Live Bait in Florida
Fishing with live bait is the most popular way to land trophy fish in Florida, especially saltwater fishing.
Feeding fish what they eat is the key. Live bait can come in many forms with varying degrees of success rates.
|The Best Live Baits in order of Success Rate|
What Bait for What Fish?
The bait you choose has everything to do with the fish you are targeting. For catching inshore smaller fish for example, using Shrimp or freshly caught Bay Anchovies works great. For offshore drift fishing for large species you might choose Ballyhoo or Spanish Sardines.
We have all the bait fish identified on our Saltwater and Freshwater Species pages using the symbol . On these pages we give you suggestions under each species of what works best for bait. So pick a fish you want to catch to learn about its preferences.
Where Are Bait Fish
|Cast Net Captures a School of Ballyhoo - Photo Credit Beast Charters of Miami.||School of Menhaden - Photo Credit Save Menhaden|
Anglers heading offshore usually catch bait fish on their way out as you can see in the picture on the right taken at CP2 tower off Marco Island. Common places to find bait fish are:
- Navigational Towers
- Reefs and Shipwrecks
- Behind Shrimp Boats
- Bait Schools in Open Water
When scouting out bait schools look for diving birds or boiling water and you will find a school. Normally surrounding schools of bait are larger fish looking for their next meal. Casting just outside the bait schools can be productive fishing grounds too!
Collecting bait inshore near mangrove islands, bridges, pilings, towers, docks, or look for bait schools on the waterways. During outgoing tides you can collect a lot of crabs and shrimp, especially during moon tides where the estuaries empty more than usual. Setting traps in the water to collect pinfish or crabs is also another way to gather bait inshore. If you have access to a dock on a channel you can catch a lot of bait on outgoing tides, especially if you have a Snook light on your dock. Shrimp and fish are attracted like magnets to dock lights and if yours is mounted above a piling, you can use a small dip net with a long handle to just scoop bait from the water as they swim to you.
Cast netting for bait at the beach is a common activity for shore anglers. They will cast into the surf and collect their bait in a bucket to use for their day's fishing. Digging at the surfs edge for Sand Fleas (Sand Crabs) is another great source of fresh bait. Snook, Pompano, Sheepshead, and Redfish go crazy for these small crustaceans. You can also dig for worms or clams if they are available on your local beach. Collecting Fiddler Crabs is another fun activity and they make great bait for the same shore species named above. Using dip nets or seines is also another great alternative if you haven't mastered using a castnet.
Catching Live Bait
Catching live bait is a lot of fun and done by most anglers because it is by far the best bait for fishing. There are many ways to catch live bait, some are easy like hand collecting Land Crabs, others take special equipment to catch bait with the most popular choices below.
Note: You must have a fishing license to collect bait!
Sabiki rigs are purchased pre-hooked leader lines with lots of tiny hooks on them to catch bait fish. You attach the rig to your fishing line and toss the setup into schools of bait.
These Sabiki rigs are very effective because they usually have shinny sparkles on the hooks and the bait fish just dive on them like magic. They are easily tangled and the little hooks are very sharp, so care should be taken when around children or drinking adults.
|Click Picture to Buy|
Cast net's or bait nets are used to catch live bait fish and shrimp. They come in many sizes, the larger the cast net the more skill it takes to throw it, but you do catch more bait. It takes a lot of practice to throw one. Some people learn by practicing on their front lawn.
|Click Picture to Buy from Bass Pro Shops|
The device pictured to the right keeps the cast net extended so you can throw it. We have never tried it, let us know you have and how you like it.
Use cast nets when you find bait fish in large numbers, usually around structures or close to shore. Also look for flocks of birds over the water and slowly motor up to the frenzy and throw your net on the bait. If you are on the shore, any tidal pools or lagoons usually hold plenty of bait escaping the surf.
Warning: Be wary of currents. When the cast net is attached to your arm and a current grabs hold of it, you could loose your arm! This is not a joke because your immediate reaction will be to save your net instead of letting it go!
We would also like to suggest tieing the end of your cast net line to your boat if you are catching bait offshore. An incredible amount of cast nets are removed from reefs each year that were dropped by recreational anglers. Discarded nets can entangle wildlife and divers.
This video shows an angler cast netting a school of Menhaden Fish using a sardine cast net and a Transfer Net which aids in easily transferring the fish to his bait well. Menhaden are also very intolerant of low dissolved oxygen and will die quickly in a poorly aerated live well, so don't overcrowd them.
Florida Net Regulations
- Cast nets measuring 14 feet or less stretched length (stretched length is defined as the distance from the horn at the center of the net with the net gathered and pulled taut, to the lead line) and cannot be more than 500 sq. ft. Cast nets may be used as harvesting gear for the following species only: black drum, bluefish, cobia, flounder, mullet, Florida pompano, red drum, sheepshead, shrimp, Spanish mackerel, spotted seatrout, weakfish and unregulated species.
- Bully nets (for lobster only) no greater than 3 feet in diameter.
- Frame nets and push nets (for shrimp only) no greater than 16 feet in perimeter.
Beach Seine Nets
|Seining at the Beach - Courtesy of Collier Sea Grant||Seining in an Estuary - Courtesy of Collier Sea Grant|
Seine Nets are a great way to catch bait fish and shrimp at the shore. Contrary to popular belief, they ARE legal in Florida. Florida has very strict guidelines on the nets construction and there are many places in Florida where seining is not allowed. We dedicated an entire webpage on Beach Seining, complete with regulations and how to use a beach seine net.
If you would like to purchase a seine net be sure to purchase one from a reputable manufacturer that makes them "Florida Legal". We have partnered with Bountiful Seines to provide our visitors with reasonably priced, high quality beach seine nets that will last you a life time if properly cared for. And this family activity not only gets you free bait, it also is a great family fun activity that can be very educational. You can catch dozens of species in just one haul. Visit Florida Beach Seining for more information.
Hand netting bait can be a fun family activity - give everyone a hand net and a bucket and send them on their way exploring the shallow waters on the beach, in the mangroves or around dock pilings. You can use a long handled net to scoop bait from a dock or pier.
Night time hand netting can be a lot of fun. Docks or boats equipped with lights draw bait to them, especially during moving tides. Crabs, shrimp, bait fish and squid are easily collected at night. If you set out a chum slick near your light you will attract even more bait!
Make a long reaching hand net by attaching a small butterfly net to a long bamboo or aluminum pole, duck tape works just fine. These small nets allow you to silently reach out and scoop up the bait. For shrimp remember to position your net behind them because once they get spooked they will bolt backwards, straight into your net.
Raking and Digging
Free bait for the taking! It's a lot of fun using a rake to dig up Sand Fleas, Clams or Worms to use for bait. Be sure to check your County's rules on collecting, some areas are protected and do not allow collecting but most beaches around Florida allow it.
|Sand Flea Rake||Clam Rake||Clam or Sand Flea Shovel||Clam Digger|
Rakes for clams and sand fleas are used at the shore or in shallow water to pull the critters from the sandy bottom where they live. They are also used to find treasures at the waters edge like Shark teeth. Regular old garden or post hole shovels can be used on the beach for extracting worms from their homes. Store the worms in a bait bucket with a little sand and water to keep them alive. When you are ready to fish just hook a Sand Flea, Worm or clam on your line and cast into the surf or from your boat.
Catching Fiddler or Blue Land Crabs for bait requires a bucket or catch bag and a fishing license.
Collecting Fiddler Crabs can be a family fun adventure on the beach - give the kids each a bucket and send them off on a hunt, the winner of the most collect gets a big prize. If chasing these little critters is too much on your back, try corralling them with some 2 x 4's, a bucket sunk in the sand or throw a basket over a group of them. Hand collecting is only allowed so please don't use a castnet or any other bait catching gear.
|Photo Courtesy of USFWS on Flickr:|
Blue Land Crabs are found within 5 miles of the coast in South Florida and are abundant in The Keys. Blue Land Crabs are great eating or you can use smaller ones for bait. This land lubbing crab comes out at night to feed, so get out after sunset, grab a net and a flash light, and look for burrows and you will surely find a Land Crab nearby. Blue Land Crab harvesting is closed from July 1st to October 31st with a bag limit of 20 per person as of 2012. You are also not allowed to harvest egg-bearing females and you can only collect this Crab by hand. Blue Land Crab Regulations
There are a variety of traps and rakes used to catch live bait:
- Crab Traps
- Lobster Traps
- Shrimp Traps
- Pinfish Traps
Traps must be baited and sunk in the water for a period of time, usually a day. Be sure to put the bait in some sort of bait holder or container inside the trap or it will not stay in your trap long. Traps are not quick bait catching devices but they work. A little trick is to put ground up chum inside a empty margarine tub with small holes all around the tub. This will let the chum scent out to attract the crabs yet not let the crabs get to the chum to eat it. Wire the margarine tub into the trap so it will stay in place.
http://www.bluecrab.info/crabpot/ Make Blue Crab Pot
Maintaining & Monitoring Your Trap
It is very important that you monitor your trap by checking it at least weekly if you have one left in the water. Removing your catch and re-baiting it of cause is one reason to check the trap. Another reason is to be sure your lines are secure and the trap does not become a navigational hazard. Each year hundreds of abandoned crab traps placed by recreational crabbers are removed from our waters. Abandoned crab traps are navigational hazards, pollute our waters, and can endanger wildlife. Watch this video on the importance of maintaining your crab trap.
Using Lights to Catch Bait
|Click Picture to Buy|
Lights illuminating the water near a channel attract bait fish to the light and in great numbers during moving tides, especially outgoing tides. You can anchor your boat next to a channel and use a submersible light to bring the bait to you. You can also mount a light on your dock close to the water surface if you dock is close the a channel. Making a chum slick near your light will attract an even larger crowd, you can fish and collect bait at the same time. Use a long handled bait or shrimp net to scoop bait from the water as it approaches your light. Shrimp is the most common bait caught this way; squid and bait fish are also common visitors to night lights.
Flying fish make great bait for dolphin, wahoo, tuna and swordfish. For those of you who live in south Florida, especially the Keys, you can catch Flying fish offshore in a very unique way - let the fish come to you! After sunset tie a small dingy, canoe, or small Jon boat to your boat, fill it with a few inches of water, place a light on the boat so the water inside is illuminated, site back and watch the fun. The Flying fish, if in the area, will be attracted to the light and jump into your small boat. The water in the boat must be shallow so the fish cannot fly back out.
Species Specific Regulations
Keeping Live Bait Fresh
Lively, fresh bait is the key to catching fish! In order to keep your bait lively, you must give it what it needs to stay alive and kicking.
- Fresh, clean water that is changed often and kept at a temperature suitable for the bait
Photo courtesy of GAFFLife.com
- Aeration (air bubbles) oxygenates your live well water, greatly improve the water conditions and allows for more fish in less space
- Do not overcrowd bait - too many fish in a bucket or live well will consume all the air quick and foul the water
- The larger the bait fish, the bigger your live well - fish should be able to swim freely to stay healthy
- Some species require lots of oxygen and clean water like Florida's live wild Shiners
- In cooler weather, bait can survive much longer and requires less attention than in the hot summer months
- Insulated live wells, coolers, and bait buckets keep the temperature stable longer and are necessary in hot weather
- In very hot weather, throwing in a little ice every so often can keep smaller bait well a little cooler, just keep the amount of ice to a minimum since ice is usually made with tap water that contains chlorine that can kill fish
- Recirculating systems that use a spray bar to recalculate existing tank water and add oxygen on the return can heat up quickly in warm weather, care must be taken to change the water often
For more info read Bass Pro Shops article on Keeping Live Bait Alive.
Boat Live Wells
If you fish a lot from your boat a live bait well is a must. Store small bait fish, shrimp, crabs, even small fish you have caught to use for bait later.
Boat live wells are usually equipped with automatic filling systems that shut off at a certain water level. These wells draw fresh water that keeps your bait fresh and lively.
Adding a aerator to your live well will keep your fish even healthier and allow you to keep a little more in the tank. Aerators can be portable, battery operated or have a 12 volt DC connection for permanent installations.
Use a small dip net to get your bait out; a net with a float on the end is always a good idea as many end up in the water.
|Click Image to Buy|
Inexpensive, portable bait buckets are sold everywhere in Florida and can even be found on the road side after flying off a boat or truck. These buckets hold small bait and not a lot of it due to their size. They are great for a short fishing trip to the pier or beach.
It is always best to tie a line to the bucket and let it sit in the water, preferably out of the sun. The sun can heat these small buckets very fast. One way to keep your bait alive and lively is to change the water in these buckets often by submerging them in the water and letting the water flow out the opening slowly so you don't dump you bait out with the water.
Portable Bait Wells
http://catfishtraining.com/keeping-live-bait-aeration, also traps on this site
|Click Picture to Buy|
Air Pump Systems
Air pump systems fill, aerate and drain your portable live well, cooler or bait tank with one do-it-all system! You can use this on your fishing cart cooler, a cooler on your boat or at your dock.
Put the pump in your tank and you've got a powerful aerator or drain. Hang it overboard and get a tankful of water or a wash down. Can even be used as an emergency bilge pump too. These pumps adjust to any size or shape of container and mount with suction cups or screws. Spray heads adjust for circular containers Includes a 500 gph pump, 5' flexible hose, filter, and electric connections and they use a low 1.75 Amp current.
These systems generally recirculate the water and when the water comes out of the spray bars it is infused with oxygen. Care must be taken in the summer months to periodically change the water in the tank or cooler by scooping half out then dumping fresh water back in.
Here is a nice setup someone made using a cooler and an aquarium filter. This setup is for storing bait at home unless you want to convert the power source, then you can use it on your boat, fishing cart or dock. Fill a cooler or even a fish tank with water from the source of your bait (Tip: fill a 5 gallon bucket with water after you catch the bait), this will ensure the bait do not get shocked from a different water source.
Fish tank filters are inexpensive and use disposable slide in cartridges for cleaning the water. If you change the water often you can run the filter without a cartridge, the constantly turning water provides the fish with oxygen which is enough to keep the bait alive.
Sand Flea Boxes
Live Sand Fleas make excellent bait for shore fishing, backwaters fishing, and inshore. Species like Pompano, Snook, Redfish and Sheepshead go crazy for these delicacies. When collecting sand fleas with a rake or shovel you must keep them alive for best results. They are easy to keep alive by placing them in a bucket with a several inches of sand and some water. Be sure to keep you bucket out of the sun or the contents will heat up and cook your Sand Fleas.
To store the Sand Fleas use a square Styrofoam box or shallow container filled with some moist sand (use sea water) then cover the Sand Fleas with a saltwater moistened towel and loosely cover allow air to get inside. Keep the box out of the sun in a cool place and refresh the damp towel occasionally to keep it moist. Use a container that is shallow, you don't want the Sand Fleas stacked on top of each other chancing suffocation. When you get home you can store the box of fleas in the refrigeration, preferably the warmest part - remember the water & air temperature they came from and try to keep the box in that range.
You can catch a lot of Fiddler Crabs for bait at the beach and if you do not use them all on your fishing trip, take them home and give them a nice home - they will stay alive for weeks in a tub that has a layer of beach sand and is kept moist with sea water. Place the tub in the shade and put in more sea water every few days to keep the sand moist.
Live Bait Holding Pens
If you are one of the lucky anglers that live on the water you probably have a live bait holding pen or fish holding cage to keep your wild caught bait alive off your dock or seawall until you are ready to use them. Using a marine grade line, you tie your holding pen to your dock or a post on your seawall and let the cage float in the water. The best place to locate the pen is in an area where there is water movement so fresh water continuously refreshes and small organisms can float through and feed your bait. In a properly located bait pen you can keep bait alive indefinitely. Be aware of tides and make sure the pen is always submerged - adding weights to the bottom of the cage like a brick or rocks will keep the cage in place and underwater during tide changes; do not add enough weight to keep it on the bottom, just use enough to keep it stationary. The addition of a float or buoy at the top to keep the pen at water level helps you retrieve your bait and also identifies it's presence so it doesn't become a hazard to navigation. Remember, never locate your holding pen is a channel or public waterway.
There are many types of holding pens you can buy, selecting one depends on the bait you will most likely keep. Your first decision is how big the mesh holes need to be.
- 1/2" x 1" Mesh Holes for Shrimp, small bait Crabs, small Mullet, Herring, and Pilchards for saltwater use or freshwater baits include small Perch, Bluegill, Chubs, or Shiners.
- 1" x 1" Mesh Holes for large Pinfish, Spots, bait Crabs, Sand Perch, Mutton Minnows, Silverfish, larger Threadfin Herring, Mullet, Ladyfish, Ballyhoo, etc.. Freshwater fish Bluegill, bass, perch, crappie, catfish.
Your next consideration is how durable is the cage. If your bait cage will be subject to lots of movement from tides, wave, boat wakes, and be rubbing against pilings encrusted with barnacles, you need very strong mesh, preferably wire. If you cage will be in a quite channel or pond, then a lighter weight mesh will do just fine. Sharks, Alligators, Pelicans, birds and flies are a consideration too. If you bait cage is full of fish, it will attract predators looking for an easy meal.
|Click Picture to Buy at West Marine|
Bait Trays are used to store live bait, dead or alive. Many experienced anglers will pre-rig their live baits (fresh or frozen) and lay them in the bait trays, ready to use.
These stackable bait trays, made from aluminum that is powder coated, are corrosion resistant and easy to clean. Even when stacked, the trays easily transfer cold temperatures to each other, keeping all your baits colder longer.
From 16 inches to 24 inches these trays can fit easily into most coolers. Load the cooler with ice and lay the trays on top of the ice. When your done fishing for the day just transfer the trays to your freezer for your next fishing trip. The best part about these trays is you can rig all your baits at home, stuff the boxes in the freezer, then transfer to your cooler and Go Fishing!
Live bait bags are designed to keep your frozen baits frozen.
The are designed with inside pockets that hold frozen gel packs or ice.
They come with handles for easy carrying and are long so you can keep both large and small frozen baits fresh.
Pre-rig your baits then store in these packs; throw them in the freezer, all rigged up, ready to Go Fishing!
Presentation: Bait Rigging
CIRCLE HOOKS - You must use non-stainless steel circle hooks when using natural baits in Federal waters.
Catching shrimp is fun! Shrimp that are alive and kicking are one of the most commonly used baits in Florida. Using a small 1/0 or bait hook on a loop will allow the shrimp to swim freely - place the hook through the head avoiding the visible black brain will keep the Shrimp alive. For frozen, dead shrimp the hook is placed through the tail section.
To make a good casting live shrimp bait, first remove the tail fins, then run the hook through the bottom of the tail up thru the shell so it lands about a third of the way up the back. This method allows the shrimp to be easily cast because the weight of the shrimp is towards the front, so it casts well then sinks. Removing the tail reduces air friction when casting and allows body juices to escape creating its own chum slick.
For small crabs us a 1/0 hook or a number 1 bait hook. Hold the crab facing the inside of your hand, put your thumb on the bottom and two fingers on top to firmly grip it. The crabs two back legs will out in front. You can poke a hook through any area between the two back legs.
Now place the hook point on the underside, just inside one of the two middle legs and push the barb barely out of the upper shell. The barb should barely exit the upper shell. With this method the crab will stay alive and be a very tasty treat. Hooking crabs to a jig head is also a popular option.
Using live blue crabs are great for catching larger fish. Watch this video to learn how to prepare a live blue crab for baiting redfish or any other fish.
Fish, whether live or frozen, can be hooked a number of ways depending on the species. Most fish are hooked in the mouth to allow the fish to "swim" through the water as you reel it in or troll.
Here is an example of hooking Spanish sardines for drop fishing offshore. Weights are added above the first hook to get the bait deeper into the water. Then hooks are threaded onto each other forming a strong chain. Use 2 or 3 hooks connected together based on the size of your bait. You want the hook chain to run about 3/4 of the length of the fish so it hooks your target.
Another way to hook fish is to run the hook from the chin of the fish through to the nose, straight up from the chin. This will seat your hook behind the mouth so the fish goes through the water straight as if swimming. If the bait fish is alive it will actually swim because this method does not kill the bait fish.
|Photo submitted by Leonardo Manella|
Many fish caught inshore like ladyfish can be put on a larger hook like a 5/0 and cast back in the water alive and kicking to catch larger species like snook. Hook the fish through the lip and out the nose which allows the fish to stay alive, swim, and attract the bigger fish. The wounded fish will be frantic and this gets the attention of nearby fish. Ladyfish are delicate and usually can only take one good hit.
Rigging Bait Fish for Trolling
Rigging bait fish for trolling entails using wire to secure the bait to your hook so it does not get torn off while trolling at 6 to 12 knots. Your bait needs to be at the surface, not flopping & tumbling which tells you that you are going too fast. Adjust you speed according to the species you are targeting, some like a slow presentation, other like fast. Ballyhoo is the most common bait used for trolling - watch this videos on how to wire rig ballyhoo.
Small fish like ladyfish can be cut up into chunks and used it for bait. Be sure to get your hook through the tough skin so it hold on when nibbled by interested fish.
When you fillet your catch you can also cut up into chunks the dark red blood lines that you will not eat, put the chunks into a zip bag and freeze them for your next fishing trip.
Fish chunks can also be used as chunk chum to attract more fish. Cut up small fish and throw in the chunks into the water near where you are casting. Be aware of current which will quickly move your chunks away - toss bait chunks up current of your desired landing spot.
Strip bait is cutting the fillets off bait fish then making long strips to be used for bait. You can use mullets, bonito, squid or any other bait fish that can be filleted. Carefully trimming off the fillet close to the tail and leaving the tail on gives you an even better presentation.
Cut the fillet off the rib cage and leave the skin on the fillet. Now cut the fillet into long strips an inch wide or more, depending on your target species.
The strips are threaded onto a jig head or regular hook. When attaching the bait strip to the hook be sure to go through the tough skin or bone to prevent the strip from falling off. Fish will usually nibble on the strip before getting hooked so it must be attached solidly.
If you have large strips like mullet you can use a double-hook system which will create a long strip with 2 hooks protruding from it. Using a colorful jig head adds to the presentation.
Strip baits can be prepared and frozen in zip bags, ready for your next fishing trip. If you have the time, pre-rig them on jigs or hooks then lay them in a single layer in the bag and freeze.
Visit the IGFA to learn how to rig strip bait for catching swordfish.
Large Fillet Rig
This is a large bonito fillet rigged minutes after it was caught and used to catch large fish like sharks while slow trolling offshore. Notice 3 large hooks are used and strong wire. First wire the front 2 hooks to the last hook then attach a wire to the end hook and make a loop on the other end to attach to your leader. Be sure your leader is very heavy duty line along with your main line if you plan to catch a big one!
Fish Head Rig
Using a large fish and pre-wired hooks, first hook the mouth through the lips then insert a wired hook on each side of the head. Then grasp the fish and cut the body off below the side hooks. Next score the head to release more scent and blood. This is a great rig for shark fishing. Use the cut off body for fillet rigs (see below) and the remaining carcass tied to a line, hung off the boat, as chum.
Fish Chumming with Live Bait
Fish chum attracts bait fish which in turn attracts larger fish. Chumming with bait fish is a great way to increase your fish catch.
Small bait fish can be cut and tossed into the water, a method called chunk chumming the water column.
Tying fish carcasses to a line and drifting them behind you boat is another great way to recycle your live bait and draw fish to you.
Learn all about Chumming.
Image: Bonito (Little Tunny) carcasses tied to a line