Joe Chappell

Frogs as Bait? – A Peek into 15th Century Fishing Bait.

Over 500 hundred years ago they obviously didn’t have boilies and pellets so what did they use? As you can imagine native earthworms such as the anecic earthworm and maggots were readily available and often used however there were lots of strange of baits that have been forgotten about. In this blog, I’m going to cover some 15th century baits and bait tips.

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Some anecic earthworm I dug a few months ago from the garden.

All this information is coming from an essay written by Dame Juliana Berners in 1496. I have linked the original and a modern English translation at the end of the blog.

Bernes often mentions using cocktail baits of different things, one such cocktail which she recommends for trout in august is the flesh fly, anecic earthworm and bacon fat. Yep that’s right, bacon fat! It’s a weird combination but one which sounds irresistible to a trout so I can see why it would work.

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A sausage and bacon roll which I enjoyed a few months ago.

These next two baits stuck out to me and were mentioned for catching barbel. The first is made by taking some squares of cheese (I’m not sure what cheese she is referring to here but a hard cheese such as cheddar seems likely). Bernes says to burn the cheese at the point of your hook until yellow and roughen the surface to resemble a woodlouse. She says that it needs binding to the hook with arrow makers silk, I’m assuming this is because it is too delicate to hook. I’m sure that maybe a pellet band may do the job just as well. She recommends this burnt cheese bait for March and April.

For autumn and winter Bernes recommends one of the strangest baits mentioned. She says to take equal parts of sheep’s tallow (tallow is a hard fatty substance) and soft cheese (Maybe a brie) and a little honey. She says to grind or press them together and moisten the mixture until tough. Then add a little flour and make into small pellets. This seems somewhat like a cheese paste and I’m sure it would be effective. If you were to add dyes / flavourings to this weird mix, then it could be devastating.

Carp are only briefly mentioned in this book as there are “few in England”. Bernes admits she doesn’t know much about carp however mentions that minnows and worms are good baits. We know that carp are omnivorous and many have been caught on lures and live baits while targeting perch and pike but it surprised me that minnow was one of the two baits mentioned. It shows just how little we knew about carp 500 years ago.

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Friend of a friend Wayne Fletcher with a 27lb carp caught on a lure.

You saw it in the title, frogs with their legs cut off. Bernes recommends that if you’re in search of a spring chub, you should use a young frog with it’s feet cut off. Now I’m unsure if she means a developing tadpole or an actual frog here however later on, she mentions using a young frog with three legs cut off at the body and one cut at the knee. Because of this I think she is referring to a frog not a tadpole however I may have misinterpreted.

Butterflies are beautiful and I love watching them fly around in the summer months. Bernes obviously wasn’t too fond of them and recommends using them to catch bream.

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A bream caught by my dad. Disclaimer: No butterflies were harmed in the capture of this bream.

Brown bread toasted with honey is another favourite, especially for tench. Another weird bait supposed to tempt the tench is a worm smeared with a paste. This paste is made from the black blood from a sheep’s heart, flour and honey. She recommends mixing with water until a little softer than a paste.

For roach, dace, bleak, gudgeon and minnows bait’s aren’t as unexpected. She recommends many different bugs and grubs including caddis worms, maggots, and “the grub in the dunghill”. She also recommends using bacon fat for roach and dace which is something I might try. Wheat well boiled and then soaked in blood for 24 hours is also bait recommended for roach, dace and bleak.

Finally I’ll tell you about some of the baits used for pike. As you would have expected, roach is one of the baits mentioned. Herring is also mentioned as a top bait. Something which I’ve never heard off is soaking the bait in asafoetida. Bernes says you will not fail to catch if you do this. ‘Asafoetida is the dried latex  exuded from the rhizome or tap root of several species of Ferula’ From Wikipedia. Ferula are a group of herbaceous plant native to the Mediterranean and central Asia. You can buy it from many places, I’m sure some supermarkets likely stock it too. I’ve tasted it once before, I can’t remember where from but I remember it had a strong flavour, somewhat like onions.

One tip which is mentioned throughout is to nip the head from worms, I’m sure many anglers already do this but if you’ve never done it before it sounds like a good recommendation. Especially in coloured water, it could make your worm that bit easier to find for the fish.  It’s definitely one tip that I’m going to be talking forward into my fishing this year.

Another tip is to use any bait which the fish regurgitate. Bernes says this is a good tactic for bigger fish. I’ve actually done this myself when sea fishing before, a whiting threw up a goby so I hooked it on and caught another fish with it.

That’s all from me but I’d recommend checking out the full book. It mentions how to make your own rod, line, hooks, floats and gives a very interesting insight into medieval fishing. It’s not too long and should only take 15 minutes or so to read. I’ll link both the original which has some images but is hard to make sense of and a translated version below. Thanks for making it to the end and I hope you enjoyed. There’s definitely a few tips and tricks that I’ll take forward from this.

Translated Version

Original –

2 replies on “Frogs as Bait? – A Peek into 15th Century Fishing Bait.”

Heard of asafoetida before but in a more modern context. I THINK it was in association with barbel baits. But didn’t they have it good way back then, 500 years ago: FEW carp in England. 😉

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