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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of an old bait shop
The ol' bait shoppe.

June 1997

Angling for wigglers, worms and hoppers

How to bag the baits fish will bite.

Robert Manwell

A growing business Things that crawl
Leeches | Waxworms | Catalpa worms
Water insects | Land insects
Fish as bait for other fishes | Keeping minnows alive
Collecting bait legally | Damage to the environment?
Bait is big business

After a morning of hanging a bait over the side of a boat without a nibble, it's hard to believe fish are omnivorous, but anglers know better. Take a stroll through a bait shop and you'll see an amazing array of natural and artificial lures – a small sample of the huge variety of aquatic insects, terrestrial bugs, reptiles, amphibians, worms and other fish that mean dinner to your intended quarry.

Just what makes a fish bite a bait is not entirely understood. Scent and vibration are thought to be important; so are vision and motion. But every angler knows of successful baits that would never naturally appear in the fish's world, except at the end of a hook. The most popular live bait of all time, the worm, does not swim suspended of its own accord, yet almost any fish will eagerly gobble up a juicy night crawler.

At times, fish can be incredibly picky eaters; at others, they seem to strike anything that hits the water in their territory. Guessing just what they have a hunger for and placing it in the right place at the right time is part of the fishing game.

A growing business

The size of the Wisconsin bait industry is startling. In 1992, the last year for which figures are compiled, state anglers and bait dealers spent an estimated $35,202,000 on minnows, worms, leeches, crickets and other live baits.

The growing size of the industry reflects the busy lifestyle of today's anglers. In gentler times, most people gathered their own bait. A trip to the fishing hole was preceded by a digging trip to the garden, a few moments catching grasshoppers or wading and seining among shallow lily pads.

Gathering bait is part art and part science. Properly handling a dip net, using a minnow seine or setting a leech trap is as important to success as knowing when and where to look for the bait. You need to learn how to attract bait, and how to keep it alive and healthy until you have a chance to use it.

If you do a lot of fishing, you may want to consider raising bait. Propagating worms, minnows and other bait adds enjoyment to the sport. If you get more serious about it, there are laws regulating bait collection and production, especially if you intend to sell what you raise.

Things that crawl

The earthworm is a popular and easy-to-collect bait. Many natural baits attract only a few species, but nearly all freshwater fish eat worms.

Other worm-like creatures fish will eat are actually insect larvae, such as waxworms or "waxies," the larval form of the wax moth; "spikes," the larvae of the blue bottle fly; and mealworms, or beetle larvae.

[photo of worms]
Worldwide, scientists count some 2,000 different species of earthworm. The easiest one to collect, the common garden worm, is found in moist, fertile soil with lots of organic matter.
© Robert Queen

If you have a spot that produces worms, you usually can attract more by laying a couple of boards on the ground. Pour dishwater over them until the soil is saturated and leave it alone for several days. The dishwater contains nutrients; the boards keep the area cool and moist. All you'll have to do is raise the boards and pick the worms off the soil surface. If you dig for worms, turn the soil lightly with a garden fork so fewer worms will be cut or injured.

Collecting night crawlers takes fast fingers. As their name suggests, these worms mate and migrate at night. When the temperature hits 60-65 degrees, the skies are overcast and the ground is moist, it's time to hunt crawlers. New suburban developments in former farm fields provide great picking; other good bets are parks, golf courses and lawns where the grass is short and well watered. If the soil is dry, the night crawlers will go far underground and won't come to the surface.

To gather crawlers, you have to see them. A flashlight works well, but a headlamp is even better because it leaves your hands free for picking. Bright white light drives night crawlers underground. Cover the lens of your flashlight with red cellophane or use a dim light. Walk softly: Worms are very sensitive to vibration and will retreat if disturbed. Consider carrying a small can of sawdust to keep your fingers dry.

When you spy a night crawler, only a small portion usually sticks out of the ground. Grasp it quickly just below the collar – the thickened, lighter colored portion about one-third of the way along the body. Don't jerk the worm from the ground; it will break. As you grab the worm, it will contract the muscles in its tail and try to escape. Just hold on gently until the worm relaxes, then you can easily pull it from the ground without damage.

You can carry worms in almost any container with some soil from the place where you picked them. Keep the worms cool and moist, but not wet. "Worm Czar" George Sroda says night crawlers prefer to be very cool, 50 F or a little less. In warm summer weather, this means keeping your bait in a cooler with ice or freezer packs.


Of the 50 or so species of leeches found in the United States, only Nephelopsis obscura, the ribbon leech, is commonly used as fish bait. The ribbon leech is not a blood sucker. In fact, most leeches don't suck blood; they prey on aquatic worms and insect larvae or scavenge dead animal matter. Fish apparently know the difference too. Leech expert Phil Devore says that in side-by-side tests, fish will gobble up a ribbon leech and spit out a blood-sucking leech.

Collecting ribbon leeches is easy. "You have to find a winterkill lake or pond with no game fish," says Devore. These shallow water bodies freeze all the way to the bottom or are so oxygen-starved under the ice that all game fish perish. How the leeches survive under these circumstances isn't well understood, but that's where to look for them. Leeches have a two-year life cycle. The adults spawn in early spring and die as water temperature climbs in late June and early July. The collecting season runs the following spring from ice-out through the first week in July, says Devore. If the water remains cool, a few adults may last a bit longer. Consequently, there's a real shortage of leeches in August and September.

You can make a leech trap from a one-pound coffee can or a large soup can. Bait the can with chicken, beef or turkey liver. Pinch the top of the can shut, leaving a few small openings. In early evening, stake or place the trap in knee-deep water with a muddy or silty bottom. Use some kind of a marker to guide you back.

[photo of leeches]
You'll have to return early the next morning, preferably at or before sunrise; the ribbon leech is a nocturnal scavenger and it will leave the trap if you don't get back early the next morning.
© Robert Queen

Leeches will stay fresh in a refrigerator for several days. Bait stores sell small, inexpensive foam storage containers with thick, insulating walls. Change the water every few days, but don't feed the leeches as this will foul the water. Leeches lose some size and bulk after a week or so. Once they get soft, it's harder to keep them on the hook when you cast, so only buy or pick as many as you can use within a week.


This "worm" is really the larvae of the wax moth. In the wild, the moth lays its eggs in weak or diseased bee colonies. The eggs hatch and the larval waxworms consume the honey and the honeycomb, eventually destroying the colony and driving remaining bees out. Healthy colonies can drive the adult moth away.

For the die-hard bait collector, a wild bee hive is a rare find and determining if it contains waxworms is risky. Outside of bait shops, the most likely sources of waxworms are beekeepers who discover worms in their colonies. Chances are the apiarist will eagerly give away the pesky worms to get them out of their hives.

Growing your own waxworms can be tough, too. In recent years, a virus has plagued the commercial waxworm stock. The virus was originally introduced in Canada as a pest control method for the bee-keeping industry, but the organism escaped and is now found in Wisconsin.

Catalpa worms

This moth larva, commonly referred to as a worm, is legendary among baits. The worms appear only sporadically, and collection is difficult. The catalpa worm reaches three inches in length and sports bold black and green stripes. The catalpa tree is a bit north of its normal range in Wisconsin, but you see a few scattered in yards, parks and farms. The tree grows taller than 40 feet and has huge leaves with long stringy pods that look like foot-long green beans or vanilla beans. If you've spotted catalpa trees, talk to the owner and ask to receive a phone call if the trees leaves begin to look chewed up. Catalpa worms are larval sphinx moths. To use them as bait, you need to cut the worm in half, turn it inside out and thread it on your hook. The scent attracts fish, particularly panfish and catfish.

Water insects

Insects that spend most or part of their lives in the water are a staple in many fish diets. They go through either three or four stages in their life cycle from egg to adult.

The immature form of a water insect, known as a nymph, is the second of three stages: egg – nymph – adult. Nymphs somewhat resemble the adult in shape and body hardness. The immature forms of dragonflies, mayflies and stone flies are called nymphs.

When we collect insect larvae, we are taking the second of four stages: egg – larvae – pupa – adult. Larvae usually don't resemble the adult insect and are soft-bodied. The immature forms of caddis flies and dobson flies are larvae.

One of the most popular aquatic insect baits is the dragonfly nymph. Many anglers and bait shops incorrectly call this nymph a hellgrammite. The name "hellgrammite" truly refers to the larvae of the dobson fly.

Collecting dragonfly nymphs is easy and requires little in the way of equipment. Stan Reif, who has collected them for 40 years, uses a PVC frame about 20 inches square with a window screen on the bottom to catch the bugs. A plastic dishpan on a piece of cord floats along behind him to corral what he catches. With a pair of waders and some insect repellent, Reif is all set. The whole rig, with the exception of the waders, looks like it cost about $2.98, but it works great.

Stan says the best places for gathering dragonfly nymphs are in seasonal ponds that dry up each year and then form again with the spring rains: "These are good because they don't have any fish and they attract fewer ducks and other birds that would get the bugs before I do."

A good pond will have vegetation along the edges or is shallow enough that vegetation grows in the middle too. The bugs hang on to the submerged stems and foliage of the plants.

Stan works along the edge of the vegetation gently pushing over the grasses with his collecting frame using a scooping motion. He says he's gotten as many as 50 nymphs in a single scoop.

"It's very important to work with the grain of the grasses," he says. "You want to work the grass in the same direction the wind has blown it. Pushing against the natural lay of the vegetation tears it up by the roots. Once the habitat is gone, so is the bait. A good site can be worked every four or five days for an entire season as long as you don't destroy the habitat."

Reif scouts ponds first, scanning the surface with field glasses, looking for the dragonfly adults skimming low over the water. "If I see adults over a pond I know there'll be nymphs within about a week," Reif said.

Keeping live nymphs can be a problem. "Once they get hungry they'd just as soon eat one another as something else," says a Madison area bait retailer. The dealer recommends layering a few nymphs at a time in a bucket with marsh grass between the layers and keeping them in a refrigerator until you go out to fish.

"If you try to keep them for more than about three days, the next time you look in your bucket all you'll see is one helluva fat hellgrammite and a bunch of parts," our dealer said. Is it worth the trouble to collect them? "When they're available, hellgrammite are one of the best live baits you can have. You can break 'em in pieces instead of using a whole insect; the fish don't seem to care."

While the season for collecting dragonfly nymphs is usually limited to July through September, the bugs can be frozen and kept for winter ice fishing. "Put 'em on newspaper; pat 'em dry so they don't stick together; pop 'em in a plastic bag and toss 'em in the deep freeze," says Stan. "You may or may not want to tell your spouse what's in the freezer!"

If you want to search for the true hellgrammites, the dobson fly larvae, look under submerged rocks in the rapids or riffles of a fast-moving stream or river. They can be gathered by holding a wire screen or net downstream and turning over rocks, releasing the larvae into the net. Hellgrammites can reach three inches in length and have a pair of pincers that can deliver a painful nip, so handle them carefully. It's easier if two anglers cooperate: one lifts stones and the other works the net. You'll often find these insects clinging to the underside of rocks.

Hellgrammites will keep quite a while if you can provide running water and feed them a little ground meat to prevent cannibalism. Legally, you can use the true hellgrammites you collect only in the stream where you caught them.

Land insects

Given the opportunity, fish will eat a huge variety of land insects. Grasshoppers have been used for bait forever. They are most numerous and largest during late summer and early fall. It's up to the angler to experiment and find out which species are most popular and productive. Hoppers are easier to catch in the morning before the dew has evaporated, when it's cool and they are still sluggish. You can catch them individually by hand, or use a fly swatter to gently pin them down for capture. Another method is to spread out a wool blanket and walk through the grass, herding them toward the blanket. The grasshoppers that land on the blanket get their legs tangled in the wool fibers and will be easy to grab.

Hoppers can be kept in a clear bag filled with air and tied with a twist tie. As you need them, open the mouth of the bag just enough so a single insect can emerge. Plan on keeping grasshoppers for just a few days.

Crickets will attract many freshwater fishes. The dark brown or black field crickets are the best and can be found under stones, in hay piles, or under boards on the ground. Stale bread can be used to draw crickets in and you can store them in the same way as grasshoppers. If you intend to keep them for more than a couple of days, feed them some grass, moist bread or lettuce.

Gall worms are insect larvae found in galls – the spherical swelling on plant stems. The gall forms after a fly lays a larva in the stem and the plant walls off the area around it.

[photo of gall]
Look for galls in stands of goldenrod. These larvae are good panfish bait and they are available in late fall when other kinds of wild bait are dead or burrow deep in the soil.
© Robert Queen

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 will crawl out. When you need bait, cut open the galls, collect the small white larvae, and go fishing.

Fish as bait for other fishes

Next to digging in the garden for worms, many anglers' earliest memory of bait collecting is dipping for minnows. Fish love to eat other fish and collecting minnows is often easier and less work than digging for worms.

Fathead minnows, white suckers and golden shiners are popular bait fish in Wisconsin. It's possible, but difficult to find these fish in the wild since any game fish or panfish in the same lake will eat them up. If you do go on a minnow hunt, look for fatheads and golden shiners in winterkill lakes that have few or no predatory fish.

Most of the fathead minnows found in bait shops are collected in Minnesota from winterkill lakes. Golden shiners come mainly from growers in Arkansas. In-state growers may truck in a load of shiners and place them in a rearing pond or tank to fatten them for a season. A good grower can bring a minnow to a given size and weight in one-fourth the time it takes in the wild.

In Wisconsin lakes and streams you are most likely to find common shiners, long-nosed dace, red-bellied dace, mud minnows and suckers. There are a couple of devices to catch the small quantities an angler or family would use: minnow traps, drop nets or umbrella nets.

Minnow traps are cylindrical, double-ended wire mesh funnels that narrow in the middle. They work on the principle that a small fish will swim into the trap to find food and is unable to find the way out. Minnow traps are baited with a sticky mix of oatmeal or cornmeal rolled into a golf-ball-sized clump. The ball slowly breaks up providing fresh bait for long periods. Suspend the trap near a dock, on a stream, or at the head of a pool where the current slows. Check the trap at least once a day.

A drop net or umbrella net provides more immediate results. The square net about 36 by 36 inches is held open by a springy frame. There is a bit of technique to lowering the net off a dock just deep enough so you will attract fish, but shallow enough that you will trap minnows drawn to your bait. Let the kids sprinkle some bread crumbs over the net and wait for the minnows to move in.

Keeping minnows alive

Most anglers don't keep minnows long enough to worry about feeding them. Minnows do need plenty of oxygen to stay alive and lively. Perforated floating bait buckets can be dropped over the side of a boat or dock to allow a constant flow of fresh water. For solid bait buckets, a battery-powered aerator or an aerated livewell in the boat will keep bait alive all day. If you are fishing for several days, split your minnow supply among several floating bait buckets and only take a few dozen with you on each outing.

If the water warms up or if the temperature difference between your bait bucket and the water is too extreme, minnows will die from shock. On hot summer days, keep your minnows shaded and add a few ice cubes to the bait bucket to cool the water and add oxygen as the ice melts.

Collecting bait legally

Many laws regulate the collection and use of live bait. Check the state fishing regulations and trout regulations before contacting a DNR fisheries manager or conservation warden. If you intend to sell bait, then you need a dealer's license. Those younger than 16, can sell up to $500 worth per year before needing a dealer's license.

In general, individual anglers do not need a license to collect most baits for personal use, but there are exceptions. Anglers do need a fishing license to use the bait. Also, the bait laws do not regulate all the things fish will eat: worms, mature insects and leeches are not considered "bait," but minnows, frogs, insect larvae and crayfish, are.

There also are restrictions on types of equipment you can use to gather bait and limits on where collected bait can be used. For example, insect larvae cannot be removed from a trout stream, but a licensed angler can collect larvae and use them on that same stream. Unused bait cannot be released into any state waters. This rule is designed to stem the introduction of exotic species.

Damage to the environment?

It's unlikely that an angler collecting bait for his or her use would do much damage to the environment. Just use some common sense and tread lightly. At water's edge, walk the stream beds and lakeshore carefully. don't remove logs, branches or other natural debris from streambanks. don't uproot or damage aquatic plants and promptly release any game fish caught in a trap or net.

DNR fisheries expert Tim Simonson has two concerns about bait collection: "Introduction of non-native species into new habitats is our biggest fear and one of the things we have the least control over," he says. "That's one reason why it is illegal to release any unused bait into state waters. The other reason is that bait fish from out-of-state sources may have different diseases that could affect our native fish. Non-native fish usually don't have any natural predators and their populations can quickly get out of control, taking over habitat and depleting food supplies for native species and game fish.

"The other concern we have is incidental killing of nonbait species. Nets and traps attract and catch all kinds of fish and it's vitally important that anglers distinguish between forage or food fish, and endangered, threatened or game fish species. Laws require that traps and nets be tended every 24 hours and that nonbait species be released immediately."

The large-volume commercial bait collection business is regulated. Unlimited harvesting could reduce populations of natural forage fish below the level needed to sustain popular game fish species in some waters. Since we can't accurately assess forage fish populations in lakes, it's difficult to assess the populations of "bait" fish that need to remain in a lake to sustain panfish and game fish. It's equally difficult to know when bait fish have been overharvested, except in hindsight if the game fish populations start to decline.

Given a choice, fisheries managers and conservation law enforcement officers would prefer that all minnow and insects sold as bait were raised commercially under controlled conditions. While this is the case for some insect baits, leeches, and some minnow species, aquaculture and bait culture industries cannot keep up with current demand for bait. Other baits can't be raised economically compared to their natural counterparts, and still others are difficult to raise commercially at all.

Sure, it's easier to drive down to the local bait store and buy a dozen fatheads or worms, but catching your bait can be nearly as much fun as catching fish, and it will give you something to talk about if the fish simply refuse to bite.

Bait is big business

Aquaculture is the controlled raising of aquatic organisms in ponds, tanks, raceways or some form of net or pen that gives the grower control over environmental conditions. Fish raised in this way can be grown to marketable size three to four times faster than in the wild.

Wisconsin's diversified aquaculture industry raises fish for food, stocking and bait. Aquaculture in Wisconsin is a $60 million a year retail business and is growing by 20 percent a year. Bait accounts for $35,000,000 of total retail sales.

Most of Wisconsin's aquaculture businesses are small. In 1994, some 61 percent of these businesses reported less than $10,000 a year in sales and employed three or fewer people.

Aquaculture supplies some of the demand for bait fish, but a large portion is still harvested from wild populations, and this causes some concern among fish managers and conservation law enforcement officers.

[photo of minnows]
Wild harvesters use large seines that harvest game fish along with the minnows they seek.
© Robert Queen

Responsible gatherers immediately release game fish, but there is usually some accidental capture and death. Also, removing large numbers of minnows from a lake or stream reduces the natural food necessary to sustain a healthy game fish population.

When asked if aquaculture could supply all the needs of the bait and fishing industry, Tim Gollon, of Gollon Bait & Fish Farm, replied that it could... if anglers would settle on a few of the more readily available species.

"We just don't know enough about some species to raise them commercially at a price anglers would be willing to pay," Gollon said. "The emerald shiner is one of the more popular bait fish in Wisconsin, and it is totally harvested from the wild. We can raise them commercially, but we can't do it for the same cost as wild stock. One thing we can do is carefully control food, temperature and breeding to produce "improved" versions of familiar fish. We can grow them larger and faster so they will better survive in a bait bucket and be more vigorous on the hook. As anglers and bait dealers become more aware of these improved bait fish, we're hoping that demand for wild bait will diminish and ease pressure on the natural systems."

Robert Manwell writes about environmental issues and the outdoors for DNR's Communication and Education program in Madison, Wis.