"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Parade of Natural Baits is Endless
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Scifres

When streams and rivers are low in summer, the small army of anglers who ply their trade on such waters think of natural baits. 

The parade of natural baits is endless--and as diverse as Heinz soups and sparrows. The land is literally crawling with natural baits at this time of year, and most of the “crawlers” (not to mention the “hoppers” and “fliers”) will take fish. Fish--most species of fish, it seems--will hit anything that moves, and some things that don’t move. Take, for example, a couple of fishing success stories I heard in the past.

One youngster nailed a huge northern pike on a chunk of hotdog he did not wolf down at a family picnic, and I once heard of carp sucking up ripe mulberries from a tree that sprangled over a small lake.

But the natural bait most sought by anglers in these early weeks of summer are hellgrammites, larval stage of the dobsonfly, and catalpa worms, larval stage of the Catalpa Sphinx, a cousin at least of the moth family.

Both hellgrammites and catalpa worms are very good bait through the warm months of the year, but they are as different as day and night. The former is an aquatic dweller, while the life cycle of the latter develops on the underside of the leaves of some catalpa trees.

I say some catalpa trees because many trees of the species are never infested by the worms that can denude a tree of its foliage.

The chemistry of a tree must be just right to be targeted by the adult insect which deposits its eggs on the underside of leaves where it spends most of its larval days, feeding on the leaves almost always from the underside.

Catalpa worms bury themselves in the earth and pupate, to return as adults the following year--or a year thereafter--nature’s way of perpetuating the species.

Collecting catalpa worms for bait is easy if the limbs of an infected tree are low. They simply are picked off the bottom side of the leaves and stored in a container with a top (I like a two-pound coffee can with plastic top). A culture of green catalpa leaves keep the worms happy.  Store the can in a cool place, even a frig . . . but don’t freeze them.

If leaves are out of reach, a light, long pole (a cane fishing pole is ideal) will dislodge the worms. And if worse comes to worse, I spread a bed sheet or tarp on the ground below the tree and shake the tree vigorously. (Note: If you use a bed sheet and your wife finds out about it, I will deny ever suggesting such a distasteful thing.) But it will work and the worms do not mess up a sheet badly.

Catalpa worms can be fished in many ways, but I find them most attractive to the sunfish set by simply hooking them just behind the head (they are pretty durable) and allow them to trail from the hook as I fish them slowly (at varying depths) like a slow-moving artificial lure. For catfish, white perch (freshwater drum), I gob them on the hook (hook them several times to form a gob), and fish them on the bottom.

Hellgrammites usually will be found on the underside of rocks on riffles of streams. But they also will bury themselves in loose gravel or sand bars that are inundated by fast, shallow water.

A lone angler can catch hellgrammites by standing at the downstream side of a rock and gently tilting the rock backward. This tends to use the current to hold the mites against the rock and they can be grasped by thumb and index finger just behind the head. The pincers (pinchers) on a hellgrammite’s head is not a menace, but I have seen them draw blood.

If there are three or more members of a bait-catching party, two of the party can anchor the ends of a minnow seine across fast water while the other members of the party do a “hellgrammite dance” above the seine to dislodge mites wit their feet) and allow the current to wash them into the seine. A “D” net on a long pole (legal in most states, including Indiana) will work well for a lone angler.

The coffee can, with nail holes in the bottom to allow water to escape, also is a good container for hellgrammites and other aquatic larva the angler may want to try. I use wet decaying leaves for a culture. 

With their tough, leather-like skin, hellgrammites are very durable when hooked lightly under the hard, collar just behind the head. By starting the hook point under the front side of the collar on the back and bringing it out at the back side of the collar, the hellgrammite will trail the hook and do all kinds of gyrations to attract many species of fish--notably rock bass and smallmouth.

I like to fish them around natural obstructions on fast water, but they ill take fish any place you put them.

One time many years ago while wade-fishing a riffle of the southern Blue River with natives Dick Lambert and Joel Ponder, the latter broke out in laughter and told me to come and see something interesting. 

He was holding a nice goggle-eye. The fish was not hooked, but the hellgrammite bait had "hooked" it with its pinchers.

Click thumbnail image to see enlarged view.

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Hellgrammites come in many sizes . . . two to three incher seem to be best for bait. A blanket spread beneath an infested tree will catch catalpa worms dislodged with a long pole or shaken from the tree. This big catalpa is feasting on a catalpa leaf . . . worms are often more than three inches long and more than a quarter of an inch in diameter . . . all sizes take fish.

All columns, essays, and photos are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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