December 16, 2020

How To Fish With Live Bait

Scott Kimball

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Scott Kimball

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Fishing with live bait offers some of the most exciting, action packed fishing you can embark on. With a little knowledge and work you can land a trophy fish with live bait.

Fishing with live bait can be broken down into a 5 step process, identifying the fish you are going after, sourcing your bait, storing your bait, hooking your bait, and fishing technique.

How To Fish With Live Bait | Today I'm Outside

Table of Contents:

Best Fish To Catch With Live Bait

There are far too many species of fish, baits, and nuances, so below is a quick reference guide for some of the more popular game fish and baits out there.

Bass: worms, minnows, frogs, crickets, leeches, shad, and crayfish.

Trout: worms, minnows, crayfish, and insect larvae.

Pickerel: minnows and other bait fish, worms, and frogs.

Walleyes: worms, minnows, frogs

Catfish: worms and leeches

As you can see, minnows and worms are going to attract 99% of the freshwater fish out there. My experience with salt water fishing is most fishers generally use cut bait, which is no longer “live bait”, but I know some who use shrimp, shellfish, and sea worms. Primarily we’ll be focusing on freshwater fishing, but the principles apply to saltwater fishing as well.

Where To Get Live Bait

There are several methods for getting bait, the most common is buying it at a store. However, some people like to catch their own bait. Let’s discuss some common and easy ways to catch minnows and worms.

Catch Worms

There are all sorts of crazy ideas to catch worms that actually produce results. Some people pour soapy water onto damp areas, which ultimately causes the worms to surface, capture the worms and boom, you’ve got live bait. You can also get a shovel in hand and dig for worms. This method always served me well. I’ve also had good luck checking under rocks, boards, kid toys, and yard furniture left outside. During a rainy day you may also find some on your driveway or walkways.

Truth be told buying worms for a few bucks is going to save you time and allow you to concentrate on fishing.

Catch Minnows

To catch minnows all you need is a minnow trap, which is basically a cylinder encompassed with mess wire or cloth. You can bait the trap, with bread or dog food, which will entice the minnows to enter the trap. Make sure your trap is secured to something on land, so you can retrieve your trap when it is time to collect the minnows. You can also make a minnow trap, by inserting a plastic soda bottle, into another plastic soda bottle, making a funnel. This is a fun project to do with young kids, but in my experience it does not yield the same results as a store purchased trap.

If you decide you want to use frogs, leeches, tadpoles, or insect larvae or a speciality bait for saltwater fishing, a simple Youtube search will provide you with the info you need on catching your bait.

Check Local Laws

If you are going to catch your own bait make sure you check local laws and regulations. I know a guy who got fined and lost his license for a year, because he was trapping minnows in a protected smelt waterway. Also, some bait could have season dates or be protected in certain regions. Better safe than sorry.

How To Store Live Bait

Now that you have identified what you will be fishing and have some bait, it is time to store it. This is really where the line hits the water, because the object of the game is LIVE bait. Vessels to store live bait in can be as simple as a styrofoam cup filled with dirt, to as complicated as live wells complete with pumps.

What you need is going to depend on you, your experience, the game fish, and of course budget. I am an avid fisherman and I generally only fish with worms or minnows, outside of that I am an artificial fly kind of guy. Below are the two most common set-ups I have used and have seen.

Storing Worms

For worms I use an extra large styrofoam coffee cup. I will fill it up with dirt from wherever I sourced the worms. The worms don’t last forever in this set up, so I will usually dump any remaining worms out at the end of the day. If you purchase worms they will generally come in a styrofoam or plastic container with dirt.

Storing Minnows

For minnows, I use an insulated bait bucket with an aerator. I’ve had it for a couple of years, but I believe it was $25.00 at Bass Pro Shops. Same as with the worms, I try to use water from wherever I sourced the minnows, if the water comes from a lake or pond I will usually strain the water through a couple of old washcloths, this keeps practicals from clogging my aerator. If you purchase the minnows, usually the attendant will fill up your bucket with water from their storage tank.

These methods are easy, cheap, and most importantly have stood up to the test of time. These two methods will work for the majority of anglers out there. After all, if you need a live well with pumps, then you are probably a professional and don’t need my advice.

How To Choose a Hook

When fishing with live bait you want to make sure you pick the right hook, which truthfully can be trial and error.

Aberdeen is probably the most widely known hook and what I imagine most recreational anglers have in their tacklebox. It has an elongated shank and wide gap and is good for worms, minnows, and insects.

The octopus hook is another popular hook, especially with bass fishers. It has a wide gap and short shank. This is a pretty universal hook, allowing you to use a wide variety of bait. The hooks are thin and set nicely into the fish.

Circle hooks are the ideal hook for catch and release fishers. The circle hook will allow a fish to eat the bait, but not the hook. When the fish goes to swim away the hook will set in the corner of the fish’s mouth. Generally speaking, this doesn’t kill the fish and allows you to release it back into the water with a high survivability rate.

You also want to pick the right hook size. There is a number system that some fishers use, like #4 to 1/0 for an average size minnows, but this over complicates fishing. Picking the right hook is fairly straightforward and common sense. If the hook is so small it barely hooks the bait, then it's too small. If it is so big that it instantly kills the bait and can’t be concealed, then it is too big.

How To Hook Live Bait

Obviously, securing the bait is going to depend on the bait you are using, but we need to remember the object of the game is to fish with LIVE bait. So we need to look for ways to impale a hook into a living creature without killing it. Sounds difficult for sure, but really it's not that hard.

Hooking Worms

With worms I have had the most luck with inserting my hook into the “head” or “tail” of the worm and then sliding the worm up the hook, so that the entire hook is concealed by the worm. If you are using smaller worms, you can insert the hook into a couple worms, so that the hook is completely concealed.

Hooking Minnows

There are a couple different ways to hook a minnow. Some anglers will hook the fish through the lower and upper lip, this allows the minnow to swim normally, however they tend to die faster than other methods. Some anglers hook a minnow through the mouth and out the gills. This method keeps the fish on tight, but again kills off the minnow quickly. My personal favorite method is hooking the minnow through it’s back and slightly in front of the dorsal fin. This method keeps the minnow alive longer and allows it to swim freely.

When using live bait, try to reel in your line every 15 minutes or so to confirm your bait is still on the hook and alive.

Technique For Fishing With Live Bait

You identified your target fish, you got bait, you stored it correctly, you got the right hook and hooked your bait flawlessly, but now what? Well, you’ve got to cast this bait and catch a fish. Seems straight forward, right? But, again depending on what you are fishing, how you are fishing, and where you are fishing this could dramatically change.

A Basic And Efficient Technique

The most widely known and common technique for fishing with live bait is fairly simple. You hook a worm, attach a bobber, cast it out, and wait for something to come along. This is often the go to fishing style for someone fishing with their kids, looking to relax and have a couple beers, or just someone casually fishing to kill some time outdoors. If I was a betting man, I would bet more fish are caught this way then any other.

You can mimic this bobber style with minnows as well. You can cast the minnow out and allow it to be suspended under the bobber. The bait can swim freely and attract fish. This can be an effective method in the spring or in shallow water with good cover.

You can also attach some weights to your line and cast the bait out and reel it back in as if it was lure. Obviously, the real bait is going to look and act more realistic, but it also allows you to control direction, speed, and motion. This can be a successful way to catch some lunkers.

Fishing With Live Bait While Boating

Drifting live bait is popular among the boating crowd and can be a fun way to kill the afternoon. Identify what you are fishing and how deep the water is. Then add the proper amount of weights to your line, if you want to go deep add more weights and if you want to go shallow reduce the weights. Cast your line out a couple of feet away from the boat, this is to prevent the line from getting stuck in the motor. Then slowly troll around the water on your boat. Every now and then check your line, to confirm there is nothing on your hook and the bait is there. This is a very effective method to catch lake trout in cold or spring fed lakes.

Ice Fishing With Live Bait

Ice fishing can offer some of the most excitement for those looking to fish with live bait.

With ice fishing, you can use a jigging rod, which is basically a small rod and reel, that you “jig” with or a tip up which basically suspends your bait over the middle of the hole. When a fish takes your bait, it will trip a flag to notify you to check the line. Tip up fishing is some of the most fun you can have in the winter.

With a jigging rod, you bait the hook as you normally would, and drop the bait into the hole. Once the fish bottoms out, reel it up to your desired depth, again (theme of this post) the depth will depend on the fish you are after. Every now and then flick the jigging rod up and down to attract game fish. You will know when you have a fish on.

With a tip up first you need to connect your line to a sounder and drop it down to the bottom of the hole. Pull up the line till you get to your desired depth. Once you have your desired depth, tie a matchstick to the line, so the match stick will float on the water. This will ensure that you get the correct depth everytime without having to use a sounder repeatedly. Then attach the bait to your hook and slowly lower the line into the water. Wait for a flag.

What Kind Of Angler To Be

Fishing with live bait and fishing with lures both have their pros and cons, it usually comes down to cost and fishing style.

Fishing With Lures vs Fishing With Live Bait

Lures are fun, especially flies, but they come with the added stress of money, the risk of losing them, and knowing which one to use and when.

Pros And Cons Of Lures

Generally, speaking artificial bait, lures, and flies are going to be more of an upfront cost. A quick Google search shows soft bait worms cost upwards of $7.00, a Rapala floating minnow costs $10.00, and the average fly can go anywhere from $5.00 to $15.00. This is just for freshwater gear, saltwater gear would come with an even higher price tag.

As you can see artificial bait adds up quickly. However, in theory, these lures should last a lifetime. Except for when your wife is using your tackle box and snags your favorite $15.00 lure onto a log in the middle of a river, but I digress. Another added benefit is you can keep lures in your tackle box indefinitely, ready to go fishing at a moment's notice.

Pros And Cons Of Live Bait

Live bait offers the simplicity of fishing anytime, anywhere, and for most species. A worm or minnow will catch 99% of the main gamefish out there. But, it can be messy. Think about the first time you went fishing and watched someone hook a worm. It needs to be stored properly, so you have “live” bait. Oftentimes it requires some additional gear, such as traps, different sized hooks and weights.

The price on live bait can vary from one year to the next. This past January- before the whole world shutdown- I paid $7.00 for two dozen shiners and this summer I paid less than $5.00 for a 30 count of worms. The upfront cost is cheaper, but you need to pay that everytime you go fishing. But, I don’t mind spending a few bucks to support a locally owned store or bait and tackle shop, especially in 2020.

Ultimately, fishing with live bait offers action on the water that is hard to replicate with lures.

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About THE AUTHOR

Scott Kimball

From a young age I was introduced to fishing, hiking, camping, and more through family, friends, and scouting. After 20 years of learning and participating in these outdoor activities, I share what i've learned (and continue learning) with you.

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