Baited hooks have been used to catch fish for centuries and still work well for a wide variety of different species today. One of the most widely used freshwater baits is a simple garden worm threaded onto a barbed hook. Panfish like bluegill, sunfish and crappie often respond well to the classic worm, hook and bobber combo. If a worm isn’t enticing enough to get a strike (or is attracting too many nuisance fish), other natural bait options include crickets, grubs and minnows. For catching larger freshwater fish, consider experimenting with nightcrawlers, Dobsonfly larvae (i.e. hellgrammites), fathead minnows and shiners. Popular saltwater fishing baits range from cut bait (chunks of raw fish) to live shrimp to small squid.
When in doubt, consider finding a local bait shop near the location you’ll be fishing. This is often the best place to buy bait and get reliable advice on what baits to use (including tips on how to rig them). Another good option is to consult with an experienced local fisherman or fishing guide. If you’re just looking for a quick reference, the chart below offers bait suggestions for several popular types of freshwater fish. For a more extensive guide on common fish species and what baits to use to catch them, check out TakeMeFishing.org.
Fish Species Bait Suggestions Panfish (bluegill, sunfish, etc.) Earthworms, grubs, mealworms, waxworms, crickets, crayfish meat Trout Earthworms, halved nightcrawlers, minnows, leaches, grubs, small crayfish, crickets, grasshoppers Bass Nightcrawlers, hellgrammites, fathead minnows, shad, stonecats, crayfish, eel Catfish Cut bait, nightcrawlers, chad, small herring, crayfish, boilies, doughballs, corn, chicken livers, hot dog chunks Carp Sweet corn, boilies, bread, doughballs Walleye Leaches, minnows, nightcrawlers Gar Cut bait, minnows Whitefish Bread, doughballs, insects, minnows Salmon Cured fish roe, cut herring
The term “soft bait” generally refers to synthetic fishing bait that is designed to emulate natural baits, such as worms, night crawlers, grubs, frogs, hellgrammites, leaches and other insects. Soft bait is made of a supple, rubbery material that is both pliable and durable. Soft bait is designed to be set on a hook just like natural bait, but can be reused many times.
Unlike natural bait like worms and minnows, artificial fishing lures can be reused over and over again to catch multiple fish. Lures come in a wide array of styles and variations. Most fishing lures are designed to do one of two things (or both):
- Imitate smaller fish, insects, larvae and other creatures that fish eat in the wild.
- Attract fish with color, movement and/or reflective elements.
Most fishing lures are designed to target a specific fish species or a group of similar fish species. For example, fishing lures designed to catch panfish and trout will differ from lures designed to target pelagic fish. Most tackle manufacturers provide information on the types of fish their lures are designed to target. When choosing lure size and weight, be sure to factor in water conditions. For instance, a heavier lure is usually ideal for fishing in stronger currents and on windy days. Lightweight lures are typically better for calmer conditions. Lure color is another important factor. In murky or muddy lake water, for instance, a brightly colored lure can help attract fish more successfully. In crystal-clear waters, on the other hand, a lure that is too brightly colored may spook fish. Below are several common types of fishing lures:
Spinnerbait refers to a type of fishing lure that has one or more oval-shaped spinner blades, which are usually made of thin metal. This oval-shaped blade spins like a propeller as the lure is pulled through the water, attracting fish with movement. The blades of most spinnerbait lures also have a reflective coating that helps catch the light, making the lure even more attractive to hungry fish. This design essentially imitates the appearance of a swimming bait fish, such as a minnow or shiner. For this reason, spinnerbait lures are ideal for targeting predatory species like bass and pike. Spinnerbaits come in a wide range of styles, sizes and colors. Most anglers keep several different options on hand. For tips and tricks on how to use this type of bait, check out "How to Become a Better Spinnerbait Angler" by Walker Smith.
When it comes to imitating bait fish, few other lures can match the crankbait. This style of lure is available in a vast array of sizes and colors. Most have two treble hooks pre-attached and a bill-shaped protrusion up front (although some designs are “lipless”). Bass in particular tend to find this type of lure very attractive. According to veteran sport fisherman Mark Bilbrey, the key to using crankbait correctly is to choose a lure that will run at the proper depth. This requires having a variety of crankbaits that will target a range of water depths.
The size of the “bill” or “lip” on the front of the crankbait is what determines how deep the lure will dive. To get started, consider choosing a shallow diver, medium diver and deep diver for your tackle box. Unlike fishing some other types of lures, making contact with cover is actually beneficial when angling with crankbait. Although bumping your lure into cover does increase the risk of a hang-up, the added attention can also really provoke fish into striking. Overcasting is important to ensure your lure has time to reach the strike zone. According to Walker Smith, lipless crankbaits are ideal for winter fishing, when both predatory fish and their prey are less active due to cold water temperatures.
Although the simple spoon lure is one of the oldest types of fishing lures, it can still be a very reliable choice. A typical spoon lure consists of an oblong piece of metal with a treble hook at one end and a grommet or loop at the other. Many spoons have a colorful pattern applied to one side and a reflective, metallic surface on the other side. Some are reflective on both sides. The shape of a spoon causes the lure to wobble as it’s pulled through the water. This movement attracts predatory fish into striking. According to Learning How to Fish, spoon lures can be divided into five categories: casting, trolling, jigging, surface and weedless.
Jigs are a specialized type of fishing lure designed for “jigging.” Fishing with jigs is widely considered to be a highly effective method for catching bass and other large, freshwater fish that respond well to the erratic, vertical motion of a weighted jig. There are several jig varieties, including swimming jigs, football jigs and flipping jigs. Each requires a slightly different technique to use effectively. Check out World Fishing Network for tips on bass fishing jig techniques.
Designed to churn through the water like an egg beater, buzzbait lures are yet another tactic bass fisherman use to coax lunkers out from cover. The primary characteristic that separates this lure from others is its ability to create vibrations as it’s pulled through the water. This attracts fish that may be unable to initially see the lure. Combined with movement and color, these “buzzer lures” can really work wonders. According to Louie Stout, buzzbait lures are ideal for targeting bass in shallow water, tempting fish out from thick cover and also for night fishing.
As the name implies, trolling lures are ideally suited for trolling. Although just about any lure or baited hook can be used for trolling, these lures are specifically designed for this style of angling. Large trolling lures are frequently used for targeting pelagic fish on the open ocean.
Another important element to keep in mind when choosing bait and lures is how you rig up your tackle. There are many different ways to rig various types of bait. For example, the classic hook, worm and bobber combination can be augmented with a weight to ensure the bait reaches a desired depth. Different sizes of bobbers can also be used. Of course, there are occasions when using a bobber is not ideal. For more information on fishing tackle and rigging, be sure to visit our Fishing Guide and check out the section on terminal tackle and fishing rigs.