Nature’s own live baits provide texture (feel), scent, and sight that is impossible to duplicate artificially fully. In many hook and line fishing situations, these natural advantages provide the “edge” of success.
Many live baits are equally or even more effective in fresh dead form. Frozen baits are useful but usually less so. Freezing changes natural bait qualities of texture, scent and color.
Preserved live baits of the “wet pack” process are excellent fish catchers. Essentially a once live bait is “put up” in glass jars for extended storage—with the aid of decay resisting chemicals.
Freeze-dried baits also offer excellent fish catching and storage possibilities. There are many vendors that have perfected the freeze-drying process making it possible for anglers to use natural baits anytime, anywhere, with the advantage of unlimited storage time.
To prepare bait for fishing, just soak them in water for 20 to 30 minutes, and they will be ready. The process of freeze-drying removes all the water from the bait’s body. Baits in freeze-dried form are available in the following species: Minnows (small, medium, large), Leeches, Nightcrawlers, Alewife, Golden Grubs and Waxworms.
Any item on a fish’s regular feed list (menu) is a potential bait for that species. Of the thousands of available live baits (i.e., fish, egg. frog. insect, etc.), try to identify your region’s basic varieties and learn to use them properly.
The survivalist freshwater forager should learn as much as possible about the feeding habits and food preferences of the fish sought. Learn about changes in feeding patterns from one season to another.
Many species tend to feed much less during the colder months and then feed like crazy during the warming weather of spring, slowdown in the summer, and feed in earnest in the fall. Many fish do not feed actively during the spawning season.
Inquire with the locals about live baits currently most effective for the species you’re after. Do this in your own area, as well as possible distant foraging sites. A recommended procedure is to open up a captured fish’s stomach and identify the feed, then try to duplicate it with similar baits.
Live baits choice depends on availability. Natural cycles affect bait abundance or scarcity, such as poor breeding years and adverse environmental conditions. If a preferred bait is not available, have a second one lined up. If all “regular” live baits are not accessible, experiment with whatever is available.
Live baits to experiment with
Worms (nightcrawler & garden variety)
These are very important for anglers due to their universal availability, attractiveness to practically all fish, and ease of capture and storage. Look for earthworms where the soil is fertile, black loam being preferred (along stream hanks, under leaf piles. rotten logs, boards, stones, etc.).
In more arid regions, the worms will be found where ground moisture still exists. If water is available, use several buckets to bring the worms closer to the surface. Wait several hours and dig up with a shovel.
Everyday storage of worms can be done by placing them in a wooden crate/pail filled with slightly moistened garden loam and stored in a cool, dark place. For extended survivalist storage, they can be fed coffee grounds, bits of hard-boiled eggs, or cornmeal. Worms may be “hook toughened” by placing them in dry sphagnum moss (available at plant supply houses).
The larger members of the worm family, are basically nocturnal in habits (as related to capturing). Preferred locales include lawns, golf courses. etc. Look for them at night with the aid of a flashlight with the lens covered with a thin red cloth. Since they are quite sensitive to sound and vibrations, walk quietly and slowly, sneaking up on ’em.
Usually, a crawler will have its rear section in the de hole. Grab them rapidly and firm. Crawlers can be stored like earthworms. Note, during springtime in a temper, climates, a heavy shower will usually result in a large number of crawlers about. The soil becomes water-saturated and flashes them out.
Other harvest methods include driving a wooden stake into the ground then keep tapping it. The vibrations anger the crawlers, and they reveal themselves to the surface. Commercially available chemicals can also “draw out” the crawlers. These are usually mixed with water and cast upon the lawn. It “flushes” them to the surface day and night.
These are live baits readily available wherever livestock are pastured or on feedlots. In non-livestock areas, they can be attracted and propagated by “building” a mulch pile. Simply pile up dead leaves, grass clippings, old plant stalks, etc. in a flat-topped heap in a shady corner of a food plot. Keep moist.
Most worms lend themselves to fish on hooks with/without weights and in conjunctions with bobbers in so-called “still fishing.” Other variations include spinner, spoon and lure combinations, as well as the various hook harnesses.
Minnows, shiners, small game, pan and rough fish in live and dead form are excellent fish baits. Of the approximately 200 minnow species on the North American Continent, minnows are the single most important food (bait) source for larger (predatory) freshwater fish.
All aquatic environs support them: large lakes, small ponds, small rivulets, brooks to huge rivers, marshes, in all water temperatures. No matter where the survivalist freshwater forager travels, availability will be had. Most “minnows” vary from 1 ½ to 6 inches in length in most instances.
Minnow capture is possible via baited minnow traps (bread balls, cheese, etc.) set in stream/river and along pond/lake edges. Also, fine mesh cast nets, seines, lift nets excel.
Related article: How To Catch Minnows as Bait for Survival Fishing
Panfish, such as bluegills, yellow perch, etc., are readily available fish baits. With these spines equipped fish, it is suggested to cut off the “threatening” dorsal spines with stout scissors, thus creating a more desirable bait to the targeted predatory fish.
Immature game/rough fish varying from several inches to several feet also have fish bait applications. In emergency foraging situations, 5- to 6-inch bass could be used to lure an 8-pound brother to the skillet. In addition, it is a common practice to entice large pike/muskies with 15- to 20-inch “suckers” live lined or rigged for casting.
Minnows may be stored in fine mesh cages submerged in stream/lakes, etc. Other enterprising anglers store them in 20- to 50-gallon fish aquariums with aerators. When using live minnows at the fishing grounds, change the water at frequent intervals to ensure lively action.
Change water more often in warm weather. Small battery-operated aerators of the portable variety, as well as “oxygen tablets,” are available for the serious live bait angler.
Crawfish (crayfish, crawdads, crabs)
These live baits range the continental U.S. Habitats are swamp waters, rivers, streams, lakes, near and under rocks, logs, weeds, etc. Can be captured by wire style minnow traps baited with meat/fish scraps. Widen trap funnel to 2-inch diameter.
Telltale burrows are marked by mounds of sand/debris. Dig them out and grab them. Watch out for pincher claw. Dip nets are also used successfully. Storage is accomplished by nesting them in dampened grass or water weeds, placed in a wooden box or pail.
Hook them through the tail section and fish them just off bottom. If allowed on the bottom they hide in rocks, weeds. etc.
Suggested reading: Harvesting Marine Life In Tidal Areas
Grass shrimp of the freshwater variety are excellent trout and panfish baits. They range the bulk of temperate North America. Habitats are all types of freshwater.
Capture them with fine mesh dip nets, traps, seines, and lift nets. Used singularly for small fish, grouped in clusters for larger ones. Can be fished as drifted, with dobber “stilled” fish, or added to small jigs and spinners.
These critters can be fried and eaten in a survival pinch. Limited storage can be provided by damp wood shavings/sawdust in a small covered cardboard carton. Avoid excessive heat and direct sunshine.
Adult and “caterpillar” stage land-based insects are live baits of diversity. Either alive or dead, various ants, wasps, bees, moths, etc. hooked and fished top to the bottom of the water column will bring favorable results.
A very effective “bug catcher” is the radiator core/grill found on many autos and trucks. Carefully pry them off the grid. Crickets are easily captured by turning over old boards lying on the grounds. Or set traps by placing sections of old carpeting in areas where the grass meets woodlots.
Grasshoppers are tremendous stream baits for trout and smallmouth bass. Float them drift-free down the riffles into pools or in the tails of pools into the “broken” waters. To achieve a drag-free presentation, feed line manually at a slightly greater rate than streamflow.
A decent summertime grasshopper trap consists of a fuzzy textured blanket spread out in a field. Walkabout, stomp your feet, thus “driving” the ‘hoppers on the blanket. Their horned leg protrusions will “hook” onto the blanket fuzz.
Aquatic Larvae Nymphs
These are natural fish capture baits of numerous varieties.
Hellgrammites (Dodson Flies once hatched) and countless other “nymphs” can be captured in streams via the use of a fine-meshed seine or dip net “set up” downstream of submerged rocks that are being turned over.
Use hook sizes suitable to the size of larvae used as well as dimensions of fish sought.
The smaller ones not normally used for food consumption are excellent seducers of medium/large predatory fish, including basses, pikes, etc. Several varieties are available pretty much nationwide, including Pickerel, Green, Bullfrog and Southern Leopard.
Size for bait purposes is 1 to 5 inches in length. Habitats are river, stream, lake/pond edge, marsh, etc. All species can be captured via hand or dip net, night and day.
Hook & line capture is accomplished by a cane pole, equal length stout line, a size #6 to 8 daudy trout/salmon fly. Dangle the “bug” in front of them. Makeshift frog fly can be fabricated from a bit of red flannel, attached to a small hook.
Short-term frog storage can be accomplished by placing them in a perforated box lined with damp grass/weeds. Long-term storage is provided by a wooden box with many small holes placed partially submerged in water and filled with several rocks high enough so the frogs may sit above the water level. Weight the top of the box down heavily if in raccoon, otter or bear country.
For fishing live/dead whole frogs (live preferred), hook them through the lips and gently lob cast near possible fish-holding structure. A better way of deployment is to plop and skitter them around pads and stumps via a long cane or glass pole. The frog lives longer. Dead frog sections can also be “skittered” about.
Leeches are one of the groups of segmented worms or annelids, commonly called bloodsuckers. Leeches reach 1 to 4 inches in length and range throughout most of the continental U.S. The preferred trapping sites include smaller lakes and sloughs, as well as bays located off large impoundments.
Waters with no game fish are the most productive, as the rough fish usually present don’t eat them. A small farm pond with no viable fish population is worth investigation. Trapping leeches with the aid of fresh fish baits is recommended. Use pieces of carp, redhorse, buffalo, sucker, whitefish, minnows, other fish. In a pinch, mammal and fowl baits can be substituted, including muskrat, beaver, duck. etc.
The use of live baits that contain high levels of oil and blood will enhance catches. In hot weather, the longest a bait should be fished is not over 15 to 40 hours. Unspoiled bait is the most important leech trapping consideration.
Wind plays a major role in leech capture. A 2- to 6-mile-per-hour wind will disperse the bait odor over a wider area than during calm conditions. Leeches can be chummed to a specific area with the aid of a “liquor” made from a chunk of bait mixed in a 5-gallon plastic bucket (fill with water, mash/stir up).
In a boat or a canoe, start upwind of your intended trapping site. As you drift with the wind towards it, ladle out the “soup” at a moderate rate. If leeches are present, they will surely follow.
Trapping methods are:
- If no leech traps are available, rub the bottom of your watercraft (boat, canoe. etc.) prior to launch with moderate amounts of fresh bait. Cruise the shallows near bogs and sticks. The leeches will attach themselves to the bottom. Back at the launch, carefully pull your craft out, turn it over, and harvest them by hand.
- Basic can (large vegetable, coffee, etc.) sunk in 2 to 4 feet of water after inserting 6 to 8 ounces of bait. Squeeze the can shut by hand. The tiny crack will provide leech entrance and prevent the entrance of turtles. Use some type of buoy or marker to relocate the “can trap.” This trap should be checked daily to reduce escapes.
More elaborate traps may be fabricated from fine wire mesh/screening fashioned into a funnel fastened to each end of two coffee cans spot welded together (like a mini-eel pot). All metal can traps can be painted to avoid rust and detection. Paint with bottom-complementary colors.
Leeches can be readily stored in barrels or tanks of freshwater placed in cool locales.
Leeches are super baits either drifted alone or in conjunction with an artificial lure. Stream situations might entail the use of several small split shot or sinkers to get the bait down. Lakes and ponds often suggest the use of bottom bouncing jigs ranging from 1/8 to 1 ounce tipped with them.
Another possibility for lakes and large streams is the slow trolling of “rigs” and “harnesses” (i.e., June Bug) or spinners (i.e., Erie Deane) “sweetened” with these critters. Panfish of all types, large and smallmouth bass, trout and especially walleyes and saugers, devour them.
Salmon eggs are displayed on small hooks and drifted to various members of the trout, char, and salmon families, either singularly or in clusters. A variety of “jarred” eggs are available from various vendors online.
For survival fishing in trout/steelhead country, stock up on local favorites. Local egg color preference options include natural, orange, red, and fluorescent red, and Salmon, in many stream angling situations, will respond to eggs massed in small groupings. Tie up in small, fine-mesh bags and drift them down. The addition of a small split shot or sinkers might be indicated in fast-flowing or deep waters.
Fresh Water Clams (various)
In size varying from 1 to 5 inches, they range the bulk of U.S. excepting high mountain elevations. Habitats are streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds. Suitable bait for bottom feeders such as carp, catfish, etc.
Great for rod & reel, handling, and they excel as a trotline (set) bait. Clams are captured by viewing them in clear waters. Pick up by hand or dip net. Look for shell mounds of open clams on the shoreline, produced by feeding activities of various animals (muskrat, raccoon, otter, mink). Clam beds or pockets of harvest-able quantities should be nearby.
Substitutes for live baits
When live baits are not available, you can always improvise and use alternatives baits. The following may not be as appealing as live baits, but with enough patience, you will not go home empty-handed. Try them and you won’t regret it.
Canned corn (kernel type)
This can be readily used as bait and chum for trout, carp, sucker, and panfish. One or more kernels is impaled on a small hook depending on the size of species sought. Selected carp fishing sites (i.e., shallow muck bottom covers. etc.) can be baited by “sewing” several handfuls upon the water.
The day before fishing get them primed. Trout fishermen scatter kernels while drifting (stream situation) or float (“clobber”) and bottom fishing. Only use corn in trout habituated water during survival circumstances. The kernels have been known, once consumed, to block the trout’s digestive tract which results in a dead trout of no use but to turtles and the beginning of the food chain.
Related reading: Try These Unusual Fish Baits for a Successful Catch
Marshmallows are easily stored and deployed baits for catfish, trout, and carp. Either drift or bottom baits them. Cut into the desired size or use whole for larger fish. A mixture of flour, peanut butter, and hot water creates another trout, catfish, carp collector. Fresh, moist white bread kneaded on a hook is also effective.
Other popular baits range from newts (salamanders, “hushpuppies”), mice, voles, to bits of domestic/wild game and fowl. True survivalist foragers will experiment when the supply of “regular baits” is unavailable.
One major exception to fresh baits is the so-called “stink baits” (rendered fowl. flesh, fish) used to attract catfish, turtles, as well as cheese-based “concoctions” commercially and privately prepared for catfish.
The degree of sophistication used in live baits gathering depends on the degree of finance, storage, mobility, terrain, man-power, etc. When freshwater foraging is considered a major protein provider in one’s survival scenario plan, bait capture, storage, etc., are important points not to overlook.
In severe survival scenarios, many of the various live baits (minnows, worms, lames) are edible in most cases. In one’s potential survival region, take a few moments to learn and identify what live baits are available before it is necessary to do so.
Suggested resources for survivalists: