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What bait, mate?
  |  First Published: August 2015



I have found that the over the 30 years of writing fishing articles, we have really focused on what is in fashion at any given time.

At the moment, any fisherman will tell you it’s soft plastics, but if you go back 10, 20 or 40 years it was all about a diving hardbody lure made from wood or some sort of plastic fitted with a bib. Then there were chrome and brass lures, machined, and used to jig and troll. They have been around since the 1950s and ’60s, and are still being used today. They either had a kink in them to swim along or were dazzled up with 3-dimensional stickers to reflect the sun.

Then the new battle blades came along; they showed up about 10 years ago and gave you the option of a hole at the top end of their body to provide either a deep or shallow run.

The new way is to catch fish on poppers — seeing a fish in the shallows and hoping it will rise to the occasion and snatch the popper from the surface in an explosive display.

Well that’s great fishing in anyone’s book and all these methods work very well, and we really do have to hand it to the lure craftsmen. Taking nothing from them, they have tricked up the fishing scenario for the future and are probably saving a lot of baitfish from being taken from our waterways. The old tricks of streamcraft used in rivers, estuaries and lakes are becoming lost in the game of fishing, which really is a shame.

I know that 1 of the first things I did as a father was to teach my kids how to find and gather fresh baits, whatever the environment they were in. On the beach it was worms and pipis, off the rocks crabs, cunje or fresh green weed, then around the lakes cockles, bloodworms, trapped poddy mullet, squid, prawns or small herring and whitebait. On a river I showed them how to get shrimp, yabbies, small smelt, cicadas, and other bugs such as grasshoppers and crickets. If we were down south around the Snowies we used worms and dragonfly larvae, typically known as mudeyes. In the tropics it was a jig that caught pilchards, and there were herring also taken this way.

Nowadays I look back on what I have shown them and it has paid dividends fourfold, as the cost of fishing for our family is very low and every time I take them out they know exactly where and how to get them. They still enjoy chasing soldier crabs across the flats, shuffling for pipis, trapping small fish, or getting insects from trees and grasslands. With the baits being so natural, well the fishing has been usually very good. I really don’t think there’s anything more satisfying than collecting your own bait and then catching fish on it.

There are a few tricks with getting some of the baits. Most are related to the tide phase or what time of year it is, as there are a lot of factors that influence what you are going to catch as bait. Warm water, travelling schools of fish and current are all obstacles.

Beach

On the beach, the easiest bait to collect are pipis. On the low to about half tide rising is the best way to find them. Look for an area with shell grit or small bumps on the sand. Without shoes on, it is as simple as doing the old 50s twist or the new duck dance. As you sink your feet into the sand you will feel the shells, and a bit of digging will reveal them. Sometimes as 4WDs run over sand they push down with so much force that the area around a pipi can open up and you will see a hole that is pushing out small bubbles. This is a sure sign the shellfish is underneath.

The other beach bait, worms, aren’t as easy to get hold of. They take a bit of practice to catch, half tides are the best, and an old fish frame in a keeper net swung back and forth in the waves is the way to lure them to the surface. Once the water recedes you will see a triangle of water going back down the beach over the top of their exposed heads. A hand-held bait such as a pipi or piece of squid has to be offered to the worm to make it rise further up. Then, either by hand or with a pair of worming pliers, grab the head and hope for the best. A slow constant lift is best, as if you grab and pull too hard you will end up with just an inch-long head every time.

Rocks

Depending on where you live, it is pretty easy to get bait on the rocks. Some city platforms are completely bare and barren of bait, but out of the built-up areas bait is in great abundance. Crabs live in rock pools and on the side of rocks falling into the ocean, weed for luderick and drummer are common also. It is found all over the place as the more we pump rubbish into the water the thicker it grows, a bit like fertilising your plants at home.

Crabs should be spiked with either a long slender knife or coat hanger, as grabbing them bare handed can see some nasty bites. They can be enticed out of thin crevices with a bait of anything with an odour. Weed can be scraped off the rocks with a sharp knife and, mixed with sand and bread, can be used as berley or bait on the spot.

Cunjevoi is down around the tidal mark and can be cut off with a sharp knife, with the inner soft flesh used as bait. Always use common sense when collecting this bait, as it’s usually right in the wash zone.

Estuaries

The amount of bait in the estuaries is amazing — small mullet, whitebait, herring, cockles, bloodworms and yabbies are all fairly easy to catch.

Starting with nippers or yabbies, a lot of sandy and mud areas hold them; it’s just a matter of looking for the numerous holes on low tide. You extract them with a pump brought from your local tackle shop. The lowest of tides are the best, and the longer the pump, the better. It takes a few goes to get used to it, but getting your limit is quite easy

Bloodworms are another easy to get bait. Use your yabby pump around mud areas and look for holes.

A little more complex is trapping fish in clear plastic containers known as mullet traps. They will get a variety of bait if set in places where you see small fish in good amounts. Half tides to the rise is the time to set them, as the fish move up with the tides looking for food over the newly covered sand. They need a float with your name, phone number or boat number attached.

For bait I use bread mostly, but have seen sweet corn from a tin catch good numbers of mullet. Put some crushed up bread in the trap and a handful of crumbs around the area to attract the fish to it, wait about 10 minutes and check the trap. Make sure you cup both ends when lifting it up as they can jump out. Winter is the best time for mullet.

On mud banks, cockles are found along the shoreline. Small bumps or great amounts of white shells are the evidence that you are looking for. Simply dig them out and with a sharp knife pry them open,

Prawns and squid can be netted of a night with the aid of a light over sandy patches in the estuaries. Summer is the best time to find them. A simple net for about $5 will see you get more value from it in the amount of bait you will catch. It’s not as simple as it sounds, but with a little practice you will start seeing the eyes of prawns shine in the light and you can get them to flick up from the sand and scoop them.

Squid lay around these areas feeding on the prawns. They take off fast though, so quick reflexes are a handy tool. You can scoop them with the same net.

I suppose finding baits is rewarding, and for a fisherman that hasn’t put a lot of effort into getting his own bait, well I think he is missing out on an important part of his fishing life.

The seasons always match the bait to the fish; for instance, in winter as already mentioned, mullet are very thick, so I use the small ones to live bait bream and the odd flathead that are around. In summer you use them for flathead as the numbers of these fish move into the estuaries.

Yabbies and bloodworms are around most of the year, as are the shellfish under the sand and mud. Usually used for bream and whiting, they are a great bait. The crabs from the rocks are a great winter option for groper and morwong, the weed is a winter option for luderick and drummer, and so is the cunjevoi. Pipis are used on the beach on which they are found, mostly for whiting and bream. Just remember, you are not allowed to leave the beach with pipis, so just take what you need as the number of beaches with them still prolific is slowly dwindling.

A quick look in your state’s saltwater fishing guide booklet or website is worth doing, as different areas can have different rules. National Parks have different rules also, so a bit of check on the area you are in may save you a fine.

All in all, bait gathering can be great fun. Kids especially love it, and it gets them out of your hair while you fish. If they’re supplying you endless bait from around you, well we know that it’s going to work as it’s what the fish are feeding on.

Probably the only thing you have to worry about is standing on something such as a numb ray, stingray or jellyfish, blue bottle, or the worst, a blue ring octopus. Keep an eye out and explain these dangers to your kids.

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