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Scott M

Is live bait dead?

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Is Live Bait Dead?

by Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

Anything important to do with freshwater fishing originated in Minnesota. That's not true, of course. But it has a dandy ring to it. And it's close to being true.

The Rapala? Made in Finland. But brought to the United States by two Minnesotans, Ron Weber and Ray Ostrom.

The Vexilar FL-8 sonar unit, which revolutionized ice fishing? Credit Steve Baumann of the Twin Cities.

The Lindy Rig? Born on Brainerd-area lakes, it was first manufactured for the masses by Al and Ron Lindner.

And flies? Try the Dahlberg Diver (developed by Minnesotan Larry Dahlberg of "Hunt for Big Fish'' TV fame), and the Muddler Minnow (by Don Gapen, father of another legendary Minnesota angler, Dan Gapen).

The list goes on, and includes, among other products and gadgets, aluminum fishing boats, of which the world's best -- Lunds, Alumacrafts, Crestliners -- are made in Minnesota.

Now credit also Minnesota for helping give birth to what ultimately might prove the most revolutionary of all the state's fishing inventions: soft plastic baits.

Sure, Berkley of Spirit Lake, Iowa, (a mere stone's throw south of Minnesota) is the leader here, with its fish-catching Gulp! But Northland Fishing Tackle of Bemidji, with its "soft and chewy'' Slurpies brand soft baits, isn't far behind.

And now industry heavyweight Rapala, whose North American headquarters are in Minnetonka, has entered the market with a $25 million research and development effort yielding its Trigger X brand soft plastics.

Meanwhile, the live bait industry is awash in challenges, particularly in Minnesota. Most problematic: Golden shiners -- long the favorite bait of walleye anglers -- are in short supply, so much so that some minnow retailers say their sales are off 70 percent.

In response, Minnesota's bait producers are pleading with the DNR and legislators for permission to import shiners from Arkansas for resale here -- just as about 45 other states do.

But state fisheries officials say they have been stung before by invasive species hitchhiking to Minnesota in ship ballasts, on boat trailers and in anglers' live wells. So, no dice: The risk of imported minnows bringing to Minnesota weird diseases and creepy critters is too great, according to the DNR.

Meanwhile, in laboratories worldwide, the next generation of soft plastics is being developed, with the direct intention of stealing still more market share from live bait.

Already in China, soft plastic Northland minnows nearly identical to young-of-the-year fatheads are being hand-painted and hand-tuned, ready for shipment to Minnesota and throughout the world.

"There's no question soft plastics are becoming more and more popular, and we see it continuing,'' said John Crane, brand manager at Northland. "In some places we're almost seeing an equalization of sales between soft plastics and live bait. Someday, soft plastics might even overtake live bait.''

Thus the question: Is live bait dead?

Soft plastics got their start in -- of course -- Minnesota

A long time ago (1967) in a faraway place (northern Minnesota, near International Falls) a schoolteacher named Ric Welle began hand-tying fishing jigs with natural hair and feathers.

Fledgling, to be sure, Welle's initial effort was intended to supplement his teacher's salary, while sating his long-held interest in all things fishing.

One spring break, Welle took a fishing trip to Florida, where, serendipitously, on a charter boat, he met a DuPont chemist who was fishing with what appeared to be a homemade rubber bait.

Amazed at the success the DuPont angler had, Welle later fashioned similar baits of his own and tested them on a Canadian fishing trip he took with a fellow named Duane Peterson.

Duane Peterson is the brother of John Peterson, the northern Minnesota fishing guide who in 1975 founded, and still owns, Northland Fishing Tackle.

So successful were Welle's soft baits that in 1973 he and a partner started selling baits they called Mr. Twister -- soft plastic worm- and grub-like critters that immediately won over anglers worldwide.

And still do.

In 1983, Mr. Twister was bought by the Mepps Co., which owns the brand yet today. (Welle, meanwhile, has moved to Florida, where he owns Wahoo Bait Products.)

Shift the scene now from northern Minnesota to Spirit Lake, Iowa, where in the labs of Berkley Fishing, fish biologist Keith Jones and chemist John Prochnow labored for 20 years to develop Berkley Powerbaits and Berkley Gulp!.

Both are soft plastics, but they differ from one another in key ways. Powerbaits -- long a staple of competitive bass anglers -- are made of oil-based resins and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The "flavor'' of Powerbaits is impregnated into them, and tasted when fish bite, making them hang on long enough for a hook to be set, Berkley says.

Gulp! is Berkley's more recently developed bait, and it is made of water-based resins. Gulp! baits, which resemble leeches, minnows and other aquatics, release their scent as soon as they enter water.

They can also be recharged and kept fresh in their packages or in special Gulp! Alive! pails.

Rapala: from hard baits to soft

Fishing is fun. But it's also a very competitive business.

Rapala, long known worldwide for its famous fish-catching hard baits, for many years watched from the sidelines as the soft bait portion of the industry took off and flourished.

Now Rapala has its own line of soft baits, unveiling this spring its Trigger X brand that it says are the result of $25 million in research.

"I've never seen a single magic bait, and I've never seen one bait that catches all fish all of the time,'' said Mark Fisher, director of field promotions at Rapala's North American headquarters in the Twin Cities. "There's a time for hard baits and a time for soft baits. At Rapala, we've watched the soft bait industry grow and we've done a lot of research. We think we have a unique product that catches fish.''

Rapala's baits are pheromone-scented, biodegradable and species-specific to walleyes and bass (as well as saltwater species). As with Powerbaits and Northland's Slurpies, they're shaped to mimic live bait.

"Pheromones are what trigger feeding and aggression in fish,'' Fisher said. "Rapala has tested these baits extensively, and they catch fish. That said, today's anglers are a tough sell. They'll test them themselves. I'll think they'll find that in some circumstances they're the best bait, while in other cases, it'll be hard baits or live bait that work best.''

Crane, of Northland Tackle, agrees.

"At Northland, we're 'pro' live bait and 'pro' artificials, especially soft baits,'' Crane said. "In certain waters you can do better with soft baits. The Mississippi River. Lake of the Woods. Canadian lakes. The Missouri in the Dakotas. Any time you have dark or moving water, soft plastics will work well.

"On the other hand, live bait shines when used in clear, northern Minnesota lakes like Gull, Winnie, Cass and Whitefish, among others.

"To catch fish, you need to have the right bait at the right time.''


So that's why Rapala lures became twice as we could fund 25 Million worth of research into soft plastics! I should get a lifetime supply of Trigger X for my efforts.

I guess this is just a long time coming. Bait buckets are going to be the way diseases are spread. It's the old formula risk=hazard * exposure. Highly hazardous pathogens or exotic species and numerous individuals purchasing bait provides the exposure.

With the zebra mussel, eurasian water milfoil, rusty crayfish, brazilian elodea, yada yada yada track record in place, I'm willing to pay a premium on in state shiners or go without. Fishing with plastics just brings everyone one step closer to angler enlightment, fly fishing (that was tongue in cheek BTW).

Nothing's stopping people from catching their own bait.

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Interesting read, Scott. I'll jump in line behind you for the freebie Rapala soft baits.

I have a few minnow traps out. They work quite well!!!!

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I think we will see more "No Live Bait Zones" pop up...and No Live Bait tournaments (Largely a new Advertising gimmick by the industry by the way).

But much like "Rock and Roll"....Hey Hey .. My My......Live Bait will never Die!

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Obviously, Berkley, Rapala, Mepps, and to some degree Northland, have a lot of money invested into soft plastics. All of their pro-staffs promote soft bait day in and day out. A baitshop owner told me that Berkley donates money to DU for wet land conservation - to drain out the minnow supply.

I'm 70/30 with my useage - sometimes, especially MN lakes, I'm a live bait guy, when I go to Canada, I bring the Gulp/Power Bait/Slurpies.

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I didn't read all of it but live bait is what keep the small stores going. If live bait were to go, all you would have is the box stores and what could they tell you about what is happening on lake X this time of year.

Zebra mussels have cleaned up alot of lakes!

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So that's why the cost of a Rapala is approaching $10 shocked I'm all for paying a little more for shiners as long as we keep our lakes as free as possible of invasive species and pathogens.

Does anyone know why no one is farming shiners here to a larger extent if the supply/demand ratio is so low? It seems like a good opportunity for someone with a good rearing pond.

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I say minnow traps. If they are already in the lake you already fish you don't have to worry about spreading anything. But fully agree we have to support the local mom and pop bait stores as well. You can't catch all your own bait all the time, even seining is difficult at times.

I should get a lifetime supply of Trigger X for my efforts.

You have something there. Where is my lifetime supply? smile

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So that's why the cost of a Rapala is approaching $10 shocked

I wondered the same thing myself.

I bought a tackle box with 39 Original Rapala's for $30 this spring at the Duluth FM swap meet, apparently I made a better deal than I had originally thought!


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Live bait is still going strong as far as I can see. Yes, a few threats here - especially with new technology. But, I just launched a new HSOforum featuring pretty much only live bait - and well, traffic is going well, and sales are starting to pick up.

Growing up, I trapped thousands of pounds of leeches every summer. They were never in the tank more than a week - there was always a buyer. Today, the same is true for just about all live bait.

It comes down to marketing - and certainly the Rapala's of the world have the upper hand in that arena. Live bait trappers and wholesale guys typically don't have much marketing experience. But as long as demand is there (and it is) they'll keep on trapping.

And I echo - there is nothing more cost effective than catching your own!

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I've gotten more into artificial bait the last couple of years, but to me nothing beats the live bait.

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I'm in the same camp with Sandmannd. I think that live bait out performs any plastic or crank for walleye and panfish. Plastics cranks and spoons seem to attract sight feeders and ambushers like pike, musky and bass. Last year we did scomparison test with Gulp and live bait while fishing a Canadian Lake that was on a strong bite. We were fishing in 30 FOW with jigs next to a reef. While the walleyes went after the Gulp the live bait (minnows) had a better than 2 to 1 strike rate. No way am I going to move away from live bait.

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Live bait will always have its place, for all anglers. There are times when that is the ticket, and nothing else will suffice.

It is pretty much the only game in town for people who dont get out much. It is easy to use, and is a good confidence bait.

Otoh, I love a good bite when I dont have to fiddle around with minnows, worms and leeches. For instance this past ice season I really figured out how to fish plastics for crappies. It was sooo nice not to have to dig around for another grub after every fish.

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Hiya -

Personally I am using a lot less live bait for walleyes these days. For much of the season I don't carry live bait at all anymore.

I think a common mistake with stuff like plastics or Gulp though is that guys try to use it exactly like they would use live bait. That's usually not that successful.

Part of the reason I like stuff like Gulp is because I can fish more aggressively with it - I can fish it faster, fish it through cover without it tearing off, and cast it without sending it into orbit. If I'm in a situation where I'm fishing horizontally or moving quickly, I definitely reach for the Gulp first. If I'm vertical jigging or fishing slowly, it's live bait. Jigging and lindy rigging are both good examples. If I'm pitching jigs or snap jigging fairly aggressively, I'll use Gulp or a Power Minnow. Catches fish just as well, and it's a lot more efficient. If fish are off and it's a slow lift/drop deal, a live minnow will outfish plastics more often than not. You can lindy rig with a Gulp leech or a live one, but with a Gulp leech, you can move a lot faster and cover more water without the thing spinning or balling up, plus you don't get nearly as much bait ripped off by perch or panfish. You can usually catch more than one fish on a Gulp Alive leech too.

This weekend I'll have both in the boat, but I can almost guarantee I'll spend most of the weekend pitching a 1/16 or 1/8 oz jig with a 2-1/2" Gulp! Alive minnow.


Rob Kimm

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