While they’re the most popular target of backyard collectors, worms and nightcrawlers aren’t the only live baits anglers can catch on their own. As we enter summer, accessibility to many DIY-collected live baits actually increases—as does the productivity of using them.
Like using your own hand-tied flies or crafted lures, there’s something gratifying about using bait you’ve harvested firsthand that makes any catching especially fulfilling.
The easiest way to gather a bucket of your own fresh minnows is to catch them in a trap made for the purpose. Most minnow traps are made of wire mesh and are cylindrical in shape, with inverted funnel-shaped openings at each end. To set the trap, you place some bait inside, drop the trap in into the water, and tie it off to the dock or shore. If you’re in a productive area and use an enticing bait such as a can of cat food punched with multiple holes or a tightly squeezed bread balls, you may see minnows arriving almost immediately. Leave the trap out for a few hours or overnight and you can expect to have fresh bait flipping around the mesh when you check it.
If you need bait now—or prefer a more active approach—you can use any number of nets made for catching minnows. A cast net is a round hoop of fine mesh with weights sewn into the outer edge that you toss over areas where baitfish are concentrated. The net is drawn around the catch by a line pulled through the center of the circle. Cast nets take some practice before you can expect to throw them so the netting opens properly on a consistent basis, but once you get the knack of throwing one you’ll enjoy catching the bait almost as much as reeling in the fish they catch.
Umbrella nets are effective, simple, and fun to use, especially in clear water where you can watch the minnows gather over the mesh (although you can fish them “blind” as well). The mesh of an umbrella net is round or square in shape, from three to six feet in diameter, and held taut and open with flexible wire supports, much like its namesake. Each corner has a line that is connected to a single main cord that is used to quickly lift the net to capture baitfish that are swimming over it. By placing the net on the shallow bottom next to a dock and sinking bread balls over it to attract minnows, you can collect a couple dozen minnows in short order.
Crustaceans such as crayfish shun light and hide under rocks during the daylight hours, venturing out to feed after dark. If you’re willing to get wet and have quick hands, you can catch crawdads by hand by wading the shallows, lifting rocks, and grabbing the crayfish around the body just behind the pincers. A few pinches from their claws will teach you exactly where to hold them to keep your flesh out of reach. Minnow traps, and traps designed specifically for catching crawdads, offer a more passive way to capture a day’s bait. Baited with just about any type of food scraps and left overnight on the bottom in an area known to have a population of the crustaceans, a trap can produce enough crawdads for a weekend.
On a hot summer day the most enjoyable way to cool off and net a few crawdads (as well as hellgrammites and minnows) is to use a seine net. Bait seines feature a rectangle of mesh with weights along the bottom, floats across the top, and poles of wood, fiberglass, or metal along each end. They are used in current and take advantage of the water’s flow to wash bait into the netting and hold it there until the netter can grab it.
The best way to use a seine is to hold it in the current with the lower, weighted edge of the net close to the bottom and the top edge near or above the surface in a stretch of stream with plenty of rocks to hide the bottom-dwelling critters you are after. A lone netter can walk upstream with a narrow, one-person seine suspended across the current and hope to catch crayfish, hellgrammites, and minnows that attempt to flee and get pinned by the current against the mesh. However, having a friend or two willing to get their feet wet to help makes seining more fun and effective, and allows you to use a wider seine, which may stretch 10 feet wide or more. With someone walking directly upstream of the net and turning over rocks, kicking up the gravel and generally disturbing the bottom, you’ll rout out all manner of fresh live bait options.
Catching crickets and hoppers
Winged insects such as crickets and grasshoppers and even cicadas make a great summer bait, especially now that warm summer weather has the gamefish seeing them hop, drop or get blown into the water. You can catch grasshoppers by prowling overgrown fields with a butterfly net, watching where they land after the ‘hoppers wing-away from your approach. You can catch crickets at night with an old wool blanket sprayed with sugar water or sprinkled with cracker crumbs and left in a grassy field from sundown to sun-up. The crickets come for a sheltered meal and get their legs caught-up in the blanket’s fibers, where they will be held fast and awaiting collection in the morning.
Some cricket collectors use whole loaf bread as a trap for their favorite summer bait. They cut the loaf in two and dig out the soft, doughy contents, leaving twin shells of mostly crust. Entries are created by cutting a quarter-sized hole in the heel of each end and the two halves are put back together loaf-like, held with a large rubber band. Left overnight in a field known to harbor crickets, chances are the hollow loaf will hold plenty of prime summer fishing bait.
As with fishing itself, the pursuit of live bait can be as much fun as the catching. Make sure you leave yourself time for the latter this summer!