If It's Not a Minnow

by Louis Bignami

Pay attention to baitfish basics and your plug, fly or spinner results improve too!

If it swims, has fins and isn't a minnow, it's classified as an "other baitfish," a wildly assorted grab bag of species each of which will catch something, somewhere, sometime! Those who imitate baitfish with flies, spoons, spinners or plugs need to know even more about baitfish than those who use the real thing. To use artificial baits effectively you must know a lot about the bait you imitate. How fast do they swim? Where do they lurk? How do they behave? How do sizes vary during the year? Only if you answer these, and a number of other questions can you score consistently. A few rules such as "most minnows and baitfish swim about one MPH per inch of length" or "live baits work better than dead baits" seem universal.

When baitfish run, you can catch them by the bucket for later use. 

PHOTO: LOUIS BIGNAMI

As is with minnows, baitfish species abound and fishermen savvy enough to net or trap their own often score better with local species than with common commercially available baitfish such as chubs. Do read your state regulations; where "gamefish are prohibited as bait" you probably can't use yellow perch, crappies or sunfish as bait. It's just about certain you can't use trout.

It's important to understand that, while most minnows school, some bait fish are solitary either by inclination or habitat. For example, bottom dwelling species like madtoms or sculpins seem quite happy hiding under their own rocks. This makes baitfish better choices where gamefish are scattered as you don't have to "match the school" to score.

Mesh liners for landing nets help capture schooling baitfish on spawning runs. 
PHOTO: LOUIS BIGNAMI

However, the major schooling species of baitfish, gizzard shad, alewives, rainbow smelt and even yellow perch behave much like minnows. See "Mad for Minnows" for tips on catching, keeping and fishing these. Special ways to catch baitfish are covered, where appropriate, below. Most of the larger baitfish can be taken on ultra-lite tackle with very small hooks and grubs too. Beats getting skunked on gamefish too.

Suckers and Chubs

If you subscribe to the logical theory that big fish bite big baits, it's easy to see why suckers or golden shiners up to a foot long are so popular in the South when fished under balloons as a bait for giant bass. Most hook these baits through the body just above the anal fin with a 1/0 or 2/0 hook. As with minnows, when it's hot, and big bass lurk deep, hooking them in the throat latch or lip and either removing the pectoral fins or adding a sinker will take the bait down. Yankees can use the same rigs as a muskie or pike outfit.

With 63 sucker species from which to select, these rather ugly vacuum cleaner bottom feeders are so numerous that they are the largest biomass in many streams and lakes. You should have no problem finding or using these durable baits. You would, however, have to be very ambitious to tie on a two foot long carpsucker if you plan on largemouth!

Since they overwinter well, suckers are a good choice for winter anglers -- fishing them under tip-ups for pike seems as popular in the Upper Midwest as watching the Green Bay Packers was way back when Bart Start still quarterbacked.

Then too, revenge for gobbling up crayfish and other baits seems reason enough to use big suckers as bait anytime!

Madtoms

Madtoms, an undersized species of bullhead catfish, offer the catfish virtues of availability and durability. Most specimens run under five inches in length and hang about in rocky, sand or gravel runs in smaller streams. So it's easy to see why they are favorite smallmouth and trout baits. Some species are most common near vegetation -- see field guides if you want to fish baits where they naturally occur.

Catching madtoms couldn't be easier. So these are always baits of opportunity because, when you run out it's simple to bash a rock onto a submerged rock, roll the submerged rock and collect your stunned baits. Carefully replace the submerged rock so it forms a nice shaded hidey-hole and, next visit, you'll have another bait. Tip: stick a mini-net, like those used in tropical fish stores, in your creel. These nets help catch hellgrammites, crayfish and other baits too.

Since madtoms like to hide under and in things, you can catch them by stringing together a batch of pop-top cans and submerging the cans in rocky madtom habitat overnight. Don't worry about keeping these sturdy little fish; madtoms are a durable and season-long bait when held in submerged cages or aerated tanks. Fishing madtoms on bottom rigs for trout, walleye and smallmouth in rocky rivers and larger streams offers superb results.

Sculpins AKA Muddlers

Members of the sculpin family, like various madtoms, prefer clear water that's cold and fast moving. Such water delivers dinner to the fish that, because of its pectoral fin spines, airplane wing horizontal cross section and, most of all, lack of swim bladder, sticks tight to the bottom.

Most of the 300 species of sculpins are marine. Several, like the California bullhead, are important baits in brackish water for striped bass and other estuarine gamefish. Trying to identify species is difficult for experts, but some general rules obtain. For example, species from small, cold streams run to fewer prickles and spines than those from warmer water, and slow to still waters. Mottled sculpins, sometimes called bullheads -- although their heads don't look much like bull's to most -- and sometimes called "muddlers" after either their tendency to simply muddle about or their fly imitation, do suit trout and other stream species East and West.

Muddlers aren't difficult to catch by turning over rocks -- see also madtom collection and traps. Some stun these fish by banging dropping rocks on submerged stones, then flipping over the submerged stone and gathering the stunned fish. A net held downstream, as for aquatic insects, reduces desperation grabbing,

As is the case with other minnows, sculpins do nicely in aquariums or bait barrels, and will eat goldfish food and just about anything else. They are exceptionally durable on the hook and a wonderful bait when fished in moderate to fast moving water on or near bottom. Note: spiny marine species used in brackish water, and freshwater species from slow water seem to produce more bites if their spines are trimmed so they roll in currents rather than use their spines to jam in and hide under a rock.

Picky Pickups

Along with crayfish, madtoms and minnows, sculpins seem the best baits available for big brown trout and river smallmouth. These gamefish do pick sculpins up rather gingerly. A bite, a long pause as the gamefish crunches, and some easy movement as the sculpin is turned and swallowed head first seems usual. So, if you plan to set the hook early, as is recommended with pike and other toothy fish, try a special double needle sculpin hook that's inserted through the bait's vent and clipped at the mouth. Bait needles let you insert a leader and add a double hook through the scuplin's vent. Avoid trebles! They hang up too often when you fish sculpins off bottom.

Darters

These dandy baits are more closely related to perch than the minnows they resemble. The Northern Log Perch is perhaps the most popular bait in the snow belt for bass, pike and muskies. A huge number of species share varied habitats on the bottom of streams or lakes in waters east of the Rocky Mountains. An astonishing variety of colors that probably peak in the aptly named, rainbow and redband darter males make species identification interesting for the compulsive fisherman who's not happy with general descriptions. But most darters work most places most of the time.

All seem fairly hearty on the hook, but they don't do well if kept in the typical congested enclosure used for live minnows. Some holdover success has been had in 50 gallon and larger aquariums, but darters seem best used as soon as possible after they are caught.

These species seem a good source of unusual baits for savvy fishermen who catch their own with very small hooks and stump grubs, worm sections or wasp larvae as baits. Because they don't keep well, and run only two to four inches or so in length on average, they aren't popular in bait shops. They seem particularly good on bass, pike and other gamefish in very clear water and after dark when their generally dark color offers a strong silhouette and the vibrations from their "darting" motion that gives them their name seems to attract hungry predators from long distances. They are an absolutely killer bait on brown trout, or arm-long rainbows after dark. Most species also work well for smallmouth and are a good alternative on those days when crayfish aren't productive.

Herring, Alewife, Grizzard Shad, and Rainbow Smelt

All of these schooling species offer wonderful open water baits for big lake trout, bass, striped bass and other large gamefish if slow-trolled or stillfished in a likely spot like a point in reservoirs and impoundments. Like home-made ice cream, they go down nicely, and are oily enough to offer more calories for the effort. In saltwater, and where chumming is legal, you can install a grinder on your gunwale and gradually grind out a chum slick that, when spread by wind or current, pulls gamefish into easy casting range. TIP: after storms that churn alewives and such against rocky breakwaters and banks, smart fishermen fish from the lee shore to take advantage of this natural chum.

Offsetting their obvious attraction for gamefish is a lack of durability and, at times, what appears to be suicidal tendencies in the bait tank. A few baits in a large circular tank help the survival rate. Since these are school fish, keeping up with bait schools makes sense. Fish finders help. You can also hook a lively bait through the dorsal fin with a small hook tied to about 30 feet of #4 test line that's attached to a float like a small balloon. This "Judas" bait will try to stay with the school. Note: this only works for a half hour or so and not at all on windy days.

When stripers or salmon chase these baits in big reservoirs or in areas with major bait populations such as the Great Lakes, all you need is a lip hooked bait -- use a heavy hook and your bait will sound below the school where the lunkers lurk. If you need more casting range, consider shot or a twist-on sinker. Big bobbers are highly recommended with such baits. Center sliders let you cast your dorsal fin hooked bait once to improve its survival rate and, of course, control your depth better than is the case with cast and retrieve methods sans floats.

Many species run up rivers and brooks to spawn in such numbers that it's easy to dip your own season's supply. An umbrella net is popular around pilings and piers in open water on lakes and in brackish estuaries. It's also possible to take these fish on very small flies or tiny baits like worm sections too.

Fishing fresh baits in rivers, or in inlets where bait tends to mill about before ascending natal streams can be extremely hot, or if bait concentrations reach incredible proportions, hookups seems as likely as winning your state's lottery. At this point it's probably best to concentrate on bait catching for later use.

Bait Eating

Some herrings and smelt are quite delicious so you can, if all else fails, always eat the bait! Big bluegills for the frying pan, small bluegills for the bait tank make good sense. You can also preserve your own bait where seasonal abundance permits. Since none of these species are very durable, most serious bait fishermen catch a season's worth on their favorite stream, and preserve most of the catch. Dead herring seem particularly attractive to catfish and other bottom feeders.

Pickled herring can be gourmet fare for fish fanciers; salted herring seem particularly good baits for bottom fish such as sturgeon. So some make herring netting or dipping a yearly activity for the entire family. Then they pickle their biggest herring to serve with sour cream, and salt the little ones for bait by covering them with non-iodized salt and refrigerating until needed.

All of these species troll well alive or dead, and pin rigs, lip hooking or multi-hook trolling harnesses (which are also used for anchovy) work. As always when setting trolling speeds, it's useful to remember thatmost baitfish swim about one mile per hour for each inch of body length. So you may need to change your rig's spin to produce that attractive slow roll which species like salmon or steelhead find most attractive.

Ciscos and Whitefish

Freshwater Fishes puts Great Lakes whitefish ". . .among the most taxonomically difficult freshwater fishes in America." Ciscos seem almost as difficult to separate by species. One thing is certain, smaller ciscos and whitefish make excellent baits for most open water gamefish in reservoirs and lakes. The smallest baits also work in moving water.

Catching your own is easy as most ciscos and whitefish can be caught with tiny flies and other baits. Some of the Rocky Mountain and Sierra Nevada whitefish species offer good sport to fly fishermen all winter where waters don't freeze. Whitefish aren't bad to eat if properly filleted or pickled to soften the small bones either. Smoked whitefish rank with sturgeon or trout! Best of all, limits are usually very liberal.

Gamefish as Bait

It's generally agreed that, where legal, small gamefish like hatchery trout, little crappies, rock bass, bluegill and sunfish make excellent bait for trophy gamefish. According to California Fish and Game experts, "about a third of all stocked trout in the seven to twelve inch range are eaten by big trout and bass within a week of stocking."

As usual in many states, it's illegal to use gamefish for bait. In California, for example, bluegills or trout are illegal baits. So fishermen troll huge rainbow trout finish plugs. Trout fished on minnow harnesses are wonderful baits for big browns, and big black bass like those in the San Diego reservoirs where most expect the next world record largemouth. You won't find a better bait when trout are stocked in two-story reservoirs that contain both warm and cold water fish during the fall to spring trout stocking period. By fall, most of the other baitfish are scarce, so a young, dumb "truck trout" looks nifty for pike and the like. So if regulations permit, slow trolling a small lip hooked trout can take monsters.

Striped bass suspended in mid lake to avoid summer heat gobble bluegills, sunfish, yellow perch or even small crappie. Some fishermen remove the spines on these baitfish to improve hookups. Big pike and trout over 15 inches long all gobble small panfish too. Again, the limiting factor in many states is the regulations.

Goldfish and Carp: Shocking Stocking

Small carp, and in particular goldfish, are durable baits for most gamefish. Striped bass, in particular, seem suckers for goldfish. However, neither bait should be used unless it's netted or trapped on the waters where it's taken.

Many states have regulations against the use of live bait in some waters. This is to prevent overpopulation due to the angler's "milk can" stocking of species, such as yellow perch, that can overrun any water. Even where it's not against the law, concerned anglers will never, never use home-caught live minnows or other baitfish in strange waters. It only takes a couple of goldfish or carp to ruin a fishery. Do realize goldfish and carp can live for a time out of water, so take care that your "dead" baits are fins up. Inadvertent introductions also holds true for other types of bait. Consider, if you will, the zebra mussel in the Great Lakes!

Eels and Lampreys

Eels, one of the most traditional baits for saltwater fish like stripers, and lampreys are still a problem in the Great Lakes, Eel chunks work well for catfish. Small eels and lampreys can be trolled on harnesses or fished around stream mouths for larger gamefish. Eels aren't hard to catch with tiny hooks or nets. Most are netted or trapped when they run up streams. However, it's difficult to suggest their use except where caught. Once introduced, they are tough to remove as anyone knows who has followed the lamprey eel problems in the Great Lakes.

Eels are so durable that they survive incredible concentrations of poison. Even worse, as is the case with junk fish like carp or goldfish, if you continue to use poison as a control, survivors, and there are always survivors, become resistant.

If you must use eels, as might be the case along the Atlantic Coast for brackish and freshwater stripers and other species, consider special eel traps and catch your own. Big eels, and American eels that, with their European cousins, breed in the mid-Atlantic, can run to four feet in length. Adults do better in stews and soups than as bait. Eels do tote nicely in bait buckets and, if you use gloves to handle these slippery critters, troll well on multi-hook eel harnesses.

Other Baitfish

The above-mentioned species only sample what's available to anglers who want to catch their own baits. Easterners can add a number of killifish and some introductions from Europe such as roach or trench. Southerners enjoy, or suffer, a host of "aquarium species" like Jack Dempsies and various cichlids and gouramis that are common in Southern Florida. In the West native species such as the Tule perch of the San Francisco delta compete with introduced species like tilapia.

Lately, as elsewhere in brackish and saltwater areas, species from abroad like the Japanese loach, have entered American waters via bilge pumping tankers and steamers. It seems certain that other foreign baitfish will make their way into our waters. We can just hope they will be more like brown trout than carp!

The Fishing You Save May Be Your Own

So, if you don't want to contribute to the spread of unwanted baitfish, catch your bait where you plan to use it. You'll know you have the bait local fish relish and you won't, like the dummies who dump tropical fish into Florida canals, cause problems for everyone later. The usual method of removing unwanted trash fish is with poison. This kills everything in a given body of water, costs more than most fish and game departments can afford in these days of tight budgets and may not, in fact, provide a final solution to the problem. "When in doubt, don't" seems a good rule. 

Sportfishing for Baitfish

Sport is where you find it. Some "bait fish" offer solid action. Carp hit on "Italian dry flies" AKA floating bread crusts. Removing carp, even if only to the local dumpster should improve fishing in many waters -- check with your local fish. Whitefish offer good sport on light tackle and hit small dark flies or nibble corn all winter when much other fishing is closed. Most of the larger baitfish can challenge anglers who might consider ultralight outfits. In urban areas, for example, park ponds, backwaters and creeks hold considerable numbers of baitfish that are fun to catch. Carp are a special challenge and a wonderful way to practice taking big fish on light tackle.

Urban carp fishing isn't a bad way to introduce youngsters to fishing either. When most Americans lived in the country, didn't kids learn to fish on bullheads, rock bass, minnows and perch? In England, there are even contests to see who can catch the smallest fish on hook and line. Hook sizes run down to 32 -- nope, they don't use microscopes to rig, they stick hooks onto thread lines with SuperGlue! They use thread and tiny poles sans reels. This seems a dandy way to take the pressure off gamefish. In states like Washington, there is even a $3 bounty on suckers over a foot or so long as these fish eat steelhead and salmon smolts. In California, sucker derbies clean out these unappreciated pests in andramous fish spawning areas. So you can have some fun, enjoy some action, and help the fishery. Fertilizer for the garden is a bonus!

Water Gremlin How-to Index - Over 30 different rigs with diagrams and step-by-step instructions.