Going Live

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A warm, summer day, mixed sun and cloud, drift fishing on the river in north central Manitoba and a steady catch of spunky walleye, with bottom bouncers and jigs with tails being the favourite presentations. What could be better? Why bother with live bait when the fish seemed to be hitting almost everything that was dropped within their strike range?

And yet, with the addition of a small piece of night crawler on my jig, I noticed a significant increase in the number of strikes I was getting. It didn’t make a lot of sense, considering the speed of the current that would disperse any scent in seconds, but there it was, with my fishing companions now eagerly reaching into our supply of crawlers to get into the pattern I was using with such success.

Using live bait might seem unnecessary these days, considering the wide array of scented products on the market. However, I’ve found that in many situations it can be the one factor that tips the balance in the angler’s favour.

So to be clear, what we’re talking about here is all that’s out there from the land or our water systems that wiggles, squiggles, squirms and generally falls within the category referred to by my wife as “Eww, I’m not touching that!”

For the purpose of organizing this topic into some sort of sensible presentation, we’re going to look at live bait types in four categories: minnows, night crawlers, leeches and other, and live bait presentations covering jigging, rigging, slip floats, drop shotting and bottom bouncing.

Minnows: There are many types of minnows, some of which are species that grow no larger than minnow size, and others that are the young of larger species, temporarily in minnow phase. In my home province of Manitoba, there are lots to choose from but few that are consistently effective.

Visit a live bait dealer and most likely you’ll get creek chubs, which are by far the most popular minnow bait in the province. Sure, there are mudminnows, suckers, sticklebacks, trout-perch, fatheads, bluntnose, darters, dace, sculpin, shiners (usually used in a frozen form) and tulibee, all listed in the provincial regulations, but the wise angler knows that there are definite preferences exhibited by target species and the chubs win hands down.

Anglers can catch their own, using dip nets and traps, but unless you really know what you’re doing you’re likely to wind up with a selection of species that may or may not work well.

One additional consideration when using live minnows: they take some care to keep them alive and spunky. An aerated live well or over-the-side minnow bucket should help, but it’s tricky keeping them going for more than a couple of days.

Worms: The subspecies we’re talking about here is usually referred to as a night crawler. These long, wiggly worms are readily available from bait dealers and are actually easy to collect, particularly on warm nights after a rain, when they tend to congregate on lawn surfaces. Their cousin, the earthworm, can be used as well, but doesn’t present the large, meaty profile of the night crawler and doesn’t lend to inflating, which is an important presentation technique. This is a particularly prolific and versatile bait that is reasonably easy to maintain. I prefer adding some forest moss to crawler containers and keep them refrigerated for storage. This can extend their availability to several weeks.

Leeches: There are 24 species of leeches in Manitoba, but only one that is really suitable for angling – the Predatory Leech, nephelopsis obscura – black in color and usually about seven or eight centimetres long. These are usually available from live bait dealers, but can be caught by anglers who access ponds or lakes, using something like a coffee can with holes punched in the sides and loaded with some raw meat. Left overnight and checked first thing in the morning, this presentation can be quite productive. Leeches tend to be a bit hardier than minnows, and survive reasonably well in cool conditions.

Other: This category includes anything that crawls, flies or burrows. Normally, anglers will be catching their own, using a small net, turning over logs and rocks or digging into riverbanks with a trowel. Normally bait dealers don’t deal with this category, but pet stores do, particularly if you’re interested in bait such as meal or wax worms that are great for panfish and trout.



In order to use live bait effectively, it’s wise to understand that there are certain combinations of technique and bait that have survived the test of time and outcome. Here we’ll be examining jigging, use of a slip float, rigging, drop shotting and using a bottom bouncer.

Jigging: When using live bait with a jig, the angler is usually counting on maintaining contact with the bottom and using color, flash or rattles as an attractant. Adding some live bait to this presentation can seal the deal when the target species approaches to investigate, as it adds authentic scent and movement.

Minnows are usually hooked through the bottom jaw and out the snout, as this allows for some flutter when the jig is moved, as well as keeping the minnow alive for some time. It can also be effective to hook the minnow through the tail.

Leeches are always hooked through the sucker, and crawlers through the head, which is the end nearest the belt-like ring, the clitellum.

It’s often wise to nip the worm in half, as with the jig presentation, the likelihood of a fish biting off just a part of the worm and not getting hooked is fairly great. When the target species, such as perch, trout, whitefish or tulibee, is attracted to smaller presentations, and jig size decreases, using just a small piece of bait can help to elicit a strike.

In Manitoba, where the mighty walleye is probably the most sought-after species, a lot of the fishing is done in fairly murky water – the Red River and the Winnipeg River below Pine Falls come to mind – where adding some bait to a jig presentation is a well accepted technique.

One variation of this is to hook a frozen shiner minnow through the eyes so it flutters on the shank of the hook, and add a live minnow to the hook to hold the shiner on and provide a visible, tasty treat. One thing to remember when adding live bait to a jig: it probably means a less aggressive jigging action to avoid shaking off the bait. A slow lift and drop will usually suffice.

Rigging: In my view, rigging is one of the subtlest presentations for live bait. This set-up is easy to put together:

  • Slip on a sliding weight, as small as conditions will allow for a vertical to 45 degree angle
  • Add a bead to prevent the weight from damaging the knot tie on a small barrel swivel
  • Add a leader, usually 15 to 20 inches of fluorocarbon
  • Tie on a small hook

Minnows hooked through the lips, leeches through their sucker and night crawlers through the head will provide very realistic presentations, with a slow lift and drop of the weight. This is the place for the worm blower, with the needle inserted just under the skin of the night crawler below the collar. The result will be a worm that floats above the bottom, thereby increasing visibility of the bait. The same effect can be achieved by adding a small in-line float just above the hook.

Set a pace that allows for no more than a 45-degree angle on the line. A spinning reel and sensitive rod are almost mandatory for this technique. Open the bail, and keep the loose line under control on your index finger. When you sense a hit, let go of the line and allow a few seconds for the fish to ingest the bait. You’ll often see the line spooling out. Close the bail, take up the slack and set the hook.

One thing to note: often the hook is deep in the fish’s throat with this presentation, so a pair of long needle nose pliers or forceps will come in handy.

There is a shore fishing application here as well, with the bait tossed out and the rod propped in a holder with the bail open. I’ve used this presentation extensively in the spring for lake trout that roam the shallows shortly after ice-out. It’s fascinating to see the slack line start to move away from shore, allowing the angler time to grab the rod, flip over the bail and wait for the slack to disappear before the hook is set.

Bottom Bouncers: These rigs are designed to allow the angler to present bait within a foot or so of the bottom, without much concern for getting snagged. Because of their construction, they aren’t as subtle as the rigging set-up described above, but they are conducive to the use of spinners, worm harnesses and ‘slow death’ hooks.

Once again, try to match the weight of the rig with the speed of the troll or drift, so that there is no more than a 45-degree angle on the line. If there are several anglers in the boat using this technique, it helps if they use the same weight so that they all match the speed of the boat.

Slip Floats: The advantage of jigging, rigging and using bottom bouncers is that the angler can cover water, exploring for target species, following drop-offs or weed edges. Using a slip float restricts this aspect of presenting live bait but has advantages that the other techniques don’t have. In particular, slip floats are great for tight places, where presenting live bait at a specific depth can be deadly. I’m thinking of lots of bass, panfish and trout applications, both in rivers and lakes – and tons of shore fishing potential.

I love the visual aspect of this technique and find that presenting a slow moving or even stationary bait can persuade even the most reluctant or reclusive fish to strike.

One of my most common uses of this approach is in seeking crappie early in the spring when they’re hiding tight to beds of rushes or sunken logs. Dropping a small slip bobber with a tiny jig tipped with a piece of crawler or mealworm right into the spaces amongst the reeds can result in some really aggressive strikes.

Set up is easy: first the bobber stop (colored string on a tube, slid off and tightened on the line, ends clipped off), bead to make sure the stop doesn’t get caught in the bobber, bobber next, then split shot appropriate to the size of the bobber followed by a small hook. The split shot/hook combination can be replaced by a small jig. Slide the bobber stop up the line for the desired depth and you’re ready to go.

One note on using this technique in current – it’s important to keep in touch with the bobber by taking up slack line or feeding it out, depending on the angler’s position relative to the bobber. Too much slack will result in lots of missed hook sets.

Drop Shotting: This technique is another finesse approach where light action, sensitive rods and spinning reels are my preference.

The rod selection is pretty much self-explanatory. I prefer a spinning reel because it puts the rod in my dominant hand.

Terminal tackle is pretty simple – hook, bait and weight. The hook can be anything you prefer as long as it presents the bait away from the line vertically and isn’t too large for the bait being used. I like something with a fairly short shank and slim profile. There are specific drop shot hooks and weights, but the technique is simple enough that small deviations from these specially manufactured components shouldn’t affect the outcome greatly.

The technique is as important as the tackle.

Designed for a vertical presentation, the drop shot rig is cast away from the boat and then gently wiggled, with the rod moving from a nine o’clock to an 11 o’clock position, and with the line recovered, repeated until the presentation is directly below the boat.

One alternative to using a drop shot style of weight is to tie on a jig and pop it along the bottom below the drop shot hook.

I readily admit that there have been angling adventures where I’ve wondered at the end of the day why I paid good money to bring along some sort of live bait that didn’t make any difference to the outcome of my day. Then I reflect on the total tally it took for me to make the trip and I realize that spending a bit on live bait, just in case, makes perfect sense. If it can increase my enjoyment of the outing by providing an increase in my catch rate or even the opportunities I’ve had, I’d say it’s a small price to pay.

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