Dozens of bait fish are available to fishermen free of charge. No matter where you are or what type of fishing venture you take on, live bait can make your target catch that much easier to hook. Many of these small fish are common and breed rapidly. Further, making them easy to keep in stock as you learn which ones pull in the best results. These species are often regulated because they sustain the fishing population among various fisheries. So, it is important to be careful in the amounts that you catch and where.

Nevertheless, some of the most commonly utilized bait fish are anchovies, shad, and minnows, to name a few. However, other options that have been tried and tested include crabs, clams, mussels, shrimp, and squid. With more bait species beyond this list, the one thing in common is their effectiveness in luring target catches. That being said, here is a breakdown of the best bait fish for saltwater species.

1. Cigar Minnows (Round Scad)

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Commonly used for trolling, cigar minnows can be effective in landing sailfish, barracuda, King mackerel, cero mackerel, snapper, grouper, amberjacks, tuna, mahi-mahi, marlin, and bonito. Cigar minnows typically range from six to twelve inches long, making them large enough to be bridled onto a hook. Being the target for these many saltwater species, cigar minnows are perfect bait for both on and offshore fishing. This bait is also easily caught with a cast net or with sabiki rigs to help gather a large amount in the same area.

2. Mullet

Very common in the Gulf waters during summer, mullets are excellent bait for bottom fishing. Usually, large, mullets appeal to tarpon, striped bass, and sharks. Additionally, smaller mullets attract saltwater species such as redfish, tarpon, barracuda, and bluefish. Mullet can be a quality saltwater bait, both alive or dead, while it is best used for inshore fishing. They are known, however, to be effective in any saltwater location. 

3. Sardines (Pilchard)


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Small, oily sardines are attractive bait for a variety of Gulf water varieties. These target species are; marlin, redfish, tarpon, Kingfish, mahi-mahi, and Spanish mackerel. Sardines work best as cut bait for bottom fishing. But, most popular for inshore fishing, on the reef, or offshore fishing. As a result of your catch, consider throwing some bait overboard to help attract your target species toward you. For best results, netted sardines make for the easiest to hook bait over cut bait or canned sardines that many utilize for scent attractant.

4. Shad (Herring)

Shad, a small herring species, is another common live bait of many saltwater game fish. Generally, these are significant bait to the commercial lobster industry on a global level. Thus, shad and other herring species are delicious bait fish for salmon, halibut, and rockfish. With the many varieties of herring, including shad, available as live or dead bait, you will surely land a trophy in no time. However, beyond shad, other herring species can be caught while trolling as a means of expanding your stocked bait.

5. Pinfish (Sea Bream)

A common bait fish across Florida coasts, pinfish are easily caught and popular for nabbing many saltwater species. These are often enticing bait for tarpon, grouper, and redfish. But, will draw several other species along the Gulf Coast that naturally feed on pinfish. More so, pinfish can be utilized in targeting sharks, mackerel, barracuda, snapper, amberjacks, and sailfish. These are an excellent alternative to bait fish like sardines and mullets that are not effortlessly caught. Simply, catch pinfish with a trap set out with chum inside overnight.  They can remain easily fed with fish scraps and breed continuously for your continued saltwater bait.

6. Shrimp

shrimpy shrimps

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Most saltwater species, like shrimp, make them quality bottom-fishing bait. Typically, used as a dead bait, you can usually cut off the head and tail to use the meat. Common saltwater species attracted to shrimp include redfish, snapper, tarpon, mahi-mahi, cobia, bonefish, grouper, bluefish, tarpon, and pompano, among others. Shrimp are another bait commonly caught with a cast net and also used commonly as dead bait. However, it can also be live bait that is more easily purchased from a bait store.

Now, That You’re Baited

Beyond these six best bait fish, many others offer quality live or dead options as bait. Moreover, these bait fish have been revered for centuries by fishermen, making it only a matter of time before you land the big one. Although not all bait fish are on this list, good alternatives are eels, ballyhoo, squid, menhaden, and mackerel.  You can catch fresh bait or rely on the local bait shops to supply these bait fish that can strongly attract your target saltwater species. Albeit, the best way to determine your ideal saltwater is to get out and find out for yourself.