My dad’s a live-bait guy. Taught to hunt and fish by a sustenance-driven father, filling a stringer was always the goal of the day. Later, it just kind of stuck with him.
My early angling forays were, therefore, built on the same principle – secure some decent bait with the intention of turning it into supper. Throughout my youth, I likely fished with just about everything a bass would ever eat. Worms (big and small), crayfish (hard and soft). Every minnow in the creek: chubs, shiners, suckers and darters. I tried hellgrammites, mudpuppies and baby bullfrogs. I remember feeling particularly sorry for the frogs as I ran a hook through their lips, but my mood always changed with the first strike.
Along with the Lake Erie walleye boom of the 1980s came a noticeable shift in my family’s diet. No longer were we putting crappies and bass in the freezer, as it was already filled to capacity with ‘eyes. The key there again, though, was good bait.
My father’s feeding and care for his nightcrawlers bordered on obsessive, however, his meticulous behavior was not without good reason. Plump, juicy nightcrawlers, kept at proper temperature, of course, outproduce their store-bought, famished brethren by leaps and bounds when placed on a weight-forward spinner, as they stay on the hook for an eternity and release far more scent.
At the time, I continued to play in local streams, always finding better ways to catch their inhabitants, and learning the intricacies of each. Creek chubs outlasted every other bait on a hook. When chased by bass, shiners swam on the surface. Suckers were best when looking for a trophy fish, and got big enough to use for muskies.
Summer vacations to western New York found us at The Bait Pond, a legendary shop that smelled perfect as you stepped in the door. The shop’s patron was one of the last true bait collectors – not to be mistaken for a bait dealer – and could be counted on to offer primo, wild-caught bass minnows.
Armed with a floating Ol’ Pal minnow bucket stuffed to the brim, each member of my family would wade around the thousands of shallow boat docks in Chautauqua Lake, pitching live suckers and chubs into the darkest reaches of the structures. Fixed boat lifts – “boat racks” as we called them – were nearly always the premier target on each dock. The number of bass my dad could wrestle from one structure always baffled me. He often limited out without moving his feet.
One day, while fishing docks with my mom, an epiphany occurred that would change my life. Fishing from a small Achilles raft (Mom wouldn’t wade), a snagged plastic worm caught my eye as we paddled by. I asked her to paddle close enough for me to retrieve the fouled lure from the dock, which she naturally did. I quickly tied the bait on, anxious to dabble in the world of artificial lures that I had begun to worship.
Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, because I had found just the lure snagged to the dock – the sliding slip sinker had long ago fallen to the bottom – the bait barely sank, making it relatively ineffective, with one exception.
Frustrated by not catching anything on my newfound love, I tried a few more casts around a dock amongst heavily matted milfoil. The especially weedy docks were never a favorite, as our livebaits would often get in the grass and tangle up. But, I figured, what the heck.
I can remember it like it was yesterday.
Mom had turned the raft, allowing me a good cast off the stern. Somehow, I shot my only lure up under the dock, where it landed on a clump of chopped milfoil gathered around a pole. A quick tug brought the bait into open water, landing softly. Slowly, barely, painstakingly, the weightless worm began descending when, from beneath the clump of grass, a giant largemouth charged and promptly inhaled it.
That night, we stopped at The Bait Pond to have my lunker officially weighed; a quick Polaroid picture taken for the bragging board. It was the first bass I had ever caught weighing over 6 pounds, and would be the biggest of our summer.
A 6-inch Mister Twister Phenom worm. Black with a red, curly firetail. The lure had been bitten down a time or two – likely about 5 inches long when I found it, and was impaled on a weedless – not Texas rig – but wire-guard hook.
That was probably about 35 years ago and since that time, I bet I’ve owned, fished with or threw away a 100,000 plastic worms. But I can see that Mister Twister like it was yesterday.
Like I said, my dad’s a bait guy, and sometimes I am, too. But that day, God showed me reason to decide for myself.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)