Grass shrimp: Small bait, big results

If you fish for bream and haven’t tried grass shrimp yet, then you need to know: You’re missing out! Freshwater grass shrimp are an excellent bait for all species of bream, come free, are usually easy to collect, and (since they’re not available in bait shops) can give you an advantage over “the next guy.”

Grass shrimp are known to scientific folk as Palaemonetes, but are also commonly called ghost shrimp or glass shrimp because they are semitransparent. There are a variety of species, which are usually found in lakes or slow-moving streams. As the name implies, grass shrimp are often associated with vegetation.

Freshwater grass shrimp may occasionally be found in brackish water, but generally stay in (and will only reproduce in) fresh water. Sexes are separate, with distinct males and females; the latter can be easily identified when carrying eggs under the abdomen. Their life span is only about one year, and their abundance in any particular water body may vary seasonally. They can reach a size of about 2 inches, but average closer to 1 or 1.5 inches in length. The grass shrimp’s diet consists mainly of algae and plant matter.

But all you need to know as an angler is that grass shrimp catch fish. Although used primarily as a bream bait, few Florida fish will turn their nose up at a grass shrimp. While fishing for sunfish, I’ve routinely had passing bass up to a couple pounds in size take my grass shrimp offering as well.

So how do you get this great bait? In most lakes, it’s fairly easy. You’ll need a sturdy-framed, long-handled dipnet with a mesh size of 1/4” to 1/16”. A larger mesh will let shrimp escape, while a finer mesh will become clogged with vegetation and silt and not drain well. Any kind of reinforcement of the net bag around the frame is a major plus, because this net will really be “beating the bushes”. Bait and tackle shops sell a variety of nets that will work, but if you have trouble finding an ideal net, this certainly won’t prevent you from catching shrimp. As long as the mesh size is about right, it should work at least moderately well.

Next, you’ll need a lake or canal with at least some vegetation in it. I’ve found that even a mostly bare lake can still produce a morning’s bait if I can locate even a small patch of submerged weeds to run my net through. Emergent shoreline grass is ideal, but any shoreline vegetation that you can readily run your net through should produce results. I’ll “beat” my net through the vegetation in several consecutive sweeps through the same spot, pushing the vegetation down as I sweep. Then I’ll plop my net on the grass and pick through the vegetation accumulated in the bottom of the net bag for my tiny quarry.

You’ll soon learn why grass shrimp are also called glass or ghost shrimp — their translucent bodies can be hard to spot amid the weeds and other lake debris accumulated in the bottom of your dipnet. And once you spot them, the challenge isn’t over: they will be jumping with a powerful flick of the tail, and you have to be fast to grab them! I’ve found it helpful to expose the contents of the net bag a little at a time, in order to minimize shrimp jumping out of the net faster than I can grab them. When I’m done, I put the remaining plant debris in the water, not in a mess on shore.

It usually takes me less than half an hour to round up enough shrimp for a morning’s fishing. Most lakes, ponds, and canals will harbor grass shrimp, though I have fished a few where they seemed pretty scarce. I’ve also noticed cyclical patterns on the waters I fish, with the shrimp being less common or smaller at some times than at others. However, it’s pretty rare that I get completely “skunked” as far as catching this bait goes.

The shrimp go into a standard small bait bucket or “minnow bucket” with latching lid, available at most bait and tackle shops. Two versions of these plastic buckets are available, the standard bucket and a ventilated bucket that rests inside a larger bucket. The ventilated bucket design makes water changes easy — just pull it out of the main bucket, let the water drain, then refill it from the lake before placing it back in the main bucket. You can also leave this bucket in the water, but some of the grass shrimp will be small enough to work their way out of the holes — ditto for draining the bucket if the day’s catch of shrimp is running small.

Grass shrimp are a hardy bait, and only an occasional water change is needed to keep them healthy. Their oxygen requirements are low, but if the water gets too warm the shrimp will start dying. However, if kept cool enough (inside a cooler over ice), these shrimp can actually survive for some time placed in layers of wet newspapers, as I’ve seen other anglers occasionally do.

Because of both the small size of a sunfish’s mouth and the diminutive size of my bait, I use a #8 or #10 Aberdeen hook when fishing shrimp for sunfish. I hook the bait through the bend in the tail.

My bobber is equally small; it takes almost no flotation at all to suspend a grass shrimp. I’ve found 1-inch, cylindrical foam bobbers work well. These also put up little resistance when a wary sunfish takes the bait; it will be more likely to hang onto the shrimp rather than drop it. I usually position the bobber about 3 feet above the hook, but adjust for a deeper presentation if I don’t get any bites pretty quickly.

I use a tiny split shot (and again, it doesn’t take much) to sink my shrimp to the desired depth. Part of the reason I use a split shot is that it keeps most of my line to the shrimp taut, notifying me immediately if I have a bite.

Usually, a bobber will simply disappear — then set the hook quickly to avoid gut hooking, because most fish will really gulp down shrimp. Another time to set the hook and start reeling is if your bobber just starts sliding across the water’s surface without being pulled under: something has grabbed your shrimp and is heading for home.

Of course, grass shrimp can also be fished on the bottom — where bigger bluegill and redear sunfish often congregate. (A general rule when going after bream is to fish deeper if all you are catching are small ones.) Use only enough weight to cast your bait where you want to place it, and keep it there. For me with my ultralight spinning gear, that’s usually just a couple of split shot or, at most, a 1/8 ounce egg sinker set a foot or so ahead of the bait.

Heavier gear may require a bit more weight. Set the hook as soon as you feel a bite — fish will swallow grass shrimp without hesitation, so there’s no need to delay when the strike comes. This will help minimize deeply hooked fish.

So there you have it. Grass shrimp may not always work better than live worms or crickets, but they do nearly always work at least as well. And they’re as fun to catch as they are to fish — give them a try!



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