As winter exits the area, anglers are dusting off their rods and loading tackle boxes in preparation for Saturday's statewide opening of trout season. Bait shops are still stocking up on live bait, and anglers have begun making their all-important selections and purchases of bait.
"People have been buying bait," said Dan Janitor of Tackle Unlimited in Jefferson Hills. "The winter was pretty slow but now it's picking up."
As more anglers opt for live bait, Janitor said some steps must be taken to ensure it remains alive and lively before reaching the hook.
One of the most widely used live bait presentations are night crawlers, which can be purchased almost anywhere or caught by hand late in the evening. When purchasing night crawlers, be sure to look for healthy ones that are firm and lively.
Janitor said most worms, such as crawlers, red worms, meal worms and butter worms, should be kept at 45 to 50 degrees in a refrigerator, because temperature is critical to keeping them alive and healthy.
Night crawlers and red worms can be packed in dirt or bedding that is mixed with water, and then squeezed until damp.
"You don't want it really wet or they will die," Janitor said. "Worms don't like too much water."
To maintain the cooler temperature while on the creek, stream or lake, Janitor said to place bait in a cooler and pack ice around the outside so as not to contaminate the dirt or bedding. The worms should be kept in their container and, like all bait, kept out of the sun.
Lee Murray, owner of Lock 3 Bait and Tackle in Cheswick, said his biggest sellers are maggots, meal worms and wax worms. If kept at the right temperature, he said maggots and meal worms can be kept for four to five months. Wax worms have a shorter life span. As for butter worms, he said the jury is still out.
"We never have them long enough to see how long they live," he said. "They are kind of a new bait on the scene [in] the last three or four years."
Maggots are stored at the shop in a special cooler that maintains a temperature of around 33 degrees to keep them from turning into flies.
"They'll stay in that larva stage for months at a time at that temperature," he said.
Cooling to 50 to 55 degrees will halt the metamorphosis of wax worms into moths. Butter worms, the sterile larval form of Chilean moths, should be kept cool as well -- they will die if kept too warm.
Although temperature is key, Murray said it's not an exact science and that most live baits can endure small fluctuations in temperature.
Keeping minnows alive can be challenging. If they are going to be stored overnight or for longer periods of time, both Janitor and Murray recommended storing them in a bucket and using an aerator, which keeps the water oxygenated.
Minnows should be placed in an ample amount of water and a conditioner should be added to remove chlorine, which is toxic to minnows. An oxygen pill can also be added to the water to ensure their longevity. If chlorinated water such as tap water is going to be used without a water conditioner, Janitor said it should sit for a day before adding minnows.
A water temperature of around 45 degrees should be maintained. The warmer the water, the faster the minnows will use up the oxygen and die, Murray said. Since minnows prefer a cool environment, they should be stored in a cool place such as a basement or garage.
Murray said minnows can last for at least a month if kept at the right temperature and properly aerated.
Maintaining this cool temperature is critical when fishing with them, too, Janitor said. Ice can be used, but should not be added directly to the water because it may have been made with chlorinated water. Instead, Janitor recommended placing ice cubes in a plastic bag before submerging them in the minnow bucket.
Properly disposing of minnows is as important as choosing and caring for them, Murray said, citing recent concern over invasive species that could contaminate Pennsylvania waterways.
"There's starting to be a lot of discussions of what you do with your minnows [at the end of the fishing trip]," he said. "They are starting to recommend that you don't release them to the wild in case there is an exotic species in the minnow bucket."
Janitor agreed and recommended that anglers err on the side of caution when disposing of all types of bait.
"The best thing to do is to take what is left over, including the container, and put it in a disposal unit like a garbage can or dumpster," he said. "If [park or Fish and Boat officials] see you dumping anything streamside, they are going to have issues with you."
The regional opening day of trout season was March 30 in all waters in the following southeastern counties: Adams, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Cumberland, Dauphin, Delaware, Franklin, Juniata, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton, Perry, Philadelphia, Schuylkill and York. Statewide, the season will begin at 8 a.m. Saturday.