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Spending too much on lures? Try live bait for smallmouth bass and catfish

Updated on July 18, 2010
Catching hellgrammites is almost as much fun as catching fish...almost.
Catching hellgrammites is almost as much fun as catching fish...almost.

To some dedicated smallmouth bass anglers, using live bait is cheating. 

But if the goal is catching fish—and indeed it should be—it doesn't particularly matter if the bait is made of plastic, metal or real flesh and blood, so long as it reels in the fish.

In the smallmouth waters of the Southeastern U.S., nothing will reel in bass—whether they're small jaws, bucket mouths or stripers—faster than a Zara Spook Junior. And there isn't a fish in the world that hasn't been caught on a rooster tail. In fact, if ol' Jonah had filled his bait box with a few rooster tails, he might have had whale for supper instead of the other way around.

But if you're like me and spend as much of your time trying to shake your bait from tree limbs where the birds hang out as walking it by submerged logs where the smallmouth hang out, the cost of replacing $5-to-$10 lures soon adds up. 

Fortunately for bait shops the world over, there are enough of us "cheaters" to create a demand for night crawlers, wax worms and any variety of other baits. 

But anglers who are especially frugal quickly identify a number of ways to catch their own bait. Here are a few economical ideas that will keep fishermen outfitted throughout the fishing season.

Catching hellgrammites. There isn't a fish in the river that can turn his back on a hellgrammite, be it a bass, catfish or panfish. The little larvae are just about as ugly as their name suggests. And they'll grow up to be twice as mean. But to a smallmouth, they're irresistible. 

The aptly-named hellgrammite is the larva of the dobsonfly, often described as the world's most intimidating insect. As larvae go, hellgrammites are just as intimidating as their parents. They can reach up to three inches in length and pinch hard enough to make you feel it. They spend most of their lives living at the bottom of streams before heading ashore for a few weeks to pupate, mate and die.

Hellgrammites can be found on shallow stream bottoms, often clinging to the underside of rocks in swift-moving water. Catching them is as simple as having one or two people to hold a seine while a teammate flips over rocks and disturbs the river bottom upstream. Or the rocks can simply be overturned and the little buggers picked from the bottom and thrown into a bait bucket.

Hellgrammites are more prevalent in some streams than others. Anglers who notice blemishes on the noses of the bass they're catching can pretty much bet that the bass are feeding on hellgrammites. The blemishes—scratches and skinned-up places—are the result of bass attempting to push beneath the rocks to reach the larvae.

The best thing about hellgrammites (besides their efficiency, of course) is their durability. Hellgrammites are tough critters and can be kept for long periods of time in the right habitat, which is nothing more than a few inches of water and a rock in the bottom of a bait bucket. Once on the hook, a single hellgrammite can often catch two or three fish before the angler has to stop to rebait. 

Start your own night crawlers. They aren't as common as they used to be (Walmart squeezed out that mom and pop, too) but there was a time when plywood signs advertised nightcrawlers for a dollar or two a dozen at private residences throughout the countryside. 

A few of those folks purchased the worms in large lots from live bait wholesalers. But most of them stocked their own. 

Getting a replenishable supply of night crawlers started isn't hard. The most difficult part is establishing the correct habitat. It can be as elaborate as an old chest freezer or as simple as a 50-gallon oil drum or even a large trash can. Fill it with dirt and make it right: earth worms of all sorts love organic matter, and the soil can't be too wet or too dry or you'll lose your investment. Commercial worm bedding isn't a bad idea, but is cost-prohibitive for anglers looking to take the cheap way out. Night crawlers will eat cornmeal or just about any table scraps (so long as they're finely ground; worms have very small mouths). 

If you're fortunate enough to live in an area inhabited by night crawlers, you can take the easy way out (or the hard way, depending on your point of view and propensity for a little work) and catch them when they emerge from the ground at night. Night crawlers won't emerge when the sun is out or when the earth is dry. During the late spring and early summer months, a late evening after a soaking rain can be a bait-catchers paradise. Night crawlers are lightning-quick while they're still partially in their burrow (but pull them out and toss them onto the ground and you can wait several minutes before stopping to pick them up and put them into the bait bucket) and are spooked by vibrations created by footsteps and by light, so tread carefully. The best place to find them—and easiest to grab them before they scoot back underground—is on freshly plowed dirt.

If night crawlers don't inhabit your back yard, it's possible to get them started. Toss out whatever is left in your bait bucket when you return home from a fishing trip and you'll eventually have a sustainable population. Eventually. As in, years.

Red worms in soggy ground. It takes more red worms than night crawlers to make a mouthful, but fish love 'em just as good. Short of scooping them up off the pavement when they're washed up by flooding rains, the easiest way to catch them is to have the proper habitat. Red worms love soggy ground. If you can find an old kitchen sink or clothes washer drain that is flowing into a back lot rather than being routed into a sewer or septic tank, you've found an earthworm honey hole (and a code violation, but that's beside the point). A hoe and ten minutes in the mud can fill a JFG can with bait. It's dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

Grow a catawba tree. Southern anglers have known for a generation that catawba worms are one of the best fish baits known to man. This investment will require a little patience but will pay huge dividends further down the road. A catawba (or catalpa) tree is the sole food source of the caterpillar of the catalpa sphinx moth. So if you grow it, they will come...you can count on it. 

When catawba worms are plentiful in late spring or early summer, they'll cover the trees and gathering them is easier than picking beans. Catawba worms are excellent bait for bass, panfish and catfish alike, but they're hard to find. A few bait shops carry them, but often the dead and frozen variety. Those will do in a pinch, but nothing beats a fresh worm.

Catawba trees sprout and multiply easily. Spread the wealth among your friends by giving them a sprout to grow their own bait tree, or keep them to yourself and start a catawba orchard. More bait equals more fish, right? 

The best part about a catawba tree? Unlike that old deep freezer in your back yard (for the night crawlers), your wife isn't going to mind the tree in the least. In fact, she might thank you for planting it (until the caterpillars show up and start dropping onto the barbecue, lawn chairs and whatever else happens to be beneath the tree). Catawba trees are excellent shade trees and flower each year.

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