An Expert Guide to Saltwater Fishing Lures
From the best soft plastics to the most enticing topwater baits, Fishing expert Christian Nelson shares his list of top-performing saltwater baits.
Whether your target species is specks and reds on the flats, chasing snook deep in the mangroves, or picking Mahi off of floating debris way offshore, artificial lures are a great way to catch fish. The only issue with anglers throwing artificial baits is deciding which ones to throw! There are hundreds of them on the market, and it can be overwhelming to walk into a store and not know where to start. Luckily for you, I’ve put in the time to understand which ones perform and yield reliable results. With several years of experience throwing tons of different baits, I’m here to tell you which ones work so I can help you get out there to catch more fish with the best lures, making you a better saltwater angler overall! From the best soft plastics to the most enticing topwater baits, you won’t find a better list of top-performing saltwater baits.
As with any form of fishing, people tend to overcomplicate lure selection for saltwater species, especially when it comes to inshore fishing. I’ve done my best to make this list short and sweet to prove that you don’t need a ton of baits to be successful. There’s no need to break the bank since, with only five to six lures, you can be wildly successful. With that said, let’s get into the list!
Berkley Gulp 3” Shrimp
By far, one of my favorite baits for inshore fishing is the Berkley Gulp 3in Shrimp, especially in the “New Penny” color pictured here. This type of saltwater fishing lure is a great soft plastic and fishes well on almost any jighead. I usually throw 1/2oz jigheads, as they work well in most situations. Always throw the lightest jighead you can get away with! This is because less weight means that your bait will have a slower, more natural fall to the bottom, and it limits the size of the terminal tackle that the fish can see! Soft baits are great for beginners as they just catch fish—plain and simple. What these lures lack in durability, they make up for in the ability to make fish bite, and they work at various depths. Being water-based plastics, they are completely infused with a fish-attracting scent that helps them catch tons of fish.
These are best fished around cover in the water like mangroves, docks, rock walls, and other forms of structure, and most any saltwater gamefish will readily take them, so hold on to the reel!
Berkley Gulp 4” Swimming Mullet
These are another favorite of mine, and they work just as well as the first bait when fished on a jig head. They do an amazing job imitating baitfish or minnows, and predators just can’t refuse them. I consider these and the Gulp Shrimp interchangeable, and they are both staples in my box.
All of the information above about the Gulp Shrimp applies to these as well, but don’t be scared to fish these a little faster than you would the shrimp! Baitfish love to dart around, so really work these things!
Heddon Super Spook Jr.
Moving away from soft plastics for a second, the Heddon Super Spook Jr. is probably the best topwater lure on the market, better than most other similar plugs. This is a favorite of mine to throw on for early mornings on the flats, and it works just as well when walking down a line of mangroves. Beyond that, it’ll also catch some feisty Mahi as it walks by floating structure way offshore and a variety of other fish too! Chances are, if you see fish feeding high in the water column, they’ll eat this bait! While I primarily target redfish with these, I’ve caught well over 10 different species on this lure alone. It works really well and can be cast long distances.
This bait is relatively easy to use—just cast it out and work it back using a series of quick twitches of the rod tip with some slack in the line to create the iconic “walking-the-dog” effect. Leave a small window of time, maybe a few seconds, between twitches, but I encourage you to try different retrieval speeds until you catch fish, and keep doing what works for you!
A saltwater lure guide would not be complete without the classic gold spoon. This lure has been around forever, and it has aged like a fine wine. Fishermen have been using this lure forever and for good reason. The market is loaded with new innovations and ever-changing lures, but this one still holds its own, as it resembles a variety of different prey with a simple sinking flash. These spoons work everywhere—from cruising the flats and backwaters for redfish to casting for Spanish mackerel off the beach. There are very few gamefish that will turn down a well-presented gold spoon, and even though I don’t throw them as much as I used to, I wouldn’t be caught dead without one in my box!
To use these, simply make a long cast and let it sink. Once it has reached the bottom, rip it up to the top of the water column, and let it flutter back down. Repeat this until the lure is fully retrieved, or you have a fish on! Make sure to keep your line relatively tight as the bait sinks to ensure you don’t miss any strikes!
High on the list of my all-time favorite saltwater baits is the notorious Vudu Shrimp. Whether you plan on throwing a natural color across the flats to bump the bottom or you’re throwing a glow-in-the-dark pattern around dock lights way into the night, these things can catch fish! These baits can be a bit pricy, but when compared to Live Target or DOA, they are pretty affordable, high-quality, and much more effective than the competition. These baits are killer for a number of reasons, but my favorite feature by far has got to be the tail design. They have great swimming action. These baits move and flick in a very realistic way, and the webbing material that holds those tails together is nearly indestructible, meaning these baits will catch several fish before showing any signs of wear and tear. This is a huge plus, as one bait can catch redfish, speckled trout, and flounder all day without any need to switch. Also high on the pros list is that this bait comes pre-rigged with super sharp hooks, so there’s no guesswork, just tie it on and get to fishing!
When I’m fishing this bait, I’m doing two things: targeting structure, and making this bait act like a shrimp. A lot of people overwork these lures when, in reality, shrimp just stay near the bottom and kick up every now and then. When I fish this bait, I mostly cast around jetties, docks, bare spots in grass flats, or anywhere I think a fish may be hanging out. I fish it on a very slow retrieve, keeping it close to the bottom, with small twitches to imitate the shrimp taking small kicks up. This absolutely slays fish!
You just can’t have a conversation about saltwater fishing lures and techniques without mentioning the old classic, the popping cork. Personally, I like them more than conventional poppers. Whether you choose to trail your popping cork with one of the soft plastics mentioned above or with live bait, they excel at catching fish. These rigs are tried and tested and have been around forever, a true testament to just how wildly successful you can be when tossing these things around. Personally, I use a popping cork for one main purpose. I use it as a search bait since the loud plop it makes as you twitch and pop it back to the boat mimics a fish blowing up on bait and the glass beads click to imitate the sound of a group of shrimp makes. This makes the popping cork essentially sound like a very obvious dinner bell to any nearby cruising fish, which makes this rig absolutely lethal.
No matter if you’re chasing snook in a narrow mangrove canal or stalking big reds on the flats, there’s a lure in this list that a fish near you just can’t resist. Overall though, most saltwater species aren’t extremely picky. Now that you are armed with these baits in your tackle box and the knowledge of where and how to find and catch these fish, you should be well on your way to taking some awesome pictures with a salty trophy of your own! Happy fishing!