Best Live Bait for Smallmouth Bass

Best Live Bait for Smallmouth Bass

Many anglers fish for smallmouth bass using live bait. After all, why use an imitation when you can use the real thing? There are several effective live baits for smallmouth bass. However, there is one live bait that rises above the others.

The best live bait for smallmouth bass is a live crawfish. There are several reasons for this. Crayfish are plentiful near rocks, a structure that smallmouth bass prefer. Crayfish are very high in protein. This is something that smallmouth bass and other game fish need. Crayfish are fairly large and make a substantial meal. Finally, all things considered crayfish are fairly easy for smallmouth bass to catch.

Smallmouth bass and crayfish have one thing in common, they love rocks! In fact, one of the reasons that smallmouth bass are caught so often on rocky structure is there affinity for crayfish. Often times, the best fishing spots for smallmouth bass include rip rap, submerged rocky islands, and points with gravel or other rock on. This is not a coincidence.

Crayfish live in the crevices and under rocks in both rivers and lakes. A live crayfish properly presented is an extremely productive live bait for smallmouth bass. They will certainly catch other species as well. However, smallmouth bass in particular have crayfish as a very high percentage of their diet. Anglers may enjoy this comprehensive post, Smallmouth Bass Fishing for Beginners as well.

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Anglers can read a comprehensive article on freshwater fishing tackle in this link.

How to acquire live crayfish for smallmouth bass bait

Crayfish are not available at a lot of bait shops. Some bait shops that cater to smallmouth bass anglers will keep them in stock. This really depends on the geographical part of the country. The Ozarks and Midwest bait shops tend to have them more often than others.

This means that the majority of anglers will have to catch their own crayfish to use for bait. Fortunately, this is not very difficult. Special crayfish traps can be purchased online which do a very good job of catching these little crustaceans. Minnow traps will also catch their fair share.

The best approach is to bait the minnow trap with some type of meat. Bacon works very well as crayfish bait. The trap is then placed in a slower moving deeper pool in a stream or river or along a rocky shoreline in a lake. Crayfish are nocturnal. Therefore, traps will do best if allowed to set overnight.

Anglers can also catch crayfish by hand. This is best done smaller creeks and streams. A large aquarium that can be placed behind a rock. The angler then lifts the rock and often times if a crayfish is there the current will sweep it into the net. Seines can work well for catching crayfish to. This requires one angler to hold the saying and the other two kick rocks upstream, washing the crayfish down into the seine.

Best method to hook live crayfish for smallmouth bass

Crayfish are almost always hooked in the tail. Anglers hold the crayfish by the front of their body, squeezing the pinchers in tight. Then, the hook is put through the tail of the crayfish from the bottom than out of the top. Since crayfish generally school backwards when fleeing, this results in a natural presentation.

Anglers should keep the terminal tackle as light as possible. Often times, a simple hook and a light split shot is all that is required. This works very well when working a crayfish down a sloping point or over a fairly shallow submerged rock pile. Anglers fishing and streams and rivers will do well with the same rig. The hook size should match the size of the bait. A #4 short shank live bait hook is a good all-around choice.

Anglers fishing with live crayfish in deeper water will often opt for a variation of a Carolina rig. With this set up, the line passes through a sliding sinker and then is tied to a swivel. A 2 foot leader is used between the swivel and the hook. This keeps the bait on the bottom while allowing the crayfish to move around a bit. It is very effective!

Techniques for fishing live crayfish for smallmouth bass

For best results, the crayfish should be worked right on the bottom fairly slowly. Crayfish walked forward and feed when not threatened. When they do feel threatened, their response is to flick their tail and shoot backwards raising their clause a defense. Many and artificial lure has been designed to mimic this behavior.

Crayfish video

Anglers fishing with live crayfish and lakes will do well to work drop-offs on sloping points in water between 10 feet deep and 20 feet deep. Submerged islands and rock piles are prime spots as well. The area around bridges is often filled with rip rap. This is a terrific place to seek out a smallmouth bass as well.

Crayfish work very well on smallmouth bass and streams and rivers, too. In fact, this is really their natural environment. Most artificial lures that anglers use for smallmouth bass and rivers mimic crayfish. The best technique is to free line the crayfish on a hook with a small split shot. In areas with a lot of snags, anglers can fish the bait under a float as well.

Other live baits for smallmouth bass

While crayfish are the best live bait for smallmouth bass, there are other live baits which produce fish as well. These include nightcrawlers, minnows, helgremites, and leeches.


Most every freshwater angler has fish with a nightcrawler at one time or another. They may be the best all around freshwater fishing live bait that there is. However, they come in a close second to the crayfish when pursuing smallmouth bass. One advantage nightcrawlers have over crayfish is their convenience. Nightcrawlers are available at just about every bait and tackle store. They are also much easier to keep alive in store than are live crayfish. They are fished much in the same manner, with free lining on a hook with little weight being the best choice.

best live bait for freshwater fishing


Big fish eat little fish. It has been that way forever and will continue to be so. Smallmouth bass are no exception in that they will readily take a frisky live minnow. Depending on the geographic location, anglers have several choices as far as the types of minnow that can be used. Commercially Ray shiners are quite popular. Larger Missouri minnow’s work well, too. Anglers can catch their own minnows as well. However, they need to check local regulations to make sure that they stay in legal compliance.

In shallow water fishing situations, minnows are fished under a float for smallmouth bass. This results in the minnow pulling frantically against the bobber. This will definitely attract a hungry smallmouth bass or other species. In deeper water, minnows are fished on a variation of a drop shot rig. With this set up, the weight sits on the bottom while the minnow is suspended a foot or so above.


Helgremites are a bit of a specialized live bait. Very few bait shops sell them and anglers will have to catch their own. They are almost always found in moving water and streams in creeks. Helgramites are the larva of the dobsonfly. They are superb live baits for smallmouth bass. The only reason that they rank behind crayfish is the difficulty in obtaining them. Anglers catch them in seines and with that’s and running water behind rocks.


Leeches are another specialized bait that northern anglers use for smallmouth bass. They are primarily available to anglers fishing for walleye. However, they are a very good smallmouth bass bait and 10 to catch larger fish than some of the other live baits. Leeches have a tremendous and seductive swimming action and the water.

In conclusion, this article on the best live bait for smallmouth bass will help anglers catch more of these terrific game fish!

Jim Klopfer

Capt Jim Klopfer has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. He grew up in Maryland, fishing the Chesapeake Bay waters. Capt Jim has been creating an writing articles about fishing for decades, contributing to many regional and national publications. He also lives part time in the North Carolina mountains where he fishes for trout and other species. Capt Jim Klopfer is a wel rounded angler with 50 years fishing experience, and he loves to share what he has learned with other anglers!

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