February 01, 2017
By Keith Sutton
Natural baits are especially important when trout fishing during periods of high, muddy water. Under these conditions, trout cannot see flies or other lures, but they can easily detect the odor of natural bait.
Natural trout bait also is a good choice in heavily fished streams where super-wary trout closely inspect every potential food item. They’re likely to recognize artificials as fake, but properly presented naturals may sucker them in.
Trout may swallow natural baits so deeply it’s difficult to remove the hook without injuring the fish. Therefore, if you plan to release your catch, don’t use these baits.
Also, in some waters, using natural baits when trout fishing may be illegal; or it may be against the law to use certain baits—minnows, for instance. Always check regulations so you know your fishing tactics are within the law.
An astounding variety of live creatures can be used for trout bait. Let’s look at some of the best.
Night crawlers, red wigglers, garden hackle—a worm by any name is always an odds-on favorite for charming trout. Probably the most widely used bait of all, worms are as attractive to fishermen as they are to fish, because they’re easy to obtain, keep and rig.
Use a No. 10 to 6 bait-holder hook for worms. Bait-holder hooks have barbs on the shank that keep the worm from slipping down or off. Thread the worm on the hook, leaving the ends dangling.
Worms are bottom baits as a rule. Some anglers prefer to use very little weight, letting the bait drift with the current. Others like fishing the worm dead-still in the bottom of pools or weed pockets.
For this style of fishing, use a slip-sinker rig. Put a small egg sinker on your line, and tie a small barrel swivel below it. To the swivel’s other eye, tie a light 18- to 24-inch leader on the end of which is a bait-holder hook.
Use a worm inflator or hypodermic needle to give the bait a shot of air that floats it above the bottom. Cast the bait, and let it sink. The egg sinker holds the bait on bottom, but when a trout nibbles, the line slides through the sinker so fish don’t feel any resistance. It’s a great setup for nabbing finicky trout.
You might read reams of trout-fishing literature without finding a single mention of the lowly waxworm. Nevertheless, this little critter is one of the best trout baits available.
Waxworms are larvae of bee moths. They grow from eggs moths lays in beehives, feeding on wax in the hives. They can be purchased at many trout docks or in bulk through several internet companies.
The standard waxworm setup is a slip-sinker rig like the one described for night crawlers. Instead of the bait-holder hook, use a tiny No. 12 gold hook tied on a leader made of 2-pound-test monofilament. Once you’re rigged, be sure to adjust your drag to the proper tension.
Three or four waxworms are impaled through the midsection on the hook, leaving the ends to wiggle enticingly. Then a miniature marshmallow is added to the hook or squished on the leader a few inches above the bait. The marshmallow serves as a float, giving the bait just enough buoyancy to keep it off the river bottom.
3. Crickets and Grasshoppers
Crickets and grasshoppers are easily obtained and make exceptional trout baits. Secure them with a thin-wire hook pushed under the collar just behind the head. Then push the point of the hook through the insect’s abdomen.
You can fish them on top or below the surface, but crickets and grasshoppers are especially effective when used as surface lures. Fish them somewhat like a fly, using light line and no weight. Give the insect a little twitch to ripple the surface, then hang on. Action is never long coming.
Bait-store minnows are effective year-round trout baits, but they’re overlooked by most anglers. Fatheads are easiest to keep alive, but almost any kind of minnow in the 1-1/2 to 3-inch range will work. Trophy-sized trout, especially giant browns, eat lots of fish when they are available, so minnows are a good choice when you want to hook a jumbo fish.
Sculpins and madtoms also are excellent trout baits, as both those small fish often inhabit cold trout waters. Both can be collected with minnow seines or minnow traps where permitted.
Hook baitfish through the lips with a size 4 or 6, thin-wire, short-shanked hook. Live ones always work best, but even dead ones work in current. Fish them beneath a bobber, tightlined on the bottom or while trolling or drifting.
Crayfish are another often overlooked, yet deadly, trout bait. They sometimes available in bait shops, but you may have to collect your own.
Small crayfish are OK for stocker trout, but if you’re after trophy fish, don’t hesitate to use jumbo specimens. Some people use the entire crayfish, alive and whole. Others prefer removing the pincers so the bait won’t grab objects on the bottom. Still others favor using the tail only, either peeled or in the shell. Under the right conditions, all these methods will produce nice trout.
Thread a No. 6 to 2 bait-holder hook up, through and out the top of the tail, then mimic a crayfish’s natural action by retrieving the bait backwards with short jerks. Big brown trout are especially fond of these natural bait morsels.
6. Aquatic Nymphs and Larvae
Many insects spend part of their lives in water and are important in the diet of trout. The art and science of catching fish with artificial flies is founded on the study of them.
All bait bugs mentioned below can be collected by having someone hold a small-mesh dip net or wire screen downstream, while you turn over rocks, rubbing your hands across the underside. The larvae and nymphs will be dislodged and swept with the current into the net. Pick them off, and store them in a container to which you’ve added some damp vegetation.
- Hellgrammites are black, centipede-like bugs that live under rocks in the riffles of clear, cool streams. The larvae of the Dobson fly, these ugly critters are super trout bait. Hook them under the collar just behind the head, but beware their nasty pincers. Hellgrammites are tough bait and stay on the hook. Several trout may be caught on one bait.
- Caddisfly larvae are often called stickbaits or case worms. Each builds a case of plant fragments, pebbles or sand glued together to protect the creature’s soft wormlike body. Most people remove the caddis worm from its tube for angling, though trout will eat them case and all. To hook one, thread it on a fine, short-shanked No. 12 or 14 hook, covering the bend and allowing the point to stick out slightly from the bait’s head. Several caddis larvae fished on one hook may bring more strikes.
- Mayfly and stonefly larvae closely resemble each other in appearance and habits, and both are excellent trout baits. Many live in cool, well-oxygenated streams and can be collected, kept and fished as you would hellgrammites. They’re fairly tough and last quite a while on the hook.
- Run a fine wire hook through the hard segment just behind the head, or thread the nymph tail-first onto a short-shanked hook, following the hook’s curve and allowing the barb to just penetrate the bait’s head.
- Dragonfly and damselfly nymphs are found in quiet stream backwaters hidden in piles of leaves or debris on the bottom. They’re best collected with a dip net or seine raked across the bottom or through plants growing in water. Carry them in a container filled with wet leaves or moss. Hook and fish them like you would other nymphs.
Next time you’re trout fishing, give naturals a try. You’re certain to hear a few chuckles from the feather-fishers, but you’ll be the one who gets the last laugh.
Note: This article was orginally posted in February 2017 and has been updated.