Kinds of Live Bait
Some fish will eat just about anything that wiggles while others are very specific in their feeding habits. Although you can usually buy most kinds of live bait, catching it yourself is cheaper and guarantees fresh bait. Sometimes getting the bait is almost as much fun as catching the fish, especially if you approach it that way.
Live earthworms are a basic bait for almost all kinds of freshwater fish and even some saltwater species. From a single red wiggler on a hook for bluegill to a gob of them on a hook for mullet, earthworms are an excellent bait. And you can find them in a lot of different kinds, from the small red wigglers to giant night crawlers. Some fish prefer one over the other but almost all fish will hit some kind of earthworm.
Using the kind of earthworm found near the waters you fish is usually best because they're used to eating them. Rains wash worms into the water so fish there see them often. But at times a different kind of bait can be good. Try big night crawlers even if they don't grow near where you fish. This change can make reluctant fish bite.
Many kinds of fish eat smaller fish and you can catch everything from crappie to flounder on minnows. Freshwater shiner minnows are a common species that most fish will readily hit. They're usually small but can grow up to a foot long. Crappie love them when they're about two inches long and a largemouth bass will go crazy over a six-to-eight inch shiner. Some others include fathead minnows, spottail minnows, chubs, suckers, and sculpin.
Small game fish can make good bait, but it is often illegal to use them. Little bluegill are excellent bait for bass, stripers, and catfish, but they can't be used in some places. Check local laws before using any kind of live fish for bait.
Freshwater and Saltwater Baitfish
Baitfish usually travel in schools and game fish will attack them and gorge on them. The most common kinds of baitfish in fresh water are shad and herring. Threadfin shad grow to a few inches long and are a warm-water species. Everything from crappie to catfish will eat them. Gizzard shad get much bigger, can tolerate much colder water, and are good bait for bigger fish.
Blueback herring are a saltwater species that has been trapped in some freshwater lakes during their spawning run and prospered there. Skipjack herring are bigger and have also been trapped in some freshwater lakes. Both are excellent bait for bigger game fish like striped bass and big largemouth bass. Alewives, another kind of small herring, are a popular bait, especially around the Great Lakes.
Fishermen have introduced into the environment many kinds of exotic species by using them as bait. Never dump unused baitfish into the water at the end of the trip. They may start reproducing and that almost always creates problems for the native fish.
A large number of different kinds of saltwater baitfish make good bait. Menhaden, also called bunker or pogies, in the six-inch range are excellent for almost all kinds of bigger saltwater fish. Blue runner are a type of big open-water baitfish that are used for big-game fish like marlin. All kinds of herring are good in salt water, and mullet make good bait where they can be found. Ballyhoo, needlefish, pinfish, cigar minnows, and others are also good bait in salt water.
Crickets and their cousin grasshoppers make good bait for panfish in fresh water. Store-bought crickets are usually brown, which for some reason fish seem to prefer over wild black crickets. Drop a cricket into a bluegill bed and it usually won't have time to settle down before a fish eats it. Crickets can also be used to catch catfish and other species but they're best for bream.
Other Live Bait
Just about any kind of small critter can be used as live bait. Some common ones used in fresh water include:
And some popular saltwater baits include:
Many saltwater baits also work well in fresh water for a variety of fish. Although most won't stay alive in fresh water, they can be fished dead or as cut bait for catfish and other bottom feeders. Eels will live in fresh water and are good bait for stripers, bass, and catfish. The same goes for the baits used mainly in freshwater fishing. They can be used live in salt water if they survive, but can also be used as cut bait or dead bait if they don't.