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Live Bait and Hook Selection Primer
written by Justin Hoffman

Sometimes Mother Nature provides us with the best fish-catchers around. Follow these tips and make live bait and the right hooks work for you.
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Live bait will always be effective for catching fish. By using the right bait and hook for your target species, your success rate will increase.

Since the inception of angling, the utilization of live bait has been a hands down winner. No matter what lure you may happen to tie on your line, duplicating Mother Nature is a formidable, yet impossible endeavour. Although an artificial lure may resemble, and even act like the true prey of fish, the texture, taste and movement of a juicy nightcrawler or an erratic minnow can't be beat.

As anglers, we've been bombarded with the knowledge of what live bait is available for use. We know that nightcrawlers, minnows, crayfish, frogs and leeches are the most popular and widely used bait choices. But how many know the appropriate bait to choose depending on the species you are targeting? 

Two other questions that remain a mystery to some are: Which hook should I use and how should I rig it? It can certainly be a struggle, as styles, material and technology have come a long way since the day of the bronzed, all-purpose snelled hook. 

Narrowing Down the Choices

Before discussing hooks, let's first narrow down the best choices when it comes to bait. Although there are many variables that can come into play, the following represents a simplified guide to using live bait for most popular sportfish.

Largemouth Bass

Mr. Bucketmouth has a healthy appetite for live bait, readily accepting many types of offerings that are tossed his way. Top choices include minnows, frogs, crayfish and whole nightcrawlers. Due to the size of their yap, and their gluttonous behavior, relying on above-average-size bait is highly recommended. Frogs can work wonders in shallow water areas (especially when worked on the surface), whereas crayfish excel when slowly fished over rocky points and breaklines.

Smallmouth Bass

Crayfish reign supreme for bronzebacks, with minnows and leeches following closely behind. Lively crayfish worked across a rocky shoal drives these fish crazy. Remember to choose the biggest leeches you can get your hands on, while also increasing the size of your minnow as the season progresses.

"When chasing smallmouth my choice is leeches — they cannot resist them," says Phil Harrison, a well-known Ontario fishing guide. "I routinely use them on a Carolina rig setup with a circle hook. These little buggers squirm like crazy and just drive the fish absolutely nuts. They work particularly well on high pressured lakes and in severe cold-front conditions."

Keep in mind that leeches are a poor bet when the water temperature drops below 50 degrees, as they will ball up on the hook, refusing to uncoil and swim naturally. 

Night crawlers work well for walleye but seem most effective during the summer months.

Walleye

Minnows, leeches and crawlers work well for walleye, with all three baits capable of producing as well as the next. Minnows are your best bet early and late in the season, with leeches and crawlers producing better throughout the summer months. As fall approaches, make sure to increase the size of your minnows, as fish prefer bigger bait this time of year. Shiners, suckers and chub lead the pack in selection.

Sheldon Hatch, a tournament walleye angler from the Ottawa, Ontario, area gave this advice: "My three favorite baits for walleye are minnows, minnows and minnows. When the walleye force me to slow down and move to a finesse live bait approach, I always go with minnows. In warmer waters, nightcrawlers or leeches will be the ticket, but minnows are number one for me in both spring and fall."

"If I had to pick a general size range of minnows to use year round, 4 to 5 inches in length would be the best choice in my opinion," added Harrison.

Crappies

Small portions of worm, as well as downsized minnows make up the live-bait menu for these pugnacious fish. One to 2-inch minnows offer more action at the start of the season, with worms coming on as the water warms. Keep bait size small, especially in relation to the size of a crappie's mouth.

Perch

Much like crappie, perch are a definite fan of nightcrawlers and small minnows. Pinhead minnows are a favorite among anglers during spring and fall, with worms getting the nod once the water warms. Leeches will also produce when after perch.

Adjust your presentation to the size of fish you are catching, or hope to catch, and keep in mind that perch have a gluttonous appetite, so don't be shy with bait selection.

Bluegills and Sunfish

These small-mouthed pannies are the heroes of childhood fishing memories. A small portion of worm is the easiest and most convincing bait to throw their way, resulting in many hookups and fast action. Offer up small tidbits of bait, and you'll have no trouble attracting these spunky fighters.

Salmon

When salmon wander up the streams come fall, red worms and roe can be combined for on-the-water action. Two or 3-inch worms and dime-sized spawn bags typically work best. For lake-residing salmon, the switch to live minnows suspended off bottom can be productive for inshore boaters and surf or pier casters.

Trollers rely on whole or cut bait when searching for salmon on the Great Lakes, with herring, anchovy, alewife and smelt garnering the most attention.

The live bait angler can get by with a few tried-and-true hook choices that cover the spectrum of rigging options.

Choosing the Right Hook

The fishing market is saturated with hooks. Walk into any tackle retailer, and be prepared for sensory overload, with the styles, shapes and colors available. But do we really need this many choices? Probably not.

The live bait angler can get by with a few tried and true choices — selections that cover the full spectrum of bait rigging options. Since packaging and catalog terminology is not consistent, here is what constitutes a simple fishing hook — anatomically speaking.

  • Gap — The distance between hook shank and point. The wider the gap, the larger the bait you can use.
  • Point — Hook points can be designed and manufactured in many different ways, from cone shaped to three-sided. Razor sharp is the name of the game when fishing with bait, for easy rigging and solid hooksets.
  • Shank — The shank of the hook is important for live bait fishing. The longer the shank, the easier it becomes for threading on bait like nightcrawlers. Elongated shanks also allow for easier hook removal.
  • Barb — Barbs can be positioned both below the point and along the shank of the hook. A barb below the hook point will both improve the chance of landing a fish, while also keeping live bait 'pegged' in place. Barbs along the shank are commonly used to hold threaded bait such as nightcrawlers.
  • Eye — The eye of a hook can be straight (which is common in most bait hooks), turned-down (believed to increase hooking percentage as it directs the point into the fish) and turned-up (mainly used for snelled bait hooks).

Aberdeen

The Aberdeen hook is noteworthy for its elongated shank and wide gap. Mostly used with worms, minnows and larva baits, the Aberdeen hook allows for easy removal practices, as the shank is always visible for easy access.

This hook is popular for small-mouthed panfish. If introducing a child to fishing, an Aberdeen is a perfect hook to start off with. The long shank will help them get a "hands-on" feel for unhooking fish, and the baiting process will be easier than if using smaller-shanked hooks.

Bait Holder

Easily recognizable by its series of barbs situated on the shank, bait holder hooks are a great addition for any angler that routinely fishes nightcrawlers. These barbs, which usually number two, allow a worm to be held securely on the hook shank. This will improve the longevity of bait, while also negating the nibbling practices that commonly occur when fishing crawlers. (Don't get me wrong — fish will always nibble, but they don't have to always steal your bait.)

Bait holder's are one of the most popular hooks purchased in Ontario, but some of this comes down to their name. (Many select these hooks due to the word "bait" being visible on the package.)

Bait holder hooks can be purchased either separately, or in packages with attached snells.

Octopus (Live Bait Hook)

For walleye and bass anglers, the Octopus hook is the industry standard. Pat Kirby, owner of Tall Tales Bait and Tackle in Cambridge, Ontario, had this insight to offer: "The live bait hook is used for minnows and leech's. They have a nice wide gap and a short shank, which accommodates the size of bait being used."

The round shape of the Octopus offers better hooksets, and most are made with thin material that minimizes damage to the bait. A turned-up eye also allows for easy snelling, a practice many walleye anglers rely on for bottom bouncing and harness rigs.

Octopus Hook

Octopus hooks are the industry standard for walleye and bass anglers.

"I feel it is important to match the hook to the bait," Kirby said. "It is not always necessary to match the hook to the size of the fish, as long as the hook point is razor sharp."

A case in point is using small Octopus hooks for catching salmon and trout. These fingernail-size hooks can land monstrous fish, so don't go overboard when dealing with walleye and bass.

Circle

Originally used by commercial tuna catchers, the circle hook has revolutionized live bait fishing as we know it today. For those anglers that take catch and release seriously, or are frightened away by the thought of gut-hooked fish, the circle hook may be the only arsenal you need.

Similar in appearance to the Octopus, the circle hook has a round bend in the gap, ending with a hook point that swings in towards the shank. At first glance, most wonder how the angle of the point could ever hook a fish. But herein lies the secret: Unlike most fishing hooks, where it takes the force of a hookset to sting a fish, circle hooks work on a completely different principal.

Here's how: When a fish inhales your bait and begins to swim away, your line will become taut. This allows the hook to be pulled from inside the fish's throat and directly to the corner of the mouth. As the tension continues to increase, the hook will rotate and pierce the cartilage of the lip. Due to the size and style of the hook itself, once a fish is pegged, it rarely comes unhooked.

"The use of this hook must come with an education," says Kirby. "Don't set the hook. This is something that a lot of anglers just can't stop doing. With the exception of the earth worm, the circle hook would be great with all other live baits that come to mind, and they have a nice wide gap and a variety of sizes to accommodate all baits."

Harrison offered this insight into circle hooks: "As an outfit that promotes selective harvest, circle hooks are used quite often. These hooks allow a little more time to set the hook without gut hooking a fish. A good-sized smallmouth can suck in a leech and have it half digested before you realize it. With circle hooks, a fish can turn and swim with your live bait. When you apply pressure with the rod, the hook slides along the inside of the mouth, catching the corner 95 percent of the time. With this solid hookset, more fish will get to the boat with a greater opportunity for a healthy release if an angler so chooses."

With many manufacturers producing circle hooks, anglers using them are seeing an increase in catch rates, a higher lip-hook rate (reducing mortality,) ease of use and less chance of snagging when fishing near bottom or vegetation. All positive reasons for choosing the circle hook.

Colored Hooks — Functional or Fad?

Colored live bait hooks are becoming increasingly popular, with most companies producing product with vibrant hues and glow paint. But the question on many lips is, "Do they really work?" Two professionals I talked to had varying degrees of faith.

Hatch believes they can improve your catch rate, especially when targeting walleye. "I have been using the colored hooks for live bait rigging for the past three seasons," Hatch said. "I feel the color adds a little attraction to the live bait and can entice a walleye to strike when it is in a neutral or negative feeding mood. The two colors that have produced the most for me are chartreuse and fluorescent pink."

Harrison, on the other hand, has a different take on the phenomenon. "We tried them, but don't feel there was any advantage to using them," he said. "I think once a fish hones in on your live bait, it is usually going to eat, whether it looks like your bait is bleeding or not, as an example. I am more concerned on making sure the whole bait itself has the silhouette they are interested in and putting it in the right spot."

It seems the jury is still out on this topic. I'll let you be your own judge on whether colored hooks really makes a difference.

Bait-Hooking Strategies

Now that we've discussed the appropriate hooks to use, lets take a look at some bait-hooking basics.

Nightcrawlers

When it comes to nightcrawlers, the relationship between bait and hook comes down to your targeted species. For panfish, threading the worm (or portions of) along the shank of the hook or impaled two or three times is preferred. Leave the ends dangling slightly for added action. Since these fish have small mouths, a segment between 1 and 2 inches works best. If you are continuously dealing with a 'nibbler,' it is usually telling you that your presentation is too large.

For bigger prey, such as walleye or bass, hook the worm once through the collar or directly through the middle (wacky worm style). These larger fish will suction up a whole nightcrawler effortlessly. So don't be afraid of the excess worm that is away from the hook, as this adds to a realistic presentation.

Leeches should be hooked once directly through the larger suction cup. This is the leech's tail and will allow it to swim in a very natural and enticing manner. When a fish strikes, a leech often rolls up in a ball, wrapping around your hook and making hooksets tough. If using larger leeches, a bigger hook should be used in order to combat this predicament.

Minnows

Two popular methods to baiting minnows are hooking them upwards through both lips or by impaling the hook just below the dorsal fin.

Minnows

For fishing with minnows, each angler has their own point of view on hooking approaches. Two popular methods are hooking the fish directly upwards through both lips or by impaling the hook just below the back fin, paying careful attention not to nick the spine, which can cause paralysis. Freedom and movement can be better achieved by back hooking, and if done correctly, a longer life may be gleaned from your bait.

"I like to use a natural approach when live bait rigging minnows, so I hook them through the lips, allowing the minnow to swim around and react with fear as a hungry walleye approaches," said Hatch.

The method of hooking through the back is best suited to still-fishing with a float, whereas lip-hooked minnows work best in trolling or rigging situations.

Quick-strike

When chasing northern pike or musky, a quick-strike rig gets the nod, especially when using oversized suckers or chubs. Quick strike rigs can be commercially bought or easily made. For rigging, pierce a single hook up through the snout, with a wire-leader-rigged treble lightly hooked through the back or side section of the baitfish.

Crayfish

Whether freelining or rigging, hooking a crayfish upwards through the tail section is best. Depending on the size of the craw, a half or full inch from the end of the tail is sufficient. Hooking in this manner allows the crayfish to move in a natural way. If float fishing is more your style, hooking through the top of the shell is more desirable.

Depending on the amount of vegetation or structure, removing the claws will prevent the crayfish from grabbing onto debris and escaping the hook. Another trick is to remove only one claw, giving the crustacean the appearance of an injured and accessible meal.

Frogs

Although not as popular today, frogs can be a great bait for both bass and walleye. Leopard frogs are the most common and easily found bait for those looking to use them. (Check regulations for restrictions.)

For those that can get past the "cuteness factor," they can be tremendous at times. Hook the amphibian through both lips, coming up from the bottom. This will present a life-like presentation, while allowing the frog to swim in a natural manner.

Live bait will forever be a popular method to catching fish. By using the right bait and hook for your targeted specie, your chances of success can greatly increase. And lets face it — that is what every good angler strives for when plying the waters of their favourite honey hole.

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