A Moving Bait

I was never a bait fisherman. I’d spend hours – even days – throwing lures into apparently empty water because that’s what I believed in. At times, grudgingly, I’d admit that I was flogging a dead horse and concede to pinning a hook through the tail of a live prawn or lip of a poddy mullet. Guess what? I’d catch fish. Those who knew me well may even have heard me mutter (after a few schooners) “sometimes bait does work…” But as far as I was concerned that wasn’t what a ‘proper’ fisherman should do.

My Queensland trips started the process of broadening my horizons. Four days of fishing on a totally empty stomach will do that to you. I’d conned dad into agreeing to live off only what we caught during our inaugural month-long journey from Dubbo to Cooktown. The rations we’d taken with us – venison jerky and a couple of smoked crested pigeons – kept us going for the first week. This was supplemented by a giant trevally and a gold-spot estuary cod. But by the second week we were down to raiding a magpie goose nest; then came the Cardwell Four Day Dry Spell. It was time for action. I bought a cast net. We baited hooks and found the fish.

Where they're legal, cast nets are awesome
Where they’re legal, cast nets are awesome

It’s So Boring

The thing I’d always distained about bait fishing is that it just seemed so static and mindless. I could never stand just sitting down and waiting for a fish to stumble across my bait. Like Toby Keith, I wanted to hunt. But for the general Australian populace, bait fishing goes hand in hand with stubby coolers. Maybe it stems from exasperated parents telling us kids that nothing will eat the bait if we keep reeling it in. Either way (apart from a couple of specialised techniques); in Australia it does seem taboo to go near your gear once the bait is out.

Fishing the lakes of Canada has made me appreciate the seriousness of bait fishing. At least within the circles I feel at home in, there is no stigma attached to it. Bait fishing is recognised for what it is: a winning combination. Canadians tend to shake their heads at mad keen lure fisho’s up from the US, chucking flash gear frantically while the locals drop a minnow and limit out before taking their time to enjoy a day on the water.

What I want to stress is that fishing bait – actively fishing it – can be a very good thing.

The Movers and Shakers

The majority of bait fishing in Canadian lakes is targeted at capturing the legendary walleye. The largest North American member of the freshwater perciform family might not immediately strike any chords with the Australian angler. But, when you start fishing for them, you soon realise that there are marked similarities between them and our own legendary dusky flathead; perhaps the most important being that if you aren’t fishing the bottom, you’re “just taking your bait for a walk”.

The ultimate weapon in these parts of the world seems to be the humble jig and minnow. You can’t really get much simpler in terms of presentation, and I can see how soft plastic fishing could have evolved from this technique. One thing is for certain, if you want to catch fish – especially walleye – a jig and minnow is hard to go past.

There isn’t much to it. You take a small baitfish, perhaps 30 – 100 millimetres long; a quarter ounce jig head (heavier or lighter jig heads are used depending on water depth and current strength); and you run the hook through the mouth exiting at the gill, before hooking the fish again through the side to ensure it stands up to the rigours of jigging and bites.

The basic way to rig a minnow (viewed from underside of fish)
The basic way to rig a minnow (viewed from the underside of fish)

This simple setup can be cast and jigged back to the boat, hopping the bait along the bottom. Fish a little mullet like this in flathead country and I’m sure it wouldn’t go unnoticed. I’d say that many estuary species could be tempted.

In deeper water, snaggy country, or simply when the fish are stacked up underneath the boat; vertical jigging is the natural choice. Getting the bait to the bottom before jigging it up and down is all that it takes. Just think how effective this could be on inquisitive, competitive schooling fish species (listen to the bream fishers gasp at such a thought!). Of course this isn’t the only species that would likely be interested – appropriate baits could have you connecting with winter bass in impoundments, estuary perch, grunter, snapper – the list goes on.

Rigging methods for crustaceans.  A) Holds bait securely B) Enables bait to move freely
Rigging methods for livebaiting crustaceans. A) Holds bait securely B) Enables bait to move freely

One of the few Aussie active bait fishing techniques is a form of vertical jigging – a paternoster rigged yabby bounced among logs or standing timber for yellowbelly and Murray cod. A heavy sinker is preferred here as it makes a racket when colliding with the structure – attention grabbing activity. Don’t think you’re going to scare fish away by making your bait move.

A paternoster-rigged yabby for Aussie freshwater natives
A paternoster-rigged yabby for Aussie freshwater natives

Bait as a Lure

What I’ve described are a couple of the most straightforward methods of actively fishing bait used in North America; but there are a multitude of techniques. Floating jigs, bobbers, Lindy Rigs and crawler harnesses are all designed to present bait in attention grabbing ways; and all can be used to actively cover water just as lures are. All of these techniques have applications in an Australian context.

At its simplest, the idea is that anything you can do with a soft plastic, you can do with the real thing. Getting your hands on good bait is often the most difficult thing, but if you can do it then you should consider it. Think outside the box. Try out ideas. At the very least you are presenting the fish with something they would already consider eating – no fooling them into thinking what you are waving about in their faces is food.

There are always going to be those that consider bait fishing as uncouth. To them I say just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you have to. Persevering with a certain technique because it’s seen as higher up on a perceived hierarchy, until you finally catch a fish doesn’t prove anything. Did you outsmart the fish or catch the only one stupid enough to go for what you doggedly flung? What is the more mindless act?

I’d rather be the heathen with a full belly than the gentile with a sore casting arm!

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