The Eternal Question of Bait Choice - by Jon Wood
Jon Wood has studied fish all his life. He completed his first degree in marine biology in Edinburgh and then continued his education at the University of Stirling, completing a master's degree in aquaculture. He has worked in Chile for more than a decade as a consultant for the country's salmon and shellfish industries and has fished on several continents for a wide range of fish species. Jon recently published the book Carp Fishing Science which brought together his two greatest passions; carp fishing and science. He is currently working on his doctorate. www.carpfishingscience.com
No matter how experienced an angler you are or how easy a water is, the question of the best bait to use will usually be on your mind. This is particularly true when you are faced with the challenge of a virgin water or one you are unfamiliar with.
Bait alternatives aren’t lacking, especially these days, since it seems that every week a new “wonderbait” is presented to the angling community by one or another of the familiar bait producing companies. But one of the things I discovered while doing the research for Carp Fishing Science was the lack of information willingly or automatically provided by bait producers in order that anglers make informed decisions.
One of the keys to successful carp fishing is being able to fish with confidence, especially when you are on a long session on a difficult water or when the bite rate is low. So, here I hope to provide a little extra information regarding what to look for in a bait and which might make a difference to both your confidence level and your catch rate as a result.
The carp, as you may well know, is an omnivore. This means that it eats both plant and animal materials and as a result can often be fairly easy to catch since it is prepared to accept a wide range of items, anything in fact from nuts and berries to meat and fish. On the other hand, preoccupation with one of the many naturally occurring food sources can be a problem for the angler. It is therefore important to present an attractive and digestible bait in order to compete with the other available food sources, which may consist of, for example in the case of freshwater invertebrates, an extensive list of more than a hundred species in a lake of river.
So how do we go about doing this? In my opinion, one of the most important considerations for a successful bait is the provision of enough energy to make feeding more than just worthwhile. The carp requires what is referred to as maintenance energy for swimming and movement, repair of tissues, respiration and osmoregulation and of course, opening that big mouth in order to vacuum through sediments and hopefully suck in our bait. Excess energy can be used for growth and this is of course more important in younger fish percentagewise than for larger fish that in return require more energy for repair (similar principles occur for humans). Some baits provide a lot of energy and I will mention some examples here. However, it is important to think about the efficient use of this energy.
Energetic and Digestive Efficiency
Imagine how much energy a carp uses to locate a kilo of bloodworm as opposed to a kilo of boilies. They may both provide the same amount of energy per gram, but the energy saving in foraging will always be greater from larger, easier to locate items. This is therefore a big step towards catching a carp if we make it easy for the fish to recognize and locate a food that satisfies the nutritional and energetic requirements of the fish.
The same goes for digestibility and we can make a simple comparison with human beings. Some foods can fill you up but you don’t get much in the way of sustenance from them and a large part of that food goes to waste (literally). Also, if you’re an active person, then you will need more energy and nutrition than someone who spends all day sleeping.
From this we get digestive efficiency. A fish may eat a kilogram of a food source, but how much of that kilogram can it utilize? To demonstrate the differences, I am going to talk about maize and boilies.
As I already mentioned, catching a carp can be very easy. Bait companies will often try and get you to use their bait, full of substances which supposedly drive the carp crazy but you can often achieve the same results with standard baits and naturals. Maize could be described as a natural bait but it’s not particularly natural in the aquatic environment so “standard bait” is probably a better term to describe it.
One of the most common baits used for carp in the US is maize. This is for obvious reasons; it’s easy to get hold of (the USA produces about 40% of the world’s harvest of the stuff), it’s cheap, it’s simple to use and present on a hook and most importantly it is effective, often instantly so.
There are hundreds of varieties of Zea mays (the scientific name for the plant that maize comes from) but the one we have traditionally used for most of our fishing in the UK is referred to as sweetcorn, which has a shorter grain size than field-corn varieties. However, the nutritional information for the majority of corns is very similar with about 19% carbohydrate and over 3% sugar in each one hundred grams of grains. It is rich in several vitamins and although it is relatively low in protein (only 3%), it contains all of the essential amino acids (although several are present in very low concentrations).
I do a lot of my fishing at the moment in Chile and I have fished for carp here successfully on a large number of waters. Some of these have never been fished for carp and I can safely say that I am the only person (gringo or native) ever to have fished on some of the waters here with sweetcorn. Results were instant and without any prebaiting I was catching. So what is it that is so good about corn?
It is obviously a mixture of things, including the yellow color which is easily seen in even less than clear water. The sugars present provide attraction and the presence of a large number of different amino acids, to which the chemosensory structures on the barbules and both inside and outside the mouth of the fish are particularly sensitive, appear to accentuate the feeding response. In a very short time, the frequent addition of maize to a water in sufficient quantities will cause the carp to think that the previously unknown yellow grains in their aquatic environment are simply another part of the natural food selection and an attractive, energy efficient, digestible source of nutrition.
As you may be able to tell, I am a big fan of corn, but there is a great deal to be said about the use of boilies and they have been developed for several reasons including the avoidance of non-target species, the possibility to present a bait large enough to increase the probability of hooking only the biggest carp in a water and of course the possibility of incorporating a wide range of substances into a mix and creating unique baits which can increase the competitive edge over other anglers if employed correctly.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know exactly what has been incorporated into a boilie unless you make your own baits since the bait companies (for the moment at least) prefer to keep you and their competition guessing for obvious commercial reasons. If you look on the back of a tin of baked beans for example, what does it say? Something like: beans, tomatoes, water, sugar, salt, modified cornflower, spice extracts etc. etc. Now, have a look on the back of a bag of boilies. What does it say there?
It says, “Joe Bloggs caught his 54 pound personal best on this bait.”
So, although boilies possess obvious technical advantages over standards and naturals and a potential for attraction, digestibility and energy efficient feeding, unless the bait companies change their mentality as far as what they think you should know, it will continue to be difficult for you to choose an optimum boiled bait unless you make it yourself. But by doing so, you will be able to boost your confidence and it will be easier to stick it out until your target fish are captured.
After analyzing the nutritional information for a selection of commercially available boilies, I found that a large number do not provide as high a protein content as natural food which I have estimated at around 44% average. However, the energy content of boilies usually exceeds that of natural food items such as invertebrates and this is very easy to ensure when making your own bait. The reason for this is that carbohydrate and lipids (fats) are relatively cheap to employ in large quantities compared with protein. Carp farms use pellets of about 38% protein to ensure effective uncompromised growth although understandably, the objectives of that process are very different from the angling situation.
As a final note on boilies, how does their digestibility compare with those of standards and naturals? Well, according to a study carried out by Arlinghaus & Niesar (2005) a comparison was made between the digestibility of the different crude materials (fat, protein, carbohydrate) and energy contained in boilies (self-made and readymade) as well as particles, groundbait and fish pellets. It was self-made boilies, not surprisingly, that came out on top as far as total digestibility and in a related study by Niesar et al. (2004), it was also the self-made boilies that topped the same list regarding both feed conversion (conversion of food to body mass) and specific growth rate (percentage growth per day) which are two parameters related to digestive efficiency.
The Pros and Cons of Standards and Boilies
These days, many anglers are blind to any bait other than a boilie and particularly on commercial waters in the UK, it is rare to see anyone float fishing with standard baits, with many preferring the boilie and standard semi-fixed rig approach and falling asleep in their bivvy until the buzzers go off. Hopefully wherever you fish it is possible to try different strategies and not overlook alternatives which, in the case of traditional fish catchers such as maize, are often difficult to beat and can result in fish when alternatives fail.
However, the boilie does provide a number of benefits that have been described above and are difficult to outclass by using alternatives. Additionally, shorter chain proteins, lipids and carbohydrates such as those able to be incorporated into a boilie mix result in a higher digestibility than for crude starches and proteins found in cereals and also more accessible energy. Making your own boilies permits the use of predigested ingredients which will help acceptance by the fish with the benefit of the added confidence of knowing that the energy and protein levels of your bait surpass those of natural food or alternatives. And when the fish become accustomed to your bait, which shouldn’t take long, the rewards should be great.
There is also a lot to be said for the resilience of the boilie and the assurance that the bait is still on the hair after several hours in the water or overnight. This is something that is almost impossible to obtain from alternatives apart from nuts and artificials. Also, maize has been shown to lack levels of some amino acids and for that reason, at least in humans, it cannot be used as an exclusive food source and must be complemented with others. On the other hand, a boilie can, in theory, be tailor made to include everything that a carp needs to live and grow and an angler can of course use this to his or her benefit.
At the same time, there are advantages of both types of bait in that attraction can be added in the way of glugs and dips or through the rehydration of cereals and boiled baits, attractants can be added to the water used for that. Also useful are those substances which increase the palatability of a bait which in the scientific literature center on certain organic acids.
Good luck and I hope that the only preoccupation of the carp in your chosen water from now on is with your bait, whatever you choose that to be.