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During the course of a season, any fish that will feed near the surface probably eats a few hapless crickets or grasshoppers that either inadvertently hop out onto the water's surface or get washed in by the rain. Use a lightweight spinning outfit to cast one of these insects onto the water near submerged vegetation, lily pads or fallen tree branches. Lightly hooked, the bug will swim around looking for a way out. You can also effectively fish a 'hopper or cricket under a bobber with a split shot for panfish.
Small bluegill and perch will pick them apart without getting hooked but bigger fish will suck them in without hesitation. Keep this bait alive in a container with a top and plenty of air holes. Drop in fresh green grass, lettuce and other leaves along with a few drops of water every day. They should last a few days if kept out of the sun. Catch grasshoppers with a butterfly net and crickets by putting a piece of wet cardboard on your lawn overnight.
The top live smallmouth bait is the homely little crawfish. Hooked in the tail and tossed out on the edge of submerged rocks, this crustacean can bring in the 5-pounders like nothing else will.
Crawfish are bottom-huggers all the way. The first thing they'll do when sinking to the bottom is go under any bit of cover they can find, leaving you fish-less and snagged.
Try floating the crayfish above the rocks on a large floating jig on an 18-inch mono leader attached to a three-way swivel. A sinker big enough to keep the jighead down is all that's needed to keep the bait in place in current or light wave action. The crawfish will try to go deeper but suspend up where a big smallie can easily take it. The rig works equally well on big largemouth bass.
Catch crawfish with a net along a rocky shoreline. You can keep them in a bucket with a few earthworms for food.
Minnows are a topnotch live bait but there are no shortcuts when it comes to keeping minnows alive. Keep the temperatures cool and the water oxygenated, or they'll die.
An insulated minnow bucket is a good choice if you don't have a bait well on your boat. On particularly hot days put the bucket into a cooler with ice. It's a hassle but your minnows will last longer.
Keep the air flow going by using a minnow bucket aerator. Pumping oxygen into the confined space with lots of minnows is crucial. Without the oxygenated water the minnows will quickly become listless and die. Battery powered portable aerators are available and work well but make sure you have a few extra batteries packed for your trip.
The common housefly larvae is easy to catch and use. Whether you call them maggots, mousies or grubs, this little white larvae can be collected off dead animals or right out of the garbage can. Set out a piece of meat in the shade for a few days and you'll have a good supply.
Maggots work wonders under the ice for panfish but can do just as well for bluegills in lakes and ponds. They won't last long as live bait since it only take a few days for them to mature into adult houseflies. Keep maggots in a small container with food that is rotting. Not very attractive to humans but okay as far as the fish are concerned.
Frogs are valuable bait for more than one reason.
The first is that they're perfect for largemouth bass. Frogs live in and around where bass feed heavily in submerged weed beds, under lily pads and near the shoreline, places frogs are likely to be found chasing food of their own.
The second reason is that they're so hard to come by. Catching enough frogs to make fishing with them is tough, and in some jurisdictions, using frogs as bait is restricted.
Frogs can be kept in a cooler with an inch of water and a lightweight piece of wood they can climb up on. They'll last a few days without food. Try feeding them crickets but don't count on them eating much in captivity. Hook frogs through the nose and cast them to open water near submerged bass cover. Frogs will bury themselves in weeds where the bass can't reach them if you're not careful.
There's not a fish in the water that won't eat a nightcrawler or their smaller cousins, the earthworm.
Worms end up washed into the water during rainstorms, to be sure, but under normal conditions are not something fish are accustomed to seeing. The wriggling action, soft body and scent make up for the lack of familiarity and make worms one of the most effective live baits we use.
Hook the worm as lightly as possible. Dead worms attract few fish but the lively action of fresh ones will take the smallest bluegill right up through the largest muskie or bass. Keep worms fresh in commercial worm soil mixtures and containers that you can buy at the bait shop for best results. A can with moist, loose soil and some garden scraps will do in a pinch.
A couple of tips for live bait hold true no matter what the live bait might be.
Keep conditions as similar as possible to the bait's natural environment. Worms do best in rich soil or a commercial substitute, minnows need well-oxygenated water and mealworms need corn meal. Insects, amphibians and small fish will all quickly die if the conditions they're kept in don't meet their needs.
Keeping bait at room temperature or just a bit cooler is crucial. Overheat a bucket of minnows and you may as well go home.
Clean water is also crucial. Contaminants quickly build up in a small container and you'll be out of bait before you ever get to the lake. It may sound trite, but if you take care of your bait, it'll take care of you.
Matching the hatch is a term usually reserved by fly fishermen when they're talking about using artificial flies. The idea is to present a fly that looks real and accurately represents the currently hatching insect on the stream.
The idea of matching the hatch can be expanded into other live bait, as well, and involves offering fish the bait they're used to eating. When a stream is full of leeches, hook one on and let it go in water where a bass or a panfish may be lurking. Small minnows under a bobber account for more crappies than we know. Shallow, weedy ponds produce both frogs and largemouth bass, and one of the quickest ways to catch a big bass in these waters is to offer it a leopard or small bullfrog. Use bait that is natural to the water you're fishing.
Give fish what they're used to eating and they'll eat with abandon. That means more fish on the line.
The leech isn't much to look at but it does a bang-up job as a live bait. It's easy to keep and if hooked right, can bring in everything from trout to northern pike. Whether it's a subconscious attempt on the part of game fish to do this little critter in before it gets a chance to suck the life out of something else or is just one of the tastiest snacks swimming, I don't know. But I do know that leeches catch fish.
Hook a leech through the sucker. A leech tends to curl up in a ball if hooked anywhere else. A flowing, loose leech is the goal when it's tossed out into a stream or up along shallow weeds.
Leeches last for several days in clean water. Change it every few days and keep it at room temperature. Add a couple of dead minnows now and then to feed the leeches and they should stay fresh.
The easiest live bait to keep is the cooperative little mealworm. Buy a few dozen in the bait shop or the pet store and simply leave them in the refrigerator for a few days. They'll do well for bluegills, yellow perch, crappies and sunfish of all sorts.
Hook the mealworm through once rather than running a hook through the length of the worm. You'll lose more doing it this way but they'll be more active on the hook
To raise your own, put several mealworms in a small container up on a shelf with cornmeal and just wait. The mealworms will develop into pupae and then turn into beetles. When the beetles first appear add a small chunk of potato an inch or two thick, leaving the top of your container off to prevent mold. The beetles will lay eggs on the potato, die and soon you'll see new mealworms. You can have a nearly endless supply once your mealworm colony gets going.