A major part of fishing is tricking the fish into believe that your hook is just another tasty meal. This is why live bait is really the best bait in saltwater fishing, even though it is sometimes hard to get your hands on it.
However you capture your live bait, keep from touching it until you need to place it on the hook. Live bait is kept in a livewell which imitates the natural environment of bait through oxygen content, water temperature, and a current. If you need to transport your bait, use a battery-powered aerator to keep the bait alive, but only do so for a short distance.
When using live bait in saltwater fishing, you can keep from stressing the baitfish by using the lightest possible leader, line, and hooks. In order to allow the bait to swim as naturally as possible, place your hook through its eye sockets, nostrils, or lips. For the most delicate types of baitfish, use rigging floss to create a bridle to hold the fish and your hook. To make the fish swim down, you can place your hook just in front of its dorsal fin.
Types of Saltwater Bait Fish
There are a vast number of saltwater baitfish species, and they can be found close to shore—in jetty areas, inlets, canals, inshore creeks, rivers, and by beaches—and farther offshore living near shipwrecks, oil rigs, and reefs. Here we will cover just a few of the most popular baitfish to attract saltwater gamefish.
Menhaden are well-known to Atlantic and Gulf Coast anglers. Also called pogies or bunker, menhaden form a large part of the diets of migratory coastal gamefish like cobia, striped bass, bluefish, king mackerel, and tarpon. Further inshore, smaller menhaden attract species like sea trout, flounder, and redfish.
Most mullet baits are collected by cast-netting during their seasonal run up and down the Atlantic coast, which takes place from September to November.
Ballyhoo, Herring, Pilchards, Sardines, Pinfish, and Other Baitfish
These baitfish are often collected by scattering cat food, ground fish, or other food items, and then cast-netting the small fish that come to investigate. Another effective method is for nighttime harvesting off bridges and docks, and uses lights to attract the baitfish which are then captured in an umbrella-shaped net lifted up from below them.
These methods are good for pinfish, sardines, shad, pilchards, and herring, and even ballyhoo, which is used in Southern Florida as a baitfish for pelagic species like sailfish and dolphins.
How to Keep Baitfish Alive
You must use a baitwell with a steady supply of fresh, clean, oxygenated saltwater. Don’t recycle the water within the well, but pump it in from outside. Pin and mullet are the toughest saltwater baitfish; menhaden, ballyhoo, and sardines are more vulnerable and will need more care.
Live shrimp are a popular bait that get good results, and are also widely available inshore and offshore in coastal regions. They can be used as bait for nearly every kind of fish species, including redfish, flounder, snook, tarpon, stripers, and trout.
They are most easily captured by cast-netting at night, which is when they are most active. Scatter your pelleted or fish meal bait over a shallow area, then repeatedly net over this area.
Daylight shrimping is possible in the shallow waters of estuaries and rivers, or at the meeting of tidal creeks when the tide is falling. In these settings you can see shrimp “popping” in the water, and target that area with your cast-netting.
How to Keep Shrimp Alive
Keeping shrimp alive and kicking does requires a livewell with good aeration from fresh water. Use a bucket or cooler with aeration for short trips only.
Softshell and hardshell crabs make great bait for cobia, tarpon, redfish, and many more species.
Blue crabs are very abundant throughout their wide range of coastal areas from Texas to Maryland. They are a common bait in all of this range, effective for catching permit, red drum, cobia, tarpon, and many other saltwater species. They can be easily caught off of shorelines, piers, and causeways by dropping a chicken wing or neck to a strong cord, and dropping it into the water. When the chicken is grabbed by a crab, draw it up slowly and get it with a net.
Fiddler crabs are literally thick on the ground on the South Atlantic Coast, where hundreds of them live on mudflats exposed by low tides and dig small burrows in the sand. They make great bait for many different species, including black drum, pompano, redfish, sheepshead, and tautog.
The best way to catch a lot of fiddler crabs with the least effort is to fill a bucket with bait like squid, fish tails, or fish guts. Bury the bucket in the sand deep enough that its rim is flush with the surface. The crabs will follow the smell of the bait, and in half an hour you’ll have a full bucket.
Also known as sand fleas or sand crabs, mole crabs are a small bait that are often found on beaches during warm weather on both coasts. Beaches with stronger incoming waves will often have more sand fleas. To catch them, watch as a wave recedes from the beach, and go to spots where the water washes around a dimple in the sand. This is a sand flea colony, and you can easily scoop it up with your hand and overturn it onto the sand to release the crabs.
Eels are an excellent marine bait, very attractive for many species including stripers, amberjack, tarpon, cobia, a number of bottom fish, and billfish. They live in bays and tidal rivers, and you can easily catch yourself a few by using bait like crushed crabs, squid, or fish viscera in mesh traps or specialized eel pots.