It’s an Offseason Obligation
By Charlie Harder
About a half hour before the sun made its daily appearance, I had already finished my second mug of coffee and was heading to the barn to grab a couple of fishing poles and some nightcrawlers. I finally had a free weekend to catch up on some recreation — kind of.
Although I enjoy fishing in the offseason, the targeted fish on this trip were carp and freshwater drum (sheepshead). There are some folks who target these rough-fish species for table fare, but I was after them for a different reason. I wanted to get started making bait for the upcoming trapping season. I’m fortunate enough to live along a river that has a healthy population of catfish, carp and sheepshead, and after the spring run of catfish has run its course and I’ve had my fill, I shift my attention to the other two.
Carp and Sheepshead
Although there are a multitude of options for bait on the trapline, I like using carp and sheepshead for raccoons and mink. There are a few reasons. First and foremost, there’s an abundance of both where I live. With nothing more than a few hours of time and a large container of worms, I can typically catch enough fish in half a day to stock my bait supply for the waterline for an entire season — and have fun doing it. I usually pick worms from the ground, saving me some expenses.
Another reason I like using these fish for bait is that they are already a staple to the diets of mink and ’coons. An additional positive is the appearance of these fish, especially the sheepshead. The shiny scales offer plenty of eye appeal to mink and ’coons looking for a meal.
Another species of fish also works well on the trapline — bluegill. The United States is littered with perhaps millions of farm ponds. It’s probably a safe bet to say that just about everyone knows someone who has a farm pond. Most of these ponds are chock full of these prolific breeders, and chances are, most owners would be eager to allow the thinning of a few small bluegills. Small amounts can then simply be placed whole in freezer bags and then taken out as needed during trapping season.
After a day spent along the bank fishing, I’ll then take my catch of carp and sheepshead to the cleaning table. The first order of business is to prep the fish. Although the sodium benzoate I use in the curing process does a fantastic job of halting the decay of fish and preserving, the entrails of the fish must still be removed.
Carp have thick scales, and although cutting them up with a fillet knife will work, be prepared to have a good knife sharpener handy and copious amounts of elbow grease. I’ve found that using an electric fillet knife is the ticket for cutting these fish up.
When cleaning the carp and sheepshead, I simply remove the head and then make slit down the entire length of the belly. After this is done, the entrails can be removed quite easily. I’ll spend the next couple of hours repeating this step, until all the heads and guts are removed. The “hog-dressed” fish are tossed in a large tub of clean water, and the buckets of heads and guts will dutifully serve their purpose in the garden as fertilizer. I then rinse the fish by letting the garden hose run in the tub of fish for about 20 minutes, to finish removing unwanted blood and entrails from the chest cavity of the fish.
After rinsing the fish, I begin Step 2: chunking the meat into the desired sizes. Although I try to achieve 1- to 2-inch chunks, smaller and larger pieces still end up in the finished production line. I’m fine with that, as certain portions of the fish might be difficult in getting to that exact size. Chunks of that size are ideal for my sets, and the curing process works much better having the same size consistency of bait portions.
Some readers might use a hatchet for cutting up bait, but I’ve tried it with little success, at least when trying to chop through thick carp scales. I’ve found that an electric knife is the way to go.
After chunking all the meat, I give it another good rinsing with the garden hose to remove any loose scales. I then divide the chunks into several 5-gallon buckets, with a ratio of 80 percent fish and 20 percent water. Atop each bucket, I place a tightly bound lid of fine screen to keep out bugs and flies. If you don’t have screen available, place an old towel over the bucket, and use a bungee strap to hold tightly in place. That will work just fine.
I then move the buckets to the outside of the barn to sit in the sun for a day. What I shoot for in doing this is not to break down the fish to the point of decay but to allow some of the oils to bleed out, increasing the fishy fragrance. Very fresh fish seem to have little smell, but allowing them to set for a day in the hot sun will bring more scent appeal to the bait.
Adding the Ingredients
After the buckets of fish have sat in the sun for a day, I bring them back into a room in the barn, where it’s cooler and dark. I remove the lids and add 2 cups of sodium benzoate and 1 cup of glycerin per gallon of fish and stir. Also added at this time are my secret ingredients, which consist of 4 ounces of liquid smoke and 4 ounces of shellfish oil per bucket. Of course, now that I told you what my secret ingredients are, they’re not very secret, are they?
After adding the ingredients, I stir for another 15 minutes and then re-cover the bucket with the screen or towels. I then store the buckets for a couple of weeks to allow the sodium benzoate and other ingredients to stabilize the bait.
After a couple of weeks, I remove the makeshift lids, and stir again. At this point, I transfer the bait chunks into smaller plastic containers. I can get these pint-size containers from work, but plastic jars — such as the ones peanut butter or mayonnaise come in — would work just fine. I then place all of my filled bait containers in the same cool, dark place, with lids only screwed on loosely, for an additional week or so. This will allow any remnant gases to release. After another week has passed, I tighten all the lids.
Sodium benzoate and glycerin can be purchased at most trapping supply warehouses or through dealer catalogs. Salt can be used in place of sodium benzoate, but it sometimes seems to be more of a hassle and isn’t much cheaper. I have made fish bait by simply layering fish and salt, and it worked, but again, the process above offered better results for me. Although the addition of glycerin is a great binder to add to baits, my biggest reason is for freeze-proofing my bait. When the temperature dips below freezing, and I’m hunkered along a creek bank over a pocket set, I want to be able to pull pieces of chunked bait out of my containers and not deal with a solid pint-size chunk of frozen fish.
Whether you run an extensive river line, or you’re a part-time hobby trapper, using the offseason to make your own bait can be very rewarding. You’ll enjoy the first portion of the process by spending a few hours fishing, and you’ll certainly enjoy the end of the process by filling your stretchers in the fall and winter with your homemade bait. The middle portion isn’t so bad either, especially if you’re armed with an electric fillet knife.
With gas prices increasing almost weekly, trappers are always mindful of cutting corners and maximizing any savings. Making your own bait is certainly one way to help cut costs on the upcoming season. As a matter of fact, now that my .22 is sighted in and the woodchucks are wearing out their welcome on the homestead, it’s time to do a little offseason bait-making for foxes — but that’s a whole ’nother story.
Charlie Harder, a Trapper & Predator Caller field editor, is making bait in northwestern Ohio.
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