Eight easy steps to sow a baitfish

Your blog author with a nice brown trout caught at the end of the summer on a sown smelt

Trolling with sown bait is a time-honored Maine tradition for catching salmonids. This highly-effective approach can be used with both fresh bait or dead preserved (e.g., frozen, salted, pickled) bait.


Live bait, and smelt in particular, are difficult or impossible to find at your local bait dealer in the summer. The alternative when trolling for salmonids in the summer, therefore, is to use either dead baitfish or lures (e.g., spoons or streamer flies). A dead sown baitfish, if prepared as described in this blog, will provide a much more realistic profile than an artificial lure. Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not implying that artificials don’t work, far from it. After all, I’ve caught way too many salmon and trout trolling with spoons and streamer flies over the years. What I am saying though is that a baitfish, even dead, is more natural-looking than an artificial lure and therefore increases the odds of catching the fish we so desire. I suspect the major reason that the Maine fishing rules only allow for artificial lures when fishing for salmonids in ponds and lakes in southern Maine after October 1 when those fish are getting ready to spawn is because the real thing is so much better at fooling them than artificial lures.


Personally, I prefer using a sliding minnow rig if my baitfish is alive. The reason is that a live baitfish will remain alive for a long time on the sliding minnow rig, and will therefore really look and swim like the real thing down below. On the other hand, one just can’t sow a live baitfish as described below and expect it to stay alive for long! So, my preference is to use the sliding minnow rig with live bait and the sowing technique with the stiffer dead bait.


Finally, over half a dozen different techniques have been developed to sow a baitfish. Each one gets to the end results slightly differently. The approach I discuss below was taught to me by a Maine old-timer. I find it quick and extremely easy to implement, and simple to teach. So, here it goes.

Step 1:

get the right ingredients: baitfish, monofilament line, treble hook, and sowing needle

Obtain the following items:

  • a baitfish (e.g., smelt or shiner),
  • a 5-foot long piece of monofilament fishing line of appropriate strength,
  • a #6 treble hook or smaller, depending on the size of the baitfish (use red hooks, if desired, to add some color),
  • a 5” sowing needle (I get mine from the arts and craft department at Walmart), and
  • a high-quality swivel to prevent line twisting


Step 2:

Attach the treble hook to one end of the 5-foot piece monofilament and thread the other end of the line through the eye of the needle


Step 3:

pass the needle through the anal vent and out the mouth


Place the baitfish firmly in your hand. With the other hand, grab the needle and push the point into the anal vent and out the mouth of the baitfish


Step 4:

pull the whole length of the monofilament line through the baitfish


Slowly pull the entire length of monofilament line through the baitfish until the treble hook touches the anal vent.


Step 5:

Push the shaft of the treble hook inside the baitfish


Gently push the shaft of the hook through the vent, ensuring that one of the three hooks is completely embedded inside the flesh behind the vent. If properly executed, the treble hook will now be completely buried inside the belly, except for two of the three hooks that stick out on either side of the baitfish. Make sure that these two outside hooks are placed symmetrical on either side of the belly so that the baitfish swims straight.


Step 6:

Push the needle through the head once, and then repeat again


Take the needle point and place it against the lower jaw of the baitfish close to the mouth. Gently push the needle through the jaw and the skull and pull the full length of the monofilament through the head. The goal is to sow the mouth shut so that it cannot accidentally open up and cause the baitfish to roll.


Step 7:

Repeat step 6 one more time to ensure proper closure of the mouth. Do NOT make a knot by the mouth as this would complicate the process of replacing a mangled baitfish for a new one if the need arises to do so.


Step 8:

The baitfish is now ready to be trolled!


Remove the needle from the monofilament line and place it on the side. Tie the free end of the monofilament to the swivel on the fishing line from your trolling rod. You are now ready to catch fish using a sown bait!


Step 9:

Follow the following steps to replace an old baitfish with a new one: (a) cut the monofilament line from the swivel, (b) remove the baitfish from the other end, (c) thread the line through the eye of the sowing needle, and proceed with Step 3. Continue trolling with sown bait and catch more fish 😊

Sown bait will not only catch salmonids! This gorgeous 19″ bronzeback was caught trolling a sown smelt 20 ft below the surface looking for brown trout.

Was the information in this blog useful? I invite you to share your thoughts and opinions.


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