For the outdoorsman, there are few achievements as satisfying as accomplishing a goal, be it catching a limit of channel ‘cats or tagging a wary longbearded gobbler, when using equipment crafted or obtained by hand. An old tom lured closed by the siren sounds of a Do-It-Yourself box call – now there’s something to be proud of. Or a late Winter whitetail – buck or doe, doesn’t matter – taken with a .45 caliber flintlock of your own creation. Regardless of the quarry, there’s just something special about the opportunity for you, the sportsman, to have your hand in 100 percent of the process. Start to finish; that’s what it’s all about.
For the angler, this notion of DIY is often best exemplified via what’s in the live-bait bucket. True, there’s no guarantee that wild creek minnows, hand-caught ‘crawlers or crab trap crayfish will catch more fish; however, I can promise you that capturing your own live bait can be, and often is every bit as enjoyable – if not moreso – as is the fishing experience itself. After all, I can always find a nightcrawler; a walleye on the other hand?
Few baits are as familiar in angling circles as is the nocturnal nightcrawler. ‘Crawlers are a favorite among fisherman from coast to coast, and are used alone or with lures and riggings of almost infinite description for everything from bluegills to sturgeon. What’s more, ‘crawlers are relatively easy to catch, and even easier to keep fat, sassy, and healthy.
Catch ‘em: For me, nothing beats an old-fashioned ‘crawler grab, a bait procurement method requiring nothing more than a flashlight, old coffee can, two hands and quick reflexes. A handheld lamp works, as does a lantern turned down low. Bright lights will send ‘crawlers shooting back into their burrows. I’ve had my best luck using a headlamp outfitted with a red lens or capable of projecting a softer red light. Obviously, a headlamp frees your hands; the red light doesn’t seem to frighten ‘crawlers much, if at all, which is a good thing for us close-to-50 guys who just aren’t a fast as we used to be.
Keep ‘em: ‘Crawlers can be kept in just about anything; however, my personal favorite is an old school fiberboard Bait Canteen filled about two-thirds with clean organic compost, i.e. rotting leaves, grass clippings, or garden mulch. Short of compost, a commercially available worm bedding such as Buss Bed-Ding (magicproducts.com) will work well for a short period. With either, I add a small amount (1/2 cup) of used coffee grounds, which provides a food source for the ‘crawlers. Two things to remember about housing nightcrawlers – keep them cool, but not cold, and don’t overcrowd the container. Approximately two dozen ‘crawlers in my 150-cubic-inch Bait Canteen (5x5x6) is plenty, especially if I plan on keeping them for two weeks or more.
Lawns and ‘crawlers go together, and most everyone has access to a lawn somewhere; however, not everyone has a convenient creek nearby. If you do, though, seining your own minnows is an inexpensive way to fill a minnow bucket, not to mention being a whole lot of fun to boot.
Catch ‘em: Minnow traps, which are two-piece plastic cages baited with bread or crackers and soaked overnight, certainly work; however, the best way to catch creek minnows is with a traditional one-man seine. Where possible, I work the water from deep to shallow, or holes to riffles, as the case may be, making sure to probe under cut banks and around snags and other potential hiding places. Minnows captured should be transferred quickly but carefully to a floating/trolling bucket. The Flow Troll by Frabill (frabill.com) is a good one that ensures a constant circulation of clean oxygenated water until such a time as they can be transported home.
Keep ‘em: Creek minnows can be difficult to keep as they require a steady supply of the aforementioned clean well-oxygenated water. My best luck in keeping them healthy has been to house them in a sturdy 54-quart plastic cooler filled with cold non-chlorinated well water. It is very important to maintain two round-the-clock electric aerators. While transporting minnows, as well as throughout the fishing trip, I keep the water high in dissolved oxygen via a small hang-on battery-powered aerator. I also try to use wild creek minnows within 24 to 48 hours of capture. Overkill? It’s not. Believe me. NOTE: Most states post regulations on the types and/or amounts of wild minnows that can be harvested, kept, and used as bait, so always read up on local regulations before hitting the creek to fill your bait tank.
For summertime smallmouth or warm-water channel ‘cats, few baits are better than a lively crayfish. Okay, I call ‘em crawdads; you call ‘em what you want. Fished underneath a light slip bobber, crayfish are excellent baits. They are also hardy in the tank, tough on the hook, and an absolute riot to catch.
Catch ‘em: Over the years, I’ve captured my crawdads using three different methods, all with varying degrees of success. The first is your standard “Flip and Grab” style, where one wades a creek, overturns rocks here and there, and snatches the mud bugs as they shoot out from underneath. Method two involves a rocky shoreline, like a causeway or jetty, a cane pole, a short length of tarred nylon decoy cord and a raw chicken back. Dangling the chicken among the rocks, preferably at night by lantern light, draws the crawdads out. Once they’ve latched onto the bait with their claws, it’s a simple matter to pull them a-l-m-o-s-t out of the water before slipping a small net underneath. The third method uses a commercial wire mesh trap, similar to a minnow trap but larger (24x18x8), and typically square or rectangular in shape. The trap is baited with chicken parts or fish carcasses and allowed to soak overnight in a rocky location.
Keep ‘em: Crawdads can be transported from the field to the storage facility in an ordinary five-gallon bucket filled with creek water. Once home, though, I handle mud bugs as I do creek minnows. I use a large container, non-chlorinated well water, and LOTS of aeration. In the past, I’ve used an old cast-iron claw foot bathtub as long-term crawdad storage with great success. Every other day, I’d open the drain slightly and replace a portion of the old water with water fresh from the well. A little habitat in the bottom like river rocks, broken bricks, and the like and a plywood cover finished the set-up. Newcomers to the crawdad game should be careful not to overcrowd their storage container, as mud bugs aren’t known for their be-kind-to-neighbors nature.
Also known as ghost shrimp due to their pale coloration, sand shrimp are slender pinkish-white crustaceans, not visually unlike a small 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-inch crawdad. Crayfish are dark in color and possess two claws, whereas male sand shrimp will display one small claw and one huge clam, which does, by the way, hurt when it latches onto a finger. Trust me. Sand shrimp are excellent baits for sturgeon, salmon, and steelhead in inland rivers and streams, as well as for red-tailed and striped surf perch.
Catch ‘em: Sand-dwellers, the aptly named sand shrimp are most often “gunned” or “pumped” at low tide using what’s known as a clam gun. The gun consists of a 36-inch length of 4-inch plastic PVC, which as been capped. A small 3/8-inch hole is drilled into the cap, and the cap fitted with a sturdy handle of either plastic or wood. Upon locating a sand shrimp hole, which will be about the diameter of a No. 2 pencil, the gun is worked into the wet sand some 20 to 30 inches. The gunner then covers the 3/8-inch hole with his thumb and withdraws the tube. This creates a vacuum, which pulls the shrimp from surrounding holes into the main shaft, where ideally they float to the surface. This instrument is also used to harvest razor clams on Pacific beaches, hence the unusual name of clam gun.
Keep ‘em: Ghost shrimp are best kept moist, not soaked and certainly not dry. They should also be kept cool. A small six-quart or similarly sized thermal cooler lined with surf grass or seaweed and sprinkled with saltwater should keep them happy and healthy for several days. When not on the water, my sand shrimp live in the refrigerator; again, cool, but not cold. And whatever you do, DO NOT leave a Styrofoam cup filled with sand shrimp under the seat of the truck in August for the weekend. It’s a smell unlike any other; trust me on that one.