If you are just embarking upon the freshwater fishing scene, you must first understand that you can’t bring a fish to your hook without an alluring bait, whether it be natural or imitation. Your fishing success depends on your presentation of the bait.
Though fish will sometimes ignore a sloppy presentation, when their feeding frenzy is extra furious, most of the time how your bait looks at the end of your line proves critical to fooling the fish.
Particular species prefer different baits and imitations than other species. It can be mind boggling, but a basic sense of what each type of fish prefers can help.
Best Baits and Imitations for Freshwater Fishing
When we think about bait fishing, usually the first creatures and concoctions that come to mind are earthworms, fish eggs, minnows, manufactured goo such as bait balls and Power Bait, as well as grasshoppers, crickets, leeches, grubs and crawdads (crayfish).
Each of these types of bait attract different kinds of fish and almost all of them find their way onto a tackle store shelf in the form of a replication or lure that emulates the real thing.
No doubt, your eyes bulge at all the colors, designs, sparkles and sizes of these imitations when strolling down a typical tackle-store aisle. Like a kid in a candy store, you wonder where to start in all of your bedazzlement.
First, you must consider the type of fish you want to catch and whether that fish prefers the real thing or a pretender.
Let’s examine the faves for the five most popular freshwater fish: trout, bass, walleye, sunfish and catfish.
Best Bait for Trout
At least 90 percent of a trout’s diet consists of insects.
It is one of the reasons our fishing ancestors invented the fly rod and line. But don’t be fooled. Trout are a bit like we humans.
Though we are omnivores, our mouths water a bit more for meat than other foods. A big, juicy earthworm or fish egg presents the same stomach lust for trout.
Usually, it’s best to keep both live baits and imitations (flies and lures) in your tackle box for trout, as it is for most species.
If you fly fish, match the hatch. Find the imitations that are floating atop the water or morphing from bottom to the water’s surface (e.g. larvae, pupae, nymphs). Then use the flies that best imitate the Real McCoys.
Some baits—grasshoppers and crickets—can be presented with spinning gear if you don’t know how to fly fish.
Go to the tackle shop and find a slightly weighted torpedo-shaped bobber or float to which you tie a fine leader while putting the insect at the end of your hook.
If you fish with spinning gear below water’s surface, worms and eggs work quite well, especially for planted trout.
Native trout can prove a bit pickier. Leeches and similar swimmers are best imitated with flatfish or similar erratic wobblers.
Spinners and spoons imitate minnows well. Some trollers in boats try all of the above: a string of spinners called pop gear or gang trolls that end with a hook and worm or eggs on the end—sometimes even a lure.
The size of the fish you seek usually dictates the size of your bait or imitation. The bigger the fish, the bigger your lure or bait. As with all fishing, however, exceptions exist. For instance, big fish often dwell deeper than small ones.
Some of those creatures that live beneath and between rocks on the bottom don’t grow too big in freshwater—i.e., shrimp, a favorite nutritional food on the trout’s non-insect menu.
Always think of how deep your prey usually dwells and what kind of bait thrives at that particular depth when deciding what to use for trout.
Best Bait for Bass
Bass are gourmands compared to trout.
The largemouth bass, for instance, tackles some bait nearly half its size—mice, frogs and even baby waterfowl or birds when given the chance.
However, bass most often like minnows, waterdogs, salamanders, swimmers such as eels and crayfish, as well as the universal earthworm.
Again, the stratum or depth of the lake or river (usually a very slow moving one for largemouth while smallmouth live in generally faster streams) will determine the choice of baits or imitations.
Plastic worms, which come in myriad colors or color combinations with sparkles, can either be floated on top of the water (some bass anglers even inflate plastic worms to keep them right on top) or placed behind a torpedo-shaped sinker at the eye of the hook, which dives slowly to bottom.
As a general rule, plastic worms are used in water no more than 20 feet deep. But, again, exceptions abound.
A floating minnow imitation, such as the ubiquitous Rapalas and Rebels, usually depicts a crippled or injured minnow, ripe for the taking. You can adjust the action on such lures by taking some small pliers to the eye of the lure on which your line is attached. Try different bends or angles to see if it livens the action and appeal.
Poppers are another popular choice for top-water bass fishing. These consist of cork or buoyant plastic as a body with hackle (feathers) or rubber legs attached. A fly rod best suits this method of bass fishing.
Going deeper into your lake or stream, try jigs, spoons or spinner-baits (a combination of spinner with a squid-like rubber skirt). Jigs (a colored lead head with hook inserted and soft hackle skirt) come in all weights. Match the weight of all of these lures to the depth or current of the water.
When near the bottom or in extremely weedy areas (a prime lair for bass), use lures with flexible hook guards and hooks that drag with the barb facing upward to minimize snags.
Best Bait for Walleyes
Also called pike-perch, these fish don’t fight quite like some trout or bass, but they outdistance most fish at the dinner table, thus their popularity.
Like bass, this spiny ray enjoys an indiscriminate diet. It couldn’t care less about its figure. Toss much of the same you would toss to a bass: earthworms (most desired), minnows, spoons, spinners and jigs; the latter only when the water is docile enough to attain good action and detect the hit.
Though walleyes will seek their ideal water temps (roughly 55-70 Fahrenheit), they like it best when those temps are on the bottom, around points or on shelves, where bait tends to stack up.
A slow troll with spinner and a two-hook harness for large nighcrawlers or worms, just off bottom, works very well for these tasty white-meated fish when bottom temps are right.
Some of these harness rigs include a chain of small buoyant beads or similar to keep the hook just high enough to avoid bottom snags.
Best Bait for Sunfish, et al
Yellow perch, crappies, bluegills, bream, pumpkinseeds and their cousins—white perch and white bass—were born to bite. Worms, live grubs, jigs and small spinners draw the most success when seeking these spunky and tasty little fighters.
If fishing for large perch, minnows or meat from other spiny rays will work as well.
These fish are diehard schoolers. Where you find one, you will find scads. Keep using the bait that works and don’t waste too much time experimenting.
The longer your line stays in the water, the more sunfish you will catch.
Best Bait for Catfish
Remember the “stink, stank, stunk” line in How the Grinch Stole Christmas?
Keep on this wavelength when plunking for catfish. Whether channel cats, blue cats, mud cats or brown cats, the sense of smell reigns supreme.
Stinky minnows, bait balls (a manufactured combo of grains, syrupy foods and food byproducts), fish eggs and anything that smells a bit (e.g., chicken parts, shrimp balls and other various meats) will draw these mostly bottom feeders to your hook.
In short, leave your lures at home or inside your tackle box. Catfishing is all about lathering your hook with something hardy and smelly.
Finally, Make Sure They’re Lively
In almost all cases—barring the grovelling catfish—your chances of success will greatly improve if you keep your bait lively.
A livewell for minnows or waterdogs and amphibeans, a cool spot for your carton of nightcrawlers, eggs that haven’t set on the warm shelves too long and grasshoppers or crickets fresh from the tall grass will appeal to your prey much more than stale, lifeless bait.
Equally, how you attach your bait to hook makes all the difference between catching and just casting. For instance, a large nightcrawler hooked through the collar of the worm with the lead hook and two-thirds to the rear with the trailing hook maximizes the natural presence of this bait.
Try to conceal as much of your shiny hooks as possible when attaching your bait. Even hungry fish are spooky when it comes to seeing shiny gear or even a heavy-weight line in the water.
Finally, keep your bait or imitations close at hand and ready all the time. As alluded earlier, the faster you can put your line back in the water, the more fish you will catch—especially when the bite is on!