Fishing Bait: The Different Types and How to Choose

Published on 05/17/2023 · 9 min readFishing Expert Michael Matey details all of your bait options when hitting the water, as well as how to select the correct bait for what you are aiming to catch.
Michael Matey, Fishing Expert
By Fishing Expert Michael Matey

Photo by raubfisch24de

Tl;dr: Narrowing down the correct bait to use while fishing comes down to a few factors: Water type (freshwater/salt water), target species, and matching your local ecosystem’s available bait. Dialing in on the correct bait for your fishery will greatly increase your odds of a great day of fishing!

I have been fishing for my entire life (20+ years). I’ve tried every form of fishing you can think of: lure fishing, float fishing, freshwater, salt water, and, most importantly, bait fishing. Helping new anglers find the love for fishing that I have is one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever felt. I’ve worked with hundreds of customers through Curated to find the perfect fishing gear for them. My goal with this guide is to use the knowledge I’ve acquired over the past two decades to help the reader become a more successful angler.

What Is Fishing Bait?

Fishing bait is a very simple concept that isn’t always easy to get right. Bait is whatever “food” you use to convince a fish to bite. This can vary drastically depending on your situation, but generally, the right fishing bait is whatever the fish are already eating. Humans have used this technique of using bait to attract fish for centuries. Bait can be caught in a local fishery, bought at the bait shop, or even purchased from the grocery store.

What to Consider When Choosing a Fishing Bait

Photo by Michael Matey

Price

Price may not seem very important. However, when most people think of fishing bait, they think of buying worms for a dollar at the local tackle shop. While this may be true for some species, others can be much more expensive. For example, shrimp, leeches, and mealworms may be a couple of dollars for a dozen, whereas goggle eyes (also known as big-eye scad) can cost up to $10 each! That’s over $100 a dozen. So you only want to buy those if you have a set plan for where and what you’re fishing.

Target Species

Photo by Milos Prelevic and adapted by Michael Matey

Most predator fish have baits that they prefer over others. You’ll need a completely different type of bait for targeting walleye in Ohio versus snook in Florida. A lot of the time, you can tell what type of bait a fish prefers just by looking at the shape of their body. For example, a catfish has small eyes and a mouth that faces down. The small eyes tell you this type of fish doesn’t use vision to find its food; therefore, it likely uses smell. Since its mouth faces down, you can assume that this species is a bottom feeder. Based on this information, you can narrow your bait choice down to something that has a lot of smell and sits on the bottom, like cut bait (a piece of dead fish cut into sections) attached to a rig with a weight that holds the bait on the bottom.

On the other hand, a trout has a very small delicate mouth. This tells you that trout don’t usually try to chew dense food. Instead, trout typically eat insects like crickets, grasshoppers, or grubs.

Matching the Hatch

Photo by Michael Matey

“Matching the hatch” is an expression that means matching your bait to the natural bait of your fishery (a similar technique is used when choosing fishing lures). It is arguably the most important point to consider when choosing what bait to use because it sums up all of the other topics in one simple question: What bait are the fish I’m trying to catch already eating?

The best way to figure this out is to go to where you’re fishing and take a look around. Do you see crayfish in the shallows? Are their small minnows or baitfish swimming around and flickering on the surface? If you can capture the actual bait in your fishery, your odds of success will greatly increase. There are many methods to catching bait, but a few to consider are using a cast net to catch baitfish, setting up a baitfish trap, using a Sabiki rig, or even getting dirty and digging worms out of the ground. If all else fails, your local bait shop will usually have bait similar to the natural bait in your area.

Seasonal Differences

Fish behave completely differently during different seasons. You might target the same fish but need a completely different bait in the winter than summer. A general rule of thumb is that when you’re fishing in the colder seasons, you’ll want to use smaller-sized baits than in the warmer seasons. There are multiple reasons for this. Fish tend to be more finicky in the cold, so they don’t want to chase down a large baitfish. Also, many species of baitfish hatch in the spring and grow throughout the summer and into fall. Therefore, the predator fish are used to seeing/eating smaller bait in the spring and seeing it grow as time goes on. This ties back into “matching the hatch.” You want your bait to replicate what the target species is used to feeding on at that particular time of year.

What Are the Different Types of Fishing Bait

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of bait types that can be used for fishing. They vary widely depending on your location and what you’re fishing for. For this guide, I will break them down into three general categories: live bait, dead bait, and food/miscellaneous.

Live Bait

For most game fish, live bait will get the most bites. This is because fish want their food to be fresh and are used to chasing bait for a meal. That being said, live bait is not always available or easy to find.

Benefits:

  • Best chances of catching fish
  • Matches the natural bait in the area

Be aware:

  • It can be difficult to capture and expensive to buy
  • Difficult to keep alive and may require a livewell or aerator

Dead Bait

A cut bluegill being used as dead bait. Photo by Michael Matey

Dead bait is very useful when live bait isn’t available. Some bottom-feeder species prefer it as well. It’s much cheaper than live bait, and there is no hassle involved with keeping the bait alive. Excess dead bait can even be used to “chum” the water to attract fish to you.

Benefits:

  • Widely available and much cheaper than live bait
  • No extra devices are required to keep the bait fresh
  • The smell can attract fish to your bait

Be aware:

  • Some species prefer live bait, so you may not catch as many fish
  • Smaller fish, crabs, and turtles pick away at dead bait until there is none left on the hook

Food/Miscellaneous

This category covers all the baits that aren’t normally thought of when it comes to fishing, like bread, corn, or even hot dogs. These are typically used for specific species in ponds, like bluegill and carp.

Benefits:

  • Extremely cheap bait
  • Widely available at any convenience store

Be aware:

  • Many fish will show no interest in these baits
  • Used in a very specific type of fishing for certain species

Features to Look for When Picking a Fishing Bait

Quality/Freshness

The liveliness of your bait is vital to your fishing success. If you’re using baitfish and seem to struggle to swim, they are probably not durable and will not survive much longer. If any of the bait in your livewell is dead or floating on top, it’s imperative to remove it immediately. Dead bait releases ammonia and other chemicals that will kill the rest of your bait very fast. Also, ensure the bait has no discoloration, which means it’s on its way out sooner rather than later.

Availability

A super important factor often overlooked is bait availability. If you can go to your fishing spot and catch a hundred pinfish in a cast net, there is no reason to go to the store and pay for them. If there’s already bait in the area you’re fishing, there’s a very good chance that’s the bait the fish are already tuned in on. So you'll kill two birds with one stone by catching your bait instead of buying it: 1. saving money and 2. matching the hatch.

How to Choose the Right Bait for You

Choosing the right bait can seem complicated and overwhelming. There are so many options and so many variables to take into account. Below I describe two anglers I’ve helped through Curated to find the right bait for their situation.

Ryan: Catfish Angler

Ryan lives in Alabama. He’s been freshwater fishing for largemouth bass with soft plastics and hard baits his whole life, but now he wants to catch a big flathead catfish. Ryan will do whatever it takes to catch a big one and doesn’t care if it takes a lot of work or is expensive. He’ll be fishing during the fall and in very deep water depths. Ryan notices bluegills, sunfish, and other panfish swimming in the shallows of his lake. He’s fishing with a heavy-duty rod and reel to handle these big fish.

Features Ryan should look for:

  • Bait that has a strong scent since catfish have small eyes
  • Cut bait from fish caught from his local lake
  • Larger baits since it is fall and most baitfish are full-grown

Bait examples: Cut bait bluegill, chicken liver

Andy: Inshore Fisher

Andy is new to Florida and wants to catch a snook. He heard they spawn on the beaches in the spring, so that’s where he plans to fish. Andy recently bought a cast net and wants to catch his bait, so he doesn’t have to spend any more money. When Andy goes to the beach, he notices schools of small pilchards and croakers swimming in the shallow-depth areas.

Features Andy should look for:

  • Very small bait since its spring, and natural bait hasn’t had time to grow yet
  • Bait similar to what he sees on the beach already
  • Lively baitfish that have no discoloration

Bait examples: Pilchards caught in the cast net, croakers

Conclusion

Picking the right bait for your needs can be a tricky task. This guide aims to break the bait variable down step by step and help aspiring anglers use this information to catch more fish! Check out the Expert Journal here on Curated for more Fishing content.

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