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I spend a tremendous amount of time on the water fishing my home waters of Minnesota. I love using a multitude of baits and presentations to catch a variety of freshwater species. However, live bait like night crawlers, leeches, crappie minnows, and suckers can get expensive quickly when you’re fishing on a tight budget. Plus, it’s challenging to keep live bait cool and fresh during the heat of summer. Then there’s the seemingly endless price increases for artificial lures.
So how do you catch fish without spending a bunch of money on bait? Simple, you hit up the local Dollar Store (or Dollar Tree, or Family Dollar).
Best Dollar Store Baits
At your local dollar store, you can find a wide variety of very affordable food that you can use for bait, from canned corn to dog food. Below are some of my favorite options. (You can also find these baits online, but then you’ve got to pay for shipping).
I like using frozen vegetables for bluegill and crappies during the dog days of summer, when the temperature rises into the 90’s. Frozen vegetables hold up really well in warm lake water and don’t come apart when fish nibble on them.
During the spring when fish are shallow and the water temperature is still relatively cool, I’ll use canned corn for common carp and panfish. The fish like the scent that comes off the corn. For more bites, I’ll thread a lot of kernels on the hook.
Hot dogs are a classic bait. I love using hot dogs to catch big channel catfish, but you can’t simply throw a hotdog on the hook. Hot dogs are very soft and come apart easily, especially if you’re fishing a river. So freeze the hotdogs and use the fine netting of a dollar store loofah to hold the bait in place before fishing with them (more on this later).
This is a good all-season bait for hybrid sunfish, bullheads, and catfish. Softer, chewier dog treats hold up well in both cold and warmer water. Because of their durability, they’re also a good option for river fishing. However, it’s still a good idea to use the loofah mesh on them.
I like using this bait during the spring, summer, and fall. Flathead and channel cats go crazy for Spam. It has a scent that fish can track and devour. I always recommend wrapping this bait in dollar store loofah to keep it on your hook.
Fishing With Dollar Store Baits
You’ve got your dollar store bait, now what do you do? Here are a few simple setups that will work on your local lake or river.
Tips for Fishing Lakes
If you fish at a local lake in your community, you’ll likely be fishing on the public dock. However, docks often get crowded. So, find a nice publicly accessible spot on the shoreline.
Bait & Tackle for Lakes
If you’re fishing for panfish, I recommend a 6-foot, 6-inch to 7-foot light action rod paired with a small spinning outfit, monofilament fishing line, and 2- to 4-pound test. A Panfish style float bobber, 1/64 ounce to 1/32 ounce split-shot weight will do the job. For a hook I like the #12 or #10 Aberdeen hook or a #12 to #10 octopus circle hook. I like the Aberdeen hook because its long shank makes it easy to find and remove the hook from smaller pan fish. The octopus circle hook is cool because if a fish swallows the entire bait & hook, the design of the hook prevents you from gut hooking fish.
I’ll go with canned corn or canned mixed veggies in spring when water temperatures are cool. In the summer, I like using frozen vegetables, frozen corn, or peas. Panfish can’t get enough of starchy veggies. It’s a fun, effective, and affordable bait for catching bluegills, crappies, and perch.
Tips for Fishing Rivers
River fishing means you never know what species will devour your bait.
Bait & Tackle for Rivers
I start with a stout rod and reel combination. I really like the Okuma Fin Chaser X Series, which is a handsome and powerful 7-foot rod that’s paired with a dependable reel. This is a great deal with a retail price of about $40.
Another good rod and reel combo designed for handling and catching big fish is the very popular Ugly Stick. At a retail price of $54.95 this 7-foot rod and reel combo is a solid option. You don’t want to be outmatched in case you hook into a big river monster.
Next, you’ve got to match your weight to the strength of the current. We received record snowfall in my home state of Minnesota this year. All the snow melt ended up in our river systems, which means high water levels and strong currents. River current can drag your bait out of position quickly if you don’t use enough weight. To avoid that, I recommend using 1 ounce to 3 ounces no-roll sinkers. This style sinker will keep your bait in the correct depth and position.
Slide the weight onto your main line. Next, you’re going to need a bead (to protect your swivel). Tie a swivel to the main line in order to allow your bait to move in any given direction—and it will help you avoid having those annoying loops in your line. After you tie the swivel to your main line, it’s time to tie on your leader and hook. Your leader should be 18 to 22 inches in length, preferably heavy monofilament line 30- to 40-pound test. From my experience it’s better to go heavy in case of a big fish. For a hook, I like to use a #3 to #5 octopus circle hook. You can’t go wrong with a Palomar knot.
The final and most important component is the bait. I like to start off with a nice hunk of dollar store hot dog. Use the mesh from a bath loofah to wrap the bait so that it stays on the hook and doesn’t fall apart. Luckily for you dollar stores also sell bath loofahs, for $1.25. Once wrapped, try tying a basic knot at the top of the mesh, if you are unable to tie the knot, use a lighter and burn the top until the mesh melts together. Make sure your bait is secured tightly by the mesh. Then put your circle hook through both the mesh and bait. Now you’re ready to catch a river monster on a Dollar Store budget.
Final Thoughts on Fishing With Dollar Store Bait
A few years ago, I planned to go shore fishing on a local metro lake. When I got to the dock there was a person already fishing—and they were slaying ‘em! I had the simple slip-bobber setup with a piece of nightcrawler on my hook. I offered my presentation to the fish and … nothing. I made a few more casts and got a few nibbles, all the while this angler on the dock was hauling in more fish.
I got closer, however not too close, and saw that his secret weapon was a bag of frozen vegetables.
A few weeks later, I made my way to a park on the mighty Mississippi River to chase some catfish. I was super confident that morning because I had purchased some big, healthy, and delicious sucker minnows that I knew the “Gatos” could not resist. I got set up, made my offering, and as I was waiting for a bite, I saw another angler fishing from shore about 60 yards from me.
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Ten minutes later I heard the sound of a small bell ringing and then the sweet sound of the drag screaming—but it wasn’t my drag. The excited angler had hooked into a giant Gato. Eventually he yelled in my direction: “Hey, do you have a net?!” I replied “Yes!”, as I ran to assist him. I finally got a good enough look at the fish and put her in the net. The angler was relieved, what a fight! He thanked me as he knelt to unhook the 20-pound monster.
I couldn’t help but notice that his hook was baited with a piece of hotdog. Those back-to-back experiences inspired me to experiment with other nontraditional baits and offerings that would give me more success on the water. You should consider doing the same. To get started, just make a quick stop at the dollar store.