The Lure of Bait

Want to really catch fish? Put one of these on your hook.

Field & Stream Online Editors

That big fish eat little fish is one of the few immutable facts in fishing, an axiom that's spawned a billion-dollar industry among live-bait suppliers across North America. While the latest in lures or tournament tactics gets all the glamour and publicity, it's often a humble minnow that gets the fish.

The result is a huge, generally unsung majority of anglers tuned in to the lore of live bait. These range from a boatload of giggling kids using small minnows to haul perch from a northern lake to an old Florida bass hand quietly drifting a big golden shiner for the largest of largemouths. From muskies and walleyes to lowly crappies and legendary brown trout, live bait is the ultimate secret weapon.

The Bass Magnet
Golden Shiner Native east of the Mississippi from Canada to Florida, golden shiners (Notemigonus crysoleucas) have been widely introduced elsewhere. They're a deep-bodied baitfish, ranging from 2 or 3 inches to as much as 12 inches long. Larger examples are a deep gold along their sides with dark, olive-gray backs and orange-tinted fins; smaller versions appear simply silver.

**What Eats Them **The vast majority of double-digit largemouths caught in Florida every year are taken on live shiners, which accounts for their large reputation, but they're an excellent bass bait in weedy waters anywhere.

How to Catch Them Most wild shiners are caught with cast nets, and some savvy guides seed a small area with cereal grains to concentrate baitfish schools. (If you collect and use any type of live bait for your own fishing, check local regulations carefully.) They're common along the weedy margins of warmwater ponds and lakes. For casual shiner fishing in your local bass pond, you can easily catch goldens with bits of worm, or simply buy a dozen or two from the local bait shack.

How to Rig Them Rigging and fishing goldens is fundamentally simple: Match the hook to the size of the bait, and fish the shiner about 3 feet under a fixed bobber along the outskirts of weedbeds. Most anglers hook a shiner through its nose, which tends to cause it to swim deeper and toward cover. A shiner hooked near the dorsal fin often swims toward the surface. Determine your setup according to the water depth. At other times, fish without a bobber and with enough added weight to swim the bait deep along the edges of creek channels or other structure; goldens are not solely a near-surface bait. A big bass will quickly engulf a whole shiner, and it's better to set the hook sooner rather than later when the bobber goes down to avoid gut-hooking any fish you might want to release.

** The Trout Snack**
**Sculpin **If there were a contest for the ugliest baitfish, sculpins would win hands down. A big head and mouth are flanked by outsize pectoral fins and a body that quickly tapers to a small tail. Unlike most fish, sculpins don't have internal swim (air) bladders and thus spend their lives on the bottom of rivers, creeks, and turbulent lake shores, hiding under rocks and darting out to gobble aquatic nymphs, sucker eggs, and anything else that will fit in that monstrous mouth. Freshwater varieties like the mottled sculpin (Cottus bairdi) rarely exceed 6 inches long.

They're also controversial. In Rocky Mountain rivers, especially, sculpin anglers have long gotten a bad rap for killing lots of big trout, although that's obviously not the sculpin's fault. Then, too, sculpins were suspected of carrying whirling disease, and some trout states had recently restricted or banned fishing with them for that reason. But sculpins now appear to be innocent in that regard, and states such as Montana are again changing the rules to allow their use in certain waters.

What Eats Them Sculpins, where legal, are easily the best possible bait for big trout in rivers everywhere, not to mention smallmouth bass in milar waters.

How to Catch Them Sculpins are too difficult for commercial bait farmers to raise in quantity, which means you'll have to catch your own. All you need is a fine-mesh net or screen and a fast, rocky riffle. Hold the screen against the bottom and dislodge some rocks immediately upstream. Check the net quickly; sculpins are very fast little fish.

**How to Rig Them **Fish a sculpin with a single hook through the nose and enough split shot on your leader so you feel the bait ticking bottom as it drifts in the current. Before making your first cast, whack the sculpin on a rock to stun or kill it. Otherwise, a lively hooked sculpin will keep trying to hide under rocks.

The All-Time Favorite
Fathead Minnow For most fishermen most of the time, minnows are catchalls in both word and deed. You might just ask for a couple dozen shiners or minnows or a scoop of crappie bait at the local tackle shop, having no idea-and not caring-exactly what kind of baitfish you're getting. They're little, they're wiggly, and they work-and for most people that's enough.

Chances are you're getting fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas), a 2- to 3-inch-long baitfish widely distributed by commercial bait farms and noteworthy for their hardiness both in bait tanks and on a hook. There may be others in the mix, as well.

** What Eats Them** Small minnows and shiners are the closest thing to a universal bait, being routinely gobbled by everything from walleyes to trout to bluegills. The only exceptions are large predators like muskies and stripers, which tend to prefer larger forage fish.

How to Catch Them Catching your own is easy with either a small seine net along the shorelines of lakes and ponds or with a classic minnow trap in slow-flowing backwaters of rivers and creeks. If you're using a trap, bait it with both small, tightly wadded balls of oatmeal and small bits of beef liver to attract the greatest variety of baitfish.

How to Rig Them It's most important that whatever you're using be sized, rigged, and fished according to what you're trying to catch. A common choice is a 2-inch minnow impaled on a light-wire hook when still-fishing for crappies, or a 4-incher hooked through the nose on a small jig when probing a deep reef for walleyes. Most common minnows also work well for stream trout, particularly when a single hook is passed through the baitfish's mouth, out the gills, and then inserted into the body in a way that curves the bait, making it dart and roll when twitched in the current.

The Striper's Delight
**Gizzard Shad **As bait, these fish are fragile and sometimes hard to obtain. At the right time and place, however, they're well worth the effort. Gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum) reach a maximum of about 20 inches and have a characteristic black spot on the upper body behind the gill plate, which is often replicated on artificial lures. Because of their greater size, gizzards are a big-fish bait.

What Eats Them Gizzard shad get scarfed down by giant freshwater stripers and catfish with mouths like washtubs. Younger shad are eaten by bass and other smaller predators until the shad themselves grow too big for a largemouth bass to tackle.

How to Catch Them These fish are open-water plankton feeders and thus hard to catch. By far the easiest way to go after stripers with shad is to use a guide who provides the bait. You can sometimes take schooling shad with a cast net, however, especially in warm, shallow coves or in creek mouths where shad can be seen dimpling at the surface.

How to Rig Them Big shad about 10 to 12 inches long are a favored bait for landlocked stripers weighing as much as 60 pounds, often fished live on about 12 feet of line under a small balloon float during the winter when southern stripers hang near the surface. Shad are also suitable for use as chunks on the bottom for stripers.

A big, lively gizzard is prime in deep river holes for aggressive flathead cats. Bigger blue cats respond to a chunked shad.

The Sucker Punch
White Sucker With their large eyes and chubby, underslung lips, suckers seem to wear a look of perpetual surprise. Color varies with the species, but white suckers (Catostomus commersoni) typically have bronze sides. They are common to rivers, creeks, and lakes just about everywhere except the Deep South.

What Eats Them Fresh suckers-in the 9- to 12-inch range-are known across the North Country as the primo bait for big pike and even bigger muskies. The current International Game Fish Association all-tackle-record muskie-a 67-pound 8-ounce monster-was reportedly suckered by a sucker.

**How to Catch Them **If you get suckers from a bait shop, they're almost certainly white suckers, which are extensively farmed. And that's by far the easiest way to get them; trying to net or otherwise trap suckers from a nearby river or other body of water is iffy at best because unlike minnows they're rarely concentrated in big schools.

How to Rig Them Instead of just a hook through the nose, try a quick-set rig, a Y-shaped rigging that adds a treble hook in each side of the sucker near the middle of the body. This allows for an immediate and very effective hookset as soon as you see or feel a take. Almost all fish will be caught by the jaw this way and can be easily released with minimum harm. Quick-set rigs work whether your bait is dead and bottom-fished or rigged and cast. The forward part of the Y-shaped rigging fastens to a large hook at the sucker's head. outhern stripers hang near the surface. Shad are also suitable for use as chunks on the bottom for stripers.

A big, lively gizzard is prime in deep river holes for aggressive flathead cats. Bigger blue cats respond to a chunked shad.

The Sucker Punch
White Sucker With their large eyes and chubby, underslung lips, suckers seem to wear a look of perpetual surprise. Color varies with the species, but white suckers (Catostomus commersoni) typically have bronze sides. They are common to rivers, creeks, and lakes just about everywhere except the Deep South.

What Eats Them Fresh suckers-in the 9- to 12-inch range-are known across the North Country as the primo bait for big pike and even bigger muskies. The current International Game Fish Association all-tackle-record muskie-a 67-pound 8-ounce monster-was reportedly suckered by a sucker.

**How to Catch Them **If you get suckers from a bait shop, they're almost certainly white suckers, which are extensively farmed. And that's by far the easiest way to get them; trying to net or otherwise trap suckers from a nearby river or other body of water is iffy at best because unlike minnows they're rarely concentrated in big schools.

How to Rig Them Instead of just a hook through the nose, try a quick-set rig, a Y-shaped rigging that adds a treble hook in each side of the sucker near the middle of the body. This allows for an immediate and very effective hookset as soon as you see or feel a take. Almost all fish will be caught by the jaw this way and can be easily released with minimum harm. Quick-set rigs work whether your bait is dead and bottom-fished or rigged and cast. The forward part of the Y-shaped rigging fastens to a large hook at the sucker's head.