait, which is part of the reason we aren't allowed to use them in tournaments. But, let's be honest here: A natural bait is probably going to out-fish an artificial bait 10-1. If you put a natural bait in a tournament angler's hand, you'll definitely get bit."
McAbee believes there isn't a natural bait that wouldn't work on bass. However, baitfish, he believes, are their guilty pleasure.
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"All and all, if I had to choose one bait, it'd be a shiner, but keep in mind, all natural baits are seasonal as to when they are available in the systems," explains McAbee.
For example, he says, crawdads work best in the fall and spring, whereas shiners are most effective in summer and dead of winter. Worms, nonetheless, can always be available and applicable.
Meanwhile, with earthworms and red worms, McAbee isn't sold on their traits, particularly when put side by side with soft plastics.
"I don't think a real worm is better than a plas
tic worm," McAbee notes. "For a bass angler, I think an earthworm or nightcrawler wouldn't be the best because of its lack of durability, and you'd end up catching catfish and panfish most of the time.
Crawdads are another go-to bait. While part of every non-juvenile bass' diet, crawdads are found through the West and are an integral part of a mature fish's forage. Mimicking the backward crawl of a crawdad, it's claw motions and walking speed can be nearly impossible with a plastic imitation, yet simple with a real bait.
"We have 10,000 different crankbaits and swimbaits that are driven by natural baits. The bass tournament guys are out there fishing artificial baits, but the guys that are out there fishing jumbo minnows are catching more fish, more often," explains Shangle. "Bass pros are out there trying to find the best crawdad imitation because nothing is better than a real crawdad. If you are fishing a red crankbait, you are trying to imitate a crawdad. Think about it, if you have the ability to start off with the foundation of what's available in the lake, you are going to be successful and the foundation is always a real, live bait."
While many bass anglers are ashamed of using live bait, trout fishermen aren't as leery. In fact, worms, grasshoppers, crickets, salmon eggs and insects are staples in a trout anglers' arsenal. Take, for example, salmon eggs, a bait that's available in almost every lake, stream, creek and river trout reside in. Trout eat salmon, steelhead and other trout's eggs as part of their regular diet. Therefore, casting a single salmon egg on a single salmon egg hook is almost a guarantee.
"Consider the way trout react to salmon eggs. Take a look at any river that has a decent population of salmon. Guys are going out there with salmon eggs and hammering the trout, because those trout are eating salmon eggs that are flowing down the stream naturally," explains Shangle. "There's fly guys fishing egg imitations because they are trying to imitate the eggs that are drifting out of a salmon redd. What more proof do you need that natural baits work? That's why orange and yellow salmon eggs are so good. They are as close as you can come to a natural bait; as close to a completely pure bait as you can get."
Nielsen's grasshoppers have mostly been forgotten by the younger generation, yet still rival any other trout bait when flipped into streams and smaller rivers, he says.
"It's one of the most viable food sources. They'll pass a spoon or spinner by, but they'll never pass a hopper," explains Nielsen. "You can fish it dead or alive. I like to fish it on the surface, but sometimes you can use a split shot to get it down a little deeper. Really, size doesn't matter. I just like to find the feisty ones. Whatever size is available will work, but I'll use anything from a quarter to 3/4 of an inch."
While not applicable in moving water, minnows are popular in reservoirs and lakes and are a regular food source for medium to large trout, Nielsen says.
"Minnows can be a little trickier. In some lakes you can use live minnows, but in many others, they have to be dead," he says. "Once in a system long enough, trout are going to naturally feed on fry and minnows. All wild trout will and I believe stockers will, too, after they've lived in the lake for a while."
Many anglers troll or drift minnows, but dragging a live minnow or drowning it under a bobber can be more effective. It's always tough to beat live bait, regardless of what kind of bait it is.
"It's hard to beat live bait, but sometimes dead bait will work for them. too. You can troll it, drift it and even cut it into pieces and fish it," Nielsen says. "If you choose to troll the minnow, you'll need to use a bait harness that rolls them. This method is popular for kokanee and landlocked salmon, but works well for trout, too. Another thing: if you use minnows you'll see the size of the fish increase. Think about it. While a lot of us guides are using Rapalas and newer lures, the old-timers still use minnows and flashers and constantly catch fish. Some of these methods never go out of style and continue to work."
Nielsen reminds anglers that the easiest way to increase the productivity of many natural baits is by enhancing them. Scents, dyes and other additives can help boost their performance if you are unable to fish them live.
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"The fun part is dying them. You can color the natural baits to make them more attractive and visible to the trout," he says. "It's fun because you can be creative. You can chunk it, fish it whole or dead drift it and you'll find that trout will grab them either way. By dying and scenting it you'll have an offering that an average angler won't."
If you are boat fishing and soaking a minnow under a float, look to troll it behind a 3/0 dodger and a minnow. If you are opting to keep the minnow alive, either hook it in the lip, dorsal fin or tail.
"On a given day where you hook the minnow might produce more strikes. I've had days where I can't catch them lip-hooked and trout only bite them tail-hooked," notes Nielsen, who recommends trolling minnows 1.5 miles per hour or slower to ensure you don't drown them. "You'll have to experiment, but hooking them properly allows them to swim more freely."
While McAbee doesn't believe in the value of a live worm for bass, guide Andy Martin of Wild Rivers Fishing does.
"Think about the concept of worms," notes Martin. "Worms live in the watershed and can wash into the river or creek you are fishing. I like to use nightcrawlers as an alternative to salmon eggs and crickets. Sometimes I'll switch between red worms and pieces of nightcrawlers, but it can also depend on the size of trout you are targeting and the size of the creek you are fishing."
Editor's Note: Please consult local fishing regulations. In some bodies of water, bait isn't permitted. Other systems only permit the use of live bait caught in that particular body of water. When in doubt, contact your local fish and game office.)