5 Best Live Baits and How to Fish Them

Posted by  Friday, April 18 2014 6:00 am
expert

With thousands of lures available today, live bait would almost seem to be an anachronism for fishing in the 21st Century. The truth is it's not.

While lure and fly fishing are unquestionably effective and the most popular ways to go after gamefish today, live baits will often take more fish. That translates into more fun on the water. If you're introducing a newcomer or youngster to the sport, bait will almost guarantee enough action that they'll like fishing and want to get more involved in it, gradually working into lure fishing and fly casting.

Bait often fools the largest specimens of our most popular gamefish. But if you think bait fishing means impaling a crawler on a hook and lying back with your "pole" resting over a forked stick, think again. Using bait properly can be a challenging and engaging sport. Here's a rundown on five of the best offerings you can use for the country's most popular sportfish and tactics for presenting them.

Minnows

TopLiveBaits Minnow
Minnows are the best bait for shoreline-oriented fish.

It's a fact of life in the aquatic world that big fish eat little fish. Bass, stripers, crappies, catfish, walleyes, white bass, rockbass, trout and pickerel are notorious for their fish-gobbling tastes. But even fish like bluegills and redbreasts will grab minnows at times.

The simplest way to get minnows is to buy them at a bait store. Put them in a plastic-foam cooler, a bait bucket that can be hung in the water or a livewell in your boat.

If you want to catch your own minnows, seining is the best way. Find a small creek or shallow area along the edge of a lake and use a 4-by-8 or 4-by-12 foot fine-mesh seine with weights on the bottom, floats on top and wooden handles on each end. Sweep slowly through the pool, then work into shallow water and lift the net. It should be alive with thrashing bits of silver — don't keep any small ones. Cylindrical traps and umbrella nets are also effective for catching minnows when baited with bread, oatmeal or catfood.

How to Fish Them

Impale minnows through both lips from the bottom up, or through the back, using size #2/0-6 hooks, depending on the size of baitfish and quarry you're going after. If the bait becomes lethargic, replace it with a fresh one.

Minnows can be fished in a variety of ways. Floating them beneath a bobber is an effective tactic in spring because so many fish are in the shallows and you can allow the bait to swim suspended near cover with this rig. This is a great technique for pickerel, bass, crappies and catfish.

Drift fishing with minnows using a couple of split shot or a dipsey sinker for weight also works well, particularly for crappies. A method I often use is to cast and reel in a minnow as if it were a plastic worm. This gives you the wriggling appeal of live bait, plus the motion of a retrieved offering. This technique also works when you're fishing jigs sweetened with minnows — a hot strategy for walleyes, pike and pickerel.

Shad

TopLiveBaits Shad
Shad are the best bet for larger fish in opn water, such as striped bass.

Minnows are the indisputable best bait for shoreline-oriented fish, but shad are the top offering for larger quarries that roam the open water, such as striped bass. They're also excellent for big flathead and blue catfish, and don't be surprised to latch onto a few hefty largemouths with these baitfish as well.

Since they are a deepwater fish, the best way to catch shad is with a cast net. Search for shad in coves and near points, dams and riprap along bridges. Another option is to go out at night in areas where they are abundant and hang a lantern over the boat's gunnel. The shad will be attracted by the light and congregate beneath the boat; then it's simply a matter of throwing out the cast net and hauling them in.

Shad keep best in large, round containers with aerated water. Adding a bit of rock salt, ice and a chemical bait additive also helps keep them perky.

How to Fish Them

Shad can be fished many ways. If gamefish are shallow, drifting them beneath a cork in 4-10 feet of water can be very effective.

Drift fishing without a float or anchoring over structure, however, are the top methods. Rig the shad on a #4/0-2 hook attached to an 18-36 inch leader. Tie the leader to a barrel swivel and thread an egg or bullet sinker onto the main line above that — usually one-half to 1 1/2-ounces is about right.

Position this rig so that it's either a few feet off the bottom or just above where you've located fish on the depth finder. Stripers, catfish and the occasional bass will do the rest.

Madtoms

TopLiveBaits Stonecat
Madtoms, also called stonecats, are great offerings for smallmouth in rivers.

Also called "stonecats," these small catfish can tempt any good-sized gamefish, but they're especially effective on smallmouths in rivers. A few bait shops sell them, but for the most part you'll have to catch your own.

Find riffly areas in rocky rivers and streams and search for them by slowly lifting up rocks. You can either scoop them up with a small net or place a milk carton painted black inside next to the rock and they'll usually swim into it.

Don't expect to find a madtom beneath every rock. They're not prolific. But if you turn over enough stones, you'll catch a sufficient number for a day's fishing. The baits are hardy and can often last through catching several fish. Better still, they are not attractive to small fish so almost every bite you get will be from a good-sized bronzeback.

How to Fish Them

First a note of caution: These catfish have a mild poison in the spines on the top and sides; be careful when you handle them so you don't get jabbed. Keep the baits in a minnow bucket or plastic foam cooler and hook them through both lips on a size 1 or 2 hook.

Since they head for the bottom, no weight is needed. Cast up and across and allow the tom to dive and drift with the current. When it crawls under a rock, tug it free. If no strike comes, reel in and repeat. When a fish takes, let it run several seconds, reel up any slack and set the hook hard. Work the bait near deep holes, ledges, logjams, undercut banks and boulders in midstream.

Hellgrammites

TopLiveBaits Hellgrammite
Hellgrammites, found in rocky rivers and streams, are good for a number of species, including bass, catfish and trout.

These ornery-looking critters are the larval forms of the Dobson fly. Measuring 1-3 inches, they're found in rocky rivers and streams and are terrific baits for smallmouth, largemouth, spotted bass, panfish, catfish and trout. Use one to two-inchers for trout and panfish, bigger ones for bass.

These baits can be captured around the same rocky, riffly areas in streams and rivers where you find madtoms. Lift rocks and scoop them up with a small dip net, or have one person spread a seine out while another lifts rocks upstream, loosening the baits so they drift down into the mesh.

Store hellgrammites in a container with leaves, bark, sticks and just a small amount of water on the bottom. They'll stay lively for days like this if kept cool.

How to Fish Them

Use size 2 to 6 hooks and thread the point beneath the "collar" on the insect's back then out the other side. Add one or two small split shot for weight. Try fishing with and without a float, to see which works best. If the current is slow or the water low, a bobber helps. Otherwise, simply cast the bait out and let it drift naturally.

Crayfish

TopLiveBaits Crayfish
Bass, panfish, trouth and catfish have a hard time resisting the scurrying action of crayfish.

Few gamefish can resist the scurrying action as well as the taste and scent appeal of these crustaceans. They're good baits for bass of all species, plus panfish, trout and catfish.

Ponds and streams can both harbor crayfish, which are often found under rocks and debris or simply burrowed in the mud. Baiting a minnow trap with bread or meat will attract them, or you can use a dipnet or can with holes in it to catch them.

Lift logs and rocks in shallow waters until you spot a crayfish, then put the net or can behind it. Push a stick in front of the crustacean and it will scurry backwards into the container. If you don't find many baits during the day, try this tactic at night with a flashlight. Crayfish can be kept in a foam cooler or bait bucket with a small amount of water and wet leaves.

How to Fish Them

Pierce crayfish through the tail on a size 1/0 to 4 hook and either drift fish or cast the bait to cover such as rockpiles, points, eddies, docks, islands and dropoffs. If the water is deep, add a couple of split shot for weight.

Panfish Picks

Suppose you just want to catch a stringer full of tasty bluegills or shellcrackers for a delicious dinner? Two offerings get the nod.

The first is the plain old worm — garden worm, red wriggler or a piece of nightcrawler — any of the three will do. The second choice is a cricket or grasshopper, both members of the Orthoptera order.

These exude a strong scent and are relished by all members of the sunfish family. Thread them on a size 4-8 long shank hook and fish beneath a bobber with a split shot or on spreader hooks above a 1 ounce dipsey sinker when fish are hanging out in deep water.

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Gerald Almy
expert

Gerald Almy has been a full-time outdoor writer for over 35 years, with articles published in over 200 publications. He has written hunting and fishing columns for many newspapers both in Virginia and Texas, as well as the Washington Post. He has written two books on fishing and contributed chapters to a number of hunting books. He has won many awards for his writing. In 2008, a feature he developed for Field & Stream and wrote for five years called “Best Days of the Rut,” was nominated for a National Magazine Award.

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