Live Bait vs Artificial Lures: A Guide to Choosing the Best Fishing Lure

Published on 05/27/2023 · 9 min readNot sure whether to use live bait or throw an artificial lure? Fishing Expert Christian Nelson shares the best times to use each in this easy guide.
Christian Nelson, Fishing Expert
By Fishing Expert Christian Nelson

Photo by Harrison Kugler

Over the years, fishing has evolved and come a long way from what it once was. Nowadays there are countless artificial lure options, and every day more are being made. With so many potential choices, it can be overwhelming for an angler to decide what to throw and when to throw it. On the other end of the spectrum is a tried and tested choice: live bait. People have been using live bait to fish for as long as there has been fishing! And for good reason, it catches fish! That being said, there are certain species and situations where a good artificial lure can really shine, and even outshine live bait! In this guide, I am going to give the information needed when deciding to use live bait vs lures to catch multiple species of fish.

Using Live Bait

When it comes to fishing, you can’t really go wrong with a well-presented live bait. It’s a great method for catching all types of fish. Whether that means casting a live shrimp on a popping cork for redfish on the flats or tossing a live cricket for some bluegill, it’s a guaranteed way to get on some fish. In most situations, live bait will catch more fish than artificial baits, especially when it comes to freshwater fish. For beginners, live bait is a great way to learn to fish.

One of the weaknesses of using live bait is that it often requires refrigeration to keep it alive and lively in order to attract fish. When using baitfish like shiners, suckers, and creek chubs, an aerator will be needed to transport bait and keep it alive while out on the water. While this won't be a problem for everyone, using live bait can mean that anglers will be catching fish that are their non-target species.

Consider Your Target Species

However, some species have a higher chance to reacting to artificial bait than they do a live bait. Bass and walleye are great examples of this. While largemouth bass will more than willingly take properly presented live shiners, minnows, or shad, you will be more productive overall using an artificial lure.

Panfish like bluegill and crappie, however, are far more likely to strike a live bait than they are an artificial one. Just like how bass will take both but prefer artificial, panfish are often more than eager to take a beetle spin or other small jigs and grubs, but a live cricket, grasshopper, crayfish, or a live worm like a nightcrawler on a size 7 panfish hooks will produce a lot more fish. Additionally, catfish are almost exclusively caught on bait on the bottom, with lures being of little to no use for catching them.

Consider Where You Fish

Beyond using knowledge of my target species to choose whether I will use live or artificial bait, I also take where I will be fishing into account. When I’m fishing a new inshore spot for redfish and trout, for example, I often prefer live bait fishing. While I personally prefer artificials for this situation, throwing natural baits in a new spot, fresh or salt, is a great way to dial in where fish are hanging. Throwing live bait almost guarantees that if a predatory fish passes by your bait, it will eat it. Redfish and speckled trout are hard-pressed to pass up a live shrimp on a popping cork! This makes live bait almost unparalleled in its ability to produce a large volume of fish. If you’re planning on going somewhere new, using some variation of live bait is a great way to stack the odds in your favor.

Consider Your Fishing Style

Photo by Mathieu LeRoux

Another way to make the most out of fishing live bait is to fish proactively. Most people picture fishing with live bait as someone sitting down with their bait cast out, waiting on a bite. Sure, you can do this, but you certainly don’t have to. I like to move quickly when fishing live bait. Because it’s live bait, you don’t have to painstakingly fish every inch of water. I focus on making well-placed casts at high-probability areas.

For freshwater species, this might be logs, overhanging branches creating shade and cover, rocks, or any other cover you see. In saltwater fishing, this may be an open patch in the flats, a slight drop-off, a channel, a reef, anything producing current, or any other cover in your area. When a fish is presented a live bait, they often strike very quickly.

Live bait can also be fished on a wide variety of rigs such as a float rig, drop shot, or a Carolina rig. This allows anglers to keep their presentation in the strike zone where fish are congregated.

When casting your bait into a potential spot, it really comes down to If the fish are there, or if they’re not. If it sits for longer than 30-60 seconds with no bite, it’s probably time to move on. This is a great way to cover water and fish productively! If you decide you’re more into this style of proactively chasing the fish, you’ll probably love throwing artificial baits even more.

Throwing Artificial Lures

Throwing artificials is the epitome of sportfishing. Everyone sees that image in their head of a bass fisherman ripping a hookset into a nice bass. And whether you’re chasing bass in your backyard or hunting snook in the mangroves, artificial lures are fun to catch fish on, plain and simple!

I really love throwing artificials because it’s so much more proactive in nature than fishing with live bait, and you’re often imitating the same baitfish. When fishing artificials, you’re almost constantly working that bait in some way to cause action, regardless of which lure you’re throwing. Because it’s not live bait, it’s your job to make that lure seem alive. Being in control of a presentation really allows you to gain confidence in what you’re doing and directly influences your success. That feeling of knowing you were responsible for catching that fish directly gives a hit of dopamine that catching a fish on live bait just can’t replicate.

Consider Your Target Species

Artificial lures also allow you the opportunity to target larger fish but catch less volume. When throwing a live shrimp, for example, almost any fish on the food chain can and will attack that. This creates a situation where you catch a lot of fish, but not many big ones, and often not the species you want. Throwing artificial lures really lets your focus your efforts on catching your target species and can make you wildly more successful. For me, 90% of the fishing I do is with artificial lures. For species like bass and redfish, it’s frankly the best way to catch them, not to mention more fun.

Consider Your Commitment

Photo by Brady Rogers

Artificial lures do have a bit of a steeper learning curve than live baits. Because you are required to “work” your lures, it will take some practice to learn how to present them. Most of them are pretty straightforward though and can be learned very well in less than a day of fishing. Crankbaits are really simple to use, just cast and reel. Starting with some user-friendly baits is a great way to build up experience.

Consider the Cost

Another upside to artificial fishing lures is that they are an investment, not an expense. A good artificial lure can last quite a while, so buying these baits allows you to fish repeatedly with the same lures across the span of multiple fishing trips. Live bait on the other hand must be bought every time you go fishing. Not to mention, sometimes the bait shop may be sold out, and who wants to haul around a bait bucket every time? Artificials allow you to skip the bait and tackle shops and get straight to fishing.

On the other hand, fishing with lures can be addictive. Different types of lures are best fished on technique-specific setups, and once you gain some expertise on any specific technique, it will be tempting to purchase a dedicated reel for that application. Further, there's nothing like losing one of your good lures to a tree or submerged structure, and having specialized gear can help prevent this from happening. Like with most hobbyists, investing in your craft as an angler can end up costing a lot of money.

Consider the Weather

The last factor that will you decide whether to throw artificial bait or live bait will be the weather. In gin-clear water and bluebird skies, fish will more likely to see your line or see you standing on the bank, causing them to avoid your presentation. In these conditions, live bait might coax them into striking your lure. In low-visibility situations like in the rain or when the sun is going down, the flash and vibrations of reaction baits like spoons and spinners are great for getting the attention of nearby fish. Further, using soft plastic worms, creatures, and insects will allow you choose brighter-colored versions of the forage they were feeding on, making your presentation stand out. Many soft plastic lures also include some type of scent that increases the drawing power of the lure, or you can purchase scents that can be added to your bait, whatever it is that you are using.

When to Use Live Bait vs. Lures

Live BaitLures
Locating fish on a new body of waterLow visibility and pre-frontal conditions
Conditions with high visibilityWhen targeting larger fish
Pressured/overfished watersWhen focusing on catching one species

All in all, live bait and lures alike both have their places in your arsenal as a fisherman. The correct choice is what you are most confident throwing, whether that is live bait or artificials. Live bait is, and always will be, a great way to catch fish, while artificials get better and more advanced every year. It depends mostly on the experience you want for yourself, as for species like redfish, the option really is all yours. Make fishing what you want it to be and you’ll have a lot more fun and pick up some nice fish along the way!

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