One aspect of fishing you should identify before you even think about casting your line is what is the best fishing bait for your fishing scenario. While the classic idea of fish bait might be a juicy pink worm on a hook, there are many types of fishing bait that you can use. Heck, there are multiple types of worms you can use!
Today, we’re going to explore the different types of freshwater fishing bait. We’ll go through the pros and cons of different types of bait, and give you the tools you need to make a decision. Whether you’re totally new to fishing or a seasoned pro wanting to shake your bait choices up a bit, our guide will help you determine what is the best bait for fish.
Live Bait Vs. Lures
Freshwater fishing bait can be broken down into two types. Natural bait, which is an animal (or part of one) on the end of your hook, and artificial lures, which is everything else.
Pros and Cons of Natural Bait
|Natural presentation; you don’t have to fool the fish into thinking an artificial lure is food||You have to keep the bait alive, which can be harder than you think|
|Easy to use, very little learning curve||There may be regulatory restrictions in place that limit your bait use and selection|
|Can attract all kinds of fish– you just need to make sure you’re offering appropriately sized bait||You usually have to re-bait the hook each time|
|Inexpensive and easily acquired at bait shops, marinas, camp stores, and even gas stations||You have to decide what to do with leftover bait|
|Versatile; can be fished at any location in the water||Preferred bait types may have seasonal unavailability|
Pros and Cons of Artificial Lures
|You don’t have to worry about keeping them alive||More expensive than live bait|
|Less messy||Harder learning curve, especially for retrieval in weedy water|
|Easy to switch between and cast to location||Less attractive to fish (missing the natural scent and taste of live bait)|
|Durable– they last for more than one bite||Environmental hazard if they break off in the water|
|Lots of designs||Selection and variety can be overwhelming|
What’s The Difference Between Bait and a Lure?
While bait and lures are both attractive to fish, the key difference is that bait is part of a fish’s diet, while lures mimic part of a fish’s diet.
For some types of fishing, like fly fishing, tricking the fish with an elaborate lure is part of the sport. But if you’re new to fishing, natural bait is easier to use than a lure. Lures are often more difficult to use and may require specialized techniques– especially when it comes to retrieval.
Natural bait is often more appealing to the fish. While there are some cases that call for lures, fish are more likely to snap at something familiar. You don’t have to add flavoring agents or bite enhancers, and you don’t have to worry about targeting a specific type of fish.
Another benefit of bait is that it’s an attractant on its own. Fish have keen senses of smell, and they’ll pick up on the natural scents released by their prey– even if that prey is on a hook. As your bait moves naturally in the water, often like injured bait it sends a message that food is available.
Lures don’t do that. You sometimes have to serve the lure to the specific fish you want to target, or else be very aware of where your target species hangs out in the water.
In general, you can think of lures as being best for specific situations, and bait being more useful for an all-around fishing experience. If you’re new to fishing, fishing with bait can be a great way to maximize your chance at success.
Natural Bait Types
These natural baits are either prey animals that fish instinctively want to eat, or are otherwise appealing from a dietary perspective.
Crickets, Grasshoppers, and Other Insects
Crickets are more readily available than grasshoppers, unless you catch your own. These terrestrial insects are a great choice for panfish and any surface feeders. When you rig one on your hook, it will present itself as a distressed animal in the water. The opportunity for a meal is irresistible, and they’ll bite.
Pro Tip: Make sure that the legs are free when you rig an insect. As they kick, the vibrations will attract curious fish and prevent the insect from falling off the hook.
If you’re fishing in freshwater, crayfish are an excellent bait to use. These small crustaceans can be used whole, or you can separate out the tail meat and claw meat.
Shrimp is also a good choice of bait. Freshwater shrimp work best in cool water, and are a major favorite of catfish. To bait a hook with shrimp, make sure the shell and tail are gone and string the meat on your hook.
Pro Tip: Panfish respond better to smaller pieces of crayfish meat, while bass prefer the crayfish to be whole and alive. Scavengers like catfish, bullheads, and carp prefer dead crayfish. Make your decision based on the fish you want to target.
Cut bait works best for fish attracted to scent, such as catfish, salmon, and trout. To make cut bait, cut narrow strips of any type of caught fish. It’s best if you leave the skin on but remove the scales.
Pro Tip: Cut the strips into long, ribbon-like strips for added motion.
Dough balls aren’t naturally found in a fish’s diet, but that doesn’t matter at all to some species. There are dough ball recipes for trout, panfish, catfish, carp, crappie, and more. You’ll also see this labeled as “prepared fishing bait” or sold as “PowerBait.”
To rig a dough ball, simply mold the product around the fishing hook. You can also use these on a treble hook with a bait holder attachment, but make sure that treble hooks are legal where you’re planning on fishing. They are restricted on many waterways.
Pro Tip: Whip up your own dough balls with equal parts flour, cornmeal, and rolled oats, plus enough raw eggs or peanut butter to make a thick paste. Boil them for a minute to stiffen them up, and try them on panfish or catfish.
Clusters of bright orange salmon or trout eggs are some of the best bait for species like salmon and trout. And yes, that does mean they eat their own eggs. When these fish are spawning, they will often ignore any other types of bait or lure because they’re so focused on eggs.
Cured fish eggs can be found at most bait and tackle shops and at Asian or international grocery stores. This is a lightweight bait, so you can weigh it down with a small sinker; however, it’s not a great bait for trawling the bottom, considering how fragile it is.
Pro Tip: Using fish eggs, also called spawn or roe, is extremely effective during the spawning season. It works best on freshwater streams, rivers, and harbor edges. Basically, look at where these fish go when they spawn and try eggs there.
These soft-bodied, blood-sucking swimmers have a hypnotic undulating swimming motion in the water that fish like walleye find irresistible. You need to be a little careful with leeches, since they can bite you. To use one of these annelids, make sure to hook them through the tail sucker. While leeches have a suction cup at both ends, the tail sucker is larger than the head.
Leeches are perfect for trolling or slow-paced spin fishing. Don’t try to fish them faster than they can naturally swim, since it’s the swimming motion that attracts the fish. Leeches also need to be kept in water.
Pro Tip: For the best results, put them in your livewell for about an hour to adjust to the new temperature– this will let them stretch out and be more attractive to the fish.
When you’re talking about fishing bait, “minnow” is a catch-all term to describe small fish. These should always be acquired from a bait shop or netted in the waters where they will be used as bait to avoid contamination.
Bait minnows come in many different sizes. Tiny minnows work for small fish, while larger minnows (frequently called “shiners”) will attract larger fish like bass.
To use minnows, string them on the hook through their mouths or their tails. You want to make sure that you leave the spine unharmed so that they can swim.
Pro Tip: Hooking minnows upside-down on a jig is a popular way to ensure a lot of motion, since they will be trying to right themselves. If you’re trying to attract freshwater predator fish like pike, walleye, or muskellunge, this technique works very well.
Mealworms and Grubs
Small insect larvae are another good freshwater fishing bait. Mealworms have a hard exoskeleton, but not so hard that they can’t easily be hooked. These little grubs are great for panfish.
Pro Tip: You can put multiple grubs on one hook for an even more enticing bait.
If freshwater clams, mussels, or other invertebrates are present in the water where you’re fishing, it’s likely that fish will be happy to take them as bait. Gather them in the shallows, and then crack the shell and allow the mollusk to dry out a little so that it stays on the hook. You need to use these quickly, since they deteriorate fast.
Pro Tip: Never transfer this type of bait between waters, especially if you’re fishing in water that’s been contaminated with zebra mussels. If you have any left over after you fish, toss them back into the water they came from.
A special type of grub, waxworms or “waxies” are the larvae of the bee moth. This is a very fatty, soft-bodied animal that is an ideal bait for small fish. Panfish like sunfish and bluegill cannot get enough of these!
Pro Tip: Most fish will go for waxworms at any time of the year because they present an irresistibly calorie-dense package. This makes them an ideal ice fishing bait. They’re also a good bait choice for warm weather, since they’re enticing enough to tempt a sluggish, sleepy fish.
Earthworms, also known as nightcrawlers, and red wigglers are two of the most popular bait worms. These soft-bodied annelids are irresistible to many fish, and present an easy meal when in the water. Take care to thread the hook all the way through the worm, so that a hungry fish doesn’t steal your bait without getting hooked!
Pro Tip: Nightcrawlers can easily be pinched or cut to the correct size for smaller fish.
Some anglers swear by unconventional baits, particularly catfish anglers. There are people who go fishing for catfish loaded with Cheeto Puffs. Seriously! They’re attracted to the cheesy corn smell, so they’ll often go for cheese-flavored corn puffs, or actual chunks of cheddar.
Corn kernels are another interesting bait choice. These work best for carp, especially if you throw out a handful of corn to trigger their feeding reflex. You can also catch panfish, hatchery trout (which are raised on corn), small catfish, mullet, and bass with corn.
To fish with food, you don’t have to use any fancy techniques. Simply stick the corn, cheese, or snack product on the end of your hook and give it a cast.
Where To Get Bait
When it comes to buying bait, you have lots of options. Generally, natural bait is pretty inexpensive. You can get the most basic baits, like nightcrawlers, pretty much anywhere– even Walmart and gas stations sell them if they’re close enough to a fishing location.
For live bait, a bait shop is going to be the first spot on your list. These shops sell everything from deli cups full of worms to bags of minnows. The staff will be happy to let you know what’s working for anglers in the area.
Don’t want to go to the bait shop, or need bait in bulk? You can order it online! There are numerous companies like Speedy Worm, Best Bait, and Knutson’s Live Bait that will deliver bait right to your door.
In addition, some of these retailers like Best Bait sell on Amazon.
It’s free to go dig up your backyard for worms. Just saying.
All joking aside, harvesting your own bait is a great way to ensure that you’re getting the animals the fish are eating. Seining for minnows, gathering mollusks, and getting bait near the water gives you extra insight into what resources are available to the fish. Just make sure you know and follow your local regulations.
In a pinch, you can get nightcrawlers, grubs, waxies, and red wigglers at any pet store. These will be more expensive than the bait shop, and you’ll get fewer bugs per container– but if there’s really not a bait shop nearby, you can check here.
One important note: do not use goldfish as live bait. Goldfish are illegal to use as bait in many states. Escaped or released goldfish can quickly become a problem– established populations of invasive goldfish pollute lakes with their high waste production, and outcompete native fish for food. Native minnows are fine, but goldfish should never be used.
Choosing the Right Bait
Now that you’re familiar with your bait options, which is the best type to use? Different baits have different best uses. You can choose bait by the type of water you’re on, the type of fishing you want to do, or the type of fish you want to pursue.
But first, make sure you know what types of baits are legal where you’re fishing.
Bait regulations are highly dependent on the area you’re fishing in. Every year, each state’s DNR publishes a guide to their fishing rules and regulations, and you should pick this up wherever you get your fishing license. Even if there are no major state regulations, specific waterways may have restrictions on what types of bait can be used.
Bait restrictions may also be in place to prevent disease. For example, Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia, or VHS, is a major source of fish kills in the upper Midwest. Lakes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other states have bait restrictions in place to ensure that bait fish and cut bait don’t introduce this pathogen to uninfected waters.
Bait regulations might seem arbitrary, but they are there for a reason. Obeying them helps preserve the waters and fish populations for the next generation of anglers!
So what’s the best fish bait? The one that catches fish! There’s no one bait that works for every situation, so here are some common fishing scenarios and our bait recommendations.
|I want to go…||I should try…|
|Ice fishing||Waxworms, minnows, and grubs|
|Fishing on a lake||Leeches, worms, minnows, cut bait|
|Fishing on a river or stream||Insects, worms, dough balls (if bottom-fishing)|
|Trolling||Leeches, minnows, cut bait, grubs|
|I’m fishing for…||I should try…|
|Bass||Crayfish, minnows, worms|
|Carp||Dough balls, worms, grubs|
|Catfish||Dough balls, cut bait, nightcrawlers, shrimp|
|Crappie||Minnows, waxworms, grasshoppers, crickets|
|Northern Pike and Muskellunge||Large minnows, leeches|
|Panfish (Sunfish, bluegill, pumpkinseed, etc.)||Nightcrawlers, red wigglers, dough balls, waxworms, crickets|
|Perch||Minnows, waxworms, crickets, red wigglers, nightcrawler pieces|
|Salmon||Fish eggs, small insects|
|Trout||Worms, dough balls (PowerBait brand), fish eggs, crickets|
|Walleye and Sauger||Minnows, nightcrawlers, leeches|
Hopefully, you are now feeling more confident about being able to pick the best bait for fishing. Remember, live bait is cheap– so don’t be afraid to experiment and see what the fish are biting!
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about