Best Bait For Smallmouth Bass

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Hey there my fellow fishing enthusiasts and welcome to my post covering the best bait for Smallmouth Bass to take a bite out of this year. Now as mentioned in other posts, I fully admit to being a traditional bait user for most of my fishing life as I like to find a good spot and then see what I can attract. Of course many prefer the excitement of attracting and working a fish with lures, and whilst I do enjoy that too, I sometimes just want to sit with a line in the water and watch the world go by.

There are however other aspects to it such as matching the bait to the location and presenting it in a manner that will make it attractive to the fish as well. So if you are interested in chasing some Smallmouth with live bait, then let’s check out some good options below …

What is Livebait?

For the purposes of this post I am going to give the name live bait to anything that is, or has at some point been alive (often referred to as ‘natural bait’). This means that it can actually be alive (often kept in an aerated cooler for example), fresh but dead or even frozen. This is opposed to lures, which are artificial creations designed to mimic live bait.

Obviously the type you choose will vary based on local conditions however when it comes to using live bait, I would stick to the following two rules:

  1. Use local bait if possible – Smallmouth Bass are found in lakes and rivers all over the North America (and via introduction to many other countries as well) so there can be a variation on what is available to them within their local habitats.
  2. Go to a local bait shop – In most cases, the local bait shop will sell bait that is good for local conditions. If in doubt, ask the shop keeper or a local.

Examples of commonly used live bait for Samllmouth Bass includes:

  • Minnows
  • Night Crawlers
  • Madtoms
  • Helgammites
  • Crayfish

And depending on the location, they will also eat Leeches, Shads, frogs, mice, insects and like many predatory carnivores, anything else they can find as well. However, the options above are generally easier to acquire and hook as opposed to anything else – apart from insects on a fly rig of course.

At the end of the day, if there is a lure made to look like a live bait, then you would have to assume that the actual real version should work as well.

Bait Pros

  • You can match exactly to what fish eat naturally
  • Generally easy to use
  • Often cheaper than lures
  • Most fish will take a bait
  • You can cast and let the bait sit in the water (i.e. no need to cast and retrieve)
  • Bait is great for kids (meaning they can at least catch something)

Bait Cons

  • It is smelly and gets all over your clothes, tackle box and everything else take with you
  • Will deteriorate in the sun
  • Fish tend to swallow the hook more with bait (making catch and release more difficult)
  • You can lose a lot more to smaller or vermin species
  • Bait can come off hook easier in faster moving water
  • You need to make more tools with you such as a knife and cutting board

My recommended livebait options for Smallmouth Bass

Let’s have a look at the main 5 options I have listed above in more detail:


Best Bait For Largemouth Bass - Minnow

Minnows are a genuine baitfish with a very high tolerance for variable water qualities making it a common species in many locations shared with Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass alike. Variations include:

  • Bluntnose Minnow
  • Common Shiner
  • Emerald Shiner
  • Top Minnow

Due to their abundance in many areas, Minnows are a favourite for Bass fishers year round.

Night Crawlers

best bait for smallmouth bass - night crawler

In short, Night Crawlers are worms. Now if you look online there are pages and pages outlining the difference between Earthworms and Night Crawlers however for the purposes of this post, we are looking at them from the point of view that they are worms that burrow in the soil.

Regardless of what they are called and where they are from. Night Crawlers are a very popular live bait option for Smallmouth Bass especially in shallower waters where you can either let them ‘wiggle’ in the current or jig them a little as you would a lure.


best bait for smallmouth bass - madtom

Madtoms are a popular catfish species found in and around rocks in rivers and streams in the South Eastern parts of the United States. When it comes to freshwater fishing, 9 times out of 10 you will find that your target species will share the waterways with some sort of catfish. It makes sense then that juvenile catfish would form a good part of the diet of Smallmouth Bass.

The advantages of using these is that as above, their habitats match those of Smallmouth Bass and they share the same locations. They are not as easy to find as some of the others listed here (you usually need to get into the water and start ‘lifting rocks’) however they work an absolute treat – especially if you can keep them and bait them whilst they are still alive.


best bait for smallmouth bass - Hellgrammite

Our next option, the Hellgrammite, is the larvae form of the Dobson Fly that as with the Madtoms above, is found in and around the rocks in rivers and streams. This makes them another favourite of Smallmouth Bass and hence a good live bait. They are a little harder to handle than Madtoms (their front pincers should be avoided) but that can be just as effective.

The other issue with them however is again the same as Madtoms in that to get them yourself, it is a trip into the stream for you. Use them live on a thin hook in shallow water where they can bounce around the rocks to attract fish.


best bait for smallmouth bass - crayfish

And finally, the last on this list is Crayfish (Crawfish). These are popular due to the fact that they form a massive part of the natural diet of all Bass in a good number of locations. They feed on these predominately in the spring when they move to shallower waters during the pre-spawn and spawning phase of their year.

Crayfish work best when they are used live meaning an aerator box or cooler is probably necessary here as well.

What should you be looking for?

As you look to source and use your own livebait, below are some things that you may want to consider when using bait for Smallmouth Bass:

Where the fish are – We have touched on this above however the type of bait you choose can depend on where you are trying to catch your fish. For example if you are working in shallow waters, then Crayfish or Night Crawlers would work well, alternatively if in faster running water around rocks then Madtoms or Hellgrammites are the go.

Keep in mind here that unlike lures, you are generally not casting and retrieving a bait so you will need to match your bait to the species that are found in that area.

Weight requirements – Bait weight, usually determined by the size or amount of bait you use, is important for a number of reasons including:

  • Heavier baits can be cast a little further – this may include rigging with a sinker.
  • Heavier baits will anchor and drag on the bottom more effectively (which is good if you are in a kayak or on a boat).
  • Lighter weights are easier to jig and ‘flick’ around.
  • Lighter baits will float better than their heavier counterparts – which is where insects can work.

Again, do your research into the environment that you are fishing in. If you are working in shallower waters, then a light weighted bait will work very well. Heaver options may be needed in deeper areas however they will ‘catch’ on the bottom a lot more often and fall off if you are drifting.

Rod specifications – The next consideration (and a very important one) is to ensure that any bait size you use fits within the specification details of your Bass fishing rod. In some cases, rod specs include a tackle weight which is the highest designated weight that the rod can handle.

In most cases, however, you are going to be looking at this from the power rating of the rod. This is effectively a measure of how ‘bendy’ it is. Light power rods bend with little force and heavy ones need a lot of pressure to bend. So, in short:

  • Light – very bendy – even whippy – will bend a lot with even the smallest fish. Use these for light baits only.
  • Medium – needs a bit more pressure to bend – In general, this is a good measure for all-round use with light to medium-weighted baits for Bass fishing.
  • Heavy – takes a lot to make it bend – I would probably avoid these for Bass fishing unless you are working in particularly deep water.

Tackle Requirements – In general, the main rule of thumb when it comes to using bait is to match your hook to its size. Despite their name, Smallmouth have big mouths so I would err on the side of a larger hook as well meaning you will avoid getting caught up with smaller species.

Stick to a 2/0 to 6/0 hook with a bait size to match with the hook set through the snout (or head of crayfish) on a running sinker or running float rig.

Seasonal influences – When it comes to Bass fishing, seasonal behaviors can also determine the types of bait that they will take. For example, in summer, Bass tend to go deeper to avoid the warmer waters on the edge so a weighted Night Crawler or Minnow will work better than a weightless cray or worm along the bank. And of course when they are feeding aggressively in the lead up to the spawning season, you could throw anything along the edge and they will take it – well not really but you get the picture.

Local knowledge – As mentioned a number of times in this post, when I discuss live bait options for any fishing type, I always say to check with the locals to see what is found in the local system. The idea behind this is that you want to match your bait to what it is that the fish eat naturally.

smallmouth bass fishing tips - smallmouth bass


And there it is – my post covering the best bait for Smallmouth Bass to take a bite out of this year. I hope it has been helpful and as usual, please let me know of your experiences with them.

Also, please do not hesitate to comment below if you have any questions, concerns, corrections, or would like me to check anything else out for you.

Until next time

Have fun

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Hi, I'm Paul

I am a passionate fishing, camping and four wheeled driving hobbyist who researches, tests and educates around issues and equipment relevant to them.

I am by no means a professional however my passion is to assist you in making informed decisions about buying and using awesome gear that will give you the best chance of success at whatever you are doing for the best price.

Please get in touch if you have any questions.