Let me introduce this blog post by telling a little story about my Montana niece. She has been hitching a team of horses and driving a stagecoach this summer (horses run in my blood to some extent, but as a kid we had a demon-possessed Shetland pony and I have hated horses ever since. But my niece loves them. Sorry, I digress). Anyway, when Holly has not been working she grabs her fly-rod and does a little fishing (see, as I have blogged before fishing runs in the blood too!). She took a little trip to a lake on one day off and posted this picture of her catch (notice the pink fly-rod).
What you see is a larval tiger salamander that ate her bead-head nymph. My niece commented that she caught a salamander because of her mad fishing skills and obviously there were no fish present in the lake because she did not catch any.
I laughed at her claim because she might have been right. Let me tell you why, and ramble a bit about tiger salamanders.
The name of the lake she fished was Axolotl Lake. “Axolotl” is a name given to larval salamanders. Specifically “axolotl” refers to a species of salamander found in Mexico, but generically the name refers to larval salamanders. What do I mean by “larval” salamanders? Larval tiger salamanders are the aquatic form of the species that live entirely in water; they have flattened tails and gills. As adults they loose the gills and live a terrestrial lifestyle, returning to water to lay eggs and complete their life cycle. Here is another picture of a larval tiger salamander I found on the internet:
I am guessing that Axolotl Lake was named “axolotl” because it was full of larval salamanders, and waters that have an abundance of larval salamanders have no fish. I am betting my niece could spend a long time fishing there and never catch a fish. A variety of species of fish love to eat larval salamanders, and the only waters where I have found an abundance of larval salamanders have been those devoid of fish. I sampled a sandpit in central Nebraska one time to see what was in it; the first net we pulled up had a handful of huge larval salamanders and that is all I needed to see to know that there were no fish present.
Now tiger salamander larvae can exist a long time as larvae. They are extremely aggressive predators, but as long as they have plenty of food and clean water they may stay in their larval form. If they get crowded, run out of water or food, they change into the adult form and live the rest of their lives on land. Here is what the terrestrial adults look like:
And here is the National Geographic website where I found that photo with some additional information on tiger salamanders, http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/amphibians/tiger-salamander/ .
OK, let me bring this back to fish and fishing; you know that most of what I blog about has to deal with fish and fishing.
Tiger salamander larvae are a great bait! The only problem is you have to have some salamander larvae that are several inches long, 5 or 6 inches or more, to be good bait. I mentioned above that a variety of fish love to eat larval salamanders. In fact small bluegills and other panfish will nip at the legs and tails of larval salamanders. So, in order to catch some fish, you need larval salamanders that are large enough to keep the panfish from bothering them. If you can get some larval salamanders that are big enough, they are a great bait for bass, pike, muskie, catfish, walleye, you name it, all predator fish will eat ‘em.
However, the adult form is worthless as bait. I suspect that once the tiger salamanders change into their adult form they develop a flavor that is distasteful to fish and other predators. So, if you are at the bait shop and they try to make you a deal on a bunch of adult tiger salamanders–don’t bite.
As I just mentioned, occasionally you can find larval tiger salamanders for sale in the best bait shops. But, most bait shops will never have them, and even in bait shops that do, the supply may be inconsistent. Most of the larval salamanders that I have used for bait have been those I have collected myself. If you have access to some wetlands or small ponds that are devoid of fish, they might be loaded with larval salamanders. Nebraska’s sandhill lakes that are too alkaline, too “salty”, to support fish are often full of larval tiger salamanders. We had one of those lakes back on the old Bauer ranch in the Nebraska panhandle and before the center pivots sucked all the water and dried up the lake, it was full of larval salamanders. My grandparents discovered those “sallies” were great bait for pike up at “Hemingford Dam” (i.e. Box Butte Reservoir). There was even a time or two when a bait dealer all the way from Texas showed up to collect those salamanders from our lake.
Another place I have collected a few sallies for bait has been stock tanks at windmills. Some of those windmill tanks have been miles into the middle of the sandhills, but somehow an adult salamander found a way to lay eggs there and produce some larval salamanders.
Oh, I have to mention one other place where I have seen an abundance of larval salamanders–fish hatchery ponds. In fact, those larval salamanders can be a nuisance in hatchery ponds because there can be so many of them that they reduce the production of fish. All of those larval salamanders will compete for food with the little fish and those voracious little salamanders will eat a bunch of fingerling fish!
If you find some sallies for bait, they can be productive from spring through summer and into fall. Most of the fish I have caught on live larval salamanders have been caught in the summer and into the fall. The best rigging for fishing sallies is to “Keep it Simple, Stupid” (the K.I.S.S. principle). They are a lively bait and you want to use that to your advantage. A single hook from the bottom of the jaw and out the top will allow a live sally to swim and attract a predator fish. Livebait rigging using slip-sinkers is the most common way to fish larval salamanders, but I have caught a lot of fish by fishing them on a variety of jigheads. In a location where you need to suspend the bait over submerged weeds for example, a float or bobber would also work well.
Honestly, I do not mess with live bait a whole lot anymore when I am fishing, for any species. With that in mind, there are a bunch of plastic or rubber salamanders on the market that will also catch a bunch of fish. But, I will tell you that if you have a source of larval salamanders, it is worth the extra effort to collect them and keep them alive for use as bait. Here is a hint, if you catch a bunch of sallies to use for bait, crowd them as little as possible and keep ‘em well-fed (they will gobble up a bunch of nightcrawlers). If you crowd them they will start nipping at each other and those that survive the cannabalism will start their metamorphosis into the adult form which will not do you any good.
I can tell you that “back in the day”, back when I haunted several interstate lakes and several of those lakes had some big smallmouth bass, that in mid- to late-summer when the bite got tough, a larval salamander on a light jighead was my “go-to” bait for scratching some big smallies during the summer dog days. I would just tease that jig and sally through the tops of deep-water submerged aquatic vegetation, Chara or “skunkweed” mostly. I would get the jig head caught up on a sprig of vegetation and then just tighten up and let the bait hang there on it for a few seconds, just getting the attention of any nearby predators. After teasing the bait in the top of that vegetation for a bit I would pop it free and then as it glided back down there would be a “thump” and my line would tighten up–time to set the hook! I would like to leave you with a picture of one of those big smallmouths I caught using larval salamanders, but I do not have any of those in digital form. Instead I will again share a picture of my Grandma Bauer with a Box Butte pike; a fish I am betting she caught on a larval salamander collected from our alkaline sandhill lake.