Saltwater bait - Lures and Hard bait laid out on a table

The Ultimate Guide to Saltwater Baits – 2023

Are you ready to take your saltwater fishing game to whole new heights? With so many lures out there, it can be overwhelming to know which baits will net you the best catches. Saltwater fishing requires using the right bait to attract fish and trigger strikes. Having a variety of live bait, cut bait, and artificial lures gives you multiple options to try for different species. The best saltwater baits mimic the natural forage that gamefish feed on. But don’t worry – we’ve done the hard work for you! This article will give you the ultimate guide to the top saltwater baits for every species. Get ready for the best catches of your life!

Live bait includes shrimp, pilchardsmulletpinfishthreadfin herring, and small crabs. Shrimp and small baitfish constantly move in the water, creating lifelike action. The motion, scent, and visual profile of live bait triggers predator fish to strike. Shrimp are a popular live bait that work for many saltwater species. Using a cast net to catch your own shrimp and small fish is a productive technique.

Cut Bait are slices of freshly cut baitfish like menhaden and mullet release strong scent trails that attract predators. Chunks of cut bait fished on the bottom are effective for species like redfish, grouper, and snapper. Oily fish like mackerel and bonito make excellent cut bait. The blood and oils released by cut bait creates a scent trail and flavor that stimulates feeding.

Artificial lures offer the advantage of built-in action and visibility. Soft plastic lures like paddle tailscurly tails and swim baits mimic wounded baitfish with their lifelike swimming motion. Topwater plugs like polaris poppers imitate injured prey on the surface. Hard lures like spoonsjigs, and stick baits reflect light and vibrate to trigger reaction strikes. Durable artificial lures can be fished repeatedly and casted long distances.

Jerkbaitsinline spinnersplugslead head jigssoft plastic jigstwitch baitsbalsa crankbaits, and topwater poppers all elicit strikes with their erratic actions. Specific lures like the Z-man ChatterbaitSpro BucktailLuhr Jensen Krocodile SpoonRapala Countdown Magnum, and Heddon Zara Spook have proven successful for big gamefish. Matching the hatch with lures like crazy charlie flies, turneffe crab imitations, and avalon shrimp replicates specific forage.

Having a selection of live bait, cut bait, and properly sized artificial lures will allow you to experiment and find out what bait is working best on a given day. Pay attention to any baitfish or crustaceans present and try to mimic them. Keep a variety of colors and retrieve speeds on hand until you dial in on a productive technique.

Key Takeaways

  • Live baits like shrimp, pilchards, mullet, and pinfish create natural movement and scent to attract predatory fish. Using a cast net to catch your own live bait can be very productive.
  • Cut bait like menhaden, mullet, and mackerel release strong scents and oils that appeal to big gamefish. The blood and oils create a scent trail and flavor that stimulates feeding.
  • Artificial lures allow anglers to cover water and elicit reaction strikes with their built-in action and visibility. Soft plastics, hard baits, topwater plugs, jigs, and spoons all trigger strikes.
  • Matching your bait selection to the specific fish species you’re targeting will improve your chances of getting bites. Consider the habits and preferences of each fish.

What to Consider When Choosing Saltwater Bait

When choosing saltwater bait, consider the type of fish you’re targeting, the water conditions, and the time of day.

Live bait like shrimp and shellfish, cut bait like mullet and menhaden, and artificial lures like scented plastics, hard baits, twitchbaits and jerkbaits, and topwater lures like the Heddon Super Spook and Zara Spook are all great options for saltwater fishing.

For a deadly weapon, try bucktail jigs like the SPRO Prime Bucktail Jig.

Whatever bait you choose, make sure it’s the right one for the fish species, water conditions, and time of day.

Live Bait

Live bait creates natural movement in the water to attract predatory fish. Using a cast net to catch your own live bait can be very productive.

  • Shrimp – A popular live bait that works for many saltwater species. Hook through the horn of the shrimp.
  • Pilchards – Also known as scaled sardines. Use a sabiki rig to catch them.
  • Mullet – Can be fished whole, cut, or live under a popping cork.
  • Pinfish – Lively baitfish perfect for nearshore fishing. Use a small hook through the nose or lips.
  • Threadfin herring – AKA greenbacks. Quickly dart through the water when hooked.
  • Small crabs – Fiddler and blue crabs are tempting morsels for big fish.

Benefits of live bait:

  • Natural appearance, movement, scent, and sound in the water
  • Triggers reaction strikes from gamefish
  • Fun and productive to catch your own bait
  • Works for many inshore and nearshore species

Match the size of the bait to the fish you’re targeting. Smaller baits are best for trout, flounder, and snook. Big baits attract redfish, tarpon, sharks, and other predators. Set the hook immediately when you feel a pickup to ensure the fish is hooked.

Cut Bait

Cut bait refers to using sliced portions of dead fish as bait when fishing. Some top cut bait options for saltwater fishing include:

  • Menhaden – Also called pogies or bunker. An oily fish that releases a strong scent trail.
  • Mullet – Both striped and silver mullet make excellent cut bait.
  • Bonito – A favorite for big game fish like tuna and billfish.
  • Mackerel – Very bloody and oily. Mackerel cut bait works well trolled.

Advantages of Cut Bait

  • Strong scent trail attracts fish
  • Natural presentation
  • Cost effective compared to live bait
  • Can use fish you catch yourself

Tips for Using Cut Bait

  • Cut fresh baitfish into chunks or strips
  • Fish on bottom with enough weight
  • Change bait frequently
  • Match size of bait to hook and targeted species

Cut bait is an effective and affordable bait option for many popular saltwater species. The blood and oils released create a scent trail and flavor that appeals to predators.

Artificial Lures

Artificial lures allow anglers to cover a lot of water and target fish in different parts of the water column. Matching the right lure to the conditions and fish behavior is key.

Surface Lures

  • Topwater plugs – Imitate injured baitfish on the surface. Walk-the-dog action triggers explosive strikes.
  • Poppers – Create popping and splashing sound. Effective for snook, redfish, trout.
  • Stickbaits – Slender minnow imitations. Twitch retrieval prompts reaction bites.

Diving Plugs

  • Crankbaits – Lip makes lure dive. Vary retrieve speed for different depths.
  • Jerkbaits – Pause-and-twitch retrieval imitates dying baitfish.
  • Swimbaits – Realistic baitfish profile. Steady retrieve near bottom or under cork.


  • Lead head jigs – Vertical jigging or bouncing along bottom. Tip with bait.
  • Bucktail jigs – Fluttering action on retrieve. Good for mackerel, bluefish.
  • Spoons – Wobbling, flashing action. Cast and retrieve or vertical jigging.

Artificial lures provide several advantages compared to natural baits when saltwater fishing. Artificial lures allow anglers to cover more water and elicit reaction strikes with their built-in action and visibility. The motion of soft plastic lures like paddle tails, curly tails, and swim baits mimics wounded baitfish and prompts strikes. Hard lures like spoons, jigs, crankbaits, and topwater plugs reflect light and vibrate, triggering predatory fish to attack. Artificial lures can be fished at varying depths by changing retrieve techniques. Lures cast long distances, allowing access to fish holding in spots that are difficult to reach with live bait. Durable plastic and wood lures can be used repeatedly without damage, unlike natural baits that must be replenished. Adjusting artificial lure colors based on water clarity is another benefit. The action, visibility at all depths, reusability, and ability to cover water make artificial lures an indispensable part of any saltwater angler’s arsenal.

Matching Baits to Fish Species

Selecting the right bait for the fish species you are targeting will improve your chances of getting bites and catching fish. Here are some of the best baits to use for popular inshore saltwater species:


  • Cut mullet – A redfish favorite, especially larger bull reds
  • Shrimp – Live, dead, or artificial shrimp work well for reds.
  • Crabs – Fiddler crabs or blue crabs are irresistible to big reds
  • Gulp! shrimp – The scent attracts redfish


  • Live shrimp – The best live bait for snook
  • Pinfish – Lively baitfish that snook love to ambush.
  • Topwater plugs – Imitate injured baitfish at the surface
  • DOA shrimp – Effective artificial shrimp lure

Speckled Trout

  • Soft plastic shrimp – Shrimp imitations are trout candy
  • Topwater plugs – Early and late in the day when trout are active.
  • Twitch baits – Erratic action triggers strikes.
  • Jigs – Tipped with a shrimp or baitfish strip.


  • Live finger mullet – A top flounder bait. Use a Carolina rig.
  • Mud minnows – Excellent live bait for flounder.
  • Gulp! swimming mullet – Artificial bait that flounder love.

Matching your bait selection to the specific fish you are targeting will improve your catch rates. Consider the habits, preferences and locations of each species.

Presentation and Techniques

How you present your bait and the techniques you use are just as important as bait selection. Here are some tips for getting your bait in front of fish and triggering strikes:

Fishing on the Bottom

  • Use enough weight to hold the bait down. Pyramid sinkers or bank sinkers work well.
  • Carolina rig is effective for bottom fishing. Leader separates weight from bait.
  • Let bait rest on bottom, then lift rod tip gently to impart action.

Under a Float

  • Allows live or cut bait to drift naturally in current or wind.
  • Popping cork adds noise and commotion to attract fish.
  • Use a 3-5 foot leader between the cork and hook.

Casting and Retrieving

  • Twitching lures causes erratic movements.
  • Vary retrieve speed – fastmediumslow.
  • Jerkbaits – Use a stop-and-go retrieve.
  • Topwaters – Walk-the-dog, pop, or chug retrieve.

Vertical Jigging

  • Raise and lower rod tip to make lure or bait dance.
  • Works well with spoons, jigs, and soft plastics.
  • Can attract fish feeding at different depths.

Vary your presentation until you get bites. Pay attention to where fish are holding and target those zones.

How to Choose the Right Saltwater Bait for You

Choosing the right saltwater bait for you requires considering factors like the type of fish you’re targeting, the location of your fishing spot, and the season and weather conditions. Match the bait to the fish’s prey and its natural color. Avoid using bait that’s too large or small. Take the depth of the water into account and adjust the bait accordingly. Anglers should also consider weather patterns, as fish respond to pressure changes. Use darker baits on overcast days and lighter colors on sunny days. Additionally, adjust bait according to changing seasons, as water temperatures influence fish behavior. For best saltwater fishing lures, use slower moving baits in colder water and faster moving lures in warmer waters. Live bait fishing may be more effective in saltwater, but artificial bait can still be productive in freshwater.


Using the right bait and technique is key to catching more fish in saltwater. Having a variety of proven live baits like shrimpmullet, and pinfish gives you the ability to appeal to different species. Soak live or cut bait on the bottom with enough weight for fish like redfish and flounderPopping corks are excellent for drifting live bait in moving water to catch speckled trout.Artificial lures allow you to cover water and elicit reaction strikes. Soft plastic lures like paddle tails and shrimp imitations work extremely well, especially when rigged weedless. Topwater plugs like Zara Spooks and Polaris Poppers draw explosive strikes from predators. Add a plastic trailer to bucktail jigs and spoons for more action and appeal.Pay close attention to any baitfish or forage present and try to mimic that with your bait selection and presentation. Vary your techniques until you dial in on what’s working. Having a diverse arsenal of proven live baits, cut baits, and artificial lures will help you catch more fish in the salt.

Frequently Asked Questions

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