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Mastering the Basics of Bait Fishing

What's in this article?

*Stream Strategy and Productive Spots to Fish
*How Much Gear Should You Lug Up that Canyon Creek?
*Rigging for Worms, Salmon Eggs and Power Bait in Both Streams and Lakes
*Fishing with Live, Natural Bait
*Fishing with Live Grasshoppers the HemingWAY (Read Hemingway's "Big Two- Hearted River," or read my synopsis.)


It is with some hesitation that I review the basics steps for bait fishing. I have been a catch-and-release adherent since the 1970's. But I must remind myself that much of Sierra trout fishing is "put-and-take" harvest fishing. So much pressure is put on the resources that generous weekly stockings in creeks or small streams are frequently harvested in three or four days. Perhaps you have brought your family from southern California on a camping trip to the eastern Sierras. How can I hold judgment on your desire to share a trout dinner with your family, as my generation did back in the 50's and 60's? Please kill only what you will eat fresh, and never take them home in a cooler to reside in a freezer until they get freezer burn or lose their flavor. When you are ready to fish for fun, go to a lake and fish with a fly and bubble. You will have more action, and best of all you can easily release the fish unharmed. Keep in mind that if you catch a trout on bait and they swallow it, there is a high probability that they will not survive. Once they bleed around the gills, they eventually bleed to death. Fishing with lures and flies with pinched barbs allows the lure to be easily removed from their mouth or jaw. Forgive me for this lecture. Old principles die hard after fishing for wild fish for over forty years. If you are new to fishing, just enjoy the sport along with a camp dinner of trout and fried potatoes. However, when you move to a stream with wild trout, plan a camp dinner of hot dogs held over a campfire with a freshly cut willow stick, and don't forget the marshmallows!


Stream Strategy and Productive Spots to Fish

I would suggest that you read my article on fly fishing on creeks. I am not trying to convert you to fly fishing so much as to provide a review of the holding water that trout seek out for both feeding and sanctuary. Keep in mind that a fly rod is an excellent rod for bait fishing on creeks and small streams. Unless the creek is a "crick" and so small that you only have to sneak or crawl through the willows and brush to "poke and dab" at a likely spot, get right in the water and walk upstream like fly anglers do. I can not recall seeing a bait angler in the middle of a stream using the same approach as a fly fisher. Why would a bait angler limit his opportunities? Regardless of what bait you are using, get out in the middle of the stream so that you will catch more fish, catch bigger fish, cover more water and make more progress!


Reasons to Get Your Feet Wet and Fish Upstream

1. Fish face upstream. If you are behind them, you can catch them directly in front of you.
2. If you can see to the bottom of the creek, they can see you! Approaching a creek or stream from the bank often spooks fish.
3. It is much easier to cast to a pocket, pool or small riffle from the center of a stream and maintain a natural drift with your bait. Best of all you are in an ideal position to cast effectively towards either bank.
4. Wade fishing in a stream also allows you to cast directly upstream which creates minimal arm, rod and line movement that might otherwise spook a fish. (Trout have great peripheral vision. Often they lie in broken water out of site, but if they don't see the angler blended into the bank cover, they often see a flash of line or arm or rod movement, which warns them that a predator is near. Even while you are wading in the current, it is paramount to keep your shadow off the water in front of you. I often crouch in the water behind a boulder to make a short cast to a pool above me.)


5. In many instances where there is heavy brush or trees it is difficult to reach choice water from the bank. If you are wading upstream, you have an easier shot at often over-looked water that bank anglers pass up because they can not penetrate the tangled bank barrier.
6. Finally, once you are in the water, keep moving! Bank anglers typically spend too much time sitting on a comfortable rock or log. Fishing is a game of percentages. How many perfect casts to good holding water can you achieve in an outing? If you have made two or three casts to a pool without eliciting a strike, move on to the next spot.
7. I am always amazed at how I can walk up a stream under the cover of moving water without spooking fish, but when I walk along a meadow bank I spook fish way ahead of me just from the vibration of my footsteps, which is another reason to be out in the current.

Productive Spots to Fish

Most fishing books spend chapters discussing and diagramming trout lies and holding water. Let's look at it from a fish's perspective. They want cover to hide from predators. That could mean hiding below broken water, hiding directly below a foam line, holding behind or to the side of a boulder or just lazily resting in shallow water with a canopy of overhanging branches above them. Next, a trout wants to be in a spot where it can find a food source. This could be off to the side of a boulder where the force of water plunging past the boulder funnels insects past the boulder and down a bubbly seam of water. Big Moe will be just behind the boulder waiting just beneath the bubbling foam. But a smaller fish or two might be directly underneath the seam or foam line. A prime lie is a spot which provides both good protection and a steady source of food. The point here is that the trout will be facing upstream waiting for food to come to them. Casting above a trout and allowing your presentation to drift naturally to the waiting trout is the key to success. A final reminder is that if the fish are down on the bottom of the stream bed protected from the fast water, where should your bait be?

The next factor that a trout must consider when picking a home or prime lie is to find a spot that it doesn't have to expend more energy than its calorie intake! I remember diving for abalone along the coast of northern California when I was in my twenties. We would drop an anchor from our inner tube and swim down fifteen to twenty feet through the kelp. The currents and rip tides were so fierce that I could see and feel myself propelled sideways so fast that I wasn't gaining much depth. My partners told me to grab a piece of kelp and pull myself down to the bottom! Meanwhile, over the top of me waves were crashing towards the beach. What a surprise awaited me when I reached the last five or six feet of water. It was relatively slow water compared to just a few feet above, and when I found a ledge or a large rock, it was like being in a swimming pool. Rainbows like fast, shallow riffles. They sink to the bottom and rest in a trough or behind a rock and await their dinner. Brown trout and cutthroats prefer slower water that offers cover and deeper water to escape to in an emergency situation.

Everyone knows to fish a pool, but don't over-look the head of the pool. Often a pool will have a small riffle or ledge that the water plunges down into the pool. Trout will lie in wait for food at the base of the ledge or drop-off. At the tail-out of the pool, water surges upwards from the deeper pool to meet a riffle or run. Trout will often drift back into this shallow water to pick off insects that are pulled down into the pool and then re-emerge in the shallow tail-out where the water is compressed and the food sources likewise. For a couple of years I guided Sam Lawrence, the founder of Budget Rental Cars. We primarily fished the Bitterroot River in Montana. A hatch was on mid-day, and a few simpers could be seen at the tail-out of a pool just below some over-hanging willows. Sam picked off a nice fished as we drifted by the tail-out. We pulled up downstream where Sam landed a nice rainbow, and then we hiked back to the tail-out. Usually, trout will move into the tail-outs under cover of darkness or cloudy weather or a rain storm. Sam walked up behind the tail-out and landed four big trout in less than a half hour. He picked off the first fish closest to the end of the tail-out and worked it downstream in the riffle water. Than he hiked up to the same spot and made a short, deft cast just a little further out towards the pool. He caught the next fish, and then he went on to catch two more really big trout. Sometimes you get lucky, and sometime trout break their own rules for survival!

The greatest reason for fishing a small stream as a beginner is that you gain much knowledge about where the fish are holding. Small streams and many creeks have the same holding water as larger rivers - riffles, pools and runs. My mother taught me the greatest fishing lesson that I have ever learned at age five. We lived in Bishop, California. Near our house was an irrigation ditch that during the summer held many smaller trout. We would see them on our daily walks. They would dart ahead of us in the waving grass and disappear. I begged her to take me fishing until one day she agreed. She cut a willow branch, tied one of my father's fly fishing leaders to the end of the willow branch. Her rigging was simple enough. She tied on a small safety pin to which she molded a piece of Velveeta cheese. She picked a nice shady spot along the ditch, tossed out the offering, and than we sat down for a picnic lunch. Eating my baloney sandwich, I looked down in the water at the Velveeta cheese resting close by. I was five years old, and I knew I was participating in a farce. We had already scared the fish away. I knew they would not come back and bite an offering directly beneath my gaze, and I knew we needed a real hook, and that we would have to be sneaky in our approach. It was a revelation. My mother was not the perfect woman. She was flawed. Worse, I didn't know if she was patronizing me or she was just plain ignorant. I only recently shared this experience with my 90-year old mother. She just laughed and said, "I didn't know anything about fishing, and I probably figured you didn't either."

How Much Gear Should You Take Along?

A cheap or expensive fishing vest is essential. Toss in a small, hinged fly box with compartments for split-shot, hooks and swivels. Add a pair of needle-nose pliers and nippers to cut line, as well as a pocket knife. Add a spool of tippet material. Drop in some mosquito repellant into one pocket, along with a mosquito head net. Toss in a bottle of water and an apple into the back pocket. Finally, pick a pocket to store your bait. When I was a youngster, you could buy a curved, tin worm can with air holes in the top. It had rings to thread your belt through. To be on the safe side, I would bring a small box of lures and a few wet flies. A hemostat attached to a retractable pull string is really essential for removing a hook and releasing a fish unharmed. Now, you are ready.


Rigging for Worms and Salmon Eggs on Moving Water (Hook, Line and Sinker!)

The two most popular baits for stream or creek fishing are red worms and salmon eggs. It doesn't get any easier than this. Use a short-shank number 8 or 10 hook. Embed the hook completely inside the worm. If you are fishing a slow stretch of water, you may not need a split-shot for the worm to drift naturally on the bottom. If need be, attach a small split-shot about 10 to 12-inches above the hook. If your weight is impeding a natural drift along the bottom, change out the split-shot with a smaller one. Cast upstream and allow the bait to drift through a prime lie. Keep a taunt line, as any slack in the line and you will not be able to detect subtle bites. Your bait is drifting back to you as you slowly lift the rod tip and reel in excess line. Suddenly your bait stops tumbling along the bottom, but you did not detect a tick at the end of your line nor a sharp pull on your rod tip. Maybe you are stuck. After all you have already replaced your hook and sinker when it became lodged in a crevice. Your instinct is to quickly snatch the bait off the bottom. But just as likely a trout has gingerly sucked in your bait in the corner of its mouth and it has moved back to its former position or lie. Lift the rod slowly upwards to determine if there is resistance and a fish on the line. Otherwise, if you react too quickly thinking that you have got stuck on the bottom, you might just rip the bait out of the fish's mouth without embedding the hook. If it is not a fish and your bait breaks free, you may simply lower the rod and allow the bait to continue drifting. Learn to be patient when fishing fast, tumbling water, as snagging the bottom is quite common.
A cricket rigging begins with 1 or 2 BB weights followed by a #14 Snap Swivel. Attached to the Snap Swivel is a two-pound test, 18-22-inch leader terminating with a #10 worm hook.

Rigging a Wet Fly on a Spinning Outfit for Larger Streams

You don't have to be a fly fisher to use a wet fly or streamer pattern on a river. Simply add a medium size casting bubble to your line and fill it full with water. (They have a retractable stop plug.) After the bubble add a #14 Snap Swivel. (Now the bubble can not slide forward.) Add 5 to 6-feet of two to three pound test leader. At the terminal end add a streamer. Cast downstream in a quartering angle. In other words, stand facing the opposite bank. Draw an imaginary line from your feet to the opposing bank. You now have half the stream above you and half the stream below you. As you face the bank the stream flow is coming from your left down stream on your right side. Now, divide the stream below you in half. This quarter demarcation is your target angle for the opposing bank. Cast as close to the bank as possible. If a trout is on the far bank, he will see the streamer coming at him broadside and "swimming" out and away from the bank, as the current sweeps the fly and bubble out towards the faster water. Sometimes if you plant it right in front of the trout your cast will trigger a reaction take. Often times they will follow the streamer downstream and hit the fly just as it swings out from the bank and slows down.

Rigging for Worms, Salmon Eggs and Power Baits in Still Water--Unlike a stream where you want your bait drifting on or near the bottom, in a lake you will need to keep your bait visible above the weeds or mossy bottom. You need to float or suspend your bait one to two feet above the bottom with a marshmallow, or if you are fishing with a nightcrawler, you may want to inflate the nightcrawler with air from a device that most tackle shops carry.

Rigging a Worm: Add a ¼ oz. Egg Sinker to your line. Directly in front of the Egg Sinker add a #14 Snap Swivel with an improved clinch knot. Attach a two-pound test, 18-22-inch leader . At the end of the leader add a #10-14 worm hook. Just add worm! If the lake is weedy, use an inflated nightcrawler to float your bait above the weeds.

Rigging Salmon Eggs: Add a ¼ oz. Egg Sinker to your line with an improved clinch knot. Directly in front of the Egg Sinker add a #14 Snap Swivel. Attach a two-pound test, 18-22-inch leader. At the end of the leader add a #10-14 worm hook or a treble hook. Before you attach the egg(s) run a miniature marshmallow through the hook up to the eye of the hook. The marshmallow will float the egg up off the bottom. If you use PowerBait dough or trout bait, it floats. Be sure to test the amount that you apply to the hook to be sure that it floats and negates the weight of the hook and the line.

Rigging a PowerBait Creature: Add a ¼ oz. Egg Sinker to your line. Directly in front of the Egg Sinker add a #14 Snap Swivel. Attach a two-pound, 18-22-inch leader. At the end of the leader add a #14 dry fly hook and attach a scented PowerBait creature, such as a minnow, grub or lizard.

Note: I would like to thank Carolyn Webb of Virginia Lakes Resort for the above formulas. It has been too many years since I last used bait. Carolyn teaches children the merits of catch-and-release using the fly-and-bubble technique.

Fishing with Live, Natural Bait
After almost thirty years, I met up with my favorite childhood cousin, Steve Odell. Steve grew up in Lee Vining where his father was a deputy sheriff. He took to fishing Lee Vining Creek at a very early age. He is a bait fisherman from the old school, which is to simply gather up natural fish food such as crickets, grasshoppers and ----ant eggs! I had taken a different path in my angling life preferring to fly fish. When Steve told me about an Old Indian woman named Nellie who was the best angler in town, I was ready to listen. Nellie had the reputation for knowing how to catch fish even when they weren't on the bite. Nellie gathered up her fishing gear and with Steve in tow went hunting up ant hills to raid the ant eggs. After she taught him to ignore the ant bites and stop crying, off they went to one of the Virginia Lakes. Steve said that the fishing was fantastic and that lesson changed his perspective on how to fish. He said some tourists gathered around when they began catching some big fish. When they asked what Nellie and Steve were using, Steve said they were using ant eggs. Some of the tourists just shook their head in disbelief thinking they were having their leg pulled. Recently I was reminded of Steve's lesson from Nellie when I read an article on bait fishing in the free 2007 Eastern Sierra Fishing Guide. If you pass through Bishop country, be sure to pick one up as it is an excellent fishing resource.
The author of the article, "Getting Back to Nature", suggests gathering up the ant eggs early in the morning when the ants are cold and lethargic. He recommends threading three or four ant eggs on a fine wire #14 hook. He also suggests adding a bit of Styrofoam first to keep the eggs off the bottom as they are easily damaged. If you are fishing with children, make an adventure out of gathering up crickets, grubs, beetles and ant eggs, and fish with the real thing! It will probably be a lesson that both you and your children will never forget.

Fishing with Grasshoppers the HemingWAY
(I'll post this information next September when I can get some good photographs.)

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