In simpler times people gathered their own fish bait, and a trip to the fishing hole started in the garden digging worms or walking grassy fields to catch grasshoppers. These days most folks are too busy and just go to the bait shop. But particularly if you have kids, hunting for bait can be a fun learning experience, putting them more in touch with the natural world. Gathering your own also allows you access to bait not commercially available. Here is a short list of some bait you can find locally.
Earthworms are the universal bait. They are abundant, easy to find, and attractive to many fish species. Worms found locally include the big nightcrawler and the smaller red worm, also called garden worm. Nightcrawlers are hunted at night with a flashlight after a good rain, when they partially come out of the ground. Red worms are dug up in soil that is rich and moist, say near a compost or manure pile.
Crickets and Grasshoppers are also age-old baits. Grasshoppers are found in large numbers in tall grass and can be caught by hand especially early morning when they are more sluggish. There are several varieties around, so you’ll have to experiment to see which ones make the best bait. Crickets can be found under stones or other objects on the ground.
Caterpillars are often called worms but are actually the larval stage of moths and butterflies. Many can be used for bait, and the most legendary is the “Catawba” worm. They feed exclusively on the Catalpa (locally called Catawba) tree, so you have to know where these trees are. The larvae appear mid to late summer and can be seen on the underside of the big heart shaped leaves as black and yellow caterpillars 3-4 inches long. The scent of these worms attracts fish, especially bluegill and catfish. Other caterpillars used for bait include the corn ear worm, found in the tops of maturing sweet corn, and the waxworms, found in beehives.
Gall worms are insect larvae found in galls — those spherical swollen areas on plant stems, especially goldenrod. These larvae are good panfish bait and are available in late fall when other kinds of wild bait are gone. Collect the galls in the fall and store them in a cool dry place. Don’t let the gall warm up or the larva will think it’s spring and crawl out. When you need bait, cut open the gall and bait the hook.
Just what makes a fish bite bait is not entirely understood. Scent, vibration, appearance, and motion are all considered factors. It’s common for bugs and worms feeding on tree leaves suspended over the water to fall in and become fish food, so maybe that’s it. One day fish can be picky eaters, while on others they seem to strike at anything that hits the water. Guessing just what they are hungry for and placing the bait in the right place at the right time is part of the fishing game.