No doubt several (if not many) of you have a plaque, sign or t-shirt somewhere in your possession adorned with the phrase “Fisherman never die …. They just smell that way.” I have a theory that the motivation for this long-standing quip came from the marital partner of some guy that had not a clue how to keep his bait fresh on hot summer days. Few things in life offend the olfactory senses like a bucket of dead and over-heated minnows or a container of half-boiled leeches. It’s even still amazing to me how a seemingly solid creature like a nightcrawler can be transformed to pure liquid muck when it’s been left in the heat too long.
The simple fact is that walleye anglers do some of their best work in the summer months with the aid of live bait, and bait can be a spendy accessory if you’re forced to purchase a new supply well before the original cache is used up.
That’s why it only makes economical sense when planning a long weekend of fishing or trying to keep bait through the season, to buy in bulk. All it takes are a few simple steps to keep that bait fresh and lively even during summer’s hottest days.
As a professional walleye angler I buy a lot of bait in the summer, and have learned a thing or two about keeping it for extended periods. Basically I separate my bait care into two categories … bulk bait, and “at hand” bait. That’s important to think about, because you need systems to properly care for both. Let’s start with crawlers. Buying nightcrawlers by the flat can be a very efficient and economical way to go, provided you take care of them. The first step is to give your crawlers a good environment. Bait habitat systems designed to hold several dozen crawlers are not that expensive, and a quality worm bedding material will go a long way to keep the worms fresh and happy. For long-term storage, the container can be stored in a cool corner of the basement, or if you have access to a fridge, that’s a great way to keep the little critters cool and happy. Just don’t plan on using the refrigerator in the kitchen unless you’re single … or would like to be.
When its time to hit the water, a smaller worm habitat, or small cooler works great for hauling a few dozen crawlers. Keep the container on ice, but take care not to allow melting ice to soak the worm bedding. If your crawlers get too wet, they won’t be any good to you after that day. Storing the bait container in a cooler with a couple gallon jugs of frozen water is one good way to keep the worms and the water separated. The one exception to the “don’t soak your crawlers” rule is when you want to “condition” a few crawlers before putting them on your hook. This is a trick many anglers use to ensure the worms they use are lively and plump. Simply keep a small cooler handy with a couple handfuls of ice in the bottom. Drop three or four crawlers directly on the ice, and in a short time, those babies will be squirming like crazy and plump as a bratwurst. At the end of the day, any crawlers left in the ice water should be discarded, as they will die if returned to the bedding and contaminate the rest of your stash.
If you buy leeches in bulk, keeping these little beauties cold is the key for long-term storage. Stored in a cooler in the fridge (again, not the one in the kitchen) and kept at a temp of about at 35 to 40 degrees keeps their metabolism down and makes long-term storage much easier. When it’s time to go fishing, my favorite method of carrying leeches is to toss a few dozen in a small mesh bag like a Leech Tamer, and drop that in the boat’s livewell or baitwell. This allows the leeches to warm up and get conditioned to the lake’s water temp before they’re put on a hook.
Storing minnows can be a bit more of a chore than the other baits mentioned, because keeping them cool as well as oxygenated is crucial. That’s why I don’t typically bulk-up on minnows for extended periods of time. Unless you’re equipped with large aerated tanks, it’s not really worth it. However, a large cooler fitted with a portable aerator or even an aquarium pump, can keep a good supply of minnows alive and kicking for a week-long fishing trip with little trouble. Just be sure to add a little ice to the water periodically to keep the water cool. You’ve got to be careful however … cool them down too much too fast, and all you’ll have is chum. I actually store a tournament’s worth of minnows onboard my boat, utilizing an oxygen generator that’s hooked into my livewell system. The system is designed to help keep my day’s catch alive until weigh-in, but it does a great job for bait storage as well. The beauty of an oxygen generator is that it doesn’t warm the water like many recirculators and aerators do, so I don’t need to add ice nearly as much. For the “at hand” supply, many modern fishing boats are equipped with baitwells that make short-term storage convenient and easy, or a small bait bucket will easily do the trick, especially one of those fitted with either a 12 volt or battery operatated aerator.
Don’t be the angler that comes home smelling of foul bait … better to walk through the door wafting of the aroma of freshly caught walleye. Good bait will absolutely help you catch more fish … and less flack from your loved ones.