In simpler times people gathered their own fish bait and a trip to the fishing hole started in the garden digging worms or walking grassy fields to catch grasshoppers.
These days most folks are too busy and just go to the bait shop. But particularly, if you have kids, hunting for bait can be a fun and learning experience, putting them more in touch with the natural world. Gathering your own also allows you access to bait not commercially available. Here is a short overview of some bait you can find locally.
• Earthworms are the universal bait. They are abundant, easy to find, and attractive to many fish species. Worms found locally include the big nightcrawler and the smaller red worm, also called the garden worm. Nightcrawlers are hunted at night with a flashlight after a good rain, when they partially come out of the ground. Red worms are dug up in soil that is rich and moist, say near a compost pile or manure pile.
• Crickets and grasshoppers are also age old baits. Grasshoppers are found in large numbers in tall grass and can be caught by hand especially early morning when they are more sluggish. There are several varieties around, so you’ll have to experiment to see which ones make the best bait. Crickets can be found under stones or other objects on the ground.
• Caterpillars are often called worms, but are actually the larval stage of moths and butterflies. There are many that can be used for bait, and the most legendary is the “Catawba” worm. They feed exclusively on the Catalpa (locally called Catawba) tree, so you have to know where these trees are. The larvae appear mid-to late summer and can be seen on the underside of the big heart shaped leaves as black and yellow worms 3-4 inches long. The scent of these worms attracts fish, especially bluegill and catfish. Other caterpillars used for bait are the corn ear worm, found in the tops of maturing sweet corn, and the waxworm, found in bee hives. Find a beekeeper for this one.
• Gall worms are insect larvae found in galls — those spherical swollen areas on plant stems, especially goldenrod. These larvae are good panfish bait and are available in late fall when other kinds of wild bait are dead or burrow deep in the soil. Collect the galls in the fall and store them in a cool dry place. Don’t let the gall warm up or the larva will think it’s spring and crawl out. When you need bait, cut open the gall and bait the hook.
Just what makes a fish bite bait is not entirely understood. Scent, vibration, appearance, and motion are all considered important. But experienced anglers successfully use baits that would never naturally appear in the fish’s world, except at the end of a hook.
A worm does not swim suspended of its own accord, yet almost any fish will eagerly grab a juicy night crawler.
At times, fish can be incredibly picky eaters. Then, at others, they seem to strike anything that hits the water. Guessing just what they are hungry for and placing it in the right place at the right time is part of the fishing game.
Steve Roark is the Area Forester in Tazewell, Tenn. for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.