The grass is turning green, migratory birds are returning, the first insects are hatching, and an angler’s mind drifts to the cool running streams and ice-free lakes of spring. It is finally here. Spring! In this second installment of Gone Fishin’, experienced fly-fishing guide Ed Woodsworth discusses the differences between bait and fly-fishing.
The use of bait is likely one of the earliest methods humans used to catch fish. Today it involves impaling live, dead, natural or synthetic bait onto a hook and hurling it out into the water in order to tempt a fish to eat. On the other hand, fly-fishing involves using lures made of feathers and fur and you entice a fish into biting your hook by tricking it into thinking that it is real. There are many variations within each of these methods of angling and they all have their place in a well-rounded and versatile angler’s arsenal if used properly. I greatly prefer fly-fishing over bait fishing as a method of angling because it is more challenging, and has a lower mortality rate, even though fishing with bait is more effective in the early season.
As one’s ability in a specific area increases, so too does their willingness to make it more challenging. This is no different with fishing. Fishing with bait is one of the simplest and most effective forms of angling in existence and proof of this is in the fact that when teaching kids how to fish, adults often turn to this method first. It is easy for a first time fisherman to catch a fish within a short period of time while using bait. Many anglers will take a live worm or a minnow, put it on a hook with some weight attached to allow it to be cast farther out, add a bobber to detect strikes, and head to their favorite fishing hole. It does not get any simpler then this and it is incredibly effective as it takes little convincing to get the fish to bite a live, natural organism. Conversely, fly-fishing takes years to learn how to set up your equipment and to cast properly. In bait fishing it is the weight attached to the line that propels the bait to its target. With fly-fishing it is the weight of the line that carries your fly out into the water, and the specific casting style to do this takes years of practice to master. It is highly unlikely that a first time fly fisherman will catch a fish at all. Just setting up your terminal equipment, learning all the proper knots, and choosing the right fly for a specific situation takes a large amount of study and practice. Learning to fly-fish takes patience and determination and it is very rewarding to become highly proficient at something that is incredibly difficult.
With fish stocks dwindling worldwide, the mortality rate associated with specific angling methods is becoming crucial in the management of sport fishers and their respective regulations. Bait fishing normally involves using organisms that the fish would eat on a daily basis or a synthetic substance, which is impregnated with scent and taste chemicals to get the fish to bite. Also the equipment used while bait fishing tends to leave the angler with a disconnected sense of feel with the hook, which makes it difficult for him or her to detect exactly when a fish is taking their bait. These two factors combined often end up with a fish taking the bait aggressively and deeply, resulting in a fish that has a low survival rate if released. Fly-fishing uses lures made of feathers, fur, and synthetic materials. These lures have no artificial or natural scent on them and very rarely do they trigger an aggressive feeding response. When fly-fishing, one often has to impart action on the fly in order to mimic a food source. This connection with the fly allows anglers to remain in contact with the hook most of the time. These two factors combine to create very few deeply hooked fish and, in fact, most of the time fish hooked while fly-fishing are hooked around the lips, thus giving the fish a much higher survival rate after being released. With more importance being placed on conservation of fish stocks while retaining angler presence on the waterways, I believe “fly-fishing only” areas will be used more and more as a conservation-minded regulation change in the future, mainly because of the lower mortality rate of released fish and the lower numbers of fish hooked using this method.
Fishing with bait is the most effective method in the early spring. During this time the water is still very cold and the fish’s metabolisms are slow. Also they are hungry after being forced to fast all winter because of a lack of food and are normally found on or near the bottom. The techniques used in bait fishing allow an angler to present their bait deep in the water, where the fish are, and to have a slow presentation. With the fish’s metabolism so slow it is integral to have a slow, deep presentation, as they will not move very far to eat. These facts, coupled with the fact that that few fish can resist a real, live meal dangled in front of their noses, makes it the method of choice in the spring. The characteristics of the terminal tackle in fly-fishing make it very difficult to present a fly deep in the water. The physics of casting a fly line require that the line be a specific weight. Any addition of weight hinders the dynamics of the cast making it awkward and sometimes impossible to cast. Without the addition of weight, the line remains at or near the surface of the water and as described earlier, this makes it difficult to get the fly down to where the fish are. I still enjoy this added challenge. The presentation, and the fact that live bait is so irresistible to a hungry fish, are the two factors that make bait fishing much more effective in the early season.
I will always prefer fly-fishing over bait fishing as a method of angling because I like the challenge, and it has a much lower mortality rate, even though fishing with bait is by far the most effective method in the spring. Fish stocks are declining worldwide and we will be seeing bait fishing banned more and more because it is too effective and has a high mortality rate. More fisheries are moving towards catch and release fishing, and fishing with bait does not work well along with this change. We will also see many regions combining barbless hook only rules along with a bait ban, to further protect fish stocks. In my mind fishing with bait is also a messy experience and it is not very pleasurable impaling live organisms on a hook all day.