Fishing for Trout with Livebait

Greg Morton shares his experience fishing for trout with livebait...

Modern technology never stands still and that is very true in the recreational fishing industry. The ‘next big thing’ is plopped on the market each year and associated new fishing methods are linked to those products.

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To be fair the new rods, reels, and lines are definitely better than days gone by but the tried-and-true old methods should not be chucked out with the bath water as those old tactics still work extremely well and catch plenty of fish, particularly big fish. Fishing freshwater livebait is a case in point. These creatures fall within the Schedule One regulations category of ‘allowed natural bait’ but unlike scented softbaits, for instance, they are not imitations.

The relative South Island regulation states:

“Natural bait means:

• Natural insect.

• Natural spider.

• Natural worm or worms.

• Natural crustacean.

• Natural fish, excluding fish ova, or any portion of a fish, or shellfish (mollusc), except where stated otherwise in the Second Schedule of this notice.

• Uncoloured bread dough.

• Any scented lure, softbait and other synthetic imitations with chemical attractant properties, except where stated otherwise in the Second Schedule of this notice.”

Examples of livebait that I have used are cicada, worm, huhu grub, smelt, and bully, and all the trout I have landed over 4.5kg have been caught on one of the above baits. On writing that statement I am surprised that I even bother flyfishing or spinfishing. Fished correctly, livebait fishing is deadly – but it has one major flaw. Many trout engulf the bait so may swallow it before you are aware it is well-hooked. That fact is the main reason I use small hooks now (I can cut the line and release the fish), carry a hook disgorger, and do limited non-drift worm fishing.

Over the years I have gone through three periods where livebait fishing was my main fishing method of choice. Each time the reason was the same. It was my most successful method, it caught fish, and in one case it caught a very big trout.

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My first rod as a kid was a stiff fibreglass rod and a heavy reel with nylon line. The method of choice for many years was weighted worm fishing. A ball sinker was threaded onto the end of the main line and attached to a small swivel. A trace with a number #6 hook was attached to the other end of the swivel. Two or three live worms were then threaded onto the hook leaving lots of wriggling ends. It was cast out in a likely spot, leant against a rock or y-shaped stick, and left to catch fish. The reel tension was loose to prevent the rod from being dragged in (yes, this did happen once).

It was a very successful method and limit-bags were not uncommon. It is still a deadly method and occasionally I use it. Fish caught this way were usually kept for food and one location where the trout are good eating is Lake Opuha in South Canterbury.

Years later when working in Southland, a workmate showed me a new livebait technique. It was drift fishing large milk worms as you walked downstream. A piece of split shot and a small size #10 hook was the terminal tackle. We fished rivers like the Mararoa, Aparima, and the Oreti, and as a method it was fantastic. Your gear followed the current line, tapped the bottom regularly and you were in touch with your bait at all times. It was active fishing and you were striking at nibbles rather than bites so you could easily release unwanted fish. It involved a lot of walking, a lot of wading, and a lot of success. The average size was about 2kg, with larger fish occurring in early autumn.

It was actually harder to find the worms than it was to catch the fish, and some days saw me land two or three fish on the same tattered worm. This method was very similar to hunting as you were continually seeking out hotspots where the quarry would be resting. It was the best fishing fun I have ever experienced and I was saddened to hear several years later that didymo had ravaged my favourite Mararoa River. This river had both brown and rainbow trout and hooked fish fought hard.

I later used this same livebait drifting method to catch several big canal trout on huhu grubs, only giving the method away when the huhu grubs became too hard to find.

Later, in the mid-1990s, work took me to Christchurch and a mate introduced me there to the world of nocturnal fishing for Lake Ellesmere sea-run trout. The method was once again livebait except that a bully replaced the worm used down in Southland. Smelt, bully, and trout numbers were high at that time and the browns were heavyweights. It was addictive fishing even if the environment was spooky. Dark nights were best but gloomy: eels were slurping the surface, water rats were everywhere, and strange bird noises and rustling often had you on edge. The best fishing occurred between dusk and 2am, so I often didn’t get home until dawn. The bully was lip-hooked and the trout allowed time to swim away before striking. Fish landed averaged 3.5kg and were shaped like rugby balls. They were not great eating fish so most were released. Sadly, this environment has also suffered a decline since those heady fishing days and when the smelt and bully populations crashed so did the trout numbers.

I don’t do much livebait fishing these days but recently did enjoy outwitting a couple of rainbow trout using a bully below a float. It brought back memories of catching piper and yellow-eyed mullet off the wharf. It was like an episode of the ‘Circle of Life’. I had to catch the bully first in order to catch the trout, which I then ate.


August 2023 - Greg Morton
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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