As a child growing up in Southeast Missouri, 15 miles from the original “Throwed Rolls” at Lambert’s Cafe in Sikeston, I’d ride my bike five miles to the Maple Slough Creek to fish.

Using my trusty Cub Scout tools, I would cut a fresh willow limb “cane” pole, dig some fat red worms from the creek bank or chase down and hand grab some big juicy grasshoppers from a nearby weed patch and go fishing. 

I brought my own kite string fishing line with a fishing hook I’d secretly liberated from my dad’s tackle box. I would catch a real mixed bag stringer full of panfish, bream, sunfish, small bass and the occasional catfish. 

This is how kids in the country learned to fish back in the day.

I never had use of a bobber, a jig, spinnerbait, crankbait, spoon, Bomber or, for that matter, a rod and reel. Anything that resembled actual fishing tackle remained locked up inside dad’s padlocked storage cabinet.

My friends and I made do just the same. 

Up until the age of 15 when I finally got my first Zebco rod and reel and some bona fide plastic fishing lures inside an aluminum tackle box — that I still own — for Christmas, I had no real fishing gear. If not for natural baits available and natural ingenuity to create homemade fishing tackle, I might never have learned to catch a fish.

All these years later, natural baits are still among the best ever lure for catching fish. 


Why natural baits?

There are all kinds of real natural fish baits available in the world around us and none of them look or feel much like cork, fiberglass, or plastic. Maybe that’s why they work so well in fooling fish into snagging their lips on a worm- or minnow-loaded fish hook. 

But why bother using such slimy, smelly, icky baits?

Well, besides the simple fact that fish normally feed on live baits in their natural environments, there is a pure cost factor involved. 

Fishermen rarely consider the economics of using natural bait, but it is sure easier to rationalize than shelling out $10 or more for a fabricated, factory-molded plastic copy of a living organism with an attached hook. One needs only to do simple price comparisons between a box of fresh living crickets or a tub of night crawler worms against man-made lures lined up at the big box sporting goods store. 

Then think about the cost involved every time you hang one of those expensive lures on a submerged snag or on an overhanging tree where it can’t be retrieved. It can happen on the first cast. 

If you lose a hook with a worm or a grasshopper on it, the cost to your pocketbook is minimal. Just tie on a new hook then thread on another worm and start over. 

The pain of losing a natural bait is negligible. A crappie nibbles off a silver shiner, so what. There’s usually a whole minnow bucket full of them in the boat. 

Now think of natural fishing baits in these terms. Would you rather eat a really juicy cheeseburger or a tofu patty on a rice cake? That’s what I thought, and it makes sense fish have the same preference. 

Fish feed on natural baits every single day, so going all natural could make a positive difference in your fishing successes. 

All else being equal, natural baits offer a number of positive advantages for catching all kinds of different fish. Accordingly, here is a rundown on a selection of the most currently used natural fishing baits.


Cut bait

It might seem odd to catch fish with fish, but it is a time-honored angling tactic, especially for catfish.

“When I first learned to fish back in the dark ages, we would take small shad or other lake fish we could catch in a hoop net, then scale them if needed, and filet small pieces of the fish into little strips or squares,” said long-time angler Alvis Newton. “It didn’t take a really big piece, so we got half a dozen useable baits out of one bait fish.

“Cut bait was easy to hook up and easy to fish with. Just keep the strips fresh in a coffee or bean can full of water just to maintain bait moisture. If they dry out, they become useless. There is no motion of course to the bait, but that really does not matter. Sometimes we use a plastic float bobber and some wave action will make the sinker weight and baited hook jig a bit at the bottom of the line.”

Fish rely on scent for feeding, Newton said.

“The real advantage to a piece of cut shad or even a small white perch is the fish scent in the water from the cut bait,” he said. “These pieces of cut bait can be sprayed with a commercial bait scent, too, but we usually don’t bother with the fuss of that.” 


Grubs and mealworms

Ever turn over a nearly rotted log to find a handful of white chubby grubs crawling around?

These worms are some of the most prime natural fishing baits available. They are great for catching catfish, bream and crappie, and it’s on a bass’ diet, too.

Grubs or mealworms can’t always be found at bait shops, so never pass up a chance to turn over an old log to search for some grubs. They can be kept fresh for quite a while in a can or bucket with some of the same dirt and particulate matter found under the log. Thread one on a good sharp barbed hook and go to town. 


Minnows

Longtime crappie angler Kenneth Woods has made many stops at bait shops around the state to buy minnows.

“When we used to fish big lakes like the state reservoirs or state lakes for crappie, we would stop in at the local bait shop for two to three dozen shiners, as we used to call them,” Woods said, referring to minnows, small fish that are traditionally among the best all-around natural baits. “Crappie especially hit really well on live action minnows.” 

Minnows are usually available at bait shops located around any sizeable fishing lake. They are fairly inexpensive, so get a couple dozen for sure, even if you are mainly a jig fisherman. There are times that a jig, tipped with a minnow, will work better than either one does separately. 

The difficult part of minnow fishing is keeping them alive. If your boat does not have a live well, either use a floating minnow box that you can tie to a boat cleat, or get an aerated minnow buck. There are several good batter-powered aerators on the market.

The second most difficult part is choosing the right minnow.

“You will often find bait shops have minnows in two or three different sizes, but I have generally found greater fishing success with smaller minnows rather than the giant sized ones,” Woods said. “Large slab crappie may be able to get their mouth around the big minnows, but I know for sure they can gulp in the smaller variety in a jiffy.” 

Minnows can be hooked up in different ways depending on angler preference. They can be hooked up through the jaw, across the middle of the back, or in the tail area. The idea is to allow the minnow to swim as naturally as possible since the movement action of a minnow is its greatest attraction feature to fish you want to catch. 

Check minnows often for signs of life and replace them immediately if expired. It is not unusual for a hungry crappie to steal your minnow right off the hook without notice so constantly monitor your tight line or bobber. 


Native insects

Using insects native to your fishing area is a smart strategy. This includes ants, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets and caterpillars. 

One of the most preferred baits in Mississippi is the catalpa (also catawba) worm. The black and yellow creepy crawlies make a super natural fish bait. They are the caterpillar stage of the Sphinx moth. They hatch on the backside of catalpa leaves and spend about three weeks going from leaf to leaf, feeding.

Because of their strong skin, catalpas are valued by fishermen, who know they can catch more than one fish per piece of worm. One popular method of fishing catalpas is to cut a piece, and roll it up on a hook inside out. It exposes the fleshy, scent-filled underside that attracts fish.

Collect and use them quickly though, because catalpas only live three weeks in trees and they don’t do well in captivity. Frozen catalpas are good, too.

Perhaps the most popular live baits are crickets, and they can be found at local bait shops and even in big box stores. Hook them through the middle section, and as suggest for fishing with minnows, check crickets regularly for signs of life.

Crickets make fine bait for catching spring bream, and all of the sunfish family of smaller fish. But all the popular species, crappie, catfish and bass, will not pass up a cricket with its legs kicking wildly on a hook.

Another reason crickets are popular is the “yuck” factor. Most people prefer touching crickets to slimy worms.


Worms

But, who has not fished with worms?

Basically any kind of worm will work, too, simply threaded from the tip of the hook all the way up the shaft to the eye. They can be wrapped around the hook, as long as the hook penetrates the body enough times to keep it in place. 

Anglers can buy worms at bait shops or easily enough dig for them. Try turning over a few shovels of dirt in the vegetable garden or a yard bed that has stayed damp and shaded. Put them in a can with dirt from where they were dug, and you will find they are fine bait for just about any freshwater fish. 

There are many other kinds of natural baits available as well. Consider eels, mussels, leeches, clams and crayfish, but nothing can beat the options mentioned above. 

Catching a nice fish on a natural bait takes one back to their first childhood fishing experiences. Landing one good crappie or a bream with a worm or grasshopper beckons me back to the Maple Slough. 

Maybe it will refresh your memories, too.