"Crave". New hot trout bait.


Mar 11, 2001
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Trout “Crave” this new bait.

Years in the making, a new trout bait has hit the market this week that appeals to a trout’s baser instinct. The bait has sex appeal. “Crave” is the latest in a long series of floating baits that began back in 1966 with a product called Zekes. Crave is the birth child of Phil Mackey, owner-manager of Mt. Lassen Trout Farms in Red Bluff. Mackey’s trout hatchery delivers close to 1 1/2 million pounds of trout to sportfishing operations every year. It is arguably the most successful and most innovative trout-growing operation in the world.

Mackey’s charming wife, Nancy, calls him “the mad fish scientist.” He has isolated and developed unique color-strains of rainbow trout and has perfected a process to create triploid trout that are asexual and instead wasting energy producing eggs and breeding, they simply grow into very, very big trout. Now he’s come up with a new line of trout baits that focus on two primal drives -- feeding and reproducing. Crave is going to send other bait makers scrambling to catch up. “We know our testing shows that fish prefer this bait to any other dough baits on the market,” said Mackey. “There’s a lot of science, biological research, and a heck of a lot of hands-on work with this bait.

“We recognized a need for a better bait, one that would catch trout more effectively. There are a lot of novice anglers out there and this bait helps these people become more successful, which in turn will help recruit more anglers into the sport,” said Mackey. Trout fishing is as popular as it is today largely because of floating baits that have made anglers more effective. In 1966, Pratt Brothers Sporting Goods in Redlands was the first retail store in the nation to put jars of a brand new floating trout bait on their shelves. It was a bait that would revolutionize fishing for trout. The bait was called Zekes.

Zekes was being made in the garage of Frank Witteman's family home in Redlands. He and his two sons, Don and Richard, would fire up the pressure cooker and combine the ingredients, hand-fill the jars, and then lick labels and stick them on the glass. “We knew we had a product that worked because we had been catching fish on it for three years,” said Don Witteman. Other anglers had equally good success, with Zekes over shadowing the other baits available at the time. The word spread quickly. In 1967 over 7,000 jars of Zekes Floating Bait were sold in southern California and the Eastern Sierra Nevada -- all made in the Witteman's Redlands garage in batches of 200 jars at a time with three guys working together for three hours.

By 1970 they had to move to a 1,200-square foot building in La Canada to make over 100,000 jars that year, and in 1987 the enlarged Don Rich Company, named after the two sons, was selling over 1 million jars of the bait each year. During the fall of 1987 a group of fishermen from Berkley, Inc., a major tackle manufacturer in Spirit Lake, Iowa, were at June Lake in the Eastern Sierra Nevada testing a new floating bait. This bait not only floated, it had an added scent ingredients. Since 1985 Berkley scientists had been isolating the amino acids in different foods that drove hatchery trout into feeding frenzies. The new bait was laced with those scents.

“In two-and-a-half days we caught 130 rainbows. We were using rigs with two hooks about one-and-a-half feet apart, and we'd put Zekes or salmon eggs on one hook and Power Bait on the other so the trout had a choice. We caught five trout on Power Bait for every one we caught on Zekes, and six trout to one against salmon eggs,” said Dave Ohlaug of Berkley of the field test. In December, 1987, the bait was tested extensively at Irvine Lake in Orange County with the same phenomenal results, and by the time Power Bait was “officially” introduced at the American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Show in Las Vegas in August, 1988, there were already back orders for the new bait throughout Southern California.

“At the time we started into this project, Zeke's was the premier prepared bait. They had established a niche in the market, and it made sense for us to emulate some of Zeke's characteristics -- not how it was made, but the size of the jar and it's floating qualities,” said Dr. Keith Jones of Berkley. “It just seemed logical to follow what they'd done.” Berkley Power Bait was a wonder. Almost overnight the sales of Zekes dropped by one third and by the following year, the Don Rich Company was selling half as many jars of the original floating bait as it had before Berkley came out with scented Power Bait.

Don Witteman is candid about original Power Bait's superiority to regular Zekes in those days. Oh, he will tell you that Power Bait often doesn't float very well. But then he will say this: “In June of 1989, Ken Thompson, a fishing friend, and I were in the Sierra. He was using Zekes and I was using Power Bait one afternoon. He caught two and I caught eight,” said Witteman. “That's when we said we've got to develop a product that works as good as Power Bait.” That task fell on the elder Witteman.

“It hurt a lot. For him the success of Berkley was crushing,” said Richard Witteman about his father. But the older Witteman went to work in his kitchen, combining ingredients, taking tidbits of information he'd read or heard over the years, and incorporating them into new formulas. And each batch was tested against Power Bait. “In the fall of 1989, we gave a group of guys who test our baits six jars of six different things that dad had put together. One box of all six jars came back empty. They said they got a lot of bites, but it had come off too easily. That mixture was the beginning point, but we were finally in the ballpark with Power Bait,” said Don Witteman.

Testing continued throughout the summer of 1990 with refinements made in the consistency. A pattern began to emerge, this new bait was about as good as Power Bait on freshly planted trout, but there was an unexpected bonus: it was catching wild trout and holdover rainbows much better. Super Zekes was officially born. Early in the 1991 trout season, Michael Leese of Saugus caught a 20-pound, three-ounce brown trout from Grant Lake on the new Super Zekes, the largest trout every caught on a floating dough bait. A few weeks later the road to South Lake opened up and Don Witteman was there with the new bait. The lake has not been planted since the previous fall. There were at least 50 other anglers along the shore and Super Zekes outfished Power Bait three-to-one on these 11 to 14-inch holdover rainbows.

Wild fish and holdover trout are notorious for not taking prepared baits -- of any kind. This was a breakthrough. Richard Witteman attributes the success of Super Zekes to his father's “artistry” in blending his life-long fishing knowledge with today's technology in the homey setting of a kitchen. Don Witteman said Super Zekes helped them elbow their way back into this competitive market, and the success on wild and holdover fish was their new trump card. It has been a battle ever since. Since the early 1990s, Zekes and Power Bait have been improving their formulas. Zekes introduced Sierra Gold in 1995, a completely new scent formulation that improved its effectiveness. Berkley upped the ante with its “Select” Power Bait lines that got better each year. Now the new Power Bait Turbo Dough advertising touts that research proves it “is 42 percent better than other trout bait.”

Well, that was before Crave. Phil Mackey says that he has an advantage that other bait makers and testers don’t have: He has about a million fish he can test baits on at any given time, and can design protocol to test just a single variable. The science is sound and the results are repeatable. Some of what Mackey found out was something that many anglers have known for a long time: Trout are primarily sight feeders. “A huge part of this equation is color -- more so than I ever imagined. Sight attraction with colors is very significant, and movement is always important, there’s no question about that. Trout must be visually stimulated first,” said Mackey, and then once they are attracted close to the bait, the smell-taste characteristics take over.

Think of a trout’s brain as a lock with three sets of tumblers. The first tumbler that must fall before the fish will eat is to have a bait that gets it attention visually and attracts the fish. It may be the most important, because if the fish never sees or comes to the bait, it will never smell or eat it. For the second tumbler to fall, the bait must smell attractive and entice the trout to take the bait into its mouth. Finally, the bait must be recognized as food in the taste test. If it keeps the bait in its mouth or swallows it, the trout is going to be caught -- or at least hooked -- by the angler.

The testing led Mackey and his crew to a series of colors and color combinations, some that are unique and focus on trout’s seeing ability. Mackey was able to prove in his testing what colors where most visible and attractive to trout under various water conditions. Old fly-fishermen who lived by the old standard, “bright day, bright fly; dark day, dark fly,” will be pleased to know that is very true. The standard Crave Premium line is divided between bright colors for fishing in clear water on bright days, and darker tones recommended for fishing on dark days or in off-color water. All sparkle and catch light to aid in their visibility.

But the testing also showed something else. Baits that had more than one distinct color were better than solid colors. Bright colors intermingled in a bait were better than a solid bright color. Why? While Mackey doesn’t have the trout to the point they will give detailed answers to questions like that, but he theorizes there may be two answers. First, that the trout see more than one color they find attractive, increasing the bait’s appeal. Second, very few things in nature are a single, solid color, they are mottled and variable. That could make the baits seem more natural and more food-like. Either way, the multi-color baits proved more effective than solid ones.

The most innovative bait colors were developed for low-light situations or deep and off-color water. Like most animals, trout and all other fish see much further into the blue or violet end of the light spectrum. These bluish colors are the most visible colors after the sun has set. Crave Ultra Violet colors taps into dawn and dusk fishing with a bait line that is more visible at the time of day. Crave Glow Bright is phosphorescent. That means it glows in the dark after exposure to another light source (flashlight, sunlight etc.), making it visible at night or in deep water at much greater distances than other colors.

Neither of these two things are news to the scientific community, but they are head thumpers for the fishing industry. You know, everyone whacks their palm to their forehead and says, “Of course, I should have thought of that.” The color innovations are only part of the equation. But once the fish has been attracted to the bait, the other two tumblers have to fall in the trout’s brain for them to eat. Scent and taste then become paramount. Mackey tested over 20 different substances that other research had shown to be attractive to trout for a variety of reasons. Sexual stimulants were most alluring in their affect on the trout in many circumstances. In running the hatchery and talking to anglers, Mackey knew that fresh roe is almost irresistible to trout and salmon. In his crew’s research, they found that it was the sexual stimulant scent in the fresh roe that excited the fish.

“The sex attractant in this is a very strong biological stimulator. It’s a craving,” said Mackey. When the research started focusing on these special scents, the results started to get more and more exciting. In the Crave staff’s trout laboratory, testing progressed to the point where this new bait was easily outfishing everything else on the market. Their studies showed that other dough baits eaten by the trout were spit out 40 percent of the time. With Crave, the trout spit it out seven percent of the time. Crave also was far more effective in attracting trout in the first place.

“Our strength comes down to over 30 years of working with millions and million of trout, sound science, and superior research capabilities -- more so than anyone else in the industry,” said Mackey. “In fact, we would venture to say we probably know more about the competitor’s bait than they do in the areas of attraction and palatability.” said Mackey. But the testing has gone well beyond just the laboratory “So far Crave has worked amazingly well on both hatchery and wild fish in actual fishing field trials throughout the West. This product is actually food-based with nutritional value and fish recognize it as something good to eat,” said Mackey.

For anglers the benefits are obvious. For the other companies, there will be a period of scrambling to catch up and develop an even more successful floating dough bait, a bait whose roots are over 40 years old. Frank Witteman, who passed away last year at 94, began tinkering with micro balloons mixed with Velveeta cheese in 1959. The inert tiny, hollow glass balls were used in the aerospace industry to decrease a compound's weight. For Witteman, they made Velveeta cheese float up off the bottom.

“Velveeta was the big job at that time (for trout). I thought it might be a good idea to have that bait float up off the bottom, make it more attractive to the fish, and keep it out of the weeds and rocks,” said Witteman, during a 1991 interview. His first batches were mixed up with his hands, and while it had the floating qualities he wanted, it wasn't all that effective. Off and on for three years, he tinkered with the problem. He subsequently learned that it was probably the amino acids in his hands that acted as an scent aversion to the fish. But in 1963, he mixed up his first batch in a saucepan without using his hands.

It was June and Don Witteman went to Mamie Lake in the Sierra. He had brought a few jars of this new bait his dad wanted him to try. Fishing was terrible when they arrived. No one had caught a fish all day. “We fished for a half-hour, nothing. So I said, `Let's give Dad's bait a try.' We caught our limits in an hour and gave the bait away to other people around us, who then caught their limits. People were coming over to our camp asking, `Got any more of that Zekes?' “ said Don Witteman.

That was the first time that all the trout brain’s tumblers fell for a suspending, dancing, bobbing bait that looked, smelled and tasted like food. The concept has been refined and improved over the years, but trout fishing has not been the same since. And while people might be asking for Crave or Power Bait or Zekes Sierra Gold these days, they are still asking for Frank Witteman's original idea in various forms.

SIDEBAR: Fishing Floating Baits -- matthews/ons 03oct01

How to fish floating trout baits

The most effective way to use new dough trout baits, like the new Crave, Power Bait, or Zekes Sierra Gold is with a floating bait rig. The rig is very simple. Take a small egg-shaped sinker with a hole through the center and slip it on your main fishing line. Tie the end of the line to a small barrel swivel (without a snap attached), and then tie on 18- to 24-inches of two- to four-pound test leader material to the other end of the swivel. It is best to use leader material is lighter in breaking strength than your regular fishing line. To the end of the leader, tie on a No. 16 or 18 treble hook. Mold a small ball of floating bait around the treble hook, just covering all of the hook points.

The less you handle the bait with your fingers, the more effective your bait will be. Human hands have an amino acid that is an aversion scent to fish, so the less of this you deposit on the bait through handling, the more effective your bait becomes. There are small, syringe-like applicators that allow anglers to bait these small hooks without touching the bait at all. This is the best method of all for baiting small trebles. Use as light a sinker and swivel as possible that will still allow you to cast a good distance from shore with your fishing gear. Using two- to four-pound test line on spinning tackle generally allows for longer casts and the use of 1/16 to 1/8th ounce egg sinkers. If you have six- or eight-pound test line on your reel, you can still use this rig with 1/4-ounce sinkers, but you need to use lighter leader (two- to four-pound test) material to attach to your swivel and hook.

There are two ways to fish the floating bait rig. First, you can let the bait sit, suspended up off the bottom where fish might be cruising. This type of tactic is best where there is some water movement -- where water enters lakes or ponds or in big pools in streams. The bait first attracts trout visually, so movement is important. In calm lake water, it is better to move the bait frequently. A short pop of the rod tip will cause the bait to dive down toward the sinker and move forward, much like the natural movement of an aquatic insect or baitfish. This catches the attention of trout. Pausing for a few moments before each movement allows the bait to slowly start to rise back up again. By using the most visible color floating bait for the water conditions, you are sure to attract fish from the greatest distance, and then once they are close enough to smell the bait which entices them to strike.

When fishing the floating rig, it is always best to keep the rod in your hands. Trout frequently take the bait when it is paused and floating slowly upward in the water column. It is best to give the trout a little slack by lowering the rod tip so it can take the bait deeply and then set the hook. There are two types of trout lures anglers can enhance with the use of either add-ons scents or floating dough baits -- small trout jigs and the three-inch Berkley Power Worm. Both have proven to be very effective for trout fishing, both planted and wild trout, and the addition of baits like Crave, Power Bait, or Sierra Gold just makes them even better. On small tube jigs, you can either dip the bait into one of the past or liquid scents or use the dough baits to fill the tube portion of the jig. Micro jigs, which have an exposed portion of the hook shank, are ready made for anglers to roll a “body” onto the jig, adding both color and scent to the jig. Roll out a small worm of dough bait and then thread it onto the shank of the jig’s hook. This adds a life-like body to the jig.

A general rule of thumb, is that the smaller the jig you can fish, the more effective they are at catching the trout. Mini Jigs and Finger Jigs are two of the most popular brands of tube jigs, but there are many others. The 1/16-ounce size is the largest veteran jig fishermen recommend, and the 1/32- and 1/64th-ounce sizes get more play. Jigs this size almost mandate that you fish ultra-light line in the two- to four-pound test range. There are two primary ways to fish the small jigs. The most popular method is to tie the line directly to the jig, cast it out, allow it to sink to the desired depth (often the bottom), and then retrieve the lure in a dancing, bouncing motion. This can be done at a variety of speeds, but in each case the lure is popped up through in the water column with a snap of the wrist and then allowed to fall slowly back down. Then the jig is snapped up again, and then allowed to fall. The speed and depth is varied until you find what the fish prefer.

The erratic motion of the jig attracts the trout. Fished this way, the small jigs actually look very much like a tiny, wounded minnow. The bigger trout that have been in a lake for more than a few days have started feeding on the lake's natural minnows and these jigs are a dinner bell for the trout, often enticing them when other methods fail. By adding the scented baits, you trigger feeding instincts within the trout. If the erratic motion doesn't attract the trout, try a steady retrieve, but move your rod from side to side while reeling in the jig so it swims smoothly through the water but changes direction frequently.

The second method used to fish jigs is with a float. You can use a variety of floats, but one of the most versatile method is to use a tiny, clear bubble float. This float is egg-shaped and has a plastic tube that runs through the center of the float. The plastic tube can be pulled out and the float filled with water to give it more weight for casting. The fishing line is run through the tube and a jig tied to the end of the line. Many anglers add rubber “bobber stops” ahead of the jig and above the float on the main fishing line. The bobber stops catch at the bubble and prevent more line from moving through the float. This allows you to set minimum and maximum depths where the jig will be in the water.

When this rig is cast out, the jig will sink either to the bottom or to the depth where you have placed a bobber stop. The bubble or float will remain on the surface when you cast, allowing you to fish a specific area and depth precisely. Most anglers then simply twitch the jig ever so slightly to get it to dance up and down an inch or two.

If this method doesn't get the fishes’ attention, you can make the jig swim greater distances up toward the float and then fall back down. Often a cruising trout with rush over to a jig that rises up a foot or two in the water and then snap up the lure as it falls back toward the bottom. This is especially effective when the bottom has weed cover and the trout thinks the prey is escaping as it falls.

These methods are very effective when trout are holding in a specific area or cruising along an edge or weed line and you want to keep the jig in that zone. The bubble float allows the jig to be danced more effectively and stay stationary in that zone better than small clip-on bobbers. Clip-on bobbers, however, can also be effective. When the wind is ruffling the water, a simple clip-on bobber allows the jig to hang at the depth you set. The wave action makes the lure dance up and down, requiring almost no effort on the part of the angler.
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