Illustration by Sara Wilde
The more I get into fishing, the more I want my hands in every step of the process. I’m not so far gone that I’m hammering spoons or weaving super line (yet), however I think good fishing begins with catching bait. Nothing man-made can match the attraction of the smell, texture, and action of a living creature, and trophy fish have refined tastes. But catching your own can bring about a new set of challenges.
As a parent, you may not want to spark that food chain/circle of life conversation before your Saturday morning coffee on the dock. As a child, you may not embrace a teachable moment when it distracts from the fun of fishing. What should not go unspoken however is that no matter how small, ugly or numerous that the chosen bait may be, never waste or show disrespect for life. Understand maggot!
And always use care when disposing of your bait because your ignorance could destroy our watershed, and that bait can and will be used against you. Men will demonstrate that they are men by racing minnows and forcing losers to eat losers. This can cause salmonella poisoning, or so I’ve heard. Friction between men can result in bait being deployed into the underpants of a sound sleeper. Problem being that bait smells, that men have a tolerance for all things foul, and that you shouldn’t allow bait to get between you and your loved ones. My sisters also claim to have suffered from cruel pranks involving bait, and the perpetrator has never been identified. So considered yourself warned.
My first go-to spot for bait was near the riverbank down the street where the nightcrawlers were nurtured with layer after layer of lawn clippings and fall leaves from the neighbours. I’d peel back that warm compost to dig the black earth and find the extra big ones that we called “juicers”. It didn’t take more than a pitchfork to keep a youngster in bait and those dollars saved went towards more bottle rockets and sunflower seeds. Having the ability to bring the crawlers also gave me a feeling of independence.
At the lake, I took to the high-grade minnow nets found in aquarium stores, and owned the shallows with a Skywalker-like swagger. These were the days of shiners and perch minnows of all sizes. And from all those hours in the shallows, I learned about leeches and also the torturous effects of salt. Fish heads or organ meats or just bloody things in general were made into magnets for these suckers. If unnoticed by scavengers of land and water, by morning I’d have a crop of leeches to do my bidding (and for fishing).
Another technique for catching bait involves those cage traps combined with an attractant like tinfoil or bread. I learned that crayfish flock to garlic sausage with the same predictability as single guys at wedding socials. With all the artificial lures to choose from, when using the cage trap I find comfort in knowing that I am on the right bait for a particular location. The bonus is that I can catch this bait in my sleep.
Fly fishing helped expand my knowledge of insect behaviour beyond that of the dung beetle. I learned just enough to be dangerous, hooking up a grasshopper to my hardware outfit and whipping it around. Live bait is best presented in a natural way, and there’s nothing subtle about being a teenager. Though I was and still may be a total hack, there is a role for anglers as citizen scientists and fly fishing puts you on the right path. Catching bait over the years and paying attention to nature’s cues can lead to a perspective on the health of a body of water and threats to fish, but most important, opportunities for good fishing.
But there is a limit on what is suitable for live bait, because after all, pike and muskies will eat ducklings. For me, I’ll fish for monster channel cats with frozen frogs, but I wouldn’t choose to treat a live frog the same way. These feelings may defy logic, but so be it. There is life lost in collecting food and when that also involves entertainment we should try to be sensitive and avoid grossing people out. Save that for the rare occasion when you get skunked. Realize the best way to think about this worst-case scenario is that extra live bait can mean that you still have something fresh for dinner. You are what you eat! And for those days where you feel like you’re feeding the fish more than catching them, consider it an investment in the future.