Saltwater Fishing Bait

When choosing saltwater lures or bait, consider how fish feed. Fish detect a meal in three ways — by scent, sound and movement. Discover the different types of saltwater fishing bait available.

Fish actually have a sixth sense that humans do not. The lateral line running down each side of a fish is filled with tiny hairs that can detect movement in the water. A fish can pick up a moving object, such as a fishing lure or bait, even in complete darkness. Just before it strikes, the fish will use sight to check out its victim. Even in clear water, fish can only see about 15 feet, but they can see colors and shapes. Finally, a fish will use its highly sensitive sense of taste to verify that what it has eaten is actually edible. To fool a fish, you must first fool all of its senses.

Bait Fish

Bait fish are small fish caught for use as bait to attract large predatory fish, particularly game fish.  Species used are typically those that are common and breed rapidly, making them easy to catch and in regular supply.

Examples of marine bait fish are anchovies, halfbeaks, and scad. Freshwater bait fish include any fish of the minnow or carp family, sucker family, top minnows or killifish family, shad family, sculpin or sunfish family, excluding black basses and crappie.

Although bait fish typically have populations that fluctuate rapidly anyway, and so can potentially sustain significant recreational and commercial fisheries, regulations may exist to prevent overexploitation, as in Arkansas and Massachusetts. Studies by fisheries and conservation agencies monitor the health of bait fish populations, allowing regional governments to set quotas.

  • Live Saltwater Fishing Bait

    Live Saltwater Fishing Bait

    When trying to trick a fish, nothing beats live fishing bait. Live bait may be hard to catch and hard to keep, but it's hard to beat when targeting finicky fish. Whether you catch live bait with a hook or a net, avoid touching the bait before putting it on the hook. The livewell in which you store your bait should simulate current, oxygen content and temperature of the bait's natural environment. You can transport bait short distances in a bucket with a battery-operated aerator.

When fishing with live bait, use the lightest hooks, leader and line possible to avoid further stressing the fish. Passing the hook through the bait fish's lips, eye sockets or nostrils will allow it to swim most naturally. Hooking the bait in front of the dorsal fin will encourage the bait to swim down. For delicate baitfish, tie a bridal out of rigging floss to hold the hook.


Hard-shell, soft-shell and peeler crabs are all good bait for saltwater fish. You can pull them apart or use them whole. To hook a whole crab, bore the hook through the shell like a drill. Work the hook through the pointed part of the shell on either side of the body. Hooked this way, the crab will live pretty well and provide some action to attract fish.

  • Cut Bait

    Cut Bait

    The next best thing to live bait is cut bait; however, cut bait can be as difficult to obtain and maintain as the live version. Use the freshest saltwater fishing bait you can find. Natural fishing bait should be firm and smell fresh. Fish that will be used for cut bait should have clear eyes and red gills. Frozen bait should be vacuum-packed and free from freezer burn. Keep the bait on ice in a well-drained cooler.

Clams and Mussels


If clams or mussels are native to your area, you can use them to catch the native fish. To keep them fresh, gather the mussels and clams from shallow waters before or while you fish. Crack the shell open, cut out the clam or mussel and allow the bait to harden slightly in the sun so it stays on the hook. Tie mussels on to the hook with thread, taking care not to pull too tight.


Shrimp are the favorite meal of saltwater fish. You can use shrimp as bait when you're fishing from a bridge, pier, bank or boat. Different-size fish will hit on different-size shrimp. Place the hook beneath the shrimp's head so the barb comes out on top, avoiding the black spot. Hooking the black spot will kill a shrimp immediately. Action is important for attracting fish. You can also insert the hook from the top of the shrimp, work the point beneath the black spot and bring the barb out on top again. This method is considered best for bottom fishing. A third method stops bait-stealing fish. Insert the hook from the tail of the shrimp and thread the body onto the hook, passing the barb beneath the black spot.


Just about any fish that lives nearshore or in the open ocean can be caught using cut or whole squid. Use them whole by running the line through the inside of the mantle (the outside body shell) and hooking the squid in the head. The mantles of larger squid can be cut into vertical pieces for strip bait. You can use squid for trolling and for bottom and floating rigs.

Typically, it's best to use the smallest piece of bait that you can get on the hook. Larger chunks give fish the opportunity to nibble the bait off the hook. To keep the bait from falling off, try to run the hook through bone, skin or shell. The rule for any bait is: If you wouldn't eat it, then neither will the fish.

Scented Saltwater Fishing Baits

In the last few years, scientists have developed artificial saltwater fishing baits laced with powerful fish attractants. Scented fishing baits come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from popular trailers for jigs to flat sheets for cut bait. These soft plastic baits last longer than natural bait and don't require refrigeration. Always keep a scented bait in the liquid it came in, and never leave it on your hook or it will harden like a rock and become impossible to remove.

To learn about different types of saltwater fishing lures visit our next section.