The Essential Guide to Catching and Keeping Freshwater Live Bait
Nothing catches more gamefish than live bait—here’s how to keep them alive and frisky
Whether in fresh or saltwater, rare are the days when artificial lures will take more or bigger fish than live bait. For many, however, the big issue with live bait is cost and the ability to keep it alive from the point of purchase to the location of use. There’s nothing worse than spending your hard-earned cash on a dozen shiners, for example, only to have them go belly-up before you ever put them on a hook. There is another simpler option, and that is to catch your own.
Quality live baits can be caught almost everywhere. Moreover, with just a little effort, baits can be kept fresh and alive throughout a day of fishing and beyond, which is sure to increase your success over the long haul.
Here are some choice natural baits for freshwater fishing, with tips on how to catch them and keep them lively until it’s time to use them.
Let’s start with the basics. Worms are, without a doubt, the most-used bait, and for good reason. They will help you catch everything from sunfish to catfish.
Earthworm varieties range widely from finger-thick Canadian crawlers used for walleyes and bass; to tiny red wigglers perfectly suited for panfish; to neon-green, glow-in-the-dark worms that can work on basically everything.
There are numerous ways to catch worms, including fiddling for them by rubbing an axe blade across a buried stake, electro-shocking likely soil areas, and even baiting the ground with uncooked pork (this also attracts ants and other crawly critters like cockroaches). All of these tactics work, but there are even simpler methods as well.
For example, oversized nightcrawlers can be snatched up at night by simply spraying the backyard lawn with water just before dark and stalking the blades of grass while wearing a red-tinted headlamp. Overturning the rich dirt in leafy flower beds with a rake or shovel, or flipping stones along a streamside will also work, often resulting in enough worms for a morning’s worth of family fishing.
Need more volume? Soak the soil with plain dish soap and water. If that doesn’t work, add a half-cup of bleach to a bucket of water, set your garden hose on trickle, and put it in the bucket. Then place the bucket on your lawn as it overflows. Within minutes, worms will wriggle to the surface. Grab them, rinse them off, and toss them into a container.
Soak as many areas as necessary, but know that both soap and bleach will eventually kill the worms, so it’s best to only grab enough for one day’s use. Briefly storing them in a container filled with rich soil or worm bedding will keep them wriggling for several hours.
A hot worm-hunting location that you might not have thought of is your local parking lot. Check the pavement after a warm spring or summer rain, and you’ll collect enough worms for a week’s worth of fishing.
Out of all the kinds of live bait, Worms are probably the easiest to store. The old go-to metal coffee can works as well today as it did for your grandfather. To access the worms quickly, flip the can and grab the worms that have gravitated toward the bottom. You can store them overnight or longer in the refrigerator, but tell the family first.
There is really no need to feed the wrigglers unless you don’t plan on fishing for a month.
Big fish eat small fish, and there is likely no more effective bait than a small baitfish on a hook.
Generally, baitfish selection should vary according to what species you’re using them for. However, the hardiest baitfish are most desirable. Madtoms, suckers, and mud minnows, for example, are so resilient that they almost defy death both while on the hook or in a livewell.
Other baitfish, such as shad and shiners, might need greater care (like extremely clean and well-aerated water) to ensure their survival while being transported, as well as on the boat during a day of fishing.
There are many ways to catch baitfish. Small cylindrical mesh traps baited with bread, cat food, or oatmeal then placed in rivers, creeks, lakes, or ponds, are extremely effective at collecting an assortment of live baitfish like madtoms, dace, shiners, and small sunfish. Using a commercially-available mesh seine is also a good and quick way to catch baitfish from shallow lakes, rivers, and streams. Two people can often seine enough baitfish in a very short time for a full day of fishing.
Umbrella lift-style nets work well on a variety of baitfish, too. Use lift-nets at night around bridge and dock lights, or near submerged lights used specifically for attracting fish. You can also bait tiny hooks (size 10 or 12) with bread and fish for small sunfish and wild shiners in shallow water. This might take a bit longer than other methods, but it is a proven tactic. A cast-net is another efficient tool to catch a lot of baitfish (especially shad and shiners) in short order, but it takes a bit of practice.
Regardless of the method, it is critical to check your location’s fishing regulations concerning baitfish collection and use. In some places, introducing a non-native species of baitfish into a particular body of water might be considered illegal. In others, there might be limits to the number of live baits you are permitted to keep.
While baitfish can be caught almost anywhere, it’s best to target places where they are most likely to concentrate, particularly in spots where waterways are constricted or blocked. In streams, pools, and run-outs just below shallow stretches can be prime places for baitfish to stack. Likewise, below dams (even small ones) and downstream of culverts are also baitfish hangouts.
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Crawfish are abundant in most bodies of freshwater throughout America, and except in winter, they are easy to locate, catch, and keep alive for a wide variety of fishing. They are great baits for black bass (all species), as well as catfish. Small crawfish baits sometimes tempt walleyes, sauger, pike, and even trout—though the softshell variety is usually preferred by these species.
Crawfish can be caught several ways, with commercially-made wire mesh traps being perhaps the best and most effective method. Bait traps with meat such as chicken necks, wings, or liver, and place them in lakes, ponds, creeks, rivers, ditches, and backwater bayous. Simply tying a hunk of bait to a line will also draw crawfish. They will typically hang onto the bait long enough for you to net them.
If you prefer some hand-to-claw combat, simply wade a rocky-bottomed lake or stream and begin flipping over stones. Allow a moment for the mud cloud to dissipate and look for the brownish craws beneath. It’s best to approach a crawfish slowly from the rear or else you’ll risk having it dart off, tail-first, never to be seen again. It’s a challenging sport if using only your hands, which is why most bait-gatherers prefer small dip nets.
Crawfish can easily be kept lively for many days in a small styrofoam storage container. Be certain to place it in a cool, dry area out of the sun. Use only enough water in the container to half-cover crawfish, and add a few large stones for them to hide under. Change the water periodically and immediately remove any crawfish that die.
For a day of fishing, a small bucket with a bit of water is all crawfish need to survive. They can also be kept in a clean, aerated boat livewell.
Few live baits are more effective in freshwater than leeches. All black bass devour them, and they are especially deadly on smallmouths and walleyes. Sauger, trout, sunfish, and catfish all go wild for leeches, too.
Different species of leeches can be found in almost all freshwaters, from clear western trout streams to swampy dark bass bayous in the deep South.
The time-tested way to catch them is with a small metal container like a soup or coffee can. Bait the inside of the can with chicken gizzards, a fish head, or fish viscera, then squeeze the open end of the tin can nearly closed so that larger fish don’t eat the bait before leeches locate it. Secure the can to a bush, dock, or a rock, and check it in a day or two to collect leeches.
Keeping leeches lively is easy. These baits can survive well in a bucket or small foam container with adequate clean water. Non-chlorinated tap water should be used so that the leeches don’t die. Change the water every day. They store well when refrigerated.
Use a container of water, livewell, or bait bucket to keep leeches lively while fishing. Bait containers should be small so the leeches are easier to grab.
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Not all states allow the use of live frogs as bait, so check your local regulations. But live frogs are deadly for bass, pike, pickerel, walleyes, muskies, catfish, and even large trout.
Catching frogs can be a messy business. Many people wade in shallow water or muddy vegetation and simply catch them by hand or with a fine mesh net.
One of the most effective ways to catch live frogs is with a fishing rod. Tie a small size 8 or 10 brightly-colored fly or tiny bream popper to a length of 15-pound-test monofilament. Frogs are voracious predators, and almost every one of them will leap quickly to gulp a bright fly or popper. This is an effective way to catch frogs day or night, and it’s fun to do, too.
Keeping frogs lively for fishing isn’t difficult. Use a standard minnow-style bait container to hold them. Just be sure to keep the bucket out of direct sunlight for long periods of time.
If stowing frogs for several days, use a very clean bucket with holes or a laundry basket. Anchor the container with rocks in the shallows of a small stream or pond, so just a few inches of water is inside. Use some sticks and weeds for cover inside the container and a lid of some type to keep raccoons and other predators out of the container.
6. Crickets & Grasshoppers
Crickets and grasshoppers are superb panfish and trout baits, and they’re easy to catch and keep for fishing.
Homemade cricket traps made from plastic water or soda bottles work well. Cut off the top quarter of the bottle and invert it into the bottom. This forms a funnel trap for crickets to enter. Once inside, they cannot escape. Bait the trap with small pieces of over-ripe fruit like peaches, pears, or strawberries, and place alongside barn floors (inside or outside), in garages, or near light sources at night. You’ll usually catch crickets in short order.
If you’re more into hunting them down, grab a small tight-mesh net on a long handle (like a butterfly net) and catch crickets and grasshoppers in farm fields and buildings.
A large blanket made of wool or any fuzzy material is also helpful when catching crickets and hoppers. Simply lay it on the ground in a field on a sunny summer’s day and walk around it to drive the insects onto the blanket. The bugs get their legs caught in the blanket long enough to be captured easily.
If that doesn’t work, a small battery-operated vacuum will also do the trick. Fields, garages, old buildings, and farm structures are usually loaded with crickets, grasshoppers, and other insects. A few swipes with the vacuum will usually catch all the live bugs required for a day of trout or panfishing.
Keep crickets and grasshoppers in a small coffee can with holes punched in the lid for airflow. Place grass, cardboard pieces, a few sticks, and some fruit in the container and your baits will be happy for a long time if they’re kept in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.
7. Hellgrammites & Nymphs
Hellgrammites and large nymphs are superb baits for smallmouth bass, walleyes, and trout. They’re most efficiently caught using seines in the shallows of rocky rivers and streams. Hold your seine downstream while another angler shuffles around rocks, logs, and other bottom debris a few feet upstream. Hellgrammites and nymphs living under the rocks and debris will dislodge and tumble with the current downstream to the seine.
The seine should be checked regularly for captured baits. Toss them into a minnow-style bait bucket or container with holes.
Baits can be kept for several days, especially hellgrammites, which are hardier than standard nymph species. Stow baits in a minnow-type bucket in flowing creek water.