5 Steps for Fishing With Live Bait

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Hey there fellow anglers and welcome to my post where we will check out my 5 steps for fishing with live bait this year.  When it comes to catching large fish, there are generally two options – using a good lure or catching and rigging some live bait.  And if you are like me and prefer a good live bait, then the problem is that you usually have to try and catch that first.

So to help you out here I have done some research as well as leaning on my own experience to come up with some good tips below.  Let’s check them out.

What is live bait?

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 – If you use what the fish eat naturally, you stand a better chance of them taking your hook
  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.

Now, again for the purposes of this post we will mainly discuss the use of bait fish (Minnows, Shad, Whitebait etc.) however keep in mind that depending on the type of fish you are chasing, we could also categorize live bait as worms, lamprey, small rodents, frogs and insects as well.

Steps for fishing with live bait - live bait in bucket

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

Steps for fishing with live bait

Let’s have a look at the 5 steps I have come up with for fishing with live bait below:

1. Choose the right location

This first tip is probably a no brainer as it is true with all fish that you are targeting in that you need to look where the fish are. So in this case but where you catch your bait will be determined by the type of bait fish you’re after as this is where they will be chasing them as well. This includes:

  • Select the right structure – Just as it is with larger species, baitfish are easily scared, which causes them to seek refuge among sheltered areas or underwater structures. Look for them then near jetties, pylons, shallow reefs, or wrecks.
  • Observe the birds – This is a great signal and one we often look for when deep sea fishing out on the ocean. So if you’re out in the open, the presence of birds is a dead giveaway that bait is nearby.  When you see the commotion (bust up) on the water’s surface or birds swooping in, it usually means your target bait is close by.
  • Use chumYou can always use chum to attract bait fish if the above steps do not work well for you. Chumming is a tried and true method of luring bait fish to your location. All you need to know is how to make a visually appealing chum mixture. The best combinations contain a “meaty” component such as grubs, shrimp, or pinfish, a scent enhancer such as fish oil, and a binder such as oats, breadcrumbs, or sand.
  • Check your finder – When we are out on the reef, we will often stumble across a school of bait fish when watching the finder. Look for a big organic looking ‘blob’ on the finder and you might be in for some luck.

Check out these: Fish Finders for Deep Sea Fishing

2. Use the right approach

If you watch closely here you may start to see that catching bait fish sort of runs on the same premise as larger species. And following on from that, our next tip is to ensure that you use the right approach. The advantage you have here most of the time that in general, bait fish school so the following techniques can work well:


If you know which one to use, a cast net will be a great asset for your live bait fishing. As you can probably guess, a larger net is required to catch larger bait, and vice versa. Net sizes typically range from 3 to 10 feet in diameter. A denser net will keep smaller fish inside, but it will also weigh more and be more challenging to throw. Mesh sizes that would work well would be 3/16 of an inch to 1 inch.

Last but not least, you must select the appropriate weights. Heavier weights, on average, will sink your net faster and catch more fish. They will, however, be more difficult to throw correctly, so you must find an acceptable compromise.

Check out these: Cast nets for catching live bait


Trapping is the simplest way to catch bait fish. Although you can buy some high-quality fish bait traps , there are still several methods for catching bait fish using some simple household items. 

You’ll need a 1-gallon water bottle, a rope, a knife, frozen bait, and a stone to make this bait trap.

  1. Make two perpendicular cuts (a cross) in the middle of your water bottle with your knife. These two cuts should form four triangles, with the tips pointing in the same direction.
  2. Push the triangles down into the bottle, forming a funnel.
  3. Thread the rope through the bottle.
  4. Insert your frozen bait and stone into the bottle.
  5. Your DIY bait is ready to use. Drop it into the water and wait for your fish baits to enter your trap.

Success here of course, this depends on your timing and location. We use a trap for catching mullet and have to walk it out a little deeper for success however if you’re trapping in shallow water, you can try prodding the bottom to stir the waterbed and attract bait fish before placing your bait trap.

Check out these: Live bait traps

Sabiki Rig

Sabiki rigs are extremely effective bait-catching devices. A Sabiki rig is a setup of 6 to 10 small hooks laced with shiny materials and tied to a single line with a weight on end. This rig can catch a wide range of live baits, from Threadfin Herring and Minnows to Pinfish and Grunts – we use them to catch Slimy Mackerel and Yakka Herring.

Steps for fishing with live bait - live bait in well

3. Keep them alive

The next trick here is in my opinion the most critical of the lot – keeping those little suckers alive. Of course they will still work if they have not survived being caught (we will cover this in more detail below) however it is their live status that gives the best results. And in most cases ,it is the lack of oxygen in the water that prematurely kills bait fish.

If you are in a larger vessel in open waters, then the chances are good that it is equipped with a live bait well. If this is the case, make sure it is full of water with the recycle pump working before you start your catch. Alternatively, if you are on a smaller vessel or fishing from a bank or pier, then a portable aerator is your best option here.

If none of these are available, then at the very least make sure you are changing the water – refilling and allowing water to spill over from a bucket – at least every 30 minutes or so. Oh, and if it is a smaller container, keep it out of the sun as well.

Check out these: Portable aerators for live bait

4. Learn how to rig them

Now this next tip is a little more difficult to be exact on here as how you rig your live bait will depend on a number of factors including:

  • The type of live bait you are using
  • The type if fish you are chasing
  • The location
  • Fishing technique – i.e. casting or trolling for example

The trick of course is along the lines as the previous step in that we want to keep bait fish alive as possible so that they can ‘swim’ around and attract a larger fish. As an example then, below are some techniques we use:

  1. If chasing Mangrove Jack, we put a single hook through the top of the snout of the bait fish and cast it out without weight so that it can swim into the mangroves or under logs.
  2. When trolling for Spanish Mackerel, we use trident hooks on a wire trace with Herring or Slimy Mackerel. The first hook is placed across the top of the head and the second along the top of its back. This keeps it secure and allows it to ‘swim’ with the boat as it moves.

At the end of the day, depending on the conditions and locations, do your research and determine the best way to rig your live bait so that it not only looks natural, but stays alive for as long as possible as well.

Steps for fishing with live bait - rigging live bait

5. Replace them often

Unfortunately, no matter how you keep them and rig them, bait fish definitely do not live as long on a hook attached to a line. Usually they tire themselves out or get ‘hit’ by other smaller fish as well. So to that end, if you are fishing with live bait, replace them often so that you always have a fresh, strong swimming ‘livie’ in the water.

This doesn’t mean you can’t continue to use them however as you can either fillet them for further bait use or even add them to your chum/burley bag in an effort to attract others as well. They can also of course be frozen for later use too.

Other live bait

And finally, I mentioned at the top of this post that the term ‘live bait’ does not always have to mean bait fish. So as an added bonus, I have included some information in regards to other live bait options as well.


If you are fishing in fresh water, Crawfish are an abundant option for many species such as Bass, Catfish and even Sturgeon. They are simple to find, catch and keep alive as well. Commercially made wire mesh traps may be the best and most effective method for catching crawfish and can be placed in lakes, ponds, creeks, rivers, ditches and backwater bayous with meat such as chicken necks, wings, or liver. as bait. 

If a trap is not around, Crawfish can also be caught by simply tying a hunk of bait to a line where they usually cling to the bait long enough for you to net them.


Worms (including Nightcrawlers) are another commonly used bait for many species such as Catfish and Crappie. There are numerous methods for catching worms, including rubbing an axe blade across a buried stake, electro-shocking likely soil areas, and even baiting the ground with raw pork (although this also attracts ants and other crawly critters like cockroaches).

Alternatively, just dig around in your compost heap and you should be good to go – A worm farm is good here too.

Steps for fishing with live bait - worm

Crickets and grasshoppers

Crickets and grasshoppers make excellent panfish and trout baits and are simple to catch and keep. Cricket traps made from plastic water or soda bottles are effective. Remove the top quarter of the bottle and place it at the bottom. They can’t get out once they’re inside. Bait the trap with small pieces of overripe fruit, such as peaches, pears, or strawberries, and place it along barn floors (inside or out), in garages, or near light sources at night. Crickets are typically caught quickly.

And f that seems to difficult, then many good bait and pet shops will keep live crickets for bait and rodent food as well.

Hellgrammites and nymphs

Smallmouth bass, Walleye and Trout love hellgrammites and large nymphs, which is why they are preferred live bait. Sieves are most effective in catching them in the shallows of rocky rivers and streams. While another angler shuffles around rocks, logs and other bottom debris a few feet upstream, hold your seive downstream. Hellgrammites and nymphs living beneath the rocks and debris will be dislodged and carried downstream to the seine by the current.

Again, bait shops are a good source of live Hellgrammites too.


And there they are, my 5 step for fishing with live bait. I would be pleased to know how this article helped you, and as usual,  let me know of your experiences here.

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.