For years my trout fishing included tiny jars of dried salmon eggs, brightly-hued marshmallows, processed garlic cheese, and canned corn. We never stopped to ask ourselves why any self-respecting fish would eat such decidedly unnatural fare — we just found they caught trout.
And we’re not talking only stocker trout straight from the hatchery and raised on Purina Fish Chow. I recall a friend’s uncle catching a 15-pound rainbow on New Mexico’s fabled San Juan River (well below catch and release stretches) on an orange marshmallow.
More recently, while fishing with a friend on a large reservoir, he caught a wild, 22-inch rainbow on chartreuse PowerBait. These instances only prove fish are dumb creatures liable to eat just about anything.
But in the natural world, trout subsist on a steady diet of natural arthropods and invertebrates they see regularly and trust as reliable nutrition. Many of these baits are easily collected by anglers and put to good use.
Salmon eggs, marshmallows, cheese, corn, even sport-goods nightcrawlers cost money and require advanced planning. Natural baits are free for the taking and easily collected on nearly any water with minimal effort, preparation, and tools.
🐛 Angle Worms
About 40 years ago, I caught my first trout, a stocker rainbow, in a small Arizona stream with a worm I dug up near a cabin we were staying in with friends. The lowly worm remains one of trout fishing’s most reliable baits.
I often wonder if worms actually wander into trout waters that often, but no trout will pass one up when presented properly. The iconic fly-fishing movie “A River Runs Through It” treated the coffee can of angle worms in derisive terms, but there’s no way around the fact untold numbers of trout have met their end inhaling a worm-festooned fishhook.
Collecting worms isn’t difficult but is a bit more involved than random digging. Garden-variety earthworms, as well as larger nightcrawlers (found in northern latitudes), prefer moist, fertile soil with plenty of organic material.
In fact, worms are an integral part of breaking down organic matter, creating healthier soil. Worms in your home garden are a good thing, and where they should be left. You’ll find more worms in low-lying or wet areas with plenty of rotting vegetation.
Farm-pond edges, heavily-shaded creek beds and marsh edges, springs, and out-building eves are normally good places to start. I also find plenty of worms beneath stacks of old lumber or around farmsteads, where old roofing tin or piles of debris are common.
Nightcrawlers appear after rains during summer, most often under cover of darkness. This is a fun enterprise for kids, setting out across a lawn or open pasture with flashlights, seeking the large invertebrates. You’ve got to be quick; as soon as light hits them, they’ll dive down and disappear.
Blood worms, so-called because of their dark red color, are normally found in manure around barnyards or horse sheds.
Collecting worms intact is easy: flip up a chunk of moist Earth, set it in a clear spot, and break it apart with your hands. Of course, you’ll need something to put them in. The classic coffee cans are actually a bad idea, as worms quickly overheat in such vessels.
A small foam cooler, or better yet, a worm box constructed of porous fiberboard, with loose, moist soil added, is best for keeping worms cool but handy.
You’ll encounter arguments on how to best rig worms. There’s the ball-of-worms approach, piercing worms side to side and sewing them on the hook until you run out of length; and the threading approach, starting the barbed point into one end of the worm and running the hook through the hollow middle until the entire hook bend and shank is covered, even threading the worn up the line if needed.
Which you choose really depends on what kind of fish you’re targeting. The glob-of-worms is best for inhalers such as catfish and carp, while threading is generally best for nibbling trout. I miss fewer strikes and lose fewer worms by threading.
How you present a worn depends on water type. In still waters, worms are usually sent to the bottom, the basic rig consisting of a sliding sinker stopped by a swivel — a 1-foot leader holding a hook.
In weedy lakes, a bobber is placed one or two feet above the sliding sinker to keep the works out of fouling moss or aquatic vegetation. The assembly is cast into a likely spot and left to sit. In streams and likely, you’ll want your worm to act naturally, casting upstream of likely holes, allowing the worm to tumble through, picking up and recasting as the worm passes through the holding water.
This can be accomplished with hook and weight or with hook and bobber, depending on water depth, clarity, and water speed.
🦗 Grasshoppers and Crickets
The Orthoptera family, including caelifeera (grasshoppers) and rhaphidophordae (crickets), are quite popular with trout of all species. In many cases, trout keyed onto hoppers turn their noses up at anything else.
Hoppers and crickets are highly nutritious and offer big bites allowing trout to fatten up before a coming winter. Hoppers are a late-summer and early-fall concern, roughly July through September in most trout waters. Crickets can appear nearly any time from spring through late fall, weather permitting.
Hoppers and crickets are highly productive in nearly any trout water but are especially so in running waters with overhanging grass, brush, or trees, where it’s most common for the insects to fall into the water. You’ll also see a higher incidence of hoppers in the water when their flight plans are interrupted by wind.
Catching hoppers and crickets can prove hit and miss, but during the right season, success can very well depend on it. The mistake most anglers make is attempting to catch hoppers during warm midday hours.
Get the kids involved, and this can actually turn into fun, but it really isn’t very productive, as most hoppers fly when spooked, or at least hop into disguising cover instantly.
The better approach is to collect hoppers when they’re less active during cool sunset and dawn hours. Recall, Nick Adams, in Hemingway’s incomparable short story “Two Big-Hearted River,” collected his hoppers early in the morning by rolling over logs, where they’d retreated against the cool of the night.
I’ve found I can catch all the hoppers needed for a day’s fishing at sunset, scanning bare tree branches five to six feet off the ground where they climb to catch the last warming rays of day.
Storing grasshoppers is a problem, as they become quite active once warmed and easily escape. There are commercially-made hopper/cricket cages, but I find it easier to collect and retrieve them for fishing by dropping them into plastic soda bottles.
I awl a hole in the lid and thread a short length of cord through, tie a knot, then tie a loop outside the lid, allowing a loose end to dangle inside the bottle. I can drop dozens of hoppers into a small 20-ounce bottle, enough for hours of fishing, retrieving them by untwisting the lid and carefully pulling one out on the rope, which they naturally cling to.
While walking or fishing, I run the created loop through my belt for hands-free toting and easy access.
Crickets are less reliable because they’re creatures of darkness. They can sometimes be trapped by burying a large plastic bottle containing bread or apple parings, so the opening is at ground level, and the bottom tilted lower.
Crickets enter to take the bait but cannot escape. I normally seek crickets around old farmsteads or junkyards, looking under discarded lumber, roofing tin, or other such covers.
While out in the natural woods, try flipping over pieces of bark or roll over logs to find dark-loving crickets (and other worthwhile trout baits). Fishing these trout treats sometimes requires a delicate touch, though you certainly can skewer one on a hook and send it into a deep pool with a pinch-on weight (which I’ve certainly done). This is sure to drown the hopper or cricket after a few drifts but is nonetheless effective.
If you want to have much more fun, drift a live, kicking hopper or cricket on the surface. This is accomplished by hooking the hopper or cricket through the hard saddle about 1½ feet below a clear bubble.
Cast above where you expect fish to hold and allow it to drift through. The livelier your bait, the more explosive the strikes. This is especially fun on creeks or clear rivers, where you’re able to enjoy the anxiety of watching a trout rise, sometimes from many feet below the surface.
Remember, though, in most instances, the tighter to grassy or brushy banks your bait rides, the more fish you’ll catch. I’ve fished several miles of a favorite stream during late summer, catching few trout. But as soon as I remembered to cast tight to the bank, I began catching trout in nearly every “fishy” place encountered.
A simpler method is to fish a hopper/cricket on a fixed length of line and a long rod (cane poles work especially well for this) without weight or bubble, stalking undercut banks, overhanging bushes, and grassy corners and dabbling bait with zero surface drag.
Hellgrammites, the large, spooky larva of the Dobsonfly, are common in creeks across the United States and prime fish food. In New Mexico’s Gila River system, hellgrammites were especially abundant and the bait of choice, even while fly fishing nymphs.
These nasty-looking bugs were sometimes pinkie-finger-sized, most slightly smaller, and quite easy to collect as needed by flipping rocks at water’s edge. Trout (and the trophy smallmouth bass of those waters) seldom passed them up.
The real problem with hellgrammites is their wicked fore-end pinchers, which make them unpopular with some people. Hellgrammites, after all, will bite, their large pinchers about as lethal as a pinprick but disconcerting nonetheless.
You find hellgrammites in shallow, clam flats covered in water, right up to the shore itself. Flip and turn fairly sizeable rocks, especially flat ones, and you’ll eventually find the big, ugly larva. The trick is to then pluck them up with your fingers and drop them into your bait can before they have an opportunity to pinch. While baiting up, I grab them behind the head to keep them under control.
Fishing hellgrammites is straight forward. Hook them through the hard collar behind the head and send them through deep pools a foot below a couple split shot. The trick is to tap along the bottom without too-frequent hang-ups in the deepest pools. Hits are usually swift and spirited, not the nibbling taps of worm fishing. Set the hook immediately, as any resistance will cause them to drop the bait instantly.
🐞 Other Natural Baits
You just never know what natural baits will turn up once you arrive on a trout stream, river, or reservoir. I recall a trip to the White Mountains of Arizona when buzzing cicadas had hatched by the buckets. Since they were congregating on tree branches above the water, I deduced trout would be feeding on thane hapless enough to fall into the stream.
And that was certainly the case. Every trout I caught that day – including some of the best that water had ever produced for me – felt as if their bellies were full of marbles.
As an avid fly fisherman, I’ve long known how important beetles can be as trout food. They are, after all, the planet’s most abundant insect species. You’ll normally come across beetles while flipping debris such as logs while seeking worms and crickets, as beetles like the same moist, dark places as those insects.
Finally, as gross as it may sound, maggots are deadly-effective trout bait, especially when water temperatures are cooler early and late in the season. The biggest problem with maggots – besides the very thought of them — is collecting them for bait.
This normally starts with roadkill or providing a host animal such as a rabbit or woodchuck. Allow the flies to lay their eggs, and given a couple of weeks, your dead thing will be Infested with writhing maggots.
Now the fun part: use a small plastic cup or storage ware with a snap-on lid, filling it with moist sawdust or finely-shredded egg carton, and spooning maggots in a while attempting to minimize decayed material.
The sawdust or paper fiber helps to clean the maggots somewhat, and they’ll remain ready for use in the refrigerator for up to a couple of weeks.
Collecting natural baits saves money, allowing you to make use of natural resources far from home or adjust to prevailing conditions on your favorite water. In most cases, it’s an endeavor your kids, nieces, or nephews will find just as exciting and fun as fishing itself, helping you keep nippers engaged and happy in the outdoors.
You can also feel good knowing you’re feeding trout something they can actually digest (should they steal your bait and get away) and not something of questionable chemical makeup that can kill them (trout cannot digest corn, for instance).
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