To have the best bait possible when it comes time to fish, you only need to understand a few simple things. To begin with, you start with the best bait possible and maintain it in the best possible manner. As pros traveling around the country fishing for a living, we better know how to take care of bait. On the pro tour, I can't assume that I am going to be able to get quality bait everywhere I go, so more often than not I bring my own. Before leaving, I break the bait down into three areas -crawlers, leeches and minnows.
Crawlers are still one of the most widely used live bait presentations in the country. They can be purchased just about anywhere and can be caught by hand late in the evening if you have enough patience. I prefer to go to a good bait store, and purchase crawlers.
Most of the crawlers that are sold in the United States are actually raised in Canada. If they are having a bad season in Canada, more than likely you will be getting poor crawlers around this country. When purchasing crawlers, I look for healthy bait. This is more important to me than size. What I look for are firm and lively crawlers. Most bait stores will allow you to look at the bait before you purchase it, and I recommend an inspection no matter what bait you're buying.
How many crawlers you are going to purchase affects the care that you will have to give them. In my case, I purchase crawlers by the flat (500) and have them packed in what are called Canadian flats, or 1/2 of a flat of crawlers, packed in bedding -not dirt.
Canada does not allow you to transport crawlers into their country in dirt. I store these Canadian flats in large Igloo coolers with blocks of ice. Block ice will last much longer than cubes.
When I transport crawlers in the boat, I use Hagen's Keep Cool Bait Cooler. This cooler will allow you to keep up to 200 crawlers alive in bedding and pack ice around the outside. The ice on the outside is the key to keeping all the water away from the crawlers and bedding. Bedding should be mixed so that when you squeeze it in your hand you can barely squeeze water out of it. I like to use the Frabill Bedding. If I am trying to keep my crawlers alive for a long time, regular feeding is necessary. Frabill makes a food that can be mixed up in the bedding. Temperature is the key to keeping crawlers alive and healthy.
Cooler is generally better, but not cold. You also need to mix the crawlers up from time to time. When they sit for a long period of time, they will all dig to the bottom of the container. As they bunch up, their bodies generate a lot more heat. With worms, heat is not a good thing. If for some reason you are not able to get nice plump crawlers, try this little trick. The night before you go fishing, take 2-dozen crawlers and pack them in a water-filled zip lock bag. Pack as many bags as you think you are going to need for the day. Take those bags and set them in a cooler that is packed with ice. The crawlers will absorb the water and be nice and plump the next day, giving them a much larger appearance.
Leeches are another story. Again, you will need to look at the bait before you make a purchase. Leeches can vary greatly in size and health from day to day and also from bait store to bait store. Personally, I like to purchase the largest, liveliest leeches I can find. I will opt for lively over size every time. I want my leeches swimming when they hit the water.
I use jumbo cottage cheese containers to transport large numbers of leeches, and put three to four dozen in each container, topping them off with fresh, pure water. Water and water conditioning really come into play when trying to keep leeches fresh.
When I travel, I change my leeches' water every night. Dirty, old water will kill leeches faster than anything. The problem when traveling is, many times the water in the motels is city water. City water contains chlorine, and this chemical will kill your leeches.
The easiest way around this is to pick up a chlorine conditioner from any pet supply store. Mix your water and follow the directions on the bottle of conditioner. You can then transfer that water into the containers that are holding your leeches. When in the boat, I will put one or two containers in the cooler for a reserve. This is my secret with leeches. In addition to your reserve leeches, put one or two containers in your livewell and let them swim. When you raise the lid to grab a leech, it's easy to see the "swimmers" as I call them. Those are the ones you want. The water temp in the livewell will be the same as the water you are dropping them into, so they will not have to get used to it.
Just make sure you have screens over all of the overflow holes, I learned that one from an expensive experience. They call it chumming if you don't check the screen, and nothing is worse than turning around in the boat and seeing a line of jumbo black leeches waving goodbye with their tails as they slip below the surface.
One other important tip when fishing with leeches is using the right hook. As your leeches get larger, step up the size of your hook. For jumbo leeches, I will go to a VMC #2 Octopus hook. When a walleye grabs a leech, the leech will ball up, making it harder for a small hook to find its way into the fish.
Minnows in large quantities are the most challenging bait to take care for. They are also the hardest supply to depend on out of town. When transporting minnows, you must use a large tank that will hold a lot of water.
I use Cabela's Minnow Life Support System when I have to transport minnows. I prefer the model with the 12-volt aerator and hook it right into my truck's 12-volt system. A general rule when you are going to transport minnows is to use an aerator that has a motor that will be above the water line. These motors generate heat, and heat is not your friend when minnows are in the equation. I stay away from the bilge pump type systems for that reason.
I have also used the Double Bubbles aerator with success when I don't have large quantities to contend with. The conditioner for chlorine, listed above for your leeches, is also critical for minnows. You must condition the water before changing it. One little tip that can be useful, if you remember, is keeping your livewells full when you get off the water. Drain the water into the minnows or a bucket back at your motel. If you are going to add ice, remember that the ice has chlorine, so it will have to be treated also. Putting ice that has been made with chlorinated water is just as bad as pouring it directly into your bait. It may take a little longer to have an effect, but once the ice has melted, your bait will be dead.
In your boat, the best thing you can do is keep the minnows in your livewell. Keep the pumps on and, like leeches, make sure you have screens over your overflows if you do not have a built in minnow bucket.
All of this may sound like a lot of trouble, but would you rather be marking big fish and pull out a stiff minnow or a limp crawler? Believe me, when you spend a little time taking care of your bait, your bait will take care of business when the time comes to cash in on your investment.
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