Live bait is, arguably, the most effective way to catch panfish. The most commonly used live baits for panfish are:
- Crickets; and
In addition, dead, preserved minnows are often used and are included in this section. Other live baits include leeches and wax worms. A selection of various live baits is generally available at fishing supply stores. However, live minnows, because they require an elaborate equipment to keep them alive, may only be available at select locations.
Earthworms are often thought of as soon as fishing is brought up. They are excellent bait and can catch a variety of fish. Sunfish are particularly fond of earthworms; crappies are only occasionally caught on them.
It is important to keep earthworms cool and damp or they will quickly die. Dead worms are rarely effective for catching fish.
Worms are “threaded” onto a hook. Generally, the hook point needs to be covered. In some situations, the ends of the worms are left to wiggle enticingly. However, doing so may entice “bait stealers” (little fish) which may lead to lots of “nibbles” rather than hooked fish. Bait stealers are best dealt with by using smaller pieces of worms that just cover the point of the hook. In some cases, a smaller hook should be used as well.
In situations where all you are catching is small fish, it may be prudent to find a new location. This many be especially important after the spawn is over and bigger fish tend to segregate themselves into to schools of similar sized fish, move into slightly deeper water, and generally do not associate with smaller fish.
In locations where fishing for sunfish is very popular, switching to crickets for bait may lead to greater success. Most anglers use worms more often than crickets and bigger fish may become wary of worms. Giving the fish something new to eat may be just the ticket to bring home a fine meal or two.
Crickets are “threaded” on to a hook in a similar manner to worms. The hook should be inserted from the top or back side into the “collar” area behind the head and down into the body.
Live minnows will normally catch bigger sunfish, as well as crappies. However, live minnows may be difficult to keep alive. A special “minnow bucket” may be needed. If a bucket is used, make sure to change the water often, or submerge the bucket under the water, to keep the minnows alive.
The most common way to hook a live minnow is to insert the hook behind the top (dorsal) fin, making sure that it is not too deep where it may pierce the spine. They may also be hooked in front of the top fin, or up under the chin and out through the nose area. Hooks made of finer wire are generally used for live minnows because they will keep the minnow livelier and catch more fish.
Dead, preserved minnows are hooked in exactly the same manner as live minnows. Dead minnows are often impregnated with additional, fish-attracting scent that sometimes improves their effectiveness.
The most common way to present worms, crickets and minnows to fish is to suspend these baits under a bobber or float. In some cases a small weight is clamped onto the line between the hook and the bobber to keep the bait in deeper water. The bobber is clipped on to the line to adjust the depth the bait is presented to the fish.
Both live and dead minnows are also used in conjunction with a jig body. The minnow is used instead of a plastic curly-tail “grub.” When used in this manner, the minnow is hooked under the chin and out through the nose area.
Live bait from a bait shop is easy and convenient, but if you have a garden and a shovel, you can likely gather your own worms. And with a butterfly net and a small area of tall grass or weeds, you can often catch plenty of crickets, grasshoppers and other small insects that fish love.