In 1988, a young chemical engineer changed the face of trout fishing forever. Combining a formal education in chemistry and a lifelong interest in angling, Pure Fishing research scientist John Prochnow created a national fishing phenomenon: PowerBait.
In the two decades since the world was introduced to Berkley's ubiquitous moldable floating bait, tens of millions of trout anglers have caught hundreds of millions of fish on "formula" baits, and dozens of similar products have appeared on tackle store shelves from Ketchikan to Key West and everywhere in between.
These baits are effective, convenient and easy to use. Berkley's Power Bait and Eagle Claw's Nitro Bait are the most popular.
But, surprisingly, the majority of anglers who fish them miss out on some of the benefits.
"A lot of people I see using these baits don't really know how to fish them effectively," said Buzz Ramsey, western regional manager for Pure Fishing (purefishing.com).
"I see anglers not getting the right combination of hook size and size of bait needed to float the bait up off the bottom. They may not experiment with leader length, which makes a difference depending on the amount of water clarity and daylight on the water. There are just a lot of little things that most anglers don't do that would make a difference."
Formula handling 101
The basic theory behind these floating trout baits is that they provide two critical elements: attraction and buoyancy. Their function is to float off the bottom and into a fish's strike zone while dispersing chemical elements that stimulate strikes.
Most anglers, however, aren't cognizant of both the positive and negative effects they can have on their bait's attraction.
It all starts with the handling or lack thereof.
"Anytime you handle a bait, you risk contamination from whatever you may have on your hands," Prochnow said.
"Skin oils, whatever you had for lunch, whatever fuel or oil you got on your hands when you handled your motor. It can all influence the scent."
For that reason alone, trout anglers should have a baiting device in their tackle boxes, right next to the jars of formula bait.
"Using a baiter is quicker. It eliminates you getting your scent on the bait, and it packs the bait around the hook so it stays on better," Ramsey said.
Different bait brands have different levels of buoyancy, and hook size can also affect a bait's ability to float off the bottom.
Consequently, bait sizing is an inexact science. However, packing enough bait onto your hook is critical to your success.
"Start with a dime-sized bait, but make sure you have enough dough to float it off the bottom," Ramsey said.
"The more dough you use, the more buoyant it'll be."
The standard formula plunking rig starts with a small treble hook size 14, 16 or 18 but you can upsize to a 12 if fish are overly aggressive and you're able to fish bigger baits.
A 2 to 4-pound, 18-inch fluorocarbon leader works well in most lakes or reservoirs, but leader length should be adjusted according to water conditions, light levels and general habits of fish in each unique water.
"When you're casting out into a shallow lake under bright sun, a 12 to 18-inch leader keeps the bait down where the natural feed is," Ramsey said.
"When you have fish hugging the bottom, you don't need too long a leader. But on overcast days, when fish are higher in the water, you want to lengthen the leader to 24 to 30 inches."
More terminal tips
Many anglers crimp small split shot just above the leader and a No. 12 swivel, but a ¼ to three-eighths-ounce sliding egg sinker is a better bet, because it allows line to slip through when a fish bites, resulting in deeper hookups.
Ramsey also adds a small bead above the swivel, and takes the terminal rig a step further by adding a No. 52 duolock snap onto the swivel for quick changes after he's landed a fish.
"I'll have an extra rod ready, so when I get a trout in, I can unsnap my snap, snap it on the other rod and throw it right back out there," he said.
"That way, you can still be fishing while you're dealing with the fish. It can make a difference in keeping you fishing if there's a bite on."
Although the vast majority of formula bait usage occurs in lakes, ponds and reservoirs, moldable trout baits can also be very effective in rivers and streams. Yum!
Baits (yumbaits.com) which recently entered the formula bait market with TroutKrilla put paste baits in the hands of several guides on Arkansas' famed White River for testing, and immediately discovered that it could be used in several different ways in fisheries with current.
"Our team of guys on the White River uses a rig that's similar to a three-way rig, but they tie a dropper onto the line instead of using a swivel," said Jeff Samsel, public relations coordinator for Yum! Baits.
"They'll use a bell sinker and short leader to the hook, so it's suspended off the bottom, right in front of the fish. Depending on how hard the water is running, you can either drift with it right alongside your boat, in the feeding lane, or anchor up and fish it stationary, right on the bottom."
If you're on a river or stream where trout are actively rising, you can also dead drift formula baits right on the surface.
"You can anchor perpendicular to the current and use ultra-light line 2- or 3-pound test to drift your bait on the surface on a small (No. 12 to 14) light-wire hook," said Samsel.
"It's a really fun way to fish, but you have to have a really buoyant bait. All you do is set up upstream of a hole and manually feed out line so it drifts downstream. When a fish hits, you flip the bail and set the hook. It's almost like you're fishing a dry fly."
Making scents of it all
Regardless of which technique or fishery you're applying a formula bait to, it's almost always a good idea to add a scent boost to your bait by either dipping it into a liquid scent or applying it to terminal tackle.
Pautzke Liquid Krill, Eagle Claw Trout Gravy, Berkley Trout Dip and Pro-Cure Bait Sauce are good choices.
"Each bait had its own scent, but it's a good idea to give it an extra super charge," said Lisa Villani, product manager for Eagle Claw, which manufactures Nitro Bait (nitrobait.com) and several forms of scent.
"People tend to forget that when they're driving to the lake, or petting their dog, those scents get onto their hands. Fish are extremely sensitive to scents. I personally put some of our Grease on my hands before I go fishing."
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