Fishing Saltwater Fishing

The Best Live Baits

Everyone knows garden worms catch fish, but so do hellgrammites and sand fleas. Don't forget about these "sleeper" live baits
Joe Cermele Avatar
hellgrammite best live baits
Hellgrammites make great live baits when you can find them. Ryan / Adobe Stock

When most people think of live bait, nothing comes to mind faster than the garden worm. A big, fat, squirmy one will catch almost any fish that swims in freshwater. Shiners are also an extremely common live bait, as are leeches and fathead minnows. You’ll find these baits in practically every quality bait shop across the country. But just because these common live baits are abundant doesn’t mean they’re the only baits in town:

Best Common Live Baits

  • Nightcrawlers
  • Wax worms
  • Shiners
  • Fathead minnows
  • Leeches
  • Bunker
  • Shrimp
  • Shad
  • Mackerel

Some of the best fish foods you can cast out might require you to collect them yourself or find a regional shop that carries harder-to-find baits. There might even be a few species on this list that you routinely see or catch in and around your local fishing holes, but that you’ve never considered putting on a hook. Breaking away from the common shiner and worm can mean the difference between catching little fish and giants, and there’s value to presenting fish with food items that they see and eat often but rarely come with a hook attached. The “sleeper” live baits listed below can all up your game and catch rates:

Best Sleeper Live Baits

  • Crayfish
  • Hellgrammites
  • Bluegills
  • Banded Killfish
  • Crickets
  • Frogs
  • Sand fleas
  • Madtom catfish
  • Mealworms

Bait by the Rules

Before we can discuss these lesser known live baits, a little word on legality. It’s safe to assume that if a live bait is offered for sale in a tackle shop, you’re in the clear to use it however you see fit. But if you’re procuring your own live baits, it could be a different story. That’s why it’s important to check local and state regulations before collecting, using, or transporting any of these species.

A list of the best live baits doesn't end with earthworms. Joe Cermele

In many states, for example, it is illegal to use bluegills as bait even though you can keep a set limit of them for the table. And where I live in Pennsylvania, it is against the law to use a cast net to gather live bait in freshwater. Likewise, many states allow anglers to catch crayfish and shiners in one body of water and use them for bait there. But it can be illegal to collect bait in one waterbody and transport it to another.

Read Next: A Massive Minnow Shortage Is Looming for Minnesota’s Bait Shops

It’s also not uncommon for specific bodies of water to have their own sets of rules. Live shiners may be perfectly fine in most places, but for one reason or another they’re not allowed on certain lakes or rivers. Some states even require special bait collection permits. So, to stay on the right side of the law, always take the time to check the regulations (and even run a quick Google search) on the specific water body you’re planning to fish.

Crayfish

Live crayfish are an incredibly potent bait for a wide variety of species. Though they’re most often used to target moving-water smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, channel catfish, bowfin, and even big trout will happily snatch one of these crispy morsels. Crayfish are highly adept at hiding under rocks, and an exposed crayfish that’s easy to grab is a rare treat.

crayfish best live baits
Crayfish are fun to catch and make great live baits. Marek R. Swadzba / Adobe Stock

Since crayfish swim backwards, I like to hook mine through the base of the tail. They work well suspended under a bobber, or you can simply add a few split shot about a foot above the bait and let it sit on the bottom or tick through juicy runs and seams in moving water. Sometimes you can find live crayfish for sale in a bait shop, but if you can’t all you need to do is flip over some rocks in a creek and scoop them in a small net. Heck, sometimes gathering crayfish is more fun than using them to fish, and if you have little kids, they’ll have a blast splashing around to get after them.

Hellgrammites

Hellgrammites are the alien-like larvae of the Dobson fly, a huge flying insect with nasty pinchers that is common across the U.S. Dobson flies are aquatic insects, meaning their eggs are laid in water, they hatch on the bottom, and their larvae cling to rocks or burrow in silt and mud where they feed on microorganisms. 

Hellgrammites produce a pheromone that is practically irresistible to species like bass and trout. And seeing that hellgrammites are usually tucked away out the reach of these fish, even on days when nothing else seems to be working, a fresh “hellgy” will rarely last long. The problem is they’re not an easy bait to get your hands on. You’ll occasionally find them in tackle shops, but if you do, you can expect to pay handsomely for a dozen.

To collect them, anglers use a piece of window screen stretched between two wooden stakes. The screen gets positioned downstream of a rock, and then the rock is flipped to allow the debris under it—and hopefully a hellgrammite or two—to get washed into the screen. It’s a time consuming process, and old timers keep productive areas and knowledge about prime collection times close to their vests.

If you do get your hands on some hellgrammites, use a light-wire long shank hook and run it just once through the collar behind the head. Hellgrammites are tough baits, and rigged this way, they’ll often slide up the line after the hook set, allowing you to reposition the hook and catch multiple fish on one bait.

Banded Killifish

In the Mid-Atlantic they’re called killies. In New England they’re mummichogs. Down South they’re mud minnows. Regardless of the various regional monikers, banded killifish are terrific baits for a huge variety of species. These small fish are unique in that they can live in fresh, brackish, or saltwater. Even if you trap them in pure freshwater, they can be transferred to water with a higher salinity level and they’ll stay nice and wiggly on the hook.

Compared to shiners, killies are also much heartier. You don’t even need to keep them submerged in water. All you need is a small cooler with some ice on the bottom covered with saturated newspaper. As long as their gills stay moist, they’ll stay lively. Pinned through the lips and hung under a bobber in freshwater, they’ll catch everything from bass to crappies, and pickerel to perch. Used in the salt in combination with a jighead or bucktail jig, they’ll get slurped by everything from flounder to redfish to seatrout to striped bass. Killies are widely available in bait shops on both the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts.

Bluegills

Most of us learned to fish by chasing bluegills. They’re easy to catch, abundant in most places, and some might even say they’re kind of cute. But make no mistake, they’re on the menu of a lot of big, mean, not-so-cute game fish.

bluegill 2 live baits
Bluegills are fun to catch, but they also make great live bait. Steve Martarano / USFWS

Assuming local regulations allow it, the next time you’re out targeting bluegills with the kids, bring an extra rod that’s slightly heavier than what you’d need for panfish. Let the tykes catch a juicy 3- to -5-inch bluegill, and then pin it on a 2/0 baitholder hook through the back just forward of the dorsal fin on the heavier rod. Add a large bobber a foot or two above the bait and heave it out as far as you can. If pike, pickerel, or bass share the water with those kid-friendly bluegills, don’t be surprised if that big bobber takes a dive. Larger live bluegills also make exceptional baits for trophy flathead catfish and muskies. 

Crickets

Live crickets are available at most inland tackle shops throughout the South, and they make outstanding baits for bluegills and crappies. Although they aren’t as common in bait shops in the Northeast and Midwest, swing by a local pet store that sells reptiles and you’ll find all the live crickets you need.

Read Next: What Do Bass Eat?

Crickets, however, are delicate. They’re best delivered on light line and tackle, and you want to pin them on a very fine wire hook. Even then, they don’t twitch and wiggle for very long. The good news is that even after they die, fish will slurp them right up. 

Frogs 

The rules regarding permits, collection, and limits of amphibians in your state must be checked before heading out to the pond with a flashlight and net. But if you’re in the clear, it’s hard to beat the rush of a live frog getting taken down by a big bass, snakehead, pike, or pickerel. 

Frogs aren’t dumb, and they go out of their way to avoid exposing themselves to predation, staying in the lily pads or in the shallows of the shoreline. This means that if a frog finds itself in wide open water, it’s going to swim like mad to reach the safety of the vegetation or bank, and the kick and wake produced during that swim is like a dinner bell for big fish.

frog best live baits
It's hard for bass to resist a live frog in the lily pads. Tom / Adobe Stock

Simply pin a frog through the bottom lip and out the top lip. There’s no need for weights or bobber; just cast the frog and let it do its thing. If you don’t get any strikes, most of the time the frog can be unhooked and set free with minimal damage. Of course, what you really want is to see a hole open in the water as Kermit is violently sucked under. 

Sand Fleas

Sand fleas, which are sometimes referred to as sand crabs, are abundant along much of the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. There’s a strong chance some of you even collected them as a kid during beach vacations, as they thrive right in the wash where waves lap the sand. These gray, bug-like crustaceans have been staple baits in Florida forever, as they’re a choice offering for surf-dwelling targets like pompano. Throughout much of their range, however, they’re often overlooked for many other species.

In the Northeast, for example, flounder and striped bass will cruise tight to the beach to gobble up sand fleas. Drum and croakers in the Mid-Atlantic can’t get enough of them. Though you can collect them by digging with your hands (don’t worry they have no claws, and they don’t bite), a sand flea rake makes gathering a bunch faster and easier. Run the hook through the rear of the shell and send them out into the surf with a bank sinker that will roll around with the push and pull of the waves. Just don’t cast too far. Gamefish know to come in close when they’re looking for these crunchy treats. 

Madtom Catfish

Ever heard of a madtom? Don’t worry if you haven’t. Many people aren’t even aware that these tiny catfish exist, though ironically, madtoms are the most abundant family of catfish in the country. Because they’re so small, rarely exceeding 5 inches in length, they’re not targeted with a rod and reel, hence the lack of fanfare around them. However, big bass and trout will hammer these little whiskered fish if you’re brave enough to use them.

madtom catfish best live baits
The Carolina madtom grows to a maximum length of five inches. USFWS

Brave is actually a strong word. Cautious is more like it, because madtoms have needle-like spines on the leading edges of their pectoral fins that puncture skin easily and inject a mild venom that can make the wound very painful for a few days. Point being: Handle madtoms with extreme care.

They’re most often found in small streams and creeks with plenty of flat rocks for them to hide under. Flip a rock with one hand while simultaneously sweeping a dip net under the rock with the other and you’ll come up with some madtoms (assuming they’re plentiful in your local waters). They can live in a bucket for a long time, and all you have to do is run a hook through their lips. You can fish them weighted on the bottom, under a bobber, or free-line drift them through runs and holes where big smallmouths are likely to lurk. 

Mealworms

If you live in a part of the country chock full of trout streams—stocked or wild—you’re probably already hip to the mighty mealworm. These moth larvae are widely available in tackle shops and pet stores, and often come in small containers packed with saw dust.

What’s great about “mealies” is they mimic a wide variety of natural forage. To a fish, they can look like an inchworm, a caddis larva, or a little grasshopper that fell in the water. They can be red or gold in color and (unlike garden worms that need to be refrigerated) mealworms can survive for months in the pocket of your trout vest or on a shelf in the garage. In fact, if you let them go long enough, they’re more likely to turn into moths than die. Whether you’re after panfish or trout, simply thread a mealworm onto a tiny hook and send it out weighted or under a small float.