NAT­U­RAL AT­TRAC­TION

THERE’S SOME­THING ABOUT BAIT FISH­ING THAT HAS CAP­TI­VATED THE WRITER SINCE HE WAS A BOY AND LEARNED THAT FISH DON’T LIKE RAISINS

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By BARRY GIB­SON

For an in­vet­er­ate bait dunker, trick­ing fish with pea-sized brains into strik­ing an ar­ti­fi­cial lure doesn’t feel right. Nat­u­ral bait al­lows the au­thor to in­dulge his Ne­an­derthal roots.

Ilove fish­ing with bait. There’s some­thing about us­ing bait to catch a fish that has al­ways ap­pealed to me. Maybe it sub­con­sciously brings me back to my Ne­an­derthal roots. Or maybe it’s just the hon­esty of it. In my opin­ion, us­ing an ar­ti­fi­cial lure or fly to trick an an­i­mal with a brain the size of a grape into bit­ing what it thinks is a le­git­i­mate meal bor­ders on out­right dis­hon­esty. You are pre­sent­ing some­thing that you know per­fectly well has no nour­ish­ment to a crit­ter that doesn’t have the cra­nial ca­pac­ity to fig­ure that out in a timely man­ner. Cast­ing an in­jec­tion-molded, ther­mo­plas­tic, holo­gram-adorned swim­ming plug armed with three sets of 3X stain­less tre­ble hooks in an at­tempt to fool some poor fish that’s about to faint from hunger just adds in­sult to in­jury. It’s like know­ingly pass­ing a coun­ter­feit $20 bill to the cheer­ful high school girl at the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through. Bait, on the other hand, is at least hon­est. The fish can smell it and taste it, and if it is lucky or skill­ful enough, the fish can even steal the tid­bit and swim off to swal­low it in peace. The fact that there’s a nee­dle-sharp, 7/0 hook buried in the mid­dle of the hunk of meat might be con­sid­ered cruel, per­haps sadis­tic, but it’s not dis­hon­est. It’s wrapped in real fish food. I started my bait-fish­ing ca­reer when I was 6 years old. My fa­ther, who was not a fish­er­man but who was gen­er­ally ac­com­mo­dat­ing, agreed to take my friend Ann Ha­ley and me to the nearby Aber­jona River in Winch­ester, Mas­sachusetts, to try our luck. He fash­ioned each of us an out­fit con­sist­ing of a birch dowel, a yard or so of kite string and a com­mon pin bent into a U-shape. “But what about bait?” I asked. There was a mo­ment of si­lence. Then he replied: “Raisins. Fish like raisins, don’t they?” I’m here to tell you they don’t. Ann and I never got so much as a nib­ble, but a gag­gle of kids along the river­bank who were us­ing worms caught one fat bluegill af­ter an­other. Bait fish­ing life les­son No. 1: Screw the raisins.

Things went swim­mingly af­ter that. Worms dug up un­der my sis­ter’s rabbit hutch be­came the bait of choice, and they rarely let me down. Bluegills, horn­pout, yel­low perch and the oc­ca­sional bass all fell vic­tim. Worms worked.

Not long af­ter­ward, I dis­cov­ered salt­wa­ter fish­ing. Once a year my fa­ther would take the fam­ily to Hal­ibut Point on Cape Ann, Mas­sachusetts, for a Sun­day pic­nic, and there I learned to smash peri­win­kles with a rock and im­pale the pea-sized meat on a tiny hook to en­tice the lit­tle sharp-toothed cun­ners, or bergalls, that in­hab­ited the shad­owy wa­ters of the craggy gran­ite shore­line.

My fa­ther later took us on a party boat out of Plum Is­land off New­bury­port, Mas­sachusetts. Each of us was is­sued a tarred-cot­ton hand line wound around a wooden frame, rigged with a heavy bank sinker and a hook. When we reached the fish­ing grounds, a young khak­i­u­ni­formed crew­man baited our hooks with the meat of a qua­hog and in­structed us to un­wind the line and lower the rig to the bot­tom. My mother wound up catch­ing a nice cod, and my sis­ter man­aged to bring in a dog­fish. My fa­ther rolled up his pant legs and sun­bathed on the cabin roof. I caught noth­ing, but it was the most ex­cit­ing fish­ing trip I had ever been on. It was the ocean! To this day, when­ever I catch the heady scent of an oakum-treated hand line in a tackle shop, it takes me back to that party boat and the world’s most hon­est and con­nected type of fish­ing: a line you hold in your fin­gers with a hunk of clam on the other end.

Clam Happy

The clam — be it a qua­hog, lit­tle­neck, soft-shell, ra­zor or what­ever — is the Chevro­let of bot­tom baits. Few of­fer­ings are so read­ily avail­able for

a rea­son­able price and ap­peal to so many species. Cod, had­dock, pol­lock, cusk, floun­der, ling, striped bass, red drum — the list goes on.

The prob­lem with clams is that most of what’s in­side the shell is pretty mushy. Some sharpies will heav­ily salt shucked clams and freeze them, which tough­ens the meat. They don’t nor­mally catch fish as well as fresh clams, but they stay on the hook bet­ter. A lot of an­glers use just the rub­bery clam foot, as it also stays on the hook. The prob­lem is that the foot doesn’t have much fish-at­tract­ing scent.

My friend Capt. Tom Hill, who ran the Yan­kee fleet out of Glouces­ter, says the green and brown belly of the clam — the gooshi­est part — is the key, es­pe­cially for had­dock. “Cut the clam into strips so that each has a bit of the belly goop on the end,” Hill says. “Thread the strip on the hook with the foot sec­tion near the hook eye, and cover the point with the belly part. Had­dock are bot­tom scav­engers and have no teeth. They for­age along for squishy tid­bits, so the belly part of the clam is what they home in on. They ac­tu­ally try to suck it off the hook.”

How Tom knows this is be­yond me, but he in­sists he’ll out-fish any an­gler next to him who’s not us­ing the belly part 5-to-1.

Bot­tom fish­ing with a clam isn’t rocket sci­ence, but you have to pay at­ten­tion. If you’re deep-sea fish­ing — I love that term, but you don’t hear it much any­more — for cod and had­dock, drop the bait to the bot­tom and reel up a cou­ple of cranks. If you leave it on the bot­tom, crea­tures with claws may nib­ble it away. When your rod tip starts tele­graph­ing the tap-tap-tap of a fish, slowly lower the rod to “feed” it the clam, then set the hook smartly. With prac­tice, you’ll be able to bat about .500.

And although our fly-fish­ing com­pa­tri­ots may shud­der in dis­gust, an­chor­ing up in the cur­rent and chum­ming with pieces of clam meat and shell is a deadly way to catch striped bass. Free-line your hooked clam bait back with the bits of chum and hang on. Stripers get re­ally stupid when they nose up into a clam chum line. Jer­sey boys seem to have a cor­ner on this tech­nique, but it works in any wa­ter that’s home to both stripers and clams.

Won­der Worms

My fa­vorite bait is the sand­worm, some­times called a sea­worm. These nasty, slip­pery lit­tle bug­gers with the sharp pin­cers are the premier bait for win­ter floun­der, my No. 1 eat­ing fish. Floun­der and sea­worms go to­gether like fil­let of sole and tar­tar sauce.

Here’s a tip from my buddy Pete San­tini of Fish­ing Fi­nat­ics Tackle Shop in Everett, Mas­sachusetts. “Bring along a shal­low plas­tic food-stor­age con­tainer about half full of corn meal, and drop a few worms at a time into it,” he says. “The worms will in­stantly be­come coated with the dry stuff and are much eas­ier to han­dle.” Try­ing to grasp a wet sea­worm is like at­tempt­ing to pick up a piece of over­cooked spaghetti lubed up with K-Y.

The best floun­der rig is a two-hook deal with a small bank sinker. (Pete sells his own de­sign, called a Zobo rig.) Bait it up with a 2-inch sec­tion of worm, lower it to the bot­tom and move it around a lit­tle with your rod. Most peo­ple don’t know this, but win­ter floun­der are sight-feed­ers, and they re­spond to mo­tion rather than smell. It takes prac­tice to con­sis­tently hook a floun­der when it rap-rap-raps your bait, lift­ing the rod tip rather than sharply set­ting the hook. You’ll want to get good at it be­cause sea­worms are ex­pen­sive. I re­mem­ber when Maine worm dig­gers went on strike in the 1970s to force the deal­ers to pay 6 cents a worm, up from 5 cents. Those days are long gone, and a dozen sea­worms can run $7 or more in a bait shop.

So an­other tip, passed on by my dealer, Den­nis Hill of Edge­comb, Maine, is in or­der: Sea­worms will keep in the re­frig­er­a­tor for nearly a week in a flat plas­tic tray with sev­eral lay­ers of news­pa­per on the bot-

tom, topped with damp sea­weed. But you have to change the news­pa­per daily. “You want dry news­pa­per all the time,” Hill says. “Dry. Makes worms happy. Happy worms live longer.”

The blood­worm, a cousin to the sand­worm, ex­udes a yucky red sub­stance that some peo­ple say looks like blood. Blood­worms are tougher than sand­worms and will of­ten take sev­eral fish be­fore be­com­ing too ragged to use, but they’re even more ex­pen­sive. I have found that sand­worms work bet­ter for floun­der, but blood­worms seem to catch striped bass just fine. Sand­worms and blood­worms are a sta­ple bait for stripers — fished with a pyra­mid sinker in the surf, worked along the bot­tom be­neath a drift­ing boat or used as a sweet­ener on a slow-trolled tube lure. Striped bass love worms, no mat­ter the man­ner served. You’ll no­tice that guys who are good at worm­ing stripers usu­ally don’t carry much in the way of X-raps or Slug-gos in their tackle boxes. There’s no need.

Fish and Cut Bait

A nat­u­ral bait that’s prob­a­bly the most uni­ver­sally used is a piece of cut fish. A hunk, or the head, of mack­erel, her­ring, mul­let or what­ever will catch just about any salt­wa­ter denizen with a mouth large enough to en­com­pass it. Fish flesh is the com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor of baits. Fish eat fish.

One night in the spring of 1972, I caught a 20-pound tar­pon in a Mi­ami canal that ate a hunk of mul­let fished on the bot­tom from what we called a “Cuban yo-yo,” a plas­tic spool 8 inches in di­am­e­ter, onto which you wind some mono. You can still buy one at Capt. Harry’s. You hold the yo-yo from the in­side with one hand and sling your bait and sinker out with the other. The yo-yo per­forms just like a Van Staal spin­ning reel spool but costs $836 less. Sim­plest bait-fish­ing out­fit ever.

Be­ing col­lege stu­dents, we were re­ally smart, so we de­signed an alarm sys­tem to let us know when a fish hit in the dark. Af­ter cast­ing, we placed the yo-yo 20 feet back from the sea­wall and loosely wrapped the line around a few empty Sch­litz cans, of which we pro­duced a steady sup­ply. The the­ory was that the cans would bang and rat­tle when a fish — hope­fully a snook or a snap­per — moved off with the bait. Then we’d run over, grab the yo-yo and work the crit­ter in, hand over hand.

It worked great for the first fish, a tar­pon. We

baited with an­other mul­let chunk, then cast. Ev­ery­thing was quiet in the dark­ness for a half-hour, then all hell broke loose, cans clank­ing fu­ri­ously and bounc­ing along the gravel. We dashed to the scene just in time to see the yo-yo skid across the top of the wall and dis­ap­pear into the inky wa­ter be­low. We never did buy an­other one.

Yum!

The most re­volt­ing bait I ever used was a 2-pound, foot-long mass of salmon guts. Three of us were fish­ing on a char­ter boat off Sitka, Alaska, and although we ini­tially thought salmon guts were some sort of prank the crew pulled on new­bie an­glers from back East, we were wrong.

We low­ered our retch-pro­duc­ing of­fer­ings to the bot­tom in 500 feet and waited. It took an hour be­fore the first fish hit, but my friend Scott Maguire cranked up a beauty of a hal­ibut, 50 pounds.

Mike Sosik caught the next one, 90 pounds, and I fin­ished with a 90-pounder. Clearly, it takes guts to catch hal­ibut in Alaska.

One fi­nal ad­van­tage of bait over ar­ti­fi­cial lures: If you don’t use all your bait, you can take it home and eat it, salmon guts notwith­stand­ing. I re­mem­ber a trip to Mi­ami for a boat show some years back. Out­door writer Bob Stearns in­vited me for a day of live-shrimp­ing bone­fish on Bis­cayne Bay.

It was windy, and we struck out de­spite Bob’s best ef­forts. We had a few dozen live shrimp left, so we lugged them back to Bob’s house, where his lovely wife boiled them with a few se­cret spices, and the three of us sat down to peel ’n’ eat.

Bob plucked a piece of shell from be­tween his front teeth and grunted, “Pass the cock­tail sauce, will ya?”

I love fish­ing with bait.

A mess of qua­hogs.

A well-worn bait cleaver (left) and a small porgy that couldn’t pass up a good chunk of clam.

Ted Lemelin of Ted’s Bait & Tackle with a flat of sand­worms, the au­thor’s fa­vorite bait, es­pe­cially when he’s af­ter floun­der.

Lead mine: The tried-and-true ana­log de­liv­ery sys­tem for bounc­ing bait off the bot­tom.

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