Bait Rigs that Catch Fish

By Ben Leal

If you were to go out and ask a dozen anglers what their favorite live bait rig is for any number of species you’ll likely get a dozen different answers. Now it may not be a dozen different baits, but certainly a variety of ways to rig those said baits. Let’s explore some of the more popular rigs and some that well, maybe this angler prefers.

As youngsters we were all enthralled by the fact that hungry bluegill would take a tiny piece of a worm and inhale it, offering us hours of fish catching fun. For many, live bait is the only way to will fish. Minnow’s, nightcrawlers, wax worms, spikes (maggots), leeches and crickets makeup but just a few of the types of live baits anglers will use. Nothing tempts fish to strike faster than fresh natural bait.

It’s hard to say, but I would bet that the minnows are high on the list for live bait. Anglers will use minnows for several species of fish here in Iowa and topping that list would be crappie and walleye, especially early spring fishing. Bluegill and catfish will follow close behind. Bass, northern pike and musky will also take your minnow offering. However, these are typically accidental catches, not bad catches, just accidental. Unless that is if you’re prepared for toothy critters, then its game on!

So what are the best ways to rig a minnow? Quite frankly one of the simplest ways to rig a minnow is using a minnow hook and bobber. This basic rig has landed thousands of fish throughout the years all across the country. One of the hardest things to do when fishing with minnows, or any live bait for that matter, is setting the hook too soon. Fish often will have only a part of the bait in their mouth as the bobber moves or sinks, setting the hook too soon only pulls the bait from their mouths. Give it a couple of seconds and then set the hook.

For the hook and bobber rig, you have a couple of options; one is to hook the minnow just below the dorsal fin and back. This keeps the bait lively for quite some time and will allow the minnow to swim around a bit. The second common way to rig a minnow is to slide the hook through the eye sockets or lips. Your bait can swim around a bit but not quite as freely as the first method.

Jig & Minnow
This is a very popular method for targeting walleye and one that I’ve used quite a bit. There are a couple of ways to thread a minnow onto a jig; one is to slide the hook up and through the minnows lips. This is great for vertical presentation when jigging for suspended walleye. This lure and bait combination may not be the very best for casting and retrieving, though it does work.

Another method for rigging a minnow on a jig is to slide the hook through the gills, turn the hook and penetrate just below the dorsal fin. You’re not looking for the minnow to swim or add any action to the jig, and the minnow will stay on longer. This rig really triggers the walleye’s sense of smell and is a great method for cloudy or stained water. This option works best if you plan on casting and retrieving your jig. You can also troll a jig and minnow by using a three-way swivel and is best used when targeting fish that are deep.

Growing up, my Dad used to buy worms every time we went fishing. We spent a ton of time out on New Mexico Rivers chasing rainbow trout in mountain streams. For my Dad, the small trout worms that were sold locally were his go-to bait. As I’ve broadened my angling experiences to include walleye, nightcrawlers have become frequent passengers in my boat.

Worm Harness
For many, the worm harness is the best way to go for walleye. I know anglers that spend winter hours tying these harnesses in preparation for the walleye season. Whether you build your own or purchase those that are already made, it’s important to have a good selection of blade colors and sizes. There are a couple of essential factors when fishing your harnesses. The first consideration is the diver or weight system you’re going to use and the second is the blade color and size.

The diver weight is critical since this will determine the depth you’re trolling the harness and ultimately the goal is to get down to where the fish are feeding. The color, size, and shape of the blade are also important. Try to match the color of the primary forage that the fish are feeding on. True…we are using worms; a color that matches the forage will aid the fish in finding your harness. Add the scent trail of the nightcrawler that’s pinned to the hooks and you’ve got a deadly combination.

Let’s talk about color here for a minute. Like any animal that has good color vision, walleye have two types of color discriminating cells called Rods and Cones. Walleye lack the blue and yellow cells which means walleye can see all colors as some shade of red or green. Watercolor and depth can change the way a lure appears to the fish. No rule says one color will work for all bodies of water; each will differ based on water clarity and depth. Red, for example, has the longest color wavelength is usually the first to disappear, visible to about 15 to 20 feet. Orange remains visible down to approximately 40 feet, yellow to 70. Blue and green are visible as far as light can penetrate.

So, why the lesson in eye anatomy and colors you ask? It’s important to take water clarity, depth your fishing and the forage that walleye are feeding on when choosing your harness colors. You’ll have to experiment a bit to find the right combination, but if you’ve got active fish, it won’t take long for them to tell you what color they are keying on.

Let’s back up a bit and add minnows to this equation too. I’ve been out on the boat and had more minnows than worms. Sliding the hook through the minnow’s eye socket, two of them since you’ve got two hooks, and trolling as you would with a nightcrawler has resulted in success as well. The occasional northern pike seems to react to the minnow bait more than crawlers, but either way, you’re bound to find cooperative fish.

Slow Death
I was introduced to this method of trolling for walleyes quite a few years ago and truly embraced this technique for two reasons, it was easy to set up and it catches fish! The hook was developed by Mustad ® and designed and tested on the Walleye Tournament Trail. It was a big secret for about six or seven years before it was finally released in 2009. It is an Aberdeen hook that was especially bent to create amazing action and spin with a portion of a crawler threaded on to the hook.

This unique bend allows the worm to slowly roll as you troll or drift. Nothing fancy but the rig works very well.

Snap-on a Slow Death Rig to the swivel end of the bottom-bouncer.  Thread half a nightcrawler all the way up the hook shank, over the hook eye, leaving approximately 1/2” of crawler dangling off the end of the hook. A best practice is to lower the rig just below the surface of the water and check it as you are moving forward at trolling speed. The natural spin will tell you you’ve got the worm and hook set correctly. This truly is a “slow death” rig and is incredibly effective at catching walleye.

Both the traditional and slow death worm rig use bottom bouncers, weight dependent on depth and speed your trolling. Tie on a bottom-bouncer sinker to your mainline.  Rule-of-thumb is 1 oz of lead for every 10 feet of water

Wax Worms & Spikes
These two baits are typically an ice fishing preference. But when you’re chasing after bluegill or crappie these are two go-to baits. Easy to handle and thread onto a hook and great for youngsters that are just learning how to bait their hooks (but Dad, keep an eye on the kiddos, you don’t want to explain to Mom how junior got impaled by a hook at day’s end).

Rigging these baits are pretty simple, hook and bobber. If you’re an ice head and have quite a few ice fishing jigs, tie on a small jig tipped with a wax worm or spike and hang that under your bobber, the added color will help attract fish. You’ll even get the occasional bonus bass when using a jig!

One of my very first trips to northern waters after moving to Iowa introduced me to northern pike and leeches. I had never hooked and landed a pike nor had I ever seen or used leeches for bait. It was an eye-opening experience and proved to be incredibly successful.

Like minnow’s, you can purchase leeches in a variety of sizes, from small to jumbo. Use light lines and small hooks to allow leeches to freely swim. Hook the leech in the suction cup end; this is the foot of the leech and not the head. It will swim away from the hook as it tries to free itself creating great fish luring action, rather than ball up.

Leeches can be suspended under bobbers for panfish with a small hook and split shot. You can also target walleye with a hook and bobber if you have a pretty good idea of where they’re staging looking for an evening meal. Slip bobbers are a better option for that type of presentation. Getting the correct depth is essential. Trolling leeches with a live bait rig will garner results; however, your presentation should be slow. These can be rigged on spinner rigs much like a worm harness though you’re only using a single hook.

Take Care of your Bait
One of the issues that we as anglers have is keeping bait lively and healthy as we fish throughout the day. It’s best to keep all your live baits cool, down to around 50 deg. For leeches, place your containers in a cooler with ice and clean clear water. Placing your leeches in a leech bag in your Livewell is also an option and allows the leeches to acclimate to the lake water temperature.

For minnows place them in an insulated aerated bucket for transport from the bait shop to your fishing destination. A flow troll minnow bucket will keep the minnows lively throughout the day. I have a minnow bucket that is custom fit to my Livewell and serves the same purpose by keeping freshwater moving through the minnows all day long. If you plan on keeping minnow for a few days, keep them cool to about 50 degrees as well.

Like minnows and leeches, nightcrawlers also need cool storage. If you plan on keeping them for a long time make sure you have moist bedding and food. You can keep nightcrawlers almost indefinitely. If you’re up for an adventure, step outside after an evening rainstorm and collect your own. Use a red filtered light so you don’t spook the crawlers. Pick them up off the ground and gently pull till they release from their holes.

Use Your Imagination
We’ve but scratched the surface when it comes to some live bait rigs that are used for Iowa’s game fish. There is literally an endless variety of rigs that are out there. “Necessity is the Mother of invention”. No truer words can be said when it comes to this great sport of fishing. There is no doubt that the next great “rig” is out there and comes when an angler just decides that “this” way will work better.

Remember to take your kids fishing, teach them how to handle, catch, photo and release those trophy fish. For kids, their first fish is a trophy, make sure you have them hold the fish close to the camera…their friends will be amazed! Take care of the resources we have, teach them to become good stewards by setting the example. Tight Lines All!