Sometimes nothing beats live bait for catching fish. Sport fish get conditioned over time to seeing the same lures, especially in waters receiving heavy angling pressure. Bass don’t eat spinnerbaits, nor do red drum dine on hard plastic topwater plugs. So why not offer them a meal that looks, smells and even tastes like dinner?
That is where live bait comes in. Beyond tempting the fish with a natural offering, you get a break from casting and winding the same lures. What’s more, live bait can be downright fun to use and make part of your fishing adventures. Bait shops are nearest the water, and the staff can share the latest scoop on what’s biting, where and on which bait.
Use this handy guide to help get you started choosing saltwater and freshwater live bait.
Top species: Trout, red drum, flounder, tripletail, tarpon, cobia, snapper and more. Inshore or nearshore, you can’t beat a live shrimp.
Availability: Year-round throughout the Gulf coast, but larger and most abundant in winter and spring.
Best rigs: Best free-lined on a live bait rig, suspended beneath a popping cork or dropped to the bottom on a lead-head jig.
Top species: Red drum, trout, flounder, cobia, kingfish and tuna. Also great for other inshore, nearshore and offshore predators.
Availability: Year-round but can be scarce in winter; most abundant during spring and fall.
Best rigs: Free-lined or slow trolled, but also produces on a fish-finder or Carolina rig.
Top species: Best for inshore species that feed on or near the bottom,e.g., flounder and red drum.
Availability: Find it all year, but most plentiful from March through October.
Best rigs: Best fished near bottom on a Carolina rig or fish-finder; also effective on a lead-head jig.
Top species: Best for larger inshore predators like trophy spotted sea trout, bull red drum and tarpon. Also good for snapper and cobia.
Availability: Year-round, but most abundant from late June through October.
Best rigs: Ideal on a Carolina rig or fish-finder; also works well free-lined or on a large lead-head jig.
Top species: All-around great choice for inshore, nearshore and offshore gamefish. Red drum, tarpon, cobia, snapper, kingfish, tuna and dolphin are prime candidates.
Availability: Scarce during winter, but available in spring and plentiful from summer through fall.
Best rigs: Slow-trolled or free-lined but also works on a Carolina rig or fish-finder.
Top species: Best for nearshore or offshore predators. Kingfish, cobia, tuna, dolphin and billfish are best bets.
Availability: Year-round and most abundant around submerged structures like oil and gas rigs. Catch them using a cast net.
Best rigs: Best for trolling at medium to fast speeds, free-lining or bottom fishing on a heavy fish-finder.
Top species: A favorite of red drum, tarpon and cobia. Also ideal for bottom feeders like snapper.
Availability: All year but most plentiful from May through October.
Best rigs: Most effective suspended beneath a popping cork, or fished on fish-finder rig or lead-head jig.
Top species: Everything from sunfish to catfish, but mostly those two categories.
Availability: Commercially available year-round, but most plentiful during warmer months when fish are more prone to eat them as a meal.
Where to keep it: The good old-fashioned coffee can works as well today as it did for your grandad. You can also use the container sold with the worms.
Best rigs: Use finger-thick Canadian crawlers for walleye and bass; tiny red wigglers are perfect for bluegill and other sunfish. Rig those on an old-fashioned hook and bobber; use the crawlers on in-line walleye rigs.
Top species: Bluegill and other sunfish.
Availability: The warmer months at your local bait shop.
Where to keep it: Commercially available cricket cages and tubes.
Best rigs: During warmer months when sunfish are spawning use a hook, sinker and bobber.
Top species: This is the go-to live bait for crappie.
Availability: Most of the year but plentiful from spring through fall.
Where to keep it: An aerated minnow bucket will keep the bait frisky and ready for action all day. Submerse in the water if the bucket has a mesh insert to keep the bait fresh.
Best rigs: A hook, line and sinker is the basic setup. Productive free-lined or fished on a lead head jig.
Top species: Largemouth and smallmouth bass
Availability: In Florida, you can find them commercially. Most wild shiners are caught with cast nets. They are common along weedy edges of warmwater ponds and lakes. For casual shiner fishing at your local bass pond, you can easily catch golden shiners with bits of worm rigged on lightweight wire hook and split shot.
Where to keep it: An aerated bait bucket is a must. Of all live bait, golden shiners are the least hardy and require fresh water most of the time during captivity.
Best rigs: A live shiner rig, which consists of either free-lining a wide-gap bait hook, or using the same rig with a cork.
Top species: Bass and trout.
Availability: Crawfish can be caught with commercially-made wire mesh traps being the most effective. Bait the traps with chicken wings, necks or liver and place in lakes, ponds, creeks, rivers, ditches and backwater bayous.
Where to keep it: In a foam storage container, out of the sun, and filled with just enough water to half-cover the crawfish. They can be transferred to an aerated boat livewell or in a small bucket for a day of fishing.
Best rigs: Free-lined on a hook and weight or tipped on a lead head jig.
Top species: The wriggling action imparted by a live leech is irresistible to a bass, especially smallmouth in clear water. Also effective for walleye, trout, sunfish and catfish.
Availability: Catch leeches with a small metal container like a soup or coffee can. Bait the inside with chicken gizzards, a fish head or fish guts, then squeeze the open end of the can nearly closed to keep larger fish out. Secure the can to a bush, dock or rock. Check it after a day or two to collect your bait.
Where to keep it: A foam container or live bait bucket will do. Keep leeches in non-chlorinated tap water and change daily.
Best rigs: Free-lined on a lightweight sinker and small hook.