Fishing with Live Bait – a Complete Guide!
This article will thoroughly cover fishing with live bait. Live bait is used successfully by many anglers to catch every game fish that swims. There are many live baits for anglers to choose from, but they can be broken down into a few categories.
My name is Capt Jim Klopfer and I am a fishing charter captain in Sarasota, Florida. I enjoy fishing with lures, but day in and day out, live bait is tough to beat. It evens the playing field a bit for anglers with less experience. This is true in both freshwater and saltwater applications.
Live bait varieties
Live bait choices are extensive, but really fall into just a few categories. These are worms, minnows and bait fish, crustaceans, leeches, grubs, and insects. Keep in mind I am discussing live baits in this article. There are certainly more natural and commercial baits that anglers can use, such as squid, livers, bread and doughballs, Gulp baits, and more.
Fishing with worms
Worms of all sorts are very effective for anglers fishing with live bait. They are easily obtained, stay alive a long time with minimal care, and catch just about every species of fish that swims. Many anglers caught their first fish using a live worm under a float. I am included in that group!
Read more about live baits for freshwater fishing in my article
Worms have a lot of scent and undulate seductively in the water. This is an extremely effective combination. They can be fishing right on the bottom, under a float, or allowed to sink naturally through the water column. Anglers also slowly troll worms for walleye, trout, and other species.
For the most part, worms are used by freshwater anglers. Nightcrawlers are the largest and are the best choice for bass, walleye, catfish, and other large game fish. Small pieces can be used for panfish and bluegill. Red wigglers are available at many bait stores and I like them best for bluegill and panfish.
Both nightcrawlers and wigglers are readily available at most places that sell tackle. As long as they are kept cool, they will stay alive for a long time. Simple garden worms work very well on just about every species. Most anglers catch their own in some good soil and around compost.
While most worms are used by freshwater anglers, there are a few that saltwater anglers use. The main worms used are bloodworms and sandworms. Bloodworms are one of my favorite baits when fishing in the northeast. They are expensive, but very effective. Also be careful, they bite!
Worms can be hooked through the head and allowed to wiggle enticingly. This works well for walleye, trout, and bass. Worms can also be hooked through the body several times, this works best for catfish and bottom species. Finally, worms or pieces of a worm can be threaded on the hook, which is a good choice when fishing for panfish.
Fishing with minnows and bait fish
Big fish eat little fish, it is a fact of life. On my saltwater fishing charters, I catch most of my big fish on a live bait fish. Florida largemouth bass anglers catch trophy fish using 12” live shiners. All over the country, anglers have success using live bait fish and minnows when fishing with live bait.
Minnows are the top live bait for crappie!
Most freshwater bait shops sell live minnows. They are used to catch a variety of species including bass, walleye, pike, and trout. Live minnows are by far the top live bait for crappie. Minnow species vary by region, but they are all similar. Anglers can also catch minnows using a trap or net, just check local laws before doing so.
Read this article I wrote on catching bait with a cast net
For the most part, saltwater anglers catch their own bait fish using cast nets or on hooks. Large schools of local bait fish are often easily available. This is something I do on my fishing charters in the summer, bait fish are abundant and easy to catch. Larger bait fish are caught using small hooks and pieces of squid or shrimp.
Minnows and bait fish require more effort.
The main disadvantage to fishing with minnows and other bait fish is that they are much more trouble to acquire and keep alive. Unlike worms, which are fine in the fridge, minnows and bait fish need aeration and clean water. Commercially raised minnows are tough and stay alive fine in a bucket with a battery operated aerator. Most fishing boats have big wells with strong pumps which change and aerate the water. Anglers fishing for striped bass in lakes need to keep large herring and shad alive for the day.
The idea when fishing with bait fish is to keep them alive as long as possible. The hook win the bait will caught it to act wounded, which will draw in game fish. Most anglers hook the bait in the back just behind the dorsal fin or through the lips. The minnow can be fished under a float, on a bottom rig, or just free lined in the water.
Crustaceans are excellent fishing bait
Crustaceans are outstanding fishing baits! Without a doubt, the number one live bait used in saltwater fishing is shrimp. They are readily available at every coastal bait shop. I use them on my trips all year, especially in the winter when the bait fish are gone. Shrimp require aeration but will be fine in a bucket for a few hours when the water is cool.
I wrote this article on the best live baits for saltwater fishing
Shrimp are versatile and anglers fishing with live bait will catch everything that swims. I almost always hook the live shrimp in the head, just under the horn. This allows it to swim freely. The bait can be fished under a float, free lined, or on the bottom. I will thread the shrimp on the hook when bottom fishing for sheepshead and snapper.
There are also other varieties of crabs that saltwater anglers will use. Sand fleas (mole crabs) are a top bait for pompano. Fiddler crabs and oyster crabs are used for sheepshead. Blue crabs are used for tarpon, permit, striped bass, redfish, and other top saltwater game fish.
Freshwater anglers fishing with live bait use crustaceans effectively as well. The most widely used freshwater crustacean is the crayfish. These little lobsters are abundant and offer game fish a nice dose of protein. Many artificial lures are designed to mimic them. Smallmouth bass in particular really love crayfish!
Crayfish are the best live bait for smallmouth bass!
Grass shrimp are a fantastic live bait, especially for bluegill and panfish. Some shops sell them in containers that look like take out. Anglers can catch them with a net along grassy shorelines. They are small, so tiny hooks and light lines work best.
Fishing with leeches
Leeches are a bit of a specialty live bait used by freshwater anglers in the cooler parts of North America. The live quite a while in the fridge. Leeches are most often used for walleye and smallmouth bass, but they will certainly catch other species as well. They undulate very seductively in the water when hooked through the front.
Grubs are excellent live baits for panfish
Grubs are another live bait that is a bit of a specialty bait. These include mealworms and wax worms for the most part. They are easy to obtain and will stay alive a long time. Anglers can even purchase them on Amazon and other online stores. Grubs are mostly used by anglers ice fishing for panfish and other species. However, they work very well all year long. Grubs can also be used in conjunction with lures such as jigs and spoons.
Fishing with insects
Insects have bee used by freshwater anglers for a long time, ever since a grasshopper was seen being eaten by a fish. The most popular insect that is used as live bait is the cricket. Gray crickets are commercially raised and sold at bait shops. Again, it is a bit of a specialty bait and is deadly on big bluegill and other panfish. They are kept in special cages and hooked under the collar.
Best rigs for fishing with live bait
Anglers fishing with live bait have three different options; bottom fishing, fishing the bait under a float, and free lining it. All three methods work well, depending in the situation. I will cover them all along with the best rigs to use.
Free lining a live bait
Free lining a live bait is the easiest method to use when fishing with live bait. The angler simply ties on a hook, then attaches the bait. The bait is then cast out and allowed to settle in the water. The bait will swim, wiggle, or whatever in the water. This is a very natural presentation.
I like to free line a shrimp or bait fish out behind my boat as it drifts along. The bait will swim naturally as the boat drifts with the tide. Anglers can do this from shore with good success. The same principle applies to slow trolling with live bait when no wind or current is present. It is also an excellent technique when fishing streams, allowing the bait to drift naturally along just over the rocks is a very effective presentation!
The bait, whether a worm, shrimp, or bait fish, is usually hooked through the head. This results in it looking as natural as possible as opposed to working sideways with the drift or current. A split shot can be added if it is required to get the bait down a bit deeper.This technique is employed by anglers fishing offshore for the largest of game fish.
Fishing live bait under a float or bobber
There are times when adding a float or bobber will help anglers catch more fish. The float will suspend the bait at a determined depth. This can be advantageous to keep the bait from sinking down into the weeds or other cover. The float also adds casting weight and gives a visual reference when a fish takes the bait.
Floats and bobbers come in many shapes, styles, and colors. However, they all work the same. Panfish anglers use them extensively to present worms and crickets in shallow water. Live minnows can be hooked under the dorsal fin, this results in them fighting against the flats, which attracts fish even more. Here in Florida, a live shrimp under a noisy popping cork is a proven method that will catch all types of fish.
Bottom fishing with live bait
Many game fish species feed on or near the bottom. The structure and cover attracts both predator and prey. Therefore, a lot of fishing with live bait entails presenting the bait on the bottom. Obviously, a sinker will be needed. There are several different rigs that can be utilized.
The Carolina rig or sliding sinker rig is a very effective bottom fishing rig. The main line runs through the hole in an egg sinker. It allows the bait to work out behind the sinker and move naturally. The fish can also pick up the bait without feeling any resistance. It works well with all baits.
A dropper rig is another effective bottom fishing rig. Anglers can use more than one dropped if desired and allowed by law. This presents the bait just above the bottom. It works best when presented vertically from a boat or pier, but anglers fishing from shore can use it as well.
Read my comprehensive article on bottom fishing
The 3 way rig is another effective way to present live bait on the bottom. It is a favorite among anglers fishing for catfish. It is a good choice in heavy cover as the dropper with the sinker can be lighter line, which will break, saving the rest of the rig. It keeps the bait just off the bottom and works great in current.
Anglers can also use live bait in conjunction with artificial lures and other clever device. The Erie Dearie is a famous example of this, it has been putting walleye and bass in the boat for decades. A nightcrawler is usually used. A simple bare jig head is a great way to fish a live minnow as anglers have precise control over the rig. Crawler harnesses and specialized bottom bouncers and sinkers are also used by experienced anglers.
In conclusion, this article on fishing with live bait will help anglers in both freshwater and saltwater catch more fish!