What Are the Best Live Baits for Saltwater Species?

Published on 05/12/2023 · 11 min readFishing Expert Michael Matey breaks down live bait for saltwater fishing, including the most effective types, and how to choose the right bait for you!
Michael Matey, Fishing Expert
By Fishing Expert Michael Matey

A livewell full of pilchards. Photo by Michael Matey

tl;dr When it comes to saltwater fishing, bait is king.That’s because bait fish are much more prevalent in saltwater, and using them to your advantage will drastically increase your chances of a successful day on the sea. While there are hundreds of baits to choose from, this guide will break down the most common live bait options, how to catch them, and how to use them on your next fishing endeavor.

I have been bait fishing for over 10 years in southwest Florida, and have caught everything from snook to cobia and grouper using live bait. In my many years of catching, rigging, and fishing with live bait, I’ve gone through the painstaking trial and error process of finding the right option for each situation on the water. Helping people narrow down this process is something I’m very passionate about, as I’ve personally assisted dozens of Curated customers identify the correct bait for their needs.

What Is Saltwater Bait?

Essentially, whatever the fish you’re targeting is feeding on, which can vary based on your intended species and home waters. Lure companies go to great lengths to recreate the exact bait that fish want to eat. But using the real deal will almost always be more effective.

Live bait fishing in saltwater is a completely different game than freshwater bait fishing. Mainly, bait is much more abundant in the ocean, and can be caught on your own without having to go to the bait shop. There are hundreds of baits to choose from, and picking the right one is crucial to a successful day of fishing.

What to Consider When Choosing Saltwater Bait

What Species Am I Targeting?

It is extremely important to know what the fish you’re targeting typically eat. This will be different for each species, so do some research for your specific situation. However, a few universal truths include:

  • Big fish eat smaller fish: Matching the size of your bait to the size of the fish you’re targeting is the first step in picking the right bait. A 10-inch mangrove snapper isn’t going to eat a mullet that’s the same size as it is—but a big snook might.
  • Picky eaters: Certain fish are strictly crustacean eaters, and some prefer lively bait fish.
  • When in doubt, everything in the ocean will eat a live shrimp: You may have to pick through the smaller fish before finding the big ones, but fishing with shrimp is a sure-fire way to guarantee bites.

What Bait Is Available in My Area?

Fish are used to eating bait that they see on a regular basis. While a sardine might be a perfectly good meal for a redfish, if it’s never seen one before in the area it lives in, it probably won’t be interested. Matching the bait used to the natural diet of the fish in a specific area is referred to as “matching the hatch”.

Am I Catching or Buying Bait?

One of the most prevalent baits that can be purchased at a bait shop is shrimp. Currently, you can expect to pay between $3–6 a dozen, depending on the season. Buying actual bait fish can be much more expensive. Pinfish and pilchards can run a few dollars each, so learning to catch these on your own will save money in the long run.

One of the most common methods of catching bait is simply throwing a cast net over a school of baitfish and scooping them up into your livewell. Baitfish can also be caught by using a sabiki rig, or with traps left in the water overnight. Finding bait can be a painstaking process, but a few key features to take into account are current, structure, grass, and warm water.

What Are the Most Effective Types of Saltwater Baits?

Shrimp

Photo by Michael Matey

Almost everything in the ocean will eat a shrimp: exactly why it is one of the most commonly used saltwater fishing baits amongst anglers. They’re so effective that many saltwater fishing lures, like the Z-man EZ Shrimps, attempt to emulate live shrimp—with great results.

Shrimp are best for when you don’t necessarily have a target species in mind but just want an action-packed day on the water. They’re typically used to target smaller fish like mangrove snapper or sheepshead, but the occasional giant snook or tarpon swimming by is always looking for an easy snack sized shrimp as well. They can be rigged on a bare hook, a jig, a popping cork, or a weighted rig like a knocker rig.

Benefits:

  • Widely available
  • Can be used on a large variety of species
  • Hearty/easy to keep alive

Be Aware:

  • Quantity > Quality fishing
  • Will get a lot of bycatch

Pilchards (White Bait/Greenies)

Photo of a livewell full of pilchards. Photo by Michael Matey

Pilchards are one of the best baits for inshore fishing. They are one of the preferred food choices for game fish such as snook, redfish, trout, and tarpon. If you’ve ever fished with shad in freshwater, pilchards are very similar.

The only way to catch pilchards—which are most prevalent in the warmer months when the water temperature is higher—is by using a cast net. They can typically be found on the sandy edges of grass flats, in the shallows of the beach, or in passes/inlets. They’re easy to catch because they will flash from the reflection of the light on their silver scales. Though you’ll need to use a cast net with a small mesh size to avoid “gilling” the bait.

There are a few ways to fish using pilchards, but the two most common are a freeline and a popping cork. While both methods are similar, the popping cork will keep the bait higher in the water column. When fishing with pilchards, you’ll want to cast towards a structure that has current moving through it, like mangroves, dock pilings, and bridges. Because fish feel safe in these structures, they will sit still and wait for the current to bring food to them.

Benefits:

  • Preferred bait for most inshore species
  • Can usually be found in large schools, so many can be caught at a time

Be Aware:

  • Don’t live long and can die after multiple casts
  • Smaller sized, so big fish may not be interested

Mullet

A mullet. Photo by Tim Strulik

Mullet are extremely prevalent in Florida and come in many shapes and sizes. They’re a great baitfish for catching larger snook, jack crevalle, tarpon, snapper, grouper species, and sometimes even sharks. And topwater lures and plugs such as the Heddon Super Spook imitate mullet swimming on the surface of the water.

Mullet is typically found in shallow creeks and backwaters. The only way to catch them is with a cast net, though you should opt for a heavier cast net with a large mesh size so the net sinks faster. And they can be used either dead or alive as cut bait.

One of the most common ways to fish with mullet is to use them live on a freeline with a big circle hook attached through the nose or anal fin. Fish with larger mullet (7–12 inches) around docks or sea walls to catch giant snook and jacks. Smaller mullet (also known as finger mullet) can be used to catch smaller fish in the same areas as well as offshore for grouper, snapper, and pelagic species. Pros:

  • Durable—can take a beating
  • Large fish love them

Cons:

  • Can be difficult to cast net, may take several hours to acquire a few dozen
  • Crustacean eaters will not be interested

Pinfish

Photo by Michael Matey

Whether you’re fishing inshore in the bays and estuaries or 20 miles offshore, Pinfish are a great choice. They are found in grass flats with flowing currents, and are most easily caught by chumming an area and throwing a cast net or with a pinfish trap that is left overnight.

Pinfish can be used to target larger inshore species in a similar way as the other baits listed in this guide. They can be fished free lined, on a popping cork, or on a bottom rig anywhere there is structure and current. They can also be used offshore for grouper, snapper, cobia, and many more species that inhabit offshore reefs. When fishing with them at an offshore wreck or reef, you’ll want to use a knocker rig with enough weight to hold the bait on the bottom. Benefits:

  • Abundant in grass flats
  • Can be used to catch a variety of species

Be Aware:

  • Some fish may be hesitant to eat due to the sharp “pins” on the dorsal fins

Threadfin Herring

Photo by Michael Matey

Threadfin Herrings are a super productive bait for offshore fishing. They are found under bridges close to passes and inlets as well as schooled up offshore and near beaches. In shallower waters, they can be caught using a cast net. Though in deep water a Sabiki rig is required.This rig is a long line with multiple hooks that have teasers on them that the threadfin bites. At the bottom of this rig is a weight that helps to lower the teaser hooks down to where the bait is.

The most common species caught using threadfin herring are pelagic species like king mackerel, wahoo, sailfish, tuna, bonito, and even barracuda. Threadfins can be trolled, kite fished, or drifted. They can also be dropped down at wreck to catch reef species like grouper, amberjack, and snapper. Benefits:

  • Once found, they are usually schooled up in thousands
  • Great for pelagic species

Be Aware:

  • Delicate—avoid touching or removing scales

Crabs

Photo by Michael Matey

The many different types of crabs that can be used as bait include blue crabs, fiddler crabs, sand fleas, mangrove crabs, etc. Most can either be caught or bought at a tackle shop. Some of the smaller species can be found crawling in mangroves or under bridges, where they’re typically caught with a net. Sand fleas can be caught by combing a rake through the sand where the waves are breaking at the beach. Whereas bigger species can be caught floating through passes or in muddy backwater.

Crabs are great for targeting crustacean eaters, like sheepshead and black drum. These species are typically found around structure-eating barnacles and other crustaceans crawling around through the barnacles. Crabs can also be used to catch tarpon in passes by floating them through the current. Pros:

  • Bait of choice for crustacean eaters
  • Can be kept alive for days with minimal effort

Cons:

  • Used for a very specific type of fishing
  • Can be difficult to find

How to Choose the Right Saltwater Bait for You

Now that you’ve learned the basics, it’s time to dial in on exactly what your needs are. Below I’ve modeled three different sample anglers from real customers I’ve helped at Curated. Plus, I’ve highlighted what bait they should consider for their specific fishing goals.

Jack: A New Beach Angler

Jack is new to saltwater fishing. He doesn’t own a boat, so he plans on fishing from beaches, bridges, and piers. He doesn’t have any specific preferences on what species he’d like to target, he just wants to catch a variety of new fish. Features Jack should look for:

  • Bait that isn’t specific to a one species
  • Bait that is easily accessible in most bait shops
  • Attainable bait that won’t require extra gear to capture
  • Buying a bucket with an aerator to keep his bait alive

Bait examples: Shrimp

Samantha: A Tarpon Enthusiast

Samantha is a Florida-based angler who has been fishing for many years. She wants to catch a big tarpon, and knows they’ll be in the passes and beaches this time of year. She sees schools of large baitfish cruising in these areas, and she’s willing to put in the extra work to catch the bait that will give her the best chance of catching a tarpon. Features Samantha should look for:

  • Obtaining a cast net or sabiki rig to capture the schools of bait she’s seeing
  • Larger baitfish to seduce a bite from a 100-pound fish
  • Fast moving bait that will invoke a reaction bite from a tarpon

Bait examples: Threadfin Herring, Mullet

Warren: A Sheepshead Chaser

Warren is fishing for sheepshead—primarily crustacean eaters—during the winter months in Texas. He notices small crabs crawling around on dock pilings and bridges in his area. Features Warren should look for:

  • Crustaceans that can be bought at the bait shop
  • Buying a net to capture the crabs he sees in his area
  • Avoiding bait fish, since sheepshead only eat crustaceans

Bait examples: Fiddler crabs, shrimp

Conclusion

For those just beginning, live bait fishing can seem complicated. With so many bait options to choose from, it may seem difficult figuring out which to use. A local fishing shop is a great resource to utilize for figuring out the best bait fish for your local area, or you can check out the Expert Journal here on Curated for more Fishing content.

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