Catch your own bait

by Jeff Gustafson | July 25, 2016
bait - nightcrawler

Photo: Bill Lindner

Editor’s note: Regulations for catching and transporting baitfish in Ontario are changing. View them by clicking here

The use of live bait by anglers in Ontario has declined over the past decade, while artificial baits have gained popularity. And, realistic looking, scent-enhanced baits sometimes work better than the real thing, especially if the bite is hot.

But there are other times when you need some real meat to catch fish. Under cold front conditions or in the face of high fishing pressure, live bait will out-fish artificial bait hands down, especially for finicky walleye, panfish, or trout.

The cost of live bait continues to rise, so being able to catch your own can save you a few bucks this summer. Here’s how you do it.

bait - leeches

Photo: Bill Lindner

Leeches can be found in most small lakes and larger beaver ponds. Catching them requires more work than minnows or nightcrawlers because you will likely set your bait set off the bank, using a canoe.

One proven method is to use folded pieces of sheet metal with a strong-scented meat, like liver, stuffed inside. Traps are usually about 30 centimetres by 30 centimetres with ¼ inch wide openings for leeches to crawl in.

Place the trap in the deeper part of the pond under a float, which can simply be a 30-centimetre piece of swimming noodle.

It’s important to check your traps first thing in the morning, as leeches hide out on the dark lake bottom once daylight hits.

Read the best ways to keep your bait alive here.

Most small ponds that don’t freeze solid over the winter will hold minnows that anglers can trap. Simply fill a minnow trap with pieces of bread and throw it away from the bank. Leave it over night and check it the next morning.

The best ponds have some water flowing through them, but it’s all about experimenting to find the spots that will trap enough minnows to fish with.

Suckers and Shiners
In the spring, white suckers and shiners run up any kind of small creek or river they can access to spawn. If the creek is small enough, a dip net is all you need to catch these baitfish.

In northwest Ontario we freeze suckers and use them when ice fishing for lake trout and pike. We freeze the shiners as well and use them for ice fishing walleye.

The spring window to catch these baitfish only lasts a week or two, within a few weeks of the ice going out, so watch for them to start showing up.

bait - catching nightcrawler

Photo: Bill Lindner

Nightcrawlers get their name because they like to show themselves at night. I don’t know what it takes for a grassy lawn to be prime habitat for nightcrawlers, but I do know some are much better than others.

Head out in the evening just after dark, following a rain or even a couple of hours of running a sprinkler. With some luck, you’ll be able to fill a bucket with nightcrawlers.

Take a flashlight and sneak along, quickly grabbing at nightcrawlers that squirm up above the ground. Be warned, they are quick! Grab them as close to the ground as possible so you don’t rip them in half. Walleyes, look out!

Live bait regulations:
Anglers should know that while they are allowed to catch their own bait, there are a few regulations they need to know about.

  • Anglers cannot have in their possession more than 120 baitfish, 120 leeches, 36 crayfish or 12 leopard frogs.
  • Anglers can only use one leech trap at a time and it cannot be greater than 45 centimetres in any dimension. The trap must be clearly marked with the licence holder’s name.
  • Live baitfish cannot be released into any body of water or within 30 metres of any body of water.
  • An angler can only use one minnow trap at a time and it cannot be greater than 51 centimetres long or 31 centimetres wide.

For more on regulations visit the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry fishing regulations at:

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  1. Don wrote: Does a minnow trap need to be marked with the licence holder’s name?
    • Meghan Sutherland wrote: Yes, you need to have your name on the trap, as well as possess a fishing license. For more information on fishing with live bait, see this link:
    • Jason Bain wrote: Here is a response from the MNRF, Don. "Yes, when used for recreational fishing they must be clearly marked with the licence holder’s name and address. Suckers and lake herring are the only baitfish that non-residents with a recreational fishing licence may capture using a minnow trap."
  2. Kevin wrote: You mention leaving the trap in the water overnight. The Ontario Fishery Regulations say minnow trap can only be used during daylight hours only. Wondering if I am misunderstanding your statement? "Minnows Most small ponds that don’t freeze solid over the winter will hold minnows that anglers can trap. Simply fill a minnow trap with pieces of bread and throw it away from the bank. Leave it overnight and check it the next morning."
    • Alesha Howran wrote: If you review the Ontario Recreation Fishing Regulations Summary Page 16 under the "Baitfish" heading it states the following: • One baitfish trap no more than 51 cm long and 31 cm wide can be used day or night. Baitfish traps must be clearly marked with the licence holder’s name and address. • One dip-net no more than 183 cm on each side if angular or 183 cm across if circular, during daylight hours only (after sunrise and before sunset).