Does frozen bait work? Is fresh bait better? Can I collect and freeze my own? These and many other queries are raised by anglers as they peruse the bait freezer. For experienced anglers frozen bait may be far from a mystery but there are quite a few who are unsure about it.
This article is directed at those who approach the bait freezer with uncertainty.
The story so far…
Up until mid-last century it was possible to source various live and fresh baits from tackle shops. However, many anglers did not have a shop nearby or the money to spend on bait, so they gathered their own. This was an integral part of fishing.
Bait was used on the same day or soon after. Most home ice chests or freezers were too small to store a large quantity of bait in. Older folk will tell you that it has only been in the last fifty years or so that homes have acquired the freezer capacity to store a block of pillies or several mullet.
By the 1970s freezers made stocking frozen bait feasible at tackle stores and other outlets and anglers started to buy bait before they went off to fish. At the same time freezers become a common household item and the ability to store bait was now possible for many anglers.
As demand for frozen bait in both ready-to-use and bulk quantities increased some companies specialised in harvesting and packaging a variety of baits for sale to the public as well as tackle retailers and the professional fishing industry.
Today, most of us take frozen bait for granted. Grabbing a couple of blocks of pillies is as easy as stopping at a “servo” or
tackle store. In previous decades anglers going on a trip would take bait in eskies filled with dry ice. Today portable fridges can keep bait frozen indefinitely.
What’s in the bait freezer?
Today, the range of frozen baits is extensive. The WA pilchard has been one of the great success stories. These little fish are trawled offshore, and stocks remain plentiful. Despite high oil content, pillies freeze well and are attractive to a wide range of species. They are used regularly both as bait and berley.
Squid and prawns remain two of the most popular bait choices and both remain a “go to” bait for many anglers. You can also find mullet (whole, fillet or gut), pippies, beach worms, and a variety of small baitfish. Whitebait, blue bait, frogmouth and white pilchards and garfish are commonly available.
In some outlets, sauries, “scallies” (large scad), bonito and some tuna varieties are also on hand. Is it fresh?
Frozen is not fresh and the freezing process does disrupt the structure of the organism. However, most companies freeze bait soon after capture making it the next best thing to a fresh bait.
Problems occur where bait has deteriorated before freezing or when the product partially defrosts. In some cases, bait is re-frozen, so the deterioration goes unnoticed. When defrosted for use, the product is often soft, smells strongly and makes poor bait. Unless it has been flooding and food is scarce, many fish will reject these options.
Degraded bait can be hard to pick. Darkening in prawns and a strong smell despite being frozen are signs the product is inferior. The high oil content in many baits also causes a gradual decline in quality even though it remains frozen. This is because the oil never freezes fully and eventually goes rancid. Freezer burn is also an issue in some products. This occurs when bait is insufficiently shielded from the chilled air. Direct contact reduces moisture content making the bait tough, dry and less appealing than in its live or fresh form.
There is no “use by” date for bait so while freezing preserves it for a considerable period, time will eventually degrade the product.
The convenience and usefulness of this product has been occasionally overshadowed by the stigma associated with using commercially sourced frozen bait. Over the years, it has been linked with less skilled or entry level anglers or “meat” fishing. The reality here is that all the best anglers I know use frozen bait where it is suitable for the job. Many crabbers regularly buy frozen whole mullet while plenty of tailor anglers rely on pilchards.
If frozen bait is how a mum gets the kids fishing, or how a group of mates spend a few hours on a weekend then how can this be a bad thing? The final word should go to the angler who catches a trophy on a bait prawn or strip of store-bought squid. This happens more often than many might think.
The price of convenience…
Up until recently, it was possible to buy live blood worms, prawns, fresh luderick weed and live shellfish at some tackle stores. These outlets relied on gatherers supplying fresh and live bait regularly. In store, the staff were skilled at keeping bait alive. These places featured bubbling aquariums and trays full of the sort of amazing bait only those who gather their own see today.
Sadly, the live bait outlet is nearly extinct.
A few backyard operations with a hand drawn “Worms” sign out the front cling on but fisheries regulations on bait gathering and bag limits make this enterprise illegal in many states.
Frozen bait makes the requirement to gather your own unnecessary. This is great for the time-poor angler. However, anyone who has gathered bait will tell you it’s almost more fun than fishing. When I was young, I was always taken bait gathering. Taking kids on these trips is exciting and they can learn valuable lessons.
Pumping nippers, trapping poddy mullet, trolling up tailor and “horsies” (bonito) for mackerel baits or small queenies for teasers teaches you heaps and can also be very enjoyable. Knowing you have a bucket of live beach worms or some fresh mullet fillets generates a level of confidence no packet of frozen bait can match.
Then there is the art of bait keeping. In the days when freezers were only for food, many anglers had sophisticated bait “life-support systems” that kept nippers, yabbies, blood worms or small bait fish alive and healthy. Many waterfront and holiday shacks had sheds complete with fish tanks and aerators endlessly humming away.
Even green weed and cabbage from the ocean rocks can be kept fresh and usable for considerable periods. My father gathered green weed in times of plenty then placed some in plastic bags in the crisper. Some was left in a saltwater tank where it survived and even grew for a few weeks.
Keeping bait is a dying art, but even fewer anglers are familiar with preserving it. Pickles and brines were used before freezers were common. Fillets left in salt-brine will last for weeks and still catch fish.
Pickling was the other popular preservation method and there were a variety of techniques used. Pickled beach worms were quite common a few decades ago. Fresh worms were dropped into a bath of diluted methylated spirits, let soak for a few minutes then placed in containers in a cool dry place. Some added a dash of red food dye to increase the worm’s appeal. These preservations skills are not widely seen today, and many anglers are unaware of them.
The loss of the live bait shop and the skills associated with bait gathering and bait preserving cannot be entirely blamed on the emergence and popularity of frozen bait. The first method is messy, unreliable, requires knowledge and effort and may be illegal while the second is efficient, widely accepted, convenient, relatively clean and nearly always available.
Frozen bait is convenient. From a retailer’s perspective it is easy to deal with and reduces waste, mess and the need for elaborate bait support systems. The effect of weather and supply is buffered by on-hand stock although shortages still occur.
Frozen bait can make using what limited time you have more enjoyable and productive. For many anglers gathering bait is not a realistic proposition because productive areas are too far away, it is illegal, or the resource has been exhausted. Try finding a pippy or beach worm on many suburban beaches!
Unlike our grandparents who couldn’t buy frozen we have a choice.
Which bait is right?
Many inexperienced anglers stare into the glass top freezer and wonder which packet to pick. Clearly it helps to know the food preferences of your target. Trying to explain the relationship between the fish, bait, hook size and rig is too technical for many entry level anglers.
Here are a few tips.
Worms (beach or blood) catch most estuary fish. Use short sections on fine-wire medium shank hooks in #2-4.
Mullet in strip form will attract many species including bream, snapper, jacks, tailor, salmon and flathead. Pin the strip onto a hook once so it looks like a fat eel with a hook through its head. (Scale before filleting as mullet have big hard scales that will hinder a hook-up).
Smaller baitfish like whitebait are best placed on a small gang of hooks because they are soft and hard to keep on a single hook.
Pilchards are best used on a gang of hooks. You can also carefully fillet them and place the folded fillet on a single hook and secure with a half-hitch (a deadly bait).
Peel bait prawns and thread onto a hook from the tail through the body so the prawn is straight, not bent in a “U”. They can
also be pealed to make them more acceptable to fish.
The demise of the live bait shop is a sad loss for fishermen. The skills required to catch or gather fresh bait are also in decline. Restrictions on locations, bag limits and
other problems can make gathering your own bait problematic.
There are still opportunities for a keen angler to gather and preserve bait as well as utilise frozen options. If you haven’t done this before it is well worth investigating and I bet you will have fun.
Frozen bait is a convenient and readily available alternate. There is a wide choice, and it works well if used by those who understand its limitations. Try to get “fresh frozen” from a source with high turnover. Avoid old, dark coloured or smelly options. Match the bait to the fish and use a suitable rig. Good tackle shops will help you with this process.