From out of the inky abyss, they materialized like ghosts. Stirred by something foreign in their world, the pack of piscine wraiths advanced quickly yet quietly, converging like wolves in the midnight mist. The source of the stimulation — a curtain consisting of a thousand tiny, fleshy particles sinking toward the substrate, giving off a milky haze of scent, flavor, and sparkle. Most of the bits never reach bottom. With a pair of alpha predators leading the charge, an army of broad-back bluegills converged, each darting from morsel to morsel, miniature models of foraging efficiency. Within the hour, other species had joined in — yellow perch, crappies, catfish, carp, bass, and a walleye.
Above the surface stood Munenori Kajiwara, underwater camera in one hand to survey the action, and a bag of Marukyu groundbait in the other. "If you chum, they will come," says Kajiwara. An affable and exceptional Japanese angler who now lives in Chicago, Kajiwara has done influential work, introducing dozens of innovative Japanese baits to the North American market. Most recently, he unveiled unique methods for catching Asian bighead carp — something previously thought impossible with hook and line.
But for now, he offered quarter-sized pinches of groundbait into the waters of an urban waterway. In his mind, the experiment neither required patience nor produced a particularly surprising outcome. Within minutes he had schools of sunfish and other species fired up and competing for bites of the bait. A YouTube search for "Marukyu Bait Test" reveals underwater footage of his efforts, which shows what happens when you place even trace amounts of groundbait into water with fish in the vicinity.
While groundbaiting and chumming are far from new, even in American waters, what's novel are the imported methods and paraphernalia that allow for effective and generally legal small-scale chumming. Creative baiting methods make for powerful panfish medicine, drawing fish into the immediate area and stimulating them to feed, even when they're inactive. But the real story remains: You need not put large quantities of bait into the water for the powers of attraction to work their magic.
In states including California, Washington, Minnesota, Illinois, North Dakota, Idaho, and Arkansas, it's apparently not legal to chum (tossing handfuls of groundbait or other fish-attracting materials freely into the water), but states write their laws differently. In some you can use chum or groundbaits delivered as part of your presentation in bags, baskets, or as packbaits, which I'll describe a bit later. Of course, there are concerns over littering and polluting waterbodies with foreign substances. But many baits I discuss here are biodegradable, food-grade products used in scant quantities, with the bait itself tied to your rig and presentation, and with little that results in waste. It's always best to check the laws where you live.
Some companies with products developed in Japan and the United Kingdom, including Marukyu, Nikko, and BaitPro, employ veteran product researchers versed in the sciences of ichthyology and aquatic scent technology. Some of these companies, such as Nikko and Fish Arrow, produce micro softbaits foreign to our North American eyes, yet deadly effective. Likewise, Marukyu, BaitPro, and others offer unique attractor bait options and "hookbaits" with exciting implications for panfish specialists, even though many of the products were originally created to attract carp.
Sometimes it seems the attracting power of these baits is too good to be true, and yet much of their draw comes more from visual cues than scent or flavor. Perch and sunfish are highly curious. Some of the better attractor baits are infused with tiny scale-like flecks that flash and flicker under water.
Mike McNett, top groundbait practitioner and past captain of Team USA's international ice team, says ,"Many mixtures such as Marukyu Sabiki have little bits of salt or glitter or what we call flowers within the grains that attract panfish visually. We've also baited with pinches of kosher or sea salt, and both offer visual and taste attractors for bluegills."In-Line Attractor Systems
Particularly useful in states where introducing anything into freshwater other than what's attached to your fishing line is illegal, several accessories allow for small-scale baiting. Marukyu's Kajiwara, as well as David Smith of BaitPro, use various devices attached to their fishing line to deliver modest but potent quantities of groundbait and other attractors as part of their presentation.
The simplest means involve the use of a pre-mixed wet groundbait, such as Marukyu's Sabiki-style Sabikikun or Super Amiebi, natural krill-based formulas with the consistency of soft dough. Sabiki baits are inserted into a bait basket or cage, PVA bag, or other delivery vehicle. BaitPro Ready is another pre-wetted version that can be molded into small pellets and molded around an in-line spring, or placed in a bait cage. Sunfish, perch, and stocked rainbow trout love this stuff and eat it readily and safely.
Less expensive are dry groundbait mixtures, such as Marukyu Koimuso (fish meal flavor) and Dobon (grape flavor) and Biosource Buckeye Blend. Most come in small bags and resemble a sort of trail mix, with fine grains, seeds, and nuts, and include protein/amino acid components, plus sweeteners. Add roughly 5 parts bait to 1 part water (varies by product) to a large bowl and mix into a tacky, malleable material that packs together yet disperses quickly under water.
As part of a greater in-line attractor presentation, I've used several of the Sabiki-style (in-line) cages by Marukyu, and they can be highly effective at drawing sunfish and perch to baited hooks. The simplest employs a plastic mesh basket that holds about a tablespoon of bait, weighted with a lead base. Filled with a few pinches of moldable groundbait, the basket serves as the rig's sinker, above which are one or two hooks tied to the line with Palomar or dropper knots and tipped with livebait or an artificial hookbait such as Marukyu's JPz Gel Pellets or 2-inch Nikko egg strands. The entire rig can be cast and set in place, drifted near bottom, or suspended beneath a slipfloat. You can also fish the rig vertically or semi-vertically, as a drop-shot or Sabiki rig. Dabble the rod tip and quiver the rig to distribute and activate the groundbait around your hookbaits.
As an alternative to baskets, cages, or coils, you can also use one of the tackier baits as "packbait" that's packed and molded around a sinker. Kajiwara says one of the top secrets among expert Japanese anglers is to mix a pre-moistened Sabiki-style bait with dry groundbait, which makes it super tacky for pack-baiting and powerfully attractive.
Tightly pack a small ball (marble to golf-ball size) of bait around a fixed splitshot or bell sinker. Gently cast and allow the substance to gradually disperse under water, drawing fish to your hookbaits, which can be anything you might normally use — live minnows, larvae, earthworms, or an artificial softbait.
PVA Power Packs
Another potent in-line attractor bait device, the PVA (polyvinyl alcohol) mesh baggy, dissolves readily in water, and according to numerous environmental studies, are non-toxic and benign. Many relevant studies are available online. Most notably, the FDA has granted PVAs their GRAS "Generally Recognized as Safe" designation. Other than biodegradable fishing products, PVA is used in various paper products as well as eye-drops that treat dry eyes.
At the heart of these in-line baiting rigs is a PVA mesh bag — Gardner and Fox products are available at wackerbaits.com. Most consist of a tube with a length of PVA mesh, which you fill with dry groundbait or various mixtures of corn, soybeans, or other grain. Don't overlook sweet or fruity attractors, such as Buckeye Blend, Method Mix, or Marukyu's grape flavored Dobon. Panfish love sweet stuff. BaitCloud also makes a bubbling, scent-infused attractor product that's worth a PVA experiment.
Creating a PVA power pack is simple. Because PVA dissolves quickly when in contact with water, make sure any mix you use is completely dry before pouring it into the bag. Take the tubing, which is a long continuous roll of PVA mesh, tied off at the end, to enclose your mix. Drop in a small handful of mixture and tightly pack the bait into the mesh. Once an ample amount of bait has been poured into the tube, pack it down with a stick or bait plunger while sliding the corresponding length of mesh off the tube. Twist the bait ball, then snip off the mesh, leaving several inches of extra material to allow for an overhand knot, which seals the bag at the other end. Trim both tag ends of the bag for a clean package (about thumb-sized) of panfish goodies.
For legality reasons and to assure your hook is in prime position, drop a hook baited with a piece of worm, larvae, or artificial bait into the bag, surrounded by the groundbait mix, before tying it off. Slide the hook through the delicate mesh before casting. Alternatively, impale the PVA bag onto a hair rig. It's more complex but allows you to pre-assemble several PVA baggies prior to fishing. A hair rig places the PVA bag below a baited hook on a short line or "hair." You can find tutorials on how to do this on YouTube.
When you cast the rig into the water, the pouch immediately begins breaking down, distributing the bait mix around your hook. Depending on brand, PVA melts in a few minutes to just under an hour. It's an ingenious solution for baiting a fishing area, and directing panfish toward your hook.
Amazing Hookbait Alternatives
The money side of a two-tier attraction presentation is what you put on the hook. Whether I'm fishing from shore or boat, some form of drop-shot rig has become perhaps the most potent non-jig panfish presentation. A drop-shot's versatile and functional, allowing you to impart amazing movements to softbaits. The rig also suspends a bait at a specific depth above bottom, or above substrate infested with mussels or overgrown with vegetation, keeping you snag-free.
An intriguing new softbait I discovered this past season, Japan-based Nikko Worm, offers Bait Balls, a 2-inch strand of tiny fish eggs. When you nick one of these small egg threads onto a #10 egg or octopus hook on a drop-shot rig, the bait writhes and undulates seductively. I've caught many species with these egg strands, including loads of sunfish, crappies, largemouth bass, and catfish. It should catch stocked trout, too, but I haven't tried that yet.
The strands are fairly durable, though big sunfish are capable of nipping off small sections. But you can keep fishing the strand until there's nothing left but a few eggs attached to the hook. You can also pinch off individual eggs and fish them on a tiny hook.
Scott Barrett of Nikko says the material is biodegradable, non-toxic, and phthalate-free. The baits are remarkably soft, scented, and durable. They also don't dry out after you've fished them, so you can leave them on the hook after fishing. While I've mostly fished Bait Balls, several other Nikko baits show promise. The Pin Straight is a wispy pin-tail bait with an easy-to-rig grub body. Sweet little bug baits include the PinChoro (mayfly nymph), OniChoro (stonefly nymph), and Sashi (maggot).
From Kajiwara's Fish Arrow line (also an elite Japanese bass-bait brand), the 1-inch Flash-J, with a fine pin tail that quivers continuously, is the coolest soft micro minnow I've seen. It's a drop-shot natural, but also works on a 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jighead.Also made from a unique natural substance, Marukyu JPz are reportedly revolutionizing European match fishing. A soft pellet bait, JPz Pellets feel like the softest plastic bait I've ever touched, like dense jelly, and they resist splitting or tearing when impaled on a hook. Versions include JPz Ebi, a red pellet composed of crustaceans, and JPz Black, a soy-based bait touted as an all-around flavor. Marukyu also offers what Kajiwara calls a Power Ball, a yellow amino-acid based soft pellet. Apparently, all of these are excellent panfish baits, in addition to their appeal to stocked trout and carp. All flavors come in 6-, 8-, and 10-mm sizes, each about the size of a corn kernel. Regardless of their alien composition, these are some of the most interesting pellet baits I've ever seen.
From BaitPro, a few other offerings are worth a look. VizTrail Nibbles are already proven for trout, with potential for crappies and other panfish. A dough-style pellet for tipping on a jig or plain hook, BaitPro Nibbles produce a visible red or chartreuse scent trail. Meanwhile, Bait-Haze is a dry dust that adheres to most dampened baits — nightcrawlers, crickets, minnows, or doughbaits. When you put it in the water, BaitHaze creates a colorful scent trail as well as tiny food particles, important visually and aromatically. Similar products include LipRipperZ Hatchery Dust and Berkley's Power Dust. Finally, for squeezing into tube jigs or applying to other softbaits, BaitPro Scentrails exudes a powerful visual cloud with taste and scent. Think of these items as PEBs — performance enhancing baits.
Part of the appeal of these fish attractants is that they're particularly effective for shore-fishing, where drawing fish to you is the key. There isn't a sunfish or perch alive that can resist the powers of these attractors and the little bits of bait that waft around below. Attract. Fire up fish appetites. Set the hook.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt is an astute multispecies angler who stays on the cutting edge of new and emerging tactics. Where to buy: BaitPro, baitpro.net; Fish Arrow, leesglobaltackle.com; Marukyu, wackerbaits.com; Nikko Worm, itsumofishing.com.