I love fishing with bait. There’s something about using bait to catch a fish that has always appealed to me. Maybe it subconsciously brings me back to my Neanderthal roots. Or maybe it’s just the honesty of it.
In my opinion, using an artificial lure or fly to trick an animal with a brain the size of a grape into biting what it thinks is a legitimate meal borders on outright dishonesty. You are presenting something that you know perfectly well has no nourishment to a critter that doesn’t have the cranial capacity to figure that out in a timely manner. Casting an injection-molded, thermoplastic, hologram-adorned swimming plug armed with three sets of 3X stainless treble hooks in an attempt to fool some poor fish that’s about to faint from hunger just adds insult to injury. It’s like knowingly passing a counterfeit $20 bill to the cheerful high school girl at the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through.
Bait, on the other hand, is at least honest. The fish can smell it and taste it, and if it is lucky or skillful enough, the fish can even steal the tidbit and swim off to swallow it in peace. The fact that there’s a needle-sharp, 7/0 hook buried in the middle of the hunk of meat might be considered cruel, perhaps sadistic, but it’s not dishonest. It’s wrapped in real fish food.
I started my bait-fishing career when I was 6 years old. My father, who was not a fisherman but who was generally accommodating, agreed to take my friend Ann Haley and me to the nearby Aberjona River in Winchester, Massachusetts, to try our luck. He fashioned each of us an outfit consisting of a birch dowel, a yard or so of kite string and a common pin bent into a U-shape. “But what about bait?” I asked. There was a moment of silence. Then he replied: “Raisins. Fish like raisins, don’t they?”
I’m here to tell you they don’t. Ann and I never got so much as a nibble, but a gaggle of kids along the riverbank who were using worms caught one fat bluegill after another. Bait fishing life lesson No. 1: Screw the raisins.
Things went swimmingly after that. Worms dug up under my sister’s rabbit hutch became the bait of choice, and they rarely let me down. Bluegills, hornpout, yellow perch and the occasional bass all fell victim. Worms worked.
Not long afterward, I discovered saltwater fishing. Once a year my father would take the family to Halibut Point on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, for a Sunday picnic, and there I learned to smash periwinkles with a rock and impale the pea-sized meat on a tiny hook to entice the little sharp-toothed cunners, or bergalls, that inhabited the shadowy waters of the craggy granite shoreline.
My father later took us on a party boat out of Plum Island off Newburyport, Massachusetts. Each of us was issued a tarred-cotton hand line wound around a wooden frame, rigged with a heavy bank sinker and a hook. When we reached the fishing grounds, a young khaki-uniformed crewman baited our hooks with the meat of a quahog and instructed us to unwind the line and lower the rig to the bottom.
My mother wound up catching a nice cod, and my sister managed to bring in a dogfish. My father rolled up his pant legs and sunbathed on the cabin roof. I caught nothing, but it was the most exciting fishing trip I had ever been on. It was the ocean! To this day, whenever I catch the heady scent of an oakum-treated hand line in a tackle shop, it takes me back to that party boat and the world’s most honest and connected type of fishing: a line you hold in your fingers with a hunk of clam on the other end.
The clam — be it a quahog, littleneck, soft-shell, razor or whatever — is the Chevrolet of bottom baits. Few offerings are so readily available for a reasonable price and appeal to so many species. Cod, haddock, pollock, cusk, flounder, ling, striped bass, red drum — the list goes on.
The problem with clams is that most of what’s inside the shell is pretty mushy. Some sharpies will heavily salt shucked clams and freeze them, which toughens the meat. They don’t normally catch fish as well as fresh clams, but they stay on the hook better. A lot of anglers use just the rubbery clam foot, as it also stays on the hook. The problem is that the foot doesn’t have much fish-attracting scent.
My friend Capt. Tom Hill, who ran the Yankee fleet out of Gloucester, says the green and brown belly of the clam — the gooshiest part — is the key, especially for haddock. “Cut the clam into strips so that each has a bit of the belly goop on the end,” Hill says. “Thread the strip on the hook with the foot section near the hook eye, and cover the point with the belly part. Haddock are bottom scavengers and have no teeth. They forage along for squishy tidbits, so the belly part of the clam is what they home in on. They actually try to suck it off the hook.”
How Tom knows this is beyond me, but he insists he’ll out-fish any angler next to him who’s not using the belly part 5-to-1.
Bottom fishing with a clam isn’t rocket science, but you have to pay attention. If you’re deep-sea fishing — I love that term, but you don’t hear it much anymore — for cod and haddock, drop the bait to the bottom and reel up a couple of cranks. If you leave it on the bottom, creatures with claws may nibble it away. When your rod tip starts telegraphing the tap-tap-tap of a fish, slowly lower the rod to “feed” it the clam, then set the hook smartly. With practice, you’ll be able to bat about .500.
And although our fly-fishing compatriots may shudder in disgust, anchoring up in the current and chumming with pieces of clam meat and shell is a deadly way to catch striped bass. Free-line your hooked clam bait back with the bits of chum and hang on. Stripers get really stupid when they nose up into a clam chum line. Jersey boys seem to have a corner on this technique, but it works in any water that’s home to both stripers and clams.
My favorite bait is the sandworm, sometimes called a seaworm. These nasty, slippery little buggers with the sharp pincers are the premier bait for winter flounder, my No. 1 eating fish. Flounder and seaworms go together like fillet of sole and tartar sauce.
Here’s a tip from my buddy Pete Santini of Fishing Finatics Tackle Shop in Everett, Massachusetts. “Bring along a shallow plastic food-storage container about half full of corn meal, and drop a few worms at a time into it,” he says. “The worms will instantly become coated with the dry stuff and are much easier to handle.” Trying to grasp a wet seaworm is like attempting to pick up a piece of overcooked spaghetti lubed up with K-Y.
The best flounder rig is a two-hook deal with a small bank sinker. (Pete sells his own design, called a Zobo rig.) Bait it up with a 2-inch section of worm, lower it to the bottom and move it around a little with your rod. Most people don’t know this, but winter flounder are sight-feeders, and they respond to motion rather than smell. It takes practice to consistently hook a flounder when it rap-rap-raps your bait, lifting the rod tip rather than sharply setting the hook. You’ll want to get good at it because seaworms are expensive. I remember when Maine worm diggers went on strike in the 1970s to force the dealers to pay 6 cents a worm, up from 5 cents. Those days are long gone, and a dozen seaworms can run $7 or more in a bait shop.
So another tip, passed on by my dealer, Dennis Hill of Edgecomb, Maine, is in order: Seaworms will keep in the refrigerator for nearly a week in a flat plastic tray with several layers of newspaper on the bottom, topped with damp seaweed. But you have to change the newspaper daily. “You want dry newspaper all the time,” Hill says. “Dry. Makes worms happy. Happy worms live longer.”
The bloodworm, a cousin to the sandworm, exudes a yucky red substance that some people say looks like blood. Bloodworms are tougher than sandworms and will often take several fish before becoming too ragged to use, but they’re even more expensive. I have found that sandworms work better for flounder, but bloodworms seem to catch striped bass just fine.
Sandworms and bloodworms are a staple bait for stripers — fished with a pyramid sinker in the surf, worked along the bottom beneath a drifting boat or used as a sweetener on a slow-trolled tube lure. Striped bass love worms, no matter the manner served. You’ll notice that guys who are good at worming stripers usually don’t carry much in the way of X-Raps or Slug-Gos in their tackle boxes. There’s no need.
Fish and Cut Bait
A natural bait that’s probably the most universally used is a piece of cut fish. A hunk, or the head, of mackerel, herring, mullet or whatever will catch just about any saltwater denizen with a mouth large enough to encompass it. Fish flesh is the common denominator of baits. Fish eat fish.
One night in the spring of 1972, I caught a 20-pound tarpon in a Miami canal that ate a hunk of mullet fished on the bottom from what we called a “Cuban yo-yo,” a plastic spool 8 inches in diameter, onto which you wind some mono. You can still buy one at Capt. Harry’s. You hold the yo-yo from the inside with one hand and sling your bait and sinker out with the other. The yo-yo performs just like a Van Staal spinning reel spool but costs $836 less. Simplest bait-fishing outfit ever.
Being college students, we were really smart, so we designed an alarm system to let us know when a fish hit in the dark. After casting, we placed the yo-yo 20 feet back from the seawall and loosely wrapped the line around a few empty Schlitz cans, of which we produced a steady supply. The theory was that the cans would bang and rattle when a fish — hopefully a snook or a snapper — moved off with the bait. Then we’d run over, grab the yo-yo and work the critter in, hand over hand.
It worked great for the first fish, a tarpon. We baited with another mullet chunk, then cast. Everything was quiet in the darkness for a half-hour, then all hell broke loose, cans clanking furiously and bouncing along the gravel. We dashed to the scene just in time to see the yo-yo skid across the top of the wall and disappear into the inky water below. We never did buy another one.
The most revolting bait I ever used was a 2-pound, foot-long mass of salmon guts. Three of us were fishing on a charter boat off Sitka, Alaska, and although we initially thought salmon guts were some sort of prank the crew pulled on newbie anglers from back East, we were wrong.
We lowered our retch-producing offerings to the bottom in 500 feet and waited. It took an hour before the first fish hit, but my friend Scott Maguire cranked up a beauty of a halibut, 50 pounds. Mike Sosik caught the next one, 90 pounds, and I finished with a 90-pounder. Clearly, it takes guts to catch halibut in Alaska.
One final advantage of bait over artificial lures: If you don’t use all your bait, you can take it home and eat it, salmon guts notwithstanding. I remember a trip to Miami for a boat show some years back. Outdoor writer Bob Stearns invited me for a day of live-shrimping bonefish on Biscayne Bay.
It was windy, and we struck out despite Bob’s best efforts. We had a few dozen live shrimp left, so we lugged them back to Bob’s house, where his lovely wife boiled them with a few secret spices, and the three of us sat down to peel ’n’ eat.
Bob plucked a piece of shell from between his front teeth and grunted, “Pass the cocktail sauce, will ya?”
I love fishing with bait.
The Bard of Bait
If you can believe it, there was actually a guy who devoted much of his adult life to writing about using bait for fishing.
Vlad Evanoff was born of Russian immigrant parents in New York City in 1916. He got his first taste of saltwater fishing on the Steeplechase Pier in Brooklyn, and over time he acquired an education in drawing and painting. He was drafted into the Army in 1941, deployed to North Africa and returned stateside to start a freelance career in advertising and comic book art.
Evanoff continued to fish and, in 1948, wrote a book about surf fishing. Following that success, he penned more than a dozen outdoor titles, many of which were compendiums of tips and tricks for outdoorsmen, particularly anglers.
He soon began writing for fishing magazines. He contributed a monthly column to Salt Water Sportsman called “Natural Baits,” a two-thirds-page treatise on collecting and using saltwater baits. He wrote that column for a decade or more and was still doing so when I was hired at SWS as associate editor in 1977. He wrote perhaps 40 or 50 columns during my tenure before he retired, and I cannot remember him ever repeating a subject bait.
In 1975, Evanoff decided to combine many of the “Natural Baits” columns with others he had written for Jersey Angler News into a book aptly titled Fishing With Natural Baits. This 264-page volume, illustrated in pen and ink by Evanoff, is still considered the standard reference of bait fishing. Used copies are available on Amazon.com starting at $2.50, a bargain for the amount of lore between the covers.
Although I occasionally corresponded with Evanoff when I was at SWS, I never met him. I wish I had. Anyone who can fill 264 pages on fishing with bait is my kind of guy. — B.G.