A Beginner's Guide to Bait Fishing

Panfish
In this group of scrappy fighters, there's a fish for every angler, from the cane-pole kid after a mess of sunnies to the hardcore panfisherman chasing suspended crappies. Unless you want to miss bites, your baits should be nearly as varied.
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Are You Fishing From Shore?
When panfish crowd shallow shoreline cover, one of the simplest routes to a fish fry is to meet them there with an old standby: a worm and a bobber. The Rig: Thread a small garden worm onto a size 8 or 10 light-wire hook, letting just the very ends dangle. Attach a small fixed bobber to keep the bait 1-"2 feet beneath the surface. Add a split shot and cast it to the edges and pockets of weedbeds, and around timber. Early in the season, drag it into visible spawning beds.
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Got Uncooperative Crappies?
Probably more than any other panfishing, crappie fishing is either very good or very bad. When these fish get finicky, some savvy anglers resort to ice-fishing baits: grubs and maggots. The Rig: Hook a waxworm, mealworm, spike, or mousie to a small leadhead or teardrop jig. Work it around weeds, wood, and bottom structure, and vertically to suspended fish.
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Want a Limit of Open-Water Jumbos?
By far the most popular bait for perch and crappies topping 9 inches-"and as big as 2 pounds or more-" is the ubiquitous fathead minnow. The Rig: Impale a 1- to 3-inch fathead through the lips on each hook of a tandem rig, weighted with a 1-ounce bell sinker. Jig, drag, drift, or slowly troll over submerged weeds, wood, or structure.
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Bass
Lost in the flash and hype of the latest lures is the plain fact that one of the most reliable ways to land trophy bass is with bait. In fact, it's a specialty of a number of guides in Florida and California who specifically target big fish. Below is a selection of deadly standbys on proven rigs keyed to the toughest conditions.
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Targeting Black Bass, Stripers, and Hybrids?
Gizzard shad are tops for landlocked stripers up to 60 pounds. Use threadfin for hybrids and black bass hitting schools of shad on the surface. The Rig: For trophy stripers, drift or troll a 6- to 12-inch gizzard shad below a balloon float or on a slip-sinker rig. Rig a 6- to 7-inch bait on the latter for big largemouths. For hybrids, drift a 2- to 3-inch threadfin on a size 2 hook with a split shot or two. Cast a tail-hooked threadfin or a jig-and-shad combo at surface-blitzing black bass.
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Targeting Black Bass, Stripers, and Hybrids?
Gizzard shad are tops for landlocked stripers up to 60 pounds. Use threadfin for hybrids and black bass hitting schools of shad on the surface. The Rig: For trophy stripers, drift or troll a 6- to 12-inch gizzard shad below a balloon float or on a slip-sinker rig. Rig a 6- to 7-inch bait on the latter for big largemouths. For hybrids, drift a 2- to 3-inch threadfin on a size 2 hook with a split shot or two. Cast a tail-hooked threadfin or a jig-and-shad combo at surface-blitzing black bass.
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Trying to Fool Pressured Largemouths?
California's trophy-bass fanatics, who've been busy in recent years teaching the nation new ways to haul in scary-size fish, are now inching live nightcrawlers to catch giant, finicky bass. The Rig: Impale a live nightcrawler through the head with a size 1 or 2 Octopus-style hook. Use no weight when possible; otherwise add a small split shot or a drop-shot weight. Crawl the bait very slowly past visible bass or over promising bottom.
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Determined to Land a Lunker?
The all-around lunker largemouth bait is the golden shiner. It earned its reputation catching heavyweights in Florida, but it's not particular about where it works. The Rig: Hook a 4- to 10-inch shiner through the lips on a 3/0 to 6/0 hook, depending on the size of the bait, about 3 or 4 feet beneath a small fixed bobber. Slow-troll or drift it around shallow weedbeds. Or lose the bobber, add a split shot or two, and free-line around deeper structure.
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Trout
Under the upturned noses of disapproving purists, stream trout-"forgetting their genteel nature-"murder live bait. And in big rivers and sprawling lakes, the biggest trout that swim want nothing more than a generous helping of meat. For ruffians like you and me, it's a tremendous opportunity. Use the rigs below to capitalize.
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Fishing the Local Creek?
You can catch stream trout with salted minnows, crayfish, and leeches, but day in and day out, nothing works better than a worm. And in high, cloudy water, few baits work half as well. The Rig: Thread a whole garden worm (or half a nightcrawler) onto a size 8 or 10 hook; cover the shank and leave the rest to dangle. Add a split shot and drift it naturally in the current.
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Trying to Catch Rising Trout With Live Bait?
Put the worms away and break out the bugs. Rising trout will commonly snatch a live grasshopper or cricket drifted realistically overhead. It's a great tactic in summer around overhanging vegetation. The Rig: Hook a grasshopper through the collar with a size 10 or 12 light-wire hook. Using a casting bubble for weight, cast upstream of a rising fish and let the bait drift downstream.
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After Trophy-Size River Trout?
The hands-down nastiest-looking baitfish that swims also happens to be the bar-none best big-trout bait in rivers-"especially if you're after trophy browns. The Rig: Run a single size 4 hook through the lips of a sculpin or thread the bait on a double-needle sculpin hook. Add a split shot or two, stun or kill the little beast, then dead-drift it in the current.
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Trolling for Big Browns, Rainbows, or Lakers?
Although originally intended for and still deadly on Pacific salmon, cut and brined strips of herring have become one of the hottest trolling baits for big lake-dwelling trout. The Rig: The easiest setup is a prepackaged bait-holder rig, like the Cut Bait Large Teaser by Rhys Davis (315-564-6814; ndtackle.com). It incorporates a leader, a plastic bait holder, and a treble hook. Troll the bait at slow speeds with or without a flasher or dodger.
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Walleyes
For walleye anglers, it's "Praise the Lord and pass the live bait.-¿ That is, most are happy to indulge their quarry's taste for live, juicy morsels. The only question is: Which morsel when? Below are four great bait rigs that will keep you in the game under a variety of conditions, whether you're planning a fish fry or targeting 10-pound trophies.
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Looking to Clean Up on River Walleyes?
When the water under your boat is moving, you'll be hard-pressed to beat a jig-and-minnow combo, particularly if you're after spring walleyes. The Rig: Tip a 1/8- to ¿¿-ounce jig with a 2- to 3-inch fathead minnow. Jig vertically over deep structure; cast and drift the bait below current breaks in shallower water.
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Obsessed With Catching a 10-Plus-Pounder?
Rig up a 6-inch redtail chub. No, you won't catch as many fish on this behemoth walleye bait. But you may well catch a behemoth walleye, especially in the fall. The Rig: On a slip-sinker rig, pierce the chub through the lips or behind the dorsal fin with a 1/0 or 2/0 hook. Drift along steep breaklines, fishing the bait vertically below the boat.
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Trolling for Finicky Walleyes?
Casual walleye fishermen get going when the going gets tough. But the hardcore anglers stay put and catch fish by trolling fat nightcrawlers behind spinner rigs. The Rig: Use a spinner rig together with a bottom bouncer for bottom-hugging walleyes. Trade the latter for a snap weight to target suspended fish.
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Are You Spooking Fish in Skinny Water?
When walleyes feed over shallow reefs or submerged vegetation in water less than 12 feet deep, back off with the boat and give them the slip-"that is, sneak a leech in front of their faces with a slip-bobber rig. The Rig: Hook a leech through the sucker with a size 6 hook under a slip bobber. Add a split shot or two, and attach a bobber stop for the appropriate depth. Use the wind or current to drift the bait to the fish. Or cast beyond them and inch the leech back.
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