Live baits can make the difference between success and frustration in many local fisheries. Common live baits for saltwater fishing include spot, mullet, menhaden, pigfish, croakers, sand perch, white perch, silversides, bay anchovies, rudderfish, shrimp, bloodworms, clams, and crabs. Always check local regulations before harvesting bait.
A cast net is an excellent tool for catching live bait.Spot, mullet, menhaden, small crabs can all be caught with a cast net. Local piers, docks, harbors, jetties, and beaches are areas that can hold baitfish. Any location that is under an artificial light can be even more attractive, late at night or just before dawn. Another trick is to chum with cat food, and then cast net the area soon after.
The most effective rig for catching live bait by far is the sabiki rig. These rigs will often out fish a conventional leader many times over. Sabiki rigs contain several small hooks with shrimp like lures attached. The leader can be used alone or baited with tiny pieces of bloodworm or other bait. The leader is then jigged slowly along the bottom or around pilings or other structure. This rig will catch small spot, perch, pinfish, and other baitfish. The added benefit is this is extremely fun and a good family activity.
In most areas, minnow pots or fish traps can be used to catch small amounts of fish and other marine life for bait. For more information, see this fish traps article.
Live Bait for Offshore Fishing
Obtaining live bait for offshore fishing is never an easy task. There are a few possibilities, but rarely can any option be relied on totally. One option is to stop on an inshore wreck or reef and jig small lures for snapper bluefish and other small fish.
During the summer season, baits can sometimes be caught around buoys, weed lines, or floating debris. Often small jacks or other pelagic fish will congregate under an object and strike a small flashy lure or a light leader and baited hook. In some cases a bottom rig will catch small red hake or other fish in depths of 20-50 fathoms.
At night, squid, tinker mackerel, or other baits sometimes appear around boats, especially when lights are directed into the water. At night, squid can be caught with baited hooks or specialized jigs. Tinker mackerel and other small fish can usually be taken on Sabiki rigs or other micro-jigs.
Some tackle shops offer live baits including minnows, crabs, eels, spot, and other baits. Whenever possible, anglers should call ahead before shopping for live bait. Seafood markets are not to be overlooked as most markets carry fresh shrimp, crabs and clams.
In the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, the best baits for many types of fishing are live “peeler” and soft crabs. Peelers and soft crabs are traditionally bought direct from the wholesaler or from local tackle shops when available. The price and availability of crabs often fluctuates wildly thru the season.
A live well can be worth it’s space for many types of local fishing. Proper handling of the baits and adequate spacing is essential. When a live well is not an option, a simple 5 gallon bucket can sometimes keep a few baits alive for a short trip. Even a cooler filled with water can serve as a makeshift live well.
Fishing with Live Baits
Small live baits such as spot, pigfish, etc. can be fished in a number of areas. Inshore, live fish can be drifted or casted around structure such as inlets, jetties, drop offs, channel edges, and other areas that hold fish. Striped bass, seatrout, bluefish, flounder, red drum, cobia, and other gamefish often take live baits. Offshore, the same applies when fishing chum or chunk lines or other fishy areas.
Not all freshly caught bait can be kept live. Small spot and other panfish make excellent cut bait. To store fish for bait, lay them flat in a cooler above the ice, or cut and sprinkle with kosher salt if they will be frozen. Clams are a good candidate for the freezer, just coat heavily with kosher salt and store in a freezer bag or small plastic container. Menhaden and other small fish can be frozen whole for use as chum.